David Skarbek (Brown University) describes his ethnographic work on prison governance as a historical analogy to the emergence of states. Join us on this episode of the Governance Podcast led by John Meadowcroft (King’s College London) for a vibrant discussion on how governance emerges (or doesn’t) in different social landscapes, from prisons and gulags to clans and nation-states.

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The Guest

David Skarbek is Associate Professor of Political Science at Brown University. His research examines how extralegal governance institutions form, operate, and evolve. He has published extensively on the informal institutions that govern life in prisons in California and around the globe.

His work has appeared in leading journals in political science, economics, and criminology, including in the American Political Science Review, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Journal of Law, Economics & Organization, and Journal of Criminal Justice.

His book, The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System (Oxford University Press), received the American Political Science Association’s 2016 William H. Riker Award for the best book in political economy in the previous three years. It was also awarded the 2014 Best Publication Award from the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime and was shortlisted for the British Sociological Association’s 2014 Ethnography Award.

His work has been featured widely in national and international media outlets, such as the Atlantic, BBC, Business Insider, the Economist, Forbes, the Independent, and the Times.

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00:38: David, you’re well known for writing a book on prison gangs in California and America called The Social Order of the Underworld. Just to begin, tell us a little bit about that book.

2:01: You mentioned that prison gangs are often organized on racial lines. Why is that the case?

4:10: So race is a convenient way of organizing a large group of people. Is that what you’re arguing?

4:34: Does that mean this has changed over time? So as a prison population got bigger in America, gangs organized upon racial lines have become more important?

7:44: You mentioned that the convict code, if you like, was informal. Would you see gangs as providing more formal governance?

9:15: Would it be fair or is it a stretch to suggest that this is like a prison constitution?

10:53: One thing when you read the book that’s quite striking is there are lots of vivid descriptions of violence that occurs in prison. How do you reconcile that evidence with what you describe as some sort of order?

13:55: I imagine that the question that comes to many people’s minds when it comes to prison gangs, is what would happen if they went to prison? Would they have to join a prison gang, and if the didn’t, what would be the consequences?

15:26: So it’d be fair to say you cannot be a solitary individual, you cannot be a holdout, so to speak.

16:15: Could we then imagine that prisons are close to what we might think of the state of nature in social science?

17:05: This brings us to your latest work in this area, which I think is going to be called the Puzzle of Prison Order. How does it extend your previous work?

20:03: Maybe you can say a little more about English prisons. One senses that they don’t have that kind of gang organization that we observe in California. Why should that be the case?

23:39: One challenge this book takes on is trying to unpack all these different factors, all these different possibilities. So I guess one common sense question would be, looking at California, America, the UK, there is a presence of gangs on the streets. One might assume intuitively that the gangs on the streets are more well organized in California compared to England and Wales. Is that the case, and how does that play into what happens in prisons?

26:08: Another dimension which I think would be of interest is the difference between men’s and women’s prisons. What have you been observing?

29:44: Let me ask a more mischievous question: You’ve looked at prisons around the world and spent many years reading research on this. Is there a country or prison system that is completely opposite to what your theory would predict? For instance, where there is a small prison population but there are lots of gangs?

31:42: So it’s a story ultimately about governance, and much less about the size of prisons.

32:10: One thing that’s striking is, prisons have people with very few resources, they may be predisposed to violence… should this lead us to be hopeful about people’s capacity for self-governance?

35:06: So it’s undoubtedly impressive that prisoners are able to self-organize or self-govern in this way. Thinking of the comparative political economy of this, though, wouldn’t it be better if there was formal governance? Is that safer and less violent?

37:00: Essentially you’re engaging in qualitative research. Maybe the first question here is about the challenges of obtaining that kind of data from prisons around the world and how you go about overcoming that challenge.

40:27: What’s your sense of the challenges of comparing different ethnographic studies?

44:26: So you were trained as an economist originally. How do economists view this sort of methodological approach, and would they be concerned about your ability to give causal answers?

46:04:  As a political scientist, you see political science going in the direction of causal identification and experimental results. Should we be concerned about that and is it limiting the types of questions we can ask?

48:18: I assume you’re not going to be working on prisons forever. What other ideas do you have going forward?