Participatory Control: Drama Workshop and Performance Making in a Chinese Prison


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date11 Jan 2019


Performing arts in prison is mostly approached by scholars as intervention evaluation within the grounds of offender rehabilitation. This thesis reconceptualizes performance making in prison as an organizational process of social control. The thesis asks three major questions: 1) How and why is the narrative of exemplarity produced and reproduced? 2) What is the institutionalized organizational process of performance making in a Chinese prison? 3) Why do frontline officers and prisoners comply and contribute to the coproduction of exemplary performances? Under the critical realist paradigm, this thesis is an ethnographic case study of civic-prison collaborative drama project in a Chinese male adult prison. Informed primarily by theories of exemplary social control (Bakken, 2000), compliance typology (Bottoms, 1999), and social drama (Turner, 1980), this study has found that performance making in Chinese prisons can be conceptualized as a continuous spiraling process. The process involves the construction of a social drama by the leadership group with fixated roles and conflicts, which in turn serves as the meta-narrative of a variety of cultural performances inside. Performance making thus becomes a task that is administratively mobilized to be executed and is highly contingent upon individual leadership’s decisions and wider political trends. The frontline officers and prisoners collaborate closely in the making of the shows, where various forms of compliances and resistance can be found. Incentives, competition and strains run across all levels in the prison system as a constant driving force of instrumental participation. This study thereby proposes a Participatory Control model of social control where a variety of centralized political, financial and social resources are carefully distributed, with restrictions on other access channels, through orchestrated competitions that requires creativity beyond mere conformity but within the grand narrative of exemplarity. This model is compared and contrasted with previous theories on prison’s control model in Western societies, as well as social control mechanism in other Chinese institutions and organizations. This study not only contribute to the gap in empirical Chinese prison research but also provides a procedural organizational model which could be adopted for cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural comparative studies on social control in the future.