Transcending the residual self: a grounded theory of going straight




Anderson, John Frederick

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The grounded theory method is used to generate a theory of leaving crime (“going straight”) from 24 women and men who were interviewed for this study. The main concern for ex-offenders is the degree to which residuals of a stigmatized, past self can be transcended. This residual self is comprised of three interrelated phenomena: i) the visible evidence pointing to a disreputable past, ii) the remnants of disreputable character traits, thinking patterns and emotional states which persist into the present, and iii) the social interactions which stigmatize ex-offenders. Ten of the research respondents are “hardcore” ex-offenders because their former immersion in criminal identities left residuals that are more apparent or knowable to others. The other 14 have criminal identities that were transient, or limited in time and the extent to which they subscribed to criminal values. For both types of offenders, a self-crisis preceded the decision to go straight. Ex-offenders import an exculpatory conversation from helping others that interprets their past harms as the result of the disease of addiction, early childhood trauma, or as lives unfolding within some greater plan by God or fortune. Hardcore offenders seek enveloping forms of help which occupy their ongoing daily consciousness and routines, whereas transient criminal offenders use help for transitory and pragmatic ends. The more that a past, residual self is knowable to others and subjectively problematic, the greater the difficulty that ex-offenders will have negotiating their stigmatized identity. An ongoing process of interpreting and negotiating one’s identity with self and others lies at the core of going straight. The outcome of going straight is credentials which consist of clean time, official pardons for criminal records, amends made with others or society in general, the performance of good works, and most importantly, making distinctions between who I was and who I am. The self presented today is an authentic one, unlike the criminal identity which they now see in retrospect as inauthentic. The degree to which a residual self remains with ex-offenders varies, with hardcore ex-offenders more likely to show or report signs and traits which can be stigmatized by evaluative audiences. However, it is also apparent that the residual self can be used for pragmatic and credentializing purposes, especially when one’s current identity is linked to who one was in the past. The problem of the residual self is differentially negotiated through culturally endorsed narratives of reform. To the degree that ex-offenders discriminate who I was from who I am in familiar stories of change, the greater will be their success in resolving the problems of the residual self. The theory of the residual self fits with recent findings in developmental theories in criminology, and offers optimism about the possibilities for change in adulthood criminal pathways suggested by life-course theories. This study, and others like it, can help promote a wider discourse to counter the “once a con, always a con” thinking which stigmatizes ex-offenders.



Ex-convicts, Self-transcendence, Grounded theory, Criminal reform