Transforming Youth Justice: Occupational Identity and Cultural Change

Article excerpt

TRANSFORMING YOUTH JUSTICE: OCCUPATIONAL IDENTITY AND CULTURAL CHANGE Souhami, A. (2007), Willan pp22l £35.70 hdbk ISBN 978-1-84392-193-6

In the introduction to this book, Anna Souhami notes the extensive literature on the occupational cultures of criminal jus tice agencies such as the police, but the relative lack of attention that the culture of the youth justice system has attracted. This is at odds with the attention that youth justice has received in terms of policy changes and reform. The author, therefore, sets out to redress that deficit and also to explore a further neglected area, the nature of occupational culture itself.

Souhami's task is to analyse professional identities and occupational culture in the midst of organisational change. Her ethnographic study was undertaken as multi-disciplinary Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) were created by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, replacing the previous arrangements largely based upon local authority social services departments. In order to do this, she observed and interacted with one Midlands youth justice team over 14 months from May 1999. This covers the 12 month period before YOTs officially took up their responsibilities in April 2000 and the period immediately after during which a range of new powers and court orders became available.

Inherent in this research is the question of ambiguity in the culture of the youth justice social work team that existed before creation of the YOT and that formed the basis on which the YOT was built. The identity of the original team was constructed around a sense of difference and separation from the rest of social services rather than a consistent internal consensus about the values and purpose of social work with young offenders. This lack of clarity about the special 'functional territory' of social work and its particular expertise had made the predominance of social work intervention in youth j ustice so open to challenge from the New Labour administration. In addition, Souhami identifies the difficulties that social workers found in defending their previous youth justice practices, which were certainly less interventionist and less bureaucratic than the practices being introduced under YOTs but also - and critically - less easily evidenced and justified.

Souhami analyses this Midlands team using a framework developed by Martin and Meyerson (1988; 1987), which suggests that organisations have three perspectives that tend to dominate their thinking and self-concepts. These are 'integration' based on a sense of consensus and sharing, 'differentiation' emphasising diversity and overlapping subcultures, and 'fragmentation', prioritising areas that are unclear, inconsistent or dichotomous. These are not mutually exclusive, but may be present at the same time, although one perspective - the 'home perspective' - may be dominant at any given point.

Using this framework, Souhami charts the stages through which the team progresses, from its original strong 'integration' stance to a different type of team organisation and team culture, as the team encompasses different professionals and moves to a new dedicated office space. What emerges is a sense of the fragility of the occupational identity as seen through the reflections, the anxieties and the pains of this group of practitioners. …

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