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Reflexive Note

As a female researcher in a male prison, my body was one of the key elements that differentiated me from everyone else in the prison at first sight. Even though there were female staff there, not only did they tend to dress differently, but they also held themselves and performed their identities in very different ways—not least due to their pre-existing experience of working within a prison, and their symbolic control over the men, which immediately placed them as the dominant and the male prisoner as the dominated, reversing the gender norms emanating from patriarchal cultural systems. With this being a relatively new environment to me as a researcher, and this being my first piece of lone empirical research, my performed self ended up coming across as young, feminine, and naive.

One of the main corporeal considerations on my mind when entering the prison was how to dress. I tried wearing a suit for professionalism, and was interpreted to be a governor (i.e. management in the prison)— not exactly helpful when trying to get prisoners to trust you enough to tell their stories and to see you as something other than the institution. I then attempted to blend into the background and hide my femininity through wearing baggy clothes and trying not to be too ‘obvious’ so that I could observe the prison without being too visible. That was an epic failure. I was young, female, and clearly did not fit: evidenced in one prisoner shouting out of the window to me when I was checking that I had locked a door, that I was clearly new, I would get used to it and, when I didn’t respond, the (performed) comment ‘nice arse’ (see also Genders and Player 1995 for discussion on female researcher dress).

In the end, my young femininity was useful, in that the men did see me as ‘other’ and not part of the institution (although there were some that aligned me with psychology—not a positive place to be from the prisoner perspective [see Sloan and Wright 2015])—in fact, my naivety made men want to explain things to me more, and almost take me under their wings in a protective stance.

How I acted and how I looked played on my mind a lot in the prison, and, looking back, gave me a tiny insight into how stressful and tiring it must be to have to act and perform for an audience that is potentially risky. It is exhausting, and removes the individual from who they really are—sometimes to the point of no return (Schmid and Jones 1991).

 
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