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Personal Essay: Sociologists Behind Bars

Two sociologists venture into prison to teach sociology and learn

by Jodi L. Short and Elizabeth Drogin, University of California-Berkeley

We spent this past semester teaching Introduction to Sociology to 15 men incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in California. This was the ultimate challenge for two sociologists steeped in Foucaultian anxieties about our own discipline. We would be teaching the sociology of race, class, and deviance to individuals who traditionally are visible only as the objects of these fields. How would we explain to these men how sociologists have categorized them and to what ends? Our curriculum was fairly standard undergraduate introductory fare: socialization, deviance, power, hierarchy, race, gender, social movements, and social change. But in this unique environment, the students taught us as much about being sociologists as we taught them about sociology.

Terminology for “Nothing New”

At the end of the course, when we asked the students what they had learned, one of the most common responses was that they had not really learned anything “new.” Unlike many of the undergraduates we had taught before, these students came to the discipline with what might be called a sociological way of knowing: they already understood power; they already recognized hierarchy and their place in it; and they had seen time and again how their chances in life were largely shaped by others. They told us that we had simply supplied the terminology for what they already knew. Notably, they found this naming and categorizing of their experience empowering rather than oppressive. One student said that it was like clearing the fog from a clouded mirror.

Some of the men shared highly personal lessons they had taken from the class. One student said that he most appreciated learning about socialization and the impact of labels, and he told us that since taking the class, he had been talking to his son about these concepts, hoping to put him on a different path. Another student said that he learned his most important lesson from the section on family violence. He had not realized how some of his behaviors were impacting his family, and he indicated that the insights he gained from class would change the way he treats the people he loves. We had no idea we were teaching these kinds of lessons, and in this respect, we gained a radical new perspective on the possibilities for what sociology can be about.

Echoing a tension that runs through much sociological scholarship, the students reported that their biggest disappointment with the discipline was that it did not sufficiently allow for the possibility of action, choice, and change. In the words of one student, “It makes you feel totally hopeless!” Although we had spent class time reviewing various ways out of the “hopelessness” that over-socialized accounts can produce, many students were left with a lingering anxiety about how one can take seriously the constraints of social structures, yet still search for a way out. Perhaps it is not surprising that physically incarcerated students would relate to the metaphor of the iron cage. But one of the most important lessons we will take from our students is that we, as sociologists, need to think of better ways out of this trap.

Teaching About Options

It is hard to put into words everything our San Quentin students taught us. One of the most important sociological lessons we learned is how crucial it can be for people to conceive of themselves as individuals with choice and agency, and just how inadequate many of our sociological concepts are for this task. For instance, we all agreed that San Quentin is a type of “total institution” in Goffman’s terms: one designed to produce absolute discipline and conformity by effacing its occupants’ individuality. Yet, the students showed us that, even within a total institution, the self is not wholly erased. The concept of the self as an individual supplied a critical source of meaning to these men’s lives and offered them a way to organize their actions in opposition to the prevailing norms of the institution. Every student in our class managed to maintain a distinctive personality, style, and perspective even in the stifling prison environment. And many told us that while social factors might have put them in prison, it was their personal choices that had put them in the classroom. While our sociological training well equips us to socialize this account, our students convinced us that we must devise better ways of understanding what agency means to individuals in highly constrained settings.

We also learned how certain power differences endure, even for students with a keen grasp of hierarchy. While our students readily understood the social construction of race and class, gender differences continued to seem “natural” to them. To these students, men and women were “just different.” Men were stronger, more powerful, more resilient, natural leaders. We were disappointed, as women and as their instructors, to see many of the students persist in naturalized and stereotypical perceptions of men and women even as they saw how other categories are socially constructed. We learned how deep certain inequalities run, how natural they appear and how many challenges remain for those working in the sociology of gender.

Personal Lessons, Deciphering Meaning

Finally, our students left us with much more personal lessons. They deeply inspired us in ways they can never know. They were extraordinary students. Throughout the semester all of the students came to class prepared and excited to learn. They posed challenging questions and offered insightful commentary on readings and lectures. They took risks in the classroom, trying out new ideas and learning from each other. They were, in short, dedicated scholars who demonstrated a level of engagement we have not witnessed in any other classroom setting. Their drive and thirst for knowledge was all the more remarkable because many of our students were serving life terms and had seemingly little to gain from slogging through coursework. They had found in education a source of meaning that animated their lives. As sociologists, we are methodologically trained to identify and decipher meaning. At San Quentin, we learned how we also could help create it.