gender and prison organization: a theoretical question

Last Fall, I was teaching a module in my social theory graduate class about rational choice and how RCT may be used to explain social order. I discuss Hobbes as a proto-rational choicer and then I discuss how you can explain social order without states or sovereigns. To do that, I used work on order within criminal communities (which are not within the state by definition) by Pete Leeson and David Skarbek.

Then, a student offers a feminist critique of Skarbek’s work. This student suggested that the types of gangs you describe in Skarbek’s work really reflects a masculine form of social organization and the arguments are not really generalizable. I responded that if the feminist hypothesis is true, we’d expect a different form of social order in female prisons, or at least one that is not predicted by your model.

Later, I did a small amount of Google research an discovered that female prison populations are (a) small and low density and (b) do not have many gangs. One of Skarbek’s main arguments is that gangs are a functional response to prison over crowding so a low density population population should have few gangs, and this is consistent with observation. On social media, I mentioned the discussion to David Skarbek and he noted that men’s prison population themselves vary and gangs are not universal. Also, you would have to flesh out the alternative hypothesis about hyper-masculinity.

What do you think?



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Written by fabiorojas

May 20, 2020 at 12:39 am

Posted in uncategorized

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  1. Prison gangs offer a structure and stability that many of these men and women never had before their incarceration. Community is based on how resources are allocated. Members of these groups have access to certain privileges, such as phones, money on the books, youth and beauty, or even illicit drugs. From a biological perspective I would consider the influence of testosterone on how these communities form. Overcrowding does contribute to a reduction in resources and the diminished quality of resources. In southern states (the Black Belt) race must also be considered. Whites are a minority their needs for this type of fellowship may be due to a need for protection. One may also consider the influence of female dominated single parent households as a factor that affects social formation of ordered groups. There are so many possibilities to consider based on the thousands of letters I’ve read working in criminal defense for 22 years.


    Armand Chevalier

    May 20, 2020 at 8:38 am

  2. I think Skarbek would agree that all prison populations have community and structure, but that norms differ depending on density. Gangs are normally in over crowded prisons since people need protection more.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 21, 2020 at 1:14 pm

  3. Regarding norms: there is the influence that indirect observation has on behavior, such as the Hawthorne Effect on Chicago factory workers that is also reproducible with prisoners. There is also the threat of the panopticon (Jeremy Bentham) that causes positive behavioral modification due to inmates believing that they are being watched. They self police themselves when really they are unaware as to whether they are being observed. This is necessary as most inmate population to correctional officer ratios in prisons are around 50:1. But, yes Sir, norms vary depending on density. Someone should volunteer to do some inside ethnographic work just to make sure though.


    Armand Chevalier

    May 21, 2020 at 2:20 pm

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