Subjectivity, Identity and Penal Power

Prof. Mary Bosworth (Principal Investigator, University of Oxford). This project is funded by SUBJECTPENAL European Research Council Starter Grant, 2012–2017.

This project explores what happens to our understanding of punishment when we place matters of identity and subjectivity at the centre of analysis. Revisiting the canon of texts in punishment and society, theoretical and applied, through the question of identity, it seeks to develop a new, gendered, postcolonial approach to penal power. Part of Mary Bosworth's ERC starter grant, this project has a number of strands, from an analysis of UK penal intitiatives in Nigeria and Jamaica, a study of juxtaposed controls in Calais, and ongoing research in and around immigration detention. Working with a range of colleagues in Border Criminologies, this project engages methodologically and conceptually with the changing nature of penality under conditions of mass mobility.

This project has two primary, interrelated, goals:

  • To develop new methodological and intellectual tools in understanding the global and transnational reach of penal power.
  • To revitalize the literature on subjectivity and identity in criminology.

It is guided by three research questions:

  • What is the relationship between penal power and national identity?
  • How is that relationship gendered?
  • What do the experiences and views of those subject to penal power tell us about (the limits and nature of) state power in a global age?

Taking the prison and the immigration detention centre as sites where local/national and global power intersect, this project will examine theoretically and empirically the ways in which people experience and negotiate such places, paying particular attention to how matters of identity, especially race, gender, national identification and their intersections, shape the experience, meaning and effects of incarceration. By placing race, gender, and citizenship at the centre of analysis of penal power, this project seeks not only to hold up to scrutiny such core explanatory concepts as legitimacy, culture and power, but also to develop an empirically grounded theoretical framework that will overcome the boundaries between macro- and micro-level sociological approaches to incarceration. In so doing the research will significantly reorient how penal power is investigated and understood.

The project itself consists of three sub-projects that together examine the relationship between identity, subjectivity and penal power in three distinct yet inter-related areas: penal theory, the contemporary prison, and the immigration detention centre.


  • Mary Bosworth, Ines Hasselberg and Sarah Turnbull, 'Imprisonment in a Global Age: Rethinking Penal Power in Y Jewkes, B Crewe and J Benne' in Y Jewkes, B Crewe and J Bennett (eds), Handbook of Prisons (Routledge 2016)
    As states around the world increasingly use the prison in the pursuit of border control, penal power has expanded and shifted in its nature and effect. For foreign nationals serving custodial sentences, the experience of confinement is no longer bounded by the prison walls, but now may include a period of administrative detention as well. In addition to a second incarceration, many face deportation, sometimes to a country they have left long ago. In these experiences, they join others detained for immigration matters, held together in institutions redolent of familiar penal technologies while they await expulsion. Penal power extends geographically in other ways too, as states like the United Kingdom fund new prison wings and rehabilitation programs abroad in a bid to hasten the transfer of particular groups of foreigners, as well as detention centres and border control methods elsewhere designed to prevent their arrival. Drawing on research with foreign national prisoners and immigration detainees, as well as on recent policy and inspection reports, this chapter reflects on the implications of these developments for our understanding of the prison, arguing that a broader view is necessary to appreciate its changing characteristics.
    ISBN: 9780415745666

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