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Research Proposal: structure and agency

Shirah Kraus's picture

On Thursday, two of the women from the prison were engaged in a lively debate about structure, mental health, agency, and personal responsibility.

“What do you do when the police won’t come to your aid?”

“Then they send you to prison for protecting yourself and your family.”

“There needs to be therapy. Those who are abused are more likely to abuse others.”

“But past abuse doesn’t give someone the right to hurt someone else.”

“You need to find a balance.”

 I have been thinking about structure and agency since my anthropology class last year. We read Righteous Dopefiend and discussed structure and agency in the lives of homeless heroin addicts. I want to continue to study the intersections of identities (race, gender, religion, ability, socio-economic status etc…) and the tension/balance between agency and structure within the Prison Industrial Complex.  Not only are offenders responsible for their actions (agency), so too is society responsible (structure). Walter Silva paraphrases Zebulon Brockway, a New York reformatory warden: “not all criminal behavior could be laid at the feet of the individual offender, that society bore at least some of the burden for the miscreant’s behavior” (21). How much of that burden does society bear? How can society act responsibly toward those whom it has failed? In my research (if possible), I want to focus on individual narratives and integrate them with structural and statistical data—somewhat of an ethnographic approach. I think I might want to focus in more specifically than just “structure and agency in the lives of incarcerated Americans,” but I’m not sure what I want to focus on yet. I am thinking about potentially looking into how anger reflects these themes or perhaps the system of public education or how these ideas connect to ethics, philosophy, and religion. I definitely want to examine how structure affects agency and how agents can affect structure.


Alexander, Michelle, and Cornel West. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. New York: New, 2012. Print.

Baldwin, James. ""A Talk to Teachers"" Rich Gibson's Education Page For Equality, Justice, Freedom, and Retribution. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Fine, Michelle, and Jessica Ruglis. "Circuitts and Consequences of Dispossession: The Racialized Realignment of the Public Sphere for U.S. Youth." Transforming Anthropology. Vol. 17. N.p.: American Anthropological Association, 2009. 20-33. Print.

Meiners, Erica R. Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Silva, Walter. "A Brief History of Prison Higher Education in the United States." Higher Education in Prison: A Contradiction in Terms? Ed. Miriam Williford. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx, 1994. N. pag. Print.


I think The New Jim Crow will be useful in my exploration of identity and structure, as it is about incarceration’s role in maintaining systemic racism. Baldwin and Fine/Ruglis are also helpful in understanding how race and incarceration intersect. Silva discusses structure and agency and society’s responsibility toward offenders.

The following link is a handbook for the family and friends of incarcerated individuals in Pennsylvania. I came across it while I was looking up information about what prisoners are allowed to have. I think it could be useful, especially in understanding how the government views prisoners and prison. It is definitely interesting.

If I choose to examine religion, I think I would look into my own religious institutions (namely the Union for Reform Judaism). What is the URJ doing about issues of incarceration and how do these issues connect to Reform Jewish values?