Shadow Writing and Participant Observation: A Study of Criminal Justice Social Work Around Sentencing

Published: 2008

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. ISSN 0263-323X (doi:10.1111/j.1467-6478.2008.00435.x)


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.