Selected Papers (pre-publication version)

(The following paper as an earlier draft of the published version).

(For Class use only! A revised version appears in:
Violence Against Women, 2002. 8(March): 403-412). 

                       Standing on Standpoint:
      Challenging Symbolic Violence in Prisoner Culture Research
                         (29 August, 2001)

                              Jim Thomas
                       Department of Sociology
                     Northern Illinois University
                           DeKalb, Illinois
               (815) 756-3839
     Too often,  scholars in the United  States write as if anything worth
analyzing existed only between the east and west coasts.  In the case
of prison research, the problem is worse:  Not only do many of us omit
European and other scholars from our scholarship, but we tend to write
as if women's perison experience is at best an afterthought to our own
work,  or at  worst irrelevant.   The result is a  type of symbolic
violence in  which images  of prisoners  in general  and women  in
particular are ripped  from their context and  chopped and distorted,
leaving us only with a partial  understanding of the social processes
of gender, control, and existence in prison culture.  Therefore, it's
both refreshing  and ironic  that a  non-American feminist-oriented
scholar has  provided a volume that  not only expands  the empirical
understanding of  women's prison  culture,  but  also expands  the
conceptual and theoretical tools for examining the experiences of men.


                      "Standing on Standpoint:"
     "Subverting Symbolic Violence in Prisoner Culture Research"

     On occasion,  turn-about is more  than fair play.  It's deliciously
ironic, as Mary Bosworth's volume illustrates.   For once, rather than
have a study of men's prisons that then becomes a model imposed on the
female experience,  Bosworth provides a  study of women that provides
theoretical and conceptual guidelines not  only for expanding studies
of the male experience,  also for broader gender issues beyond the walls.
But,  her cutting-edge research does more than this.   It reminds us
that even when  tightly controlled,  people possess  ways to resist
control and attempt  to create an environment more  to their liking.

     Bosworth's analysis  of culture  in three  English women's  prisons
illustrates  a paradox:   The  conventional  idealized images  of
heterosexual femininity  that function  as part  of the  punishment
process also become  a means for women to resist  control and survive
their prison experience.    She argues that an  idealized notion of
femininity underlies much of the daily routine of women's prisons, but
that it  has an contradictory and  ironic outcome.  While  the inds
idealizations bind women in a  position of weakness,  it also produces
the possibility for resistance (Bosworth, 1999: 107).
Bosworth's exemplary  critical ethnography  helps soften  the jagged
edges of the gender gap in  criminal justice scholarship by reversing
the long-standing  tradition of looking  at women's  prison culture
through the conceptual lens used to study men's.

     The "gender gap" in criminal justice generally refers to the manner in
which women and their issues are  posed as secondary to,  or subsumed
under, those of men, by scholars and policy makers.   For example, one
criticism of research on women's prisoner  culture is the tendancy to
apply concepts  or theories used to  study men's prison  culture and
experiences those of  women.   Whether fully accurate  or not,  the
perception is that,  by using a research lens aimed primarily at men,
we obscure from our vision how women's experiences may differ.
While recognizing the "matrix of  domination" of class,  race,  and
gender, she avoids using it as what Schwalbe, (2000: 441)
have labeled  "labor-saving reifications" that serve  as explanatory
variable.  She  instead uses  them to describe  what in  fact are
"routinized forms of thought,  speech,  and action through which some
people attempt to  dominate and exploit others."  Bosworth's work not
only adds  empirical weight to  our understanding of  women's prison
experience,  but she also offers a  new research discourse that helps
mediate the  conceptual and theoretical violence  that characterizes
prison research for both males and females.


