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Theory and Practice
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 02/07/2011

Balance Conflicts swirl continuously around the corrections profession. Programs and custody staff often have simmering battles. Prisoners and staff are frequently at odds. Agencies and funding entities constantly look at each other with anticipation and suspicion. Personal animosities linger and fester. It seems that we cannot escape the discord that is built into our system.

To make matters worse, different modes of thought are often bones of contentions. Consider two extremes: the theorist and the practitioner. Sometimes these two camps are so distant and opposed, it is any wonder that anything gets done. It is as though the two arms of a single person move in opposite manners and ultimately obstruct the progress of the other.

Each of the groups have their utilities. Theorists provide a conceptual backdrop, posing the question, “How can things be?” Practitioners deal with the nuts and bolts of operation, addressing how things are done. Yet, why is it that neither group seems to understand the other? Here are some of the habits of the two extremes.

Theorists - Those who deal in the theoretical often have long-term decisions to make. They can create scenarios and models that may possibly solve the problems of any agency. Broad and hypothetical thoughts dominate their strategies. For example, they look at the broad repercussions of new policies and court mandated programs rather than daily application at work sites.

When they are in their purest form, they regard those in the field as a group that misunderstands the bigger picture. Often, Theorists consider Practitioners as blinkered horses who have no regard for anything outside their immediate work space.

Practitioners - Those in the filed are constantly faced with many long term problems. They attack the troubles of the facility in a very hands-on approach. They tend to be more tactical thinkers than strategic. These are the people who test the theories and recommendations in the real world. But their goal is not to prove or disprove theories. Practitioners simply want to make their area of control run smoothly.

They consider the Theorists out-of-touch dreamers, philosophers and those stuck in the Ivory Tower. Practitioners believe that Theorists don’t relate well to practical matters and are too distant from operations to understand the daily worksite. They consider Theorists as those who were never part of the system or too many years away from facility operation to understand.

Can the real and the ideal coexist?

Theorist                                      Balance                                     Practitioner
I-------------------------------------X---------------------------------------I
(The theory/practice continuum)


This continuum consists of three separate parts. There is one extreme, the opposing extreme, and degrees of differences within. The last group is the largest. The key for one extreme to understand the other is to move toward the middle.

Some other tips for the extremes to consider:
    Remember that both extremes are purists and are more comfortable living in a vacuum. In the real world, absolute extremes are rare, so compromise is possible;
  • Theorists need to sample the practitioners for tactical ideas;
  • Practitioners can benefit from hypothetical thoughts in order to modify and improve their operations.
  • The big picture of operations belongs everyone, theorists and practitioners, alike;
  • Day to day operations should be considered by both practitioners and theorists;
  • When one group fails, it is actually the failure of all groups. We all draw funds from the same agency;
  • Animosity between groups in corrections is never productive;

The idea of conflicting mindsets can be rethought as complimentary styles. Really, what we have are not two opposing thought patterns, but parts of the whole. Theorists provide a panorama of possibilities while practitioners fill in the details that succeed in getting to that destination.

In other words, both of these sorts of artists make the portrait complete. The Theorists provide the background in concepts while the practitioner deals with the details in the foreground. Without either element, the masterpiece is not complete.

The two arms of a single person that seem to move in opposite manners can move in concert. In fact, the hands of theory and practice can be trained to become ambidextrous. In this state, both hand work in concert, not in isolation.

Although we cannot always choose our circumstances, we can react well to them. There is plenty of room in corrections for theory and for practice. More importantly, the existence and cooperation of both make our profession more effective and hopeful.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

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