How to use the grid and flow chart

How to use the grid: ‘what the literature tells us’ by ‘categories of literature’

The following example may be shared with students but supervisors may also need to discuss a similar case based in their own discipline.

What the literature tells us

There are degrees of certainty in the literature when dealing with any academic area and they can be categorised into at least three levels.

1. There are insights about which we feel confident. We can never be absolutely certain but the degree of certainty is a lot stronger than saying ‘we think we know’. Good examples would be the claims that the earth is a sphere and that micro-organisms can cause illness.

2. There is a middle category where we conclude that we think we know. This usually occurs because of lack of evidence and/or division of opinion. Before the discovery of the HIV/AIDS virus, there was, despite the lack of evidence, a view that a virus was probably implicated. The best researchers could say was ‘we think we know that a virus is involved’. Related to lack of evidence is the uncertainty that accompanies division of opinion. The effects of global warming probably fall into this category: the best the researchers can claim is ‘we think we know …’.

3. When we identify areas where we say ‘we don’t know’, it is usually because of an even greater lack of evidence or because the desire to know has not come to researchers’ consciousness: there is a ‘silence’. ‘Is there life in other galaxies?’ would be a question associated with the former. The latter is captured by the proposition that medieval scholars did not know whether the earth was other than it appeared (i.e. flat) because it did not occur to them to pose the question.

Categories of literature

Students need to form a view of the categories of literature associated with their topic. There could be only two (e.g., for a historian they could be pre- and post-war) or many. Obviously, there is no ‘right’ number of categories. The key point concerns whether the choice and number of categories lead to a better understanding of the topic.

The following numbered blocks of text correspond to cells 1 to 9 in the table. The aim of the exercise is to gain an understanding of existing research so that there is a clear derivation of the research question. Hopefully, the latter enables a more straightforward writing up of the ‘literature section’ as well as carrying out the research itself.

‘Clear derivation of the research question’ means that after one has ‘told the story’ by filling in the nine cells, the research question should follow. In other words, the closing words could be ‘therefore, in light of this picture of existing research, I pose the following research question: …?’ How did that question emerge from the literature? The following takes you through an example of categorising the literature in a nine cell table.

The categories of literature in the example  below focus on:

  • Category A – individual examples – dealing with social life in particular organisations, such as boarding schools, jails and hospitals, or where the individual quality of an organisation surfaces by way of case studies;
  • Category B – the process of relearning (resocialisation) – this literature deals with a social process. In light of the profound effects of primary socialisation in childhood, the difficulty of relearning anything, particularly being a competent social being, is a theme in this literature. Making the military officer in a military academy, the rehabilitation of the jailed criminal or getting a patient in a long stay hospital to comply with hospital routines are the types of empirical focus of this category of literature;
  • Category C – conceptual – this category of research may not touch on empirical instances concerned with organisations but, instead, provides explanatory insights that aid our understanding of life in the type of organisation under examination. These insights may follow the application of a causal theory or may be confined to single concepts.

What do we know? (Insights about which we feel confident)

Cell 1. Research on a variety of organisations, particularly jails, boarding schools, military academies and convents, indicates that they have two properties in common. The first property is that they are all dedicated to the resocialisation of their ‘inmates’; that is, they all aim to produce the ‘new person’ who approximates a social template predetermined by each organisation. The second property is that in almost all empirical studies of this type of organisation, there are periodic outbreaks of conflict (see White, 1999; Blue, 1998). This conflict involves both inmate and inmate, and inmate and staff. Perhaps counter predictively, there are, for instance, reported cases of conflict between long stay hospital patients and staff (Pink, 2000). The prevalence of conflict in organisations dedicated to resocialisation and scholars’ expectations of its existence (see e.g., White, 1999; Green, 1977; and Red, 1975) suggest that conflict is a routine, recurring property of these organisations.

Summary statement: Conflict is a recurring feature of resocialising organisations. 

Cell 2. Positing conflict as a recurring feature of organisations leaves its explanation wanting. One of the first places a social scientist might look for an explanation is the research on socialisation. Socialisation – the process of becoming a competent social being – is the subject of an immense literature. The focus in this project is more on resocialisation, which is the process of relearning after primary socialisation. There are two clear insights. The first is that socialisation is never perfect. This applies to resocialisation as much as primary socialisation. Green and Green’s (2001) comparative study of cadets in a military academy and inmates in a jail demonstrates that, notwithstanding the setting, the resocialisation of individuals is far from perfect. Furthermore, they show that those who do not conform to organisational expectations are the ‘troublemakers’ in those organisations. It is clear that ‘troublemakers’ exist, but are they always the source and explanation of conflict? The second insight is that inmates, notwithstanding the type of organisation, are not as varied in their social characteristics as might be expected. Police academy cadets come from similar backgrounds, as do novices in convents (Black, 1998). The implication of this insight is that the propensity of some individuals to engage in conflict may be related to their social origins rather than factors in the organisational setting.

