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“Game playing” and “docility”: youth justice in question

Sean Creaney (Faculty of Health, Social Care and Medicine, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, UK)

Safer Communities

ISSN: 1757-8043

Article publication date: 1 July 2020

Issue publication date: 5 August 2020




The purpose of this paper is to explore young people's experiences of youth justice supervision with particular reference to the efficacy of participatory practices. This paper is based on findings from a study concerning the extent and nature of children’s participation in decision-making in youth justice. The paper uses Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, as a heuristic/practical device, to investigate children’s ability to express agency and shape or influence the content and format of interventions and approaches in youth justice.


The researcher’s interest in understanding the perceptions and experiences of youth justice supervision led to the adoption of the qualitative approach and specifically in-depth interviews and participant observations. The researcher interviewed front-line professionals (n = 14), operational managers (n = 6) and children under youth justice supervision (n = 20). This study involved 15 months of fieldwork undertaken between 2016 and 2017 at a youth offending service in England.


Several young people were seeking to exert minimal energy to achieve a type of passive compliance with court order requirements, adopting a “ready-to-conform” mindset. Professionals were concerned that they were also participating in this type of “game playing”.

Practical implications

A relationship-based practice that is conducive to meaningful participation can help to facilitate positive changes to lifestyles and circumstances. This paper exposes its pivotal role in bolstering children’s involvement in supervision, reducing passive compliance and preventing inauthentic transactional arrangements from forming.


In spite of the significant interest in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, his “thinking tools” have seldom been used to investigate the experiences, attitudes and behaviours of youth justice professionals and those under youth offending team supervision at.



This article is based on a paper the researcher presented at the Bourdieu Study Group’s Building on Bourdieu in National and International Spaces conference at Sheffield Hallam University. The paper was entitled “Are we all playing an elaborate game?” A Bourdieusian analysis of children’s involvement in decision making and assessment in youth justice. The author sincerely thanks all the young people, managers and practitioners who participated in his doctoral research. He is very grateful to his PhD supervisors, Dr Janet Jamieson, Dr Sarah Tickle and Professor Joe Yates, for many years of support and guidance. He is also thankful to his PhD examiners, Dr Jason Pandya-Wood and Dr Sarah Greenhow, for an enjoyable and challenging viva voce. The author would like to thank Susan Gillen for her comments on an earlier draft of this paper and the anonymous peer reviewers appointed by the Safer Communities journal for providing constructive feedback on earlier versions of the paper.


Creaney, S. (2020), "“Game playing” and “docility”: youth justice in question", Safer Communities, Vol. 19 No. 3, pp. 103-118.



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