Social media: A challenge to identity and relational desistance

Date01 June 2021
AuthorNatalie Rutter
Published date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Social media:
A challenge to identity
and relational
Natalie Rutter
Leeds Trinity University, UK
Society has witnessed a rapid growth in the prevalence and use of social media. The
influence and impact of this expansion has sparsely, if at all, been considered within
the context of desistance from crime. This article draws upon the narratives of male
and female service users subject to community supervision by a Community Rehabi-
litation Company, collected as part of a doctoral thesis. Evidence demonstrates how
social media plays a largely negative role, with some gendered difference on a service
user’s identity and relational desistance, alongside individual agency and wider social
structures. This enables the article to develop the evidence base of interactionist per-
spectives of desistance, while also recognising gender.
desistance, probation, gender, social media, identity, relationships
Society has witnessed a rapid growth in the prevalence and use of social media,
creating interactive online spaces where news is instantaneous, articles can be
shared, and users have the ability to interact and comment on content. The research
underpinning this article shares the narratives of individual service users during a
defined period of community supervision. The narratives voiced were part of wider
research within a doctoral thesis. This considered the fundamental role of positive,
Corresponding Author:
Natalie Rutter, Leeds Trinity University, Horsforth, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS18 5HD, UK.
Probation Journal
2021, Vol. 68(2) 243–260
ªThe Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0264550520962207
The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice
valued, and quality relationships in the process of desistance and the enabling and
constraining factors they provided for co-produced rehabilitation, while recognising
gendered difference. Focus here is given to an original finding of this wider
research drawing attention to the role of social media in the desistance process of
individual service users. It draws particular attention to identity and relational
desistance and the links between agency and structure to theoretically develop
interactionist perspectives which also recognises gender. To date, literature and
research on desistance has sparsely, if at all, considered how and why social media
may influence the desistance process. Taking a gendered comparative approach,
the narratives of men and women highlight the negative effect of labelling and
stigmatisation; the limited agency that individuals possess when their offending, or
personal information, is shared within online platforms; and the challenges faced
when social media undermines a sense of belonging and access to social capital in
wider structural environments. However, the article also evidences that for some,
social media can provide a supportive place where identities can be re-established
and positive, valued, and quality relationships can be created or maintained.
Therefore, recognition of individuality and the unique nature of an individual’s
process of desistance is important, in line with previous research (Maruna, 2001;
McNeill, 2019; B. Weaver, 2019). Through raising these research findings and
shedding light on this new and important research area, it is hoped that further
exploration can be undertaken to develop both academic and practice-based
understanding, which considers the role of social media in desistance and how
this might differ through individual intersectionality.
Expanding our understanding of desistance
Theoretical work on desistance offers explanations of how and why an individual
service users criminal behaviour changes overtime. However:
...the process by which an individual desists from offending is invariably difficult to
unravel and understand, and encompasses a whole range of personal and contextual
changes. (Priestley and Vanstone, 2019: 335)
Commonalities highlight how it is a continuous process (B. Weaver, 2019) which
is not focused around a single change in behaviour and recognises that ‘one per-
son’s reason for changing their life ...might be another person’s reason to escalate
offending’ (Maruna, 2001: 25). An essential common element of an individual
service user’s desistance is their ability to learn from mistakes and failure, while
at the same time building on their success (Priestley and Vanstone, 2019). What is
of fundamental importance in developing desistance-based literature is a consider-
ation of how positive change occurs for individual service users (Maruna and LeBel,
2010; McNeill, 2006). This is especially when considering how changes can be
enabled, or in fact constrained, and it is important to integrate findings across
gender to create a stronger understanding of desistance and the role of agency
and structure (Rodermond et al., 2016).
244 Probation Journal 68(2)

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