Shadow writing and participant observation: a study of criminal justice social work around sentencing

Halliday, S., Burns, N., Hutton, N., McNeill, F. and Tata, C. (2008) Shadow writing and participant observation: a study of criminal justice social work around sentencing. Journal of Law and Society, 35(2), pp. 189-213. (doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6478.2008.00435.x)

[img] Text


Publisher's URL:


The study of decision-making by public officials in administrative settings has been a mainstay of law and society scholarship for decades. The methodological challenges posed by this research agenda are well understood: how can socio-legal researchers get inside the heads of legal decision-makers in order to understand the uses of official discretion? This article describes an ethnographic technique the authors developed to help them penetrate the decision-making practices of criminal justice social workers in writing pre-sentence reports for the courts. This technique, called shadow writing, involved a particular form of participant observation whereby the researcher mimicked the process of report writing in parallel with the social workers. By comparing these shadow reports with the real reports in a training-like setting, the social workers revealed in detail the subtleties of their communicative strategies embedded in particular reports and their sensibilities about report writing more generally

Item Type:Articles
Additional Information:The definitive version is available at
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Burns, Dr Nicola and McNeill, Professor Fergus
Authors: Halliday, S., Burns, N., Hutton, N., McNeill, F., and Tata, C.
Subjects:H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare
K Law > K Law (General)
College/School:College of Social Sciences > School of Social and Political Sciences > Social Work
Journal Name:Journal of Law and Society
Copyright Holders:Copyright © 2008 Cardiff University Law School
First Published:First published in Journal of Law and Society 35(2):189-213
Publisher Policy:Reproduced in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher

University Staff: Request a correction | Enlighten Editors: Update this record