Guiding theory into practice – Lessons learned from a translational criminologist in action

Aino Jauhiainen, PhD-student at Institute of Criminology & Legal Policy at the University of Helsinki.

Jauhiainen is currently writing her doctoral thesis on the topic of victim-offender mediation and restorative justice. She completed her master’s degree in criminology in 2019.

Evaluation research provides a unique possibility for sharing knowledge between researchers and practitioners of criminology. For crime intervention program workers, research on the outcome and process of their program helps to further develop their treatment practice. Translating research to practice is however not without its share of challenges. Theories, methods and results of research may be difficult to understand, let alone access outside academic circles, while time and effort put into translating them by researchers often require spare resources long gone (Davis, 2017; Laub & Frisch, 2016). The field of translational criminology has continued to address challenges and possibilities of closing the gap between research, policy and practice (Ashby, 2020; Pesta et al, 2019).

Ever the academic optimist, I thought I’d share a challenge I faced in translating criminological theory into practice. When writing our master’s theses, both my colleague Chris Carling and I carried out separate process evaluations of a Finnish street violence reduction intervention, “Aggredi” (Jauhiainen, 2019; Carling, 2019). Basing their methods in the theory of social constructionism, Aggredi aims to help their clients discuss and reduce their violence and life issues through regular individual meetings. After interviewing both clients and personnel, one finding of my thesis was that Aggredi’s handbook was partly outdated. To my excitement, the program responded to our results, and Chris and I were hired as writers in updating their handbook with previous research in mind. Oh joy! The fields are coming together! (And both are getting paid!)

My enthusiasm was short-lived. For new workers to understand the methods of the program, I now needed to rewrite and translate into practice both the theories of social constructionism and labeling. Providing a representable, yet quick and easy definition of these theories is challenging as their abstract nature can make a manual seem inhabitable for them. Aggredi aims to use these theories in practice, but what does that really mean?
Based on my thesis evaluation of their previous manual, Aggredi uses social constructionism by embracing their clients’ narratives as “truth” that happens “here and now” during their client meetings. Aggredi aims to create a space that is free from assumptions related to “violent criminals”, and allows the client to define their own identity, thus freeing them from possible labels related to their criminal past (Jauhiainen, 2019). In theory, Aggredi creates a space where identity is defined in the moment, and labels are removed. Using this kind of theoretical explanation in the handbook seems useful enough, right? Only in theory, I soon noticed. Firstly, while the workers view every client narrative as defined in the moment, they also make good use of previous knowledge of their clientele’s needs to provide the best support they can. Secondly, while the meetings in Aggredi aim to be label-free, the outside world may not be. Facing these limitations with merging theory and practice, I realized that putting the practitioner’s work of supporting ex-offenders in their everyday-life into words requires the use of the theories in a limited but clear context. In other words, I need to write clearly about how the theories meet the practice to allow them to engage with reality while not abandoning their complexity.

What did that mean for this example? On translating the idea of social constructionism to this handbook, it meant writing about a worker’s balance between drawing on their learnt knowledge while not making assumptions about their clients and allowing them to speak for themselves. Translating the idea of labeling meant describing the necessity of aiming for a space free from stereotypes about violent offenders, while acknowledging the many challenges ex-offenders face in reintegration to society.

Applying theories to practice is an important step for developing research, as they continue to be translated in ways that both shapes and is shaped by their audience. Writing in phrases that are understood while maintaining the true meaning of what’s explained will probably still remain a difficult task. As criminologists, we need to continue to address these challenges of translation to ensure that researchers and practitioners respective knowledge is understood, and most importantly, shared.

Click here for full text of the Master thesis on Aggredi (Jauhiainen).

Portrait picture of PhD-student Aino Jauhiainen, Helsinki University. Aino has short, brown, curly hair and wear glasses. She is dressed in a black shirt and yellow cardigan.
Aino Jauhiainen. Photo: Joel Grandell