     Normally,  most of us do not  perceive research activity itself as an
act of violence.   Yet,  in  subtle ways,  uncritical conventional
scholarship imposes, ruptures, distorts, and twists our cognition, and
subsequently  our actions,   forcefully and  with often  injurious

     Most gender-oriented research on prisons  and prison culture continues
to conceptualize gender as conceptually dichotomous.   Goffman (1977:
302), for example,  observed that in all societies,  infants at birth
are placed in one  of the two sex classes that  contain the symbolic
repertoire for constituting and reinforcing them:

     In modern industrial society,  as apparently in all others,
     sex is at the base of  a fundamental code in accordance with
     which social  interactions and social structures  are built
     up,   a code  which  also  establishes the  conceptions
     individuals have concerning their  fundamental human nature
     (Goffman, 1977: 301).
     However, to view gender as a set of bipolar, even if occasionally
over-lapping, categories, misses the nature of gender-as-process.   As
Connell (1987:  140) reminds us,  gender is not an over-riding social
dichotomy,  but a concept that links  social categories.  Examples of
such social linkages include wives, abuse victims,  scholars,  social
control agents, and prisoners.

It's certainly   no secret that  there are  substantial differences
between men's and women's prisons.  Architecture,  staff interaction,
coping mechanisms,   and experiencing  time typify  a few  of the
differences (Heffernan, 1972;  Pollock, 1995;  Pollock-Byrne, 1990).
Most scholars tend to limit their  comparative gaze to differences in
organizational decision-making,   resource distribution,   or broad
adapation mechanisms to  the culture.   Consequently,  we  miss the
gender-specific issues that distinguish men from women.  But, why does
this constitute violence?

     Symbolic violence refers to the power of symbols to impose, devastate,
attack, suppress, and distort ways of seeing, thinking,  and talking.
Symbolic violence often can be  more devastating than physical attack
to the extent  that it imposed and reinforces social  harms caused by
class,  gender,  and other  status differences,  strengthens social
barriers,  and reinforces culturally embedded domination games.   In
describing one  way that dominant groups  can exert their  will over
others,  Bourdieu  (1991:  209-210)  observes that  symbolic power
presupposes a misrecognition of the  violence exercised through it and
depends therefore requires  some unrecognized complicity by  those on
whom the effect of the violence is exercised.

     In research,  especially that of prisoners,  images of gender and how
they are manipulated  by the researcher,  can constitute  a form of
symbolic violence:

     Every power to exert symbolic violence,  i.e.  every power
     which manages  to impose meanings  and to impose  them as
     legitimate by concealing the power  relations which are the
     basis of its force, adds its own specifically symbolic force
     to those power relations (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977: 4).

     One  of the  many ways  symbolic violence  occurs is  through
oppressive discourses.   Discourses are sets of symbols that we use to
communicate who we are, or who we think we are,  the context in which
our existence  is located,  and  how we  indend our selves  to be
understood as well as how we understand:

     Discourse is  more than talk  and writing.   To regulate
     discourse is to  impose a set of formal  or informal rules
     about what can be said, how it can be said,  and who can say
     what to whom (Schwalbe, et. al., 2000: 435).

     In prison research,  discourses grounded  in the sign systems of
gender identity,  both as a prison research concept and as a cultural
act to  be created and protected  by prisoners,  provide a  form of
symbolic violence for both male and female prisoners.   As a cultural
artifact,  gender identity imposes metaphors that wrench prisoners out
of their  shared humanity  and create  conditions that  exacerbate
qualities such as animosity, distrust,  and predation.  For scholars,
gender conceptual images are violent  because they arbitrarily impose
symbols in ways that may grotesquely  distort the "reality" of what is
seen and what is signified by what is seen.   The distortions reflect
oppressive power  relations that promote  the interests of  the more
powerful. Culturally imposed meanings are political, and the political
meanings of these categories provide a  coded text,  or an integrated
set of symbols that provide the  rules and vocabulary for deciphering
the significance of race,  that  forcefully shape cultural power and

     Gender codes are violent because  they disrupt the social fabric
and create images that correspond to ideologies of suppression, not so
much of women by men,  but by gendered power relations that victimize
both groups,  even while empowering one  at the expense of the other.
Gender codes are violent because  they create structural barriers that
preclude some groups  from access to resources  readily available to
others.   Exclusionary systems of  resource allocation influenced by
gender factors add  punitive sanctions to prison  life.   Individual
meanings,  norms,  expectations,  and behavioral strategies such as
violence or withdrawal,  combine to  form the structural elements of
rules, power, and organization.  Research on women's experiences tends
to compound this violence by rupturing  the experiences of women both
as woman and as prisoners.

