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Reflexivity

In addition to interviews, through the keeping of reflexive diaries (which also served the function of providing a source for confidential debriefing at the end of a day in the prison), the impacts of the prison setting were recorded from a gendered researcher perspective, as a young woman interviewing and observing men. Reflection upon the emotional toughness and gendered nature of working in the prison environment adds another original element to the analysis of the prison experience, in that it provides a different perspective through which to contextualise the adult male prisoner’s perspectives, and a different audience for male performances. A triangulation of the experiences and perceptions of the adult male prisoner as an individual, the adult male prisoner as a member of a prisoner collective, and the adult female prison researcher, allows an in-depth analysis of the gendered aspects of the prison setting and gendered performances of identity.

The majority of researchers who have been able to gain access to, and have been interested in performing research in, the prison setting are men (Propper 1989). As such, it is easy for the issues of maleness, masculinity, and manhood to go somewhat unnoticed or taken for granted as ‘normal’. By having a female researcher investigating the concept of men in prison, issues of gender can be understood from a different standpoint. Gender differences between researcher and subject offer at least some critical distance and in this instance may also ameliorate any tendency towards competitiveness evident in male-only contexts. In truth, ‘free’ masculinity is validated through its juxtaposition to femininity (Connell 2005: 43)—the category of ‘male’ requires the ‘female’ for validation, with gender being socially constructed in a binary fashion, an element almost entirely missing for male prisoners. Sykes makes particular note of this (and thus shows the issue to have pervaded the state of prisons throughout the ages):

The inmate is shut off from the world of women which by its very polarity gives the male world much of its meaning. Like most men, the inmate must search for his identity not simply within himself but also in the picture of himself which he finds reflected in the eyes of others; and since a significant half of his audience is denied him, the inmate’s self image is in danger of becoming half complete, fractured, a monochrome without the hues of reality. (1958: 72)

It is precisely this self-image, and the reflections perceived by the inmate, viewer, and society itself, that was of interest in this research. From a gendered perspective, the role of the female researcher was invaluable, as a degree of gender-objectivity was attainable from an observer/ researcher perspective in terms of interpretations of male experience (which has been described as a ‘multifaceted category’ with varying effects according to interpretation—Ashe 2004: 187), and the male participants had a non-competitive space in which to discuss notions of male identity, whereby the researcher could never truly become part of the ‘group’, which has been seen to have negative implications for rapport and researcher identity (Horowitz 1986). The reflexive process is a central thread of the book.

The difference that gender makes in the interview process is an interesting concept, and research suggests that it can have an effect (Padfield and Procter 1996). The researcher’s ‘femaleness’ may have enabled a degree of emotional interaction that male inmates lack when living in such an emotionally limited environment. In this way, matters of a more familiar and general nature (such as identity and interaction) could be unpicked and interpreted on different levels, with the prison being the perfect setting in which to undertake such an exploration due to its extreme gendered nature and functions. The research allows us to understand better male identities, experiences, and interactions when situated within a particularly gendered setting such as the prison. It seeks to understand the importance of others in individuals’ interactions with both others and their selves.

 
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