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The theatre of control and its discontent – Drama workshops and performance making in a Chinese prison

By Xiaoye ZHANG, City University of Hong Kong

Tue 18 Sep 2018
7:00 - 9:00 pm


CPD-LG.61, The Jockey Club Tower, HKU

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) what is the institutionalized organizational process of performance making as social control in a Chinese prison?
2) how does such mechanism interact with civic professional’s input?
3) how can we better understand social change while embedded in the control production?

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 by theories of exemplary social control (Bakken, 2000), compliance typology (Bottoms, 1999), and social drama (Turner, 1980), this study 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 ending, 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 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. Civic professional’s intervention—without full awareness due to lack of access to information and resources—becomes deeply embedded in this existing mechanism and therefore very limited in its ability to inflict change.

However, by collaborating with the prison authority and sustaining its long-term existence inside, a form of precarious community can be observed. Departing from previous rehabilitation literature, this thesis validates and furthers the social control perspective by arguing that the possibilities of more meaningful engagement need to be recognized to lie within the community collectively, rather than upon specific intervention or civic professionals alone.

Xiaoye ZHANG is a final year PhD candidate of Social and Behavioral Sciences (Criminology) at City University of Hong Kong. Holding an BA degree in English from China and MA degree in Applied Theatre from England, Zhang is an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural researcher/practitioner with a focus on performing arts and the prison. Her research interests are situated at the cross-road of prison sociology, participatory arts, criminology and China studies.

HKU Sociology

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