                   Bosworth's Alternative Discourse

A British-trained Australian scholar,  Bosworth's conceptual framework
reflects her  eclectic background in  history at the  University of
Western  Australia and  subsequent interests  in philosophy  while
obtaining her doctorate at Cambridge.  Her work is informed by a range
of intellectual traditions ranging from feminism, structuralist,  and
Marxian-related scholars  to conventional  prison research.    Yet,
despite this diversity, the ideas are well-integrated and sufficiently
streamlined that readers will not suffer from idea-overload.
     Bosworth's work  suggests ways  to both  mediate the  symbolic
violence  of research  and to  expand our  understandings of  what
prisoners experience.   First, and perhaps most important, she offers
the reader an oppositional discourse,  an alternative to the many ways
of viewing and talking about prisons.   Unlike earlier discourses that
characterized prison  scholarship,  such as  the early  "society of
captives" (Sykes,  1958),  or the  subsequent clinical diagnoses and
retributive judgment  and more recent  "new penology"  discourse of
probability and risk (Feeley and Simon,  1992),  Bosworth offers one
grounded in the existential  processes of interactional communication
and gender identity formation.

     Second, she implicitly recognizes that there is no single "female
experience." Instead,  there women who  have diverse experiences that
are shaped by sexuality, gender, class, race,  and age,  among other
factors.  Identity is a verb,  not a noun,  and it is constantly the
location of negotation,  modification,  and re-affirmation to balance
the tension between who somen were on the outside and what they are on
the  inside.   For  example,  even  when under  attack by  their
identity-status as  "prisoner," "most of  the prisoners  did endorse
aspects of an  idealized femininity," especially from  their outside
roles as mothers, wives, girlfriends, or daughters,  to sustain their
sense of efficacy and self (Bosworth, 1999:  105).   However, this is
not a simple  process.  Bosworth's data reveal  a dissonance between
women's experiences of motherhood and the images and ideals allowed in
     Bosworth begins by arguing,  somewhat ironically,  for adopting
"identity politics" as a new  approach for criminology.  Rather than
fall into  the trap  of some standpoint  theorists,  who  take an
essentialist view of knowlege by  claiming that only "identity groups"
can understand their own culture,  she  starts with the processes of
identity formation, negotiation, and implementation.   Bosworth begins
with the seemingly simple goal of  examining the effects of feminiity
on women in prison.  Her task  seems simple,  as she organizes her
inquiry around several basic questions:

     To what extent are practices  of imprisonment based on rigid
     stereotypes of  women" Do the  prisoners accept  or reject
     traditional feminine identities:  Is  feminity a source of
     oppression, or can it also enable resistance?  In short, are
     the women able to tansform of challenge power relations from
     their "embodied" positions, as feminist theorists suggest?
          By raising such questions,  I am attempting to explain
     how the identities of women in  prison are constituted by a
     variety of changing social  relations.   As prisoners they
     must negotiate discourses of  punishment and responsibility,
     while as women  they are subject to  notions of femininity
     (Bosworth, 1999: 3).

     There is little  new in finding that  collective and individual
identities of people, especially in stigmatized groups,  are works in
process as they are negotiated,  resisted,  modified,  and balanced.
After all, like non-prisoners, prisoners struggle to define,  affirm,
and continually negotiate a workable identity.  Identities tell us who
we think we are and announces us to others.  An identity is not only a
status,  but a cue-card that prompts others with short-hand summaries
of what they can expect and how they might respond.   Prison identity
is more than an individual self-reference point.  It also announces to
others who we are and how we expect  to be treated.   It can become a
resource and a focal point for competition or conflict.
     Bosworth expands  such traditional symbolic interactionist  models by
viewing identity as:

     ...the  intersection between  socio-economic and  cultural
     frameworks in which we are all located--namely race, gender,
     ethnicity, and sexuality, and the more diffuse and imprecise
     ways in which people  perceive themselves (Bosworth,  1999:

