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Dr Sarah Armstrong: ‘Prison as Actor and Stage’: A Reflection

Dr Sarah Armstrong spoke at the 2014 BSA Postgraduate Forum Conference in Leeds. Her hugely popular paper sparked a lively debate; here she reflects further on how she came to write the paper, and the crafting of the research more broadly:

“The more I study prisons, the more I come to feel they are not just places that people go to and come out of (better or worse), and they are not just institutions that reflect or distort a society’s values. These lines of thought treat prison as static objects – a black box, a mirror. In this paper, I am trying to take on the very idea of prison itself, to re-conceptualise it as an object that has the qualities of both a social actor and a social setting. In other words, it is not just a stage where human actors play out their dramas but is also creator and orchestrator of human subjectivity, relations and change.

I came to write this paper fuelled by my increasing discontent with, even hostility to, my own and others’ work which sought to question and reform penal policies and practices. Much of this critique works through a (more or less explicit) human rights framework that picks up on the sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring ways that imprisonment attacks individual human dignity. This work begins and ends with the prisoner, her rights and needs, and how the prison does or does not address these. This may seem a natural and proper focus, but it means that rather than tackling the prison itself as the main object of inquiry, we end up spending most of our energies on trying to make things better for the prisoner. Too often these efforts have resulted, as Foucault warned a long time ago, in expanding the penal system. That is, the problem of prisons, gets re-articulated (by even us lefty reformer types) as the problems of prisoners, leading to solutions that may marginally improve the conditions for prisoners, but leave the institution itself out of reach as an object of analysis and critique.

This work builds on an ESRC funded project I did between called ‘Ethnography of Penal Policy’ (Armstrong, 2008-2010) where I was trying to think about policy itself as a cultural world in which many more people than prisoners are involved in and affected by imprisonment (following the policy anthropology work of Marilyn Strathern, Chris Shore and Susan Wright). I ended that project wondering what we even mean by prison – a big, high security building; the people inside it;  the neighbourhoods where buildings are placed or that supply its inmates; the whole system of communities, academics and government actors who have some connection to punishment? This paper is a kind of search for some conceptual tools to begin answering this question. I am interested in using object theories in my work, for which actor network theory (e.g. Law and Singleton) has been particularly helpful. I feel that by utilising this theory from an anti-humanist (not anti human!) perspective, we can centre prison itself to think about the work that it does, its effects and power. The project is intellectual, but also political, in that that by expanding our understanding and knowledge of what prisons are, we make possible new forms of critique which might finally foment an end to this strange and debilitating state practice.”


Armstrong, S. (2008-2010) Ethnography of Penal Policy, ESRC Small Grant,

Law, J and Singleton, V (2005) Object Lessons. Organization, vol. 12(3): 331-355.


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