Social information and its 'usefulness' in the juvenile court : An analysis of magistrates' accounts in organizational context.
Studies of social information use have generally adopted an
objectivist definition of 'information', treating it as an
entity which resides in documents such as social enquiry
reports and whose effect can then be measured as the
corr7latio~ of inpu~ (information) with output (decision).
Cons~derat1on of mag1strates' perceptions has been partial
and problematic. The present study seeks to effect two
major, interrelated, shifts in the study of social
Firstly, utilising the sociologies of knowledge and
science, information is redefined as a product of the
active creation of knowledge representations from data by
decision makers. The creation of representations is seen
to occur according to conventions of interpretation,
generated as decision-makers seek to render their everyday
activities coherent and meaningful, and acting as a
cultural resource to assist in the accomplishment of future
practices. However, information-creation is never neutral.
In relating to practices it embraces the character of
social relations and the assymetries of power inhering in
these. A 'knowledge/power' analysis is adopted which
enables 'information' to be viewed in relation to the
micro-processes of organizational arenas and to social
relations across time and space.
Secondly,this forms the context for an empirical study of
the generation and deployment of social
information-as-representations in the juvenile court.
Magistrates were interviewed and observation undertaken in
six juvenile courts. The focus is on the decoding of
social data by magistrates, both from social enquiry
reports and other sources (solicitors, parents, defendants
themselves). In decoding social data magistrates utilise
conventions of interpretation which are dominated by a
search for disciplinary control indicators. Reports are
seen as malleable resources whose use is determined more by
the decoding context into which they are sent than by their
intrinsic properties. Control indicators are manufactured
from social data to render the business of tariff
sentencing possible and meaningful; the deployment of
social information is a fulcrum of the classification of
offenders along the 'slippery slope' of bifurcatory
sentencing. Magistrates' accounts are thus situated in
relation to the practices of the court and
interorganizational boundaries, and ultimately are related
to 'long distance' control. The 'social enquiry' is found
to be, not a narrowly mundane matter of providing
'information for the court', nor solely a locally exerted
power, but a far reaching technique of power which must be
situated in relation to concepts of the 'tutelary complex'
and the 'carceral continuum'.