     She begins with  the premise that the exercise of  power and the
practice of imprisonment are always gendered (Bosworth,  1999:  46).
This allows  her to  develop a  framework consistent  with feminist
theory,  but  one that  is amenable to  examining the  male prison
experience as well.   Ironically, some critics might miss the value of
her approach,  and the  point of her work,  as did  one critic who
complained that  there was nothing  specifically about women  in the
analysis (Phoenix, 2001:  312).   However, part of Bosworth's project
lies in  attempting to  avoid the symbolic  violence done  to both
research  and research  subjects  in the  guise  of the  dogmatic
theoretical gaze that would rupture  our understanding of experiences
of domination and control by focusing  solely on experiences unique to
women,  and ripping  away any glimpse of experiences  that might be
shared by men.    Her link between identity  politics and standpoint
research  preserves the  value  of  feminist theory  while  also
transcending the tendancy toward relativism.

                       Reconsidering Standpoint

     Standpoint research, or the "privileged knowledge thesis,"  holds that
the views and  claims  of insiders are  more credible  than those of
outsiders.   Well-meaning white scholars received heated criticism in
the late-1960s and 1970s from those  who argued that white experiences
and assumptions  narrowed and  distorted their  research lens  when
focused on people of color.  This, the critics argued,  obscured the
experiences of  the subordinate group  by producing  partial,  even
erroneous,   understandings.   Feminist  scholars further  refined
standpoint methodology.  Dorothy Smith (1987:  112) nicely illustrates
the  insider-outsider problem  when describing  her experience  of
watching a  "family of indians" on  a rail platform in  Canada:

          The passing of the train provides a metaphor for a kind
          distance between observer and observed in which the
          observed are silenced (Smith, 1987: 112).

     In conceptualizing this "family"  of "indians" and in  describing
their activity,  she replaced  others' identities and interpretative
frameworks with her own, thus making others' less visible.  Excluding,
distorting,  or  discrediting the experiences  of people  we study
provides, at best, only partial understandings.  At worst, we recreate
and maintain systems of privilege and domination.   Identity politics
provides a  way out,  because it  "emerges out of the  struggles of
oppressed or exploited groups" and gives us a standpoint from which to
"critique dominant structures,   a position that gives  purpose and
meaning to struggle" (hooks, 1994: 88-89).

In penology,   the  "celebration of identity" emerged  in part with
radical criminologists who tried to speak for prisoners, and with with
symbolic interactionists, especially ethnographers,  who began to give
voice to the targets of social   control to express their motivations
and view of  the world.   This provided an antidote  to the dominant
voices of the controllers.   More recently, the emergence of "convict
criminology" (Stephens,    forthcoming)  has mobilized a  cadre of
ex-offenders and others   who have experienced the dark   side of the
law to present  what is perceived  as an  alternative to conventional
corrections scholarship.

