Just Emotions? Rituals of Restorative Justice

On 15 October, Dr Meredith Rossner (LSE) delivered a talk entitled ‘Just Emotions? Rituals of Restorative Justice’ as part of the Sociology subject area seminar series.

Prof Fergus McNeill interviewed Dr Rossner about her new book and her research – you can listen to the interview here.

Book Review of ‘Just Emotions’ by Fergus McNeill

Meredith Rossner’s fascinating book Just Emotions is exceptional and important for at least two sets of reasons. First, the craft involved in and success of its complex and painstaking mixed methods approach represents a powerful antidote to the puerile quantitative/qualitative conflict that sometimes bedevils criminological research. Anyone who tends to associate with one or other side in this conflict should read this book to understand better and appreciate the interdependencies and potential synergies between different research methods. Second, and relatedly, Rossner’s ability to bring methodological sophistication and theoretical development together allows her to produce a significant, substantive contribution to debates not just about the potential and limits of restorative justice (RJ), but also to wider debates about the meanings of social solidarity and reintegration, and about the role of emotions and ritual in criminal justice.

Taking the issue of methods first, Rossner’s aim was to produce a microsociology of the emotions and rituals involved in RJ, and of how these microdynamics impact on the participants both at the time and afterwards. The question was not so much whether or not RJ ‘works’, but rather when and how it sometimes produces desirable outcomes. Rossner draws not only on her own original empirical research, undertaking exceptionally fine-grained observations of conferences and analysing in-depth interviews with participants, but also on fresh analysis of quantitative data from the large-scale and well-known RISE study (Sherman and Strang, 2007). The end result is the development of an empirically grounded microlevel theory of RJ; one that illuminates its processes and its outcomes.

In an engaging opening chapter, Rossner is the detached narrator of the story of a successful and an unsuccessful RJ conference, but she spares the reader nothing emotionally, and in so doing illustrates forcefully why an understanding of the micro-dynamics of the conference is so important. Chapter 2 provides a useful and measured review of the existing literature on RJ, paying particular attention to what we do and do not know about how a range of emotions work, for better or worse, to shape these encounters. This review leads Rossner to argue the case for looking beyond the emotions present to the micro-structure of the RJ interaction itself, and in Chapter 3 she draws on the wider literature to develop an understanding of the conference as a ritual that can, under certain conditions, become emotionally transformative for the participants.

Chapter 4 is a fascinating and painstaking analysis of the ritual dynamics of a single RJ encounter, which makes effective use not just of textual but also of visual data. It concludes with a qualitatively derived delineation of the elements of a successful RJ ritual, these being the development of a shared focus through conversational rhythm, the achievement of conversational and power balance among the participants, the occurrence of a ‘turning point’ (associated with strong expressions of emotion) and the generation of public displays of solidarity between participants. Chapter 5 draws on the interview data to describe how facilitators aim to create (and sometimes succeed in creating) conferences of this sort.

In Chapters 6 and 7, Rossner turns to more quantitative methods and to data from the RISE study, using original secondary analyses of the data to test her developing understanding of successful RJ rituals. Chapter 6 explores short-term outcomes, using bivariate and multivariate analyses to test the relationships between the independent variables of balance (between participants), stigmatization (of the offender) and defiance (from the offender) and the dependent variables of solidarity (between offender and victim), reintegration (of the offender by his or her supporters) and ‘emotional energy’ (across participants). The analyses provide preliminary support for the model. When combined in a statistical model, the elements of successful RJ rituals overcome stigmatization and defiance to produce predicted outcomes such as emotional energy, solidarity and reintegration.

Chapter 7 explores whether or not these effects are enduring in terms of their influence on reoffending. Once again Rossner undertakes careful bivariate and multivariate analyses. Intriguingly, these analyses reveal that the achievement of solidarity in an RJ encounter does act as a protective factor against future offending, but that the effects of reintegration are more complex. For those who have a prior history of arrests, reintegration in the conference is protective against reoffending; for those with no arrest history, reintegration is associated with increased offending. Rossner’s hypothesis is that, for established offenders, reintegration by supporters in the conference is part of a challenging but positive experience, and a form of reconnection with loved ones; a restoration of broken or damaged bonds. For the first time offender, by contrast, there may be no broken bonds and no negative experiences to be restored, in which case the effect of solidarity may be an unwitting reinforcement of unconditional love that neither encourages nor requires transformation. As Rossner notes, this is consistent with evidence that, contrary to its most common uses in many jurisdictions, RJ is more likely to be effective with older and more serious offenders (Sherman and Strang, 2007).

Rossner concludes by refining her theory of RJ as a process in which stigmatization and defiance can (sometimes) be overcome by carefully crafted and intense emotional engagements characterized by balance and rhythm. These sorts of engagements elicit turning points that allow for reintegration, solidarity and emotional energy to be realized. In certain circumstances and for certain participants, these short-term outcomes produce an enduring emotional energy that can reduce offending and lead people to seek out further, reinforcing interaction rituals. A virtuous circle of emotional engagement,  solidarity building and reintegration can thus be established.

At the time that I was reading Rossner’s book, I was also in the process of finalizing papers on Durkheim’s work on social solidarity and penal evolution and on ‘positive criminology’. In some respects the three projects (Rossner’s and my own) were a long way apart. But they share in common an important implicit question: is it possible to imagine and to develop ways of doing justice that are emotionally satisfying as well as just and parsimonious, and that produce positive social goods, rather than ‘merely’ seeking to minimize future harms? I suspect Rossner’s measured answer might be, ‘Yes, it is sometimes possible, but it is far from easy.’

My only (minor) criticism of Just Emotions is that some of the concepts it deploys (in particular solidarity and reintegration), in spite of Rossner’s impressive engagement with a wide range of sources as well as a wide range of methods, remain somewhat under-developed theoretically. But perhaps that is more a criticism of criminology and penology; these are disciplines or subjects that have expended much of their intellectual energy and resources on examining policies, processes and practices, often without an adequate engagement with their putative objectives or outcomes. Whether by accident or by design, Rossner’s fascinating study of how and when RJ ‘works’ as an interaction ritual, reveals a great deal about the possibilities of better articulating these objectives and outcomes, and of how we might progress towards achieving them, at least with some of the people, some of the time. But for all its many merits and like all good books, it leaves the reader with more questions than it answers.


Sherman, L. and Strang, A. (2007) Restorative Justice: The Evidence. London: The Smith



This book review is published in Punishment and Society.