How do probation officers apply attachment theory in their practice? A qualitative study of probation supervision

  • Maria Ansbro

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The starting point for this thesis was an article that I published in Probation Journal entitled 'The Application of Attachment Theory with Offenders' (Ansbro, 2008). It was an essay type article rather than a piece of research in which I suggested that attachment theory might provide some useful applications for probation supervision. The catalyst for the article was firstly an interest in attachment theory, and secondly a curiosity about the way that probation officers manage to actively integrate theory into their practice.

Attachment theory as an oeuvre started with John Bowlby, when he put his psychoanalytic training together with his interests in ethology and cognitive psychology, and wrote of the need for security and the impact on development when the child grows up without it. His first publication in 1944 was added to and developed until his last publication in 1988, but meanwhile research on attachment theory has flourished and diversified and is widely used to understand child development and adult problems. It is now firmly established as a theoretical framework with applications in child protection and mental health work, and has a smaller but important place in the criminal justice literature.

The wider question of the role of theory in probation practice is one that has interested and sometimes perplexed me over the years, both as a probation officer and a lecturer in higher education. The literature on reflective practice and practice wisdom provides insights into the application of theory in the social sciences as opposed to the pure sciences, but the process can still have an elusive quality. The nature of probation supervision has been noted as 'relatively under-theorised as well as under-researched' (McNeill and Beyens, 2013: 7), and this project set out to examine the application of a particular body of theory, namely attachment theory.

The article (Ansbro, 2008) attempted to distil some accessible and usable ideas, and suggested, for instance that the relationship between service user1 and probation officer2 might have attachment properties, so that the probation officer could offer a taste of a secure base. An awareness of early attachment experiences was suggested as a lens through which later development and relationships could be viewed. Early attachment experiences were proposed as one way that the reflective function develops, and so conversations with a probation officer were proposed as a route to expanding the ability to mentalize (to think about the thoughts and feelings of self and of others). Attachment style could be used, it was suggested, to understand patterns of operating in adulthood. None of the suggestions were novel, but were a crystallisation of existing ideas.

Unlike my other publications, this article was read widely, and seemed to have touched on a genuine area of interest for practitioners. The question that has nagged since is this: how useable are those concepts in real probation practice? Each of those suggestions, especially when presented in short form, makes good sense. Each one, however, is something of a Pandora’s Box; take the lid off and the utility of the suggestions becomes less clear. The purpose and unique contribution of this thesis then is to examine the applications of attachment theory in real probation practice, from the perspective of a sample of probation officers, by following their practice over a period of time.

The structure of the thesis is as follows. The literature review comprises Chapters Two, Three and Four. Chapter Two examines how theory and research from a diverse range of perspectives has influenced probation practice since the organisation's inception, considers how theory in general has been conceptualised in probation work and allied areas, and speculates about the effect of the 2014 Transforming Rehabilitation3 (TR) reorganisation on supervision. Chapter Three sets out selected aspects of the research and literature around attachment theory, and examines how those ideas have been turned into practical applications in social work, mental health work and the criminal justice system thus far. Chapter Four takes the four major ideas from attachment theory that seem to have some utility for probation supervision, and takes a more detailed and critical look at them.

Chapter Five covers the methodology, which employed an action research framework and used semi-structured interviews to gather qualitative data. A sample of six probation officers were interviewed monthly over a period of six months, and their work with three cases each was discussed on each occasion. In keeping with the action research methodology the probation officers were viewed as collaborators who bought their own expertise and experience to the project, rather than objects of scrutiny.

The findings are examined in Chapters Six to Nine, with one chapter being devoted to each of the major ideas that the case discussions were structured around. Chapter Six reports the findings on the suggestion that the probation officer could come to represent someone with 'secure base' characteristics. Chapter Seven examines the use of service users' attachment histories in probation supervision. Chapter Eight takes on the idea that probation supervision provides an opportunity to work on the reflective function and the ability to mentalize. Chapter Nine explores the utility of the concept of attachment style.

Chapter Ten concludes the project. Reflections on the research process are presented, and then the findings as a whole are discussed. The utility of each aspect of attachment theory is reviewed, and the reasons why some ideas were more usable in practice than others are explored. The nature of theory in probation practice and the process by which it is integrated into practice is examined. Lastly, the findings are considered against the context of the 2014 Transforming Rehabilitation changes.
Date of Award2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorShadd Maruna (Supervisor) & Nicola Carr (Supervisor)

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