    But,   hooks (1994:  91)   expressed some discomfort  with the term
"authority of experience,"  because of  its potential  to silence and
exclude other voices. Bosworth provides the antitote.   Bosworth also
avoids the trap common to  some strains of identity-politics research
of simply adding female-as-subject to the data mix,  as if that would
overcome the  dominance of  male-oriented prisoner  research (Harding, 1987).   She grounds her analysis firmly,  but not uncritically,  in the feminist
standpoint perspective.   Her unique contribution  both to theory and
empirical scholarship  is the expansion  of standpoint  and identity
theory in  a way that avoids  the potential relativism  of identity
privilege by recognizing that, like the concepts of race,  gender and
class on which she builds, idealized sexual identities in prisons 
become a power chit.   For example,  reinterpretion of idealized 
femininity can "re-present aspects of a biological and passive feminity 
to confront and shift the administration" (Bosworth,  199:  148-149),
which illustrates the irony  that gender identities that oppress are 
also weapons of resistance.   Bosworth thereby avoids the  dichotomous 
trap common  to some strains  of idenity-politics research of simply adding
female-as-subject to  the data mix,  as if that would overcome the 
dominance of male-oriented discourses.
     Bosworth's root imagery  lies in the oppositional  dichotomy between
free will  and determism  as illustrated  by the  paradoxical role  of
femininity  in constructing  women as  both  dependent and  autonomous
(Bosworth,  1999:   32-33).  Bosworth translates  the paradox  into a
cutting-edge  way of  examining  the  relationship between  punishment,
imprisonment, social organization, and resistance,  one on which the prison
becomes a metaphor for broader forms  of social regulation.   This expands
the empirical  limits of  women's cultures  in several  ways that  can
powerfully shape studies of men's institutions.
     First,  she adds  support to those who have warned  against seeing a
unified "prisoner culture" in either  men's or women's prisons (Heffernan,
1972;  Jones and Schmid, 2000;  Kruttschnitt, Gartner, and Miller, 2000).
The term suggests at least minimal homogeneity of members' norms,  values,
ideologies,  and understandings,   including those of gender  roles and
expectations,  a misconception  fostered especially by older  research on
men's prisons,  and later transported into studies of women's institutions.
By focusing  on the  dialectical process  between prisoners'  agency and
broader institutional,   societal,  and cultural structure,   her data
illustrate the diversity and permeability  of prisons' cultural boundaries
and meanings.
     Second,  by shifting  the focus of analysis from  prison culture to
processes of agency and identity formation,  Bosworth avoids the generally
unfruitful dichotomy  of explaining  prison culture  through either  the
importation or deprivation models.  For Bosworth, whether "bad folks" bring
their bad-guy  culture with  them into  the prison  as so  much baggage
(importation model),   or whether the culture  is the result  of normal
attempts to adapt  to the abnormal deprivations of  a debilitating prison
culture (deprivation model) is irrelevant.  Instead, her study displays the
mix of factors from  both within and outside the prison  that are used as
building blocks in the interactional processes of shaping, adapting to, and
resisting the pains of confinement.
     Third,  Bosworth also avoids reifying  the entrenched concept of the
"inmate code,"  that set of entrenched  and inviolable norms  presumed to
provide fairly  inviolable standards for  male prisoner  behavior (Sykes,
1958).   While  not denying the  existence of shared  norms,  Bosworth
illustrates how  one mechanism,  gender-based conceptions  of femininity,
provide a perhaps deeper and more powerful set of codes for doing time.
     Finally, too often ethnograpies, even the most critical kind,  commit
the violence of rupturing the researcher  from the people being studied in
what Van Maanen (1988:  46) calls "realist tales." In realist tales,  the
author vanishes from the finished text,  making the reader dependent on the
author's experiential  authority with no  opportunity to reflect  on the
researcher-researched process.  In the spirit  of recent ethnographies in
which scholars recognize the necessity of reflexively locating the author's
field experience within  the research setting and  the subject,  Bosworth
preceeds her analysis  with a detailed discussion both of  her methods and
her relationship with the prisoners. In so doing, she reflexively clarifies
her own ideological lens and allows readers to examine how her intellectual
and experiential development unfolds as  she proceeds.   Most qualitative
researchers of prison  culture know,  but few report,   the physical and
emotional toll their  studies take.   If we did,  there  might be fewer
first-hand studies.  Unlike most of us who have studied prisoners, Bosworth
almost brutally describes the costs of her inquiry:
         There  were physical  symptoms--my skin  and hair  quality
     deteriorated;  I had nightmares.  At one stage, near the end, I
     even began to have heart  palpitations.  There were behaviorial
     symptoms--I smoked  a lot more than  usual,  and drank  in the
     evenings.  I would frequently cry as I was driving away from the
     prison (Bosworth, 1999: 74).
     Bosworth's commentary is more than a true confessional tale.  It's an