Summary statement: All socialisation is not perfect and this applies to resocialisation in organisations where inmates’ backgrounds are similar.

Cell 3. One of the most compelling attempts to understand behaviour in organisations of the type under examination is Grey’s (1961) [actually Goffman, 1961] study of ‘total institutions’. This concept is applied to those organisations: that deal with people; where there is a clear distinction between staff and inmates; where there is a strict routine and an ordered round of daily events; and where staff and inmates are separated, although both generally live on site. Given that this concept applies to the type of organisation in this study, we have a clear picture of the nature of these organisations because of the sensitising role of Grey’s notion of the ‘total institution’.

Summary statement: Resocialising organisations share a number of properties concerning staff and inmates.

What do we think we know?

Cell 4. Various attempts exist to explain recurring conflict in resocialising organisations. Explanations cover the particular properties of inmates in particular organisations. Properties include inmates’ similar social backgrounds (Black, 1998), stress among staff and hospital patients (Pink, 2000) and competing interests of staff and inmates (White, 1999; Green, 1977). No single attempt is conclusive and, therefore, there is a lingering uncertainty about the explanation(s) of conflict. This situation is compounded by methodological problems of evidence in some studies (e.g., Black, 1998; Green, 1977) and researcher bias (White, 1999).

Summary statement: Despite attempts to explain conflict, uncertainty exists because of a degree of inconclusiveness and methodological problems.

Cell 5. The reference made earlier to similar social backgrounds of inmates is related to an important claim in the socialisation literature. Specifically, one explanation of the uniformity of outlook and behaviour of inmates after periods of resocialisation is that they spring from similar social backgrounds (Black, 1998; Mauve, 2000). This claim, that inmates are in an ‘anticipatory state of resocialisation’, is used by Black and Mauve to explain conflict in police academies and convents. They claim that individuals from those social backgrounds are prone to solving problems by creating conflictual situations. Their similar backgrounds, therefore, leads to conflict being widespread in those organisations. This claim might hold for convents and police academies. The uncertainty arises when hospitals, including mental hospitals, are included. Conflict is widespread, according to Pink (2000; see also Red, 1975) but these organisations differ from others in that inmates do not have similar social backgrounds. So, it appears that the link between social background and conflict is not strong when applied to all resocialising organisations.

Summary statement: It is not clear that conflict can be explained by inmates’ similar social backgrounds in all resocialising organisations.

Cell 6. The focus on widespread, recurring conflict in resocialising organisations has produced some speculative explanations. The most notable stems from Blue and Beige’s (2004) review of the literature in this field. Based on secondary analysis of existing work, they claim that this type of conflict is a result of the ‘captive syndrome’. Given that all resocialising organisations keep inmates confined, in one form or another, and often against their will, conflict is always a consequence of those individuals perceiving a situation of potential captivity. Blue and Beige go on to say that this captivity syndrome is ‘hard wired’, that is, genetically imprinted, but has little opportunity to surface in modern industrial societies. Notwithstanding it being an assertion, the best one could say of this theory is that it is extremely limited to certain types of organisation. Conflict also exists in organisations where inmates freely choose to belong and where they can exit at any time. Green (2002) and Vermillion’s (2000) research on passenger ships and religious retreats substantiate this claim of limited application.

Summary statement: Use of the ‘captive syndrome’ argument to explain conflict is extremely precarious because it is an assertion and does not cover situations where inmates can choose ‘to walk away’.

What is it that we do not know?

Cell 7. Given the pervasive conflict in a wide range of resocialising organisations and the precarious explanations that have been offered, such as that linking conflict to the competing interests of staff and inmates, all we can be certain of is that conflict exists: we do not know why it exists. There is a silence in the organisational literature, especially that on individual organisations, when it comes to providing sound explanations for conflict.

Summary statement: Conflict is pervasive in resocialising organisations but we still do not know why.

Cell 8. There is a similar silence in the published material on resocialisation. The attempts to explain conflict through the concept of anticipatory socialisation, which draws on empirical evidence surrounding inmates’ similar social backgrounds, are at best limited. There is no existing explanation of organisational conflict using a resocialisation framework.

Summary statement: There is no satisfactory explanation of organisational conflict using a resocialisation framework.

Cell 9. The research on resocialising organisations that looks at them as a collectivity, especially the work of Grey (1961), is a heuristic device. Although, to now, it has not provided an explanation of conflict, it prompts us to look at the nature of these organisations as a whole and pose a question linking this nature to conflict. Is there a property(ies) that has hitherto been overlooked by approaching the study of conflict via examination of particular organisations? The research question emerging from this analysis of existing research should clarify the worth of existing attempts to explain conflict and point to possible holistic explanations.

Summary statement: Research, especially Grey’s work on total institutions, raises the question of whether there is a factor that has been overlooked in explaining conflict in organisations.

To view the grid with the summaries of each component added click here.

In light of this discussion, this project will address the question:

‘In organisations dedicated to resocialisation, to what extent is conflict a result of factors peculiar to each organisation or to the structural properties they all share?’


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