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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Translating power, trust and risk  

All of the sub-studies in our research programme entail detailed, in-depth comparison between prisoners’ experiences in Norway and England & Wales. We are doing a quite direct comparison in the sense that we use the ‘same’ interview schedules and surveys in both jurisdictions. This means that we have spent a long time translating interview schedules for the ethnographies, all three phases of the entry/exit sub-study, as well as very long surveys.

Translating all this material has been exciting and challenging work (and let us not even talk about the complicating factor of me being Danish rather than Norwegian), but we have been fortunate enough to have Norwegian and Danish colleagues reading through the translations, and commenting, editing and challenging us. We’re grateful for their help, especially in relation to the three words in particular which have caused us a great deal of difficulty, namely: power, risk and trust.  

Power translates as makt in Norwegian which is a very strong word, and is normally not used in daily language whether within or outside the borders of the prison. Makt seems to imply something much more forceful or coercive than in English, and the prisoners tend to use other words like ‘influence’ or the ‘right to make decisions’ when they speak about authority. Trust translates as tillit which again seems too formal for everyday conversation. Here, the phrase å stole på seems more fitting, but is a bit imprecise in comparison to the English term. Trust is, however, also not verbalised, but is seen in everyday life in the prisons. For example, I was struck by the trusting nature of a prisoner officer when he remarked that ‘prisoners have to trick me once in a while – otherwise I’m running an over-restrictive regime’. Risk might translate quite directly into risiko, but this word or concept is rarely ever mentioned in everyday life in the Norwegian prisons. In fact, the question ‘All the Prison Service cares about is my ‘risk factors’ rather than the person I really am’ in our survey oftentimes results in confusion from prisoners and raised hands asking what we mean by ‘risk factors’. Risk features more prominently in Norwegian policy documents, treatment programmes and security briefs, but we have been struck by the sheer absence of talk about risk as well as power in everyday life.

The absence of a language of power and risk is interesting for several reasons. When we compare findings from the ethnography of sex offender imprisonment in both countries, we find that risk infiltrates just about everything in the prison holding people convicted of sex offences in England (see Alice Ievins’ blog post on this matter) whereas the term risk does not feature much at all on the sex offender wing in Norway. Here, neither prisoners or staff talk about risk. However, when interviewing prisoners, they talk about how they chose to participate in the sex offender treatment programme in order to ensure that they will never commit a sexual offense again. In this sense, one could argue that they are essentially engaging in risk reduction without the discourse of risk being so pervasive and oppressive. Similarly, power might not be openly discussed, but flows everywhere in the prisons in more or less light or heavy forms.    

My point is, then, that just because power and risk do not infiltrate everyday language, it does not mean that they are not there. However, in the absence of discourses of risk and power, there seems to be (although not everywhere and not all the time) something important in its place. Ethnography, which is one of our methods, seems to be a sine qua non for understanding the silences, experiences, understandings and actions that create a sense of predictability and community in a specific prison. We might not be able to talk about risk, power and trust in any straightforward manner in Norway, but we can observe how these concepts do or don’t penetrate everyday life on the prison landings. 

Dr Julie Laursen is a Research Associate in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.


logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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