example of  "criminological Verstehen,"  which bridges  the conventional
dualisms between research subject and  object by utilizing the researcher's
own experiences and emotions as avenues  into the meanings of the situation
and the experiences of the subjects (Ferrell and Hamm, 1998: 13).   Through
such methodological musings,  Bosworth combines the standpoint both of her
subjects and of her own status as a  female researcher to give voice to her
subjects by entering their world while  retaining her own external critical
feminist edge.
     These examples illustrate how Bosworth's  focus on gender and identity
builds a conceptual  and theoretical model for  examining the relationship
between human agency,  prisoner  culture,  prisoner interaction,  social
control, and resistance.   By integrating the topics of prison culture and
gender,  she provides an eclectic way  of studying each,  which moves us
beyond the rather static viewing of either one.
     Bosworth opens her  volume with an insightful reminder  that we often
begin research with a poorly  formulated question that,  through struggle,
helps us answer a question that could  not have been properly asked at the
start.  From an  amorphous beginning comes partial clarity  as our foggy
images become clearer.  Bosworth's conclusion  suggests that we ought not
become deluded  in believing that  these clearer images  are sufficient.
Criminologists,  she argues,  must continually  listen to others' voices,
recognize the dialectic between resistance and control, and then search for
avenues by which resistance can go  "somewhere in particular." I would add
that only in this  manner can we,  as researchers,  begin  to reduce the
symbolic violence resulting from our failure to heed Bosworth's call.
     Connell (1987:  17)  reminds us  that "personal life and collective
social arrangements are linked in a fundamental and constitutive way."  His
point is that theoretical integration of  each is necessary in the process
of understanding  our collective  and individual  social existence  and
transforming that  understanding into practice.   Multiple  audiences (or
stakeholders) present the challenge of multiple standpoints of the personal
and collective experience both in men's and women's prisons.   The research
trick is  to recognize the dialectical  process that privileges  not the
claims of  one audience over another,   but recognizes research  as the
processes of dialogue  as a dialectical project  between all participants.
As hooks (1994: 130) observes:
     To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as
     teachers,  scholars,  and critical thinkers to cross boundaries,
     the barriers that  may or may not be erected  by race,  gender,
     class, professional standing, and a host of other differences.
     As Bosworth cogently illustrates,  that's  one way to begin reducing
symbolic violence in prisoner culture studies or,  for that matter,  most
other research as well.
Bosworth, Mary. 1999. Engendering Resistance: Agency and Power in Women's
   Prisons. Aldershot (Eng.): Ashgate/Dartmouth.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991.  Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge (Mass.):
   Harvard University Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron. 1977.  Reproduction in
   Education, Society and Culture. Beverly Hills: SAGE.
Collins, Patrica Hill. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge,
   Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.  Boston: Unwin Hyman.
Connell, R. W. 1987. Gender and Power.  Stanford (Calif.): Stanford
   University Press.
Feeley, Malcolm M. and Jonathan Simon. 1992.  "The New Penology: Notes on
   the Emerging Strategy of Corrections and its Implications. Criminology,
   30(4): 449-474.
Ferrell, Jeff and Mark S. Hamm.  1998. "True Confessions: Crime, Deviance,
   and Field Research."  Pp. 2-19 in J. Ferrell and M. Hamm (eds.),
   Ethnography at the Edge: Crime, Deivance and Field Research.  Boston:
   Northeastern University Press.
Goffman, Erving. 1977. "The Arrangement between the Sexes." Theory and
   Society, 4(1977): 301-331.
Harding, Sandra. 1987. "Introduction: Is there a Feminist Method?"  Pp.
   1-14 in S. Harding (ed.), Feminism and Methodology.  Bloomington (Ind.):
   Indiana University Press.
Heffernan, E. 1972. Making it in Prison: The Square, the Cool and the Life.
   New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Jones, S. Richard and Thomas J. Schmid.  2000. Doing Time. Prison
   Experience and Identity Among First-Time Inmates. Stamford (Conn.): JAI
Kruttschnitt, Candace, Rosemary Gartner and Amy Miller. 2000.  "Doing her
   own Time? Women's Responses to Prison in the Context of the Old and the
   New Penology." Criminology, 38(August): 681-717.
Phoenix, Joanna. 2001.  "Review: Bosworth, Mary, Engendering Resistance:
   Agency and Power in Women's Prisons." Punishment and Society, 3(April):
Schwalbe, Michael, Sandra Godwin, Daphne Holden, Douglas Schrock,
   Shealy Thompson, and Michele Wolkomir.  2000.
   "Generic Processes in the Reproduction of Inequality: An Interactionist
   Analysis.  Social Forces, 79(2): 419-452.
Stephens, Richard. 2001. Convict Criminology. Belmont (Calif):  Wadsworth.
Sykes, Gresham M. 1958.  The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum
   Security Prison.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Van Maanen, John. 1988.  Tales from the Field: On Writing Ethnography.
   Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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