Anthropology in Action Lecture Series

Posted on 2/18/2015 11:38:08 AM

Come see what cultural anthropologists do today in a new monthly lecture series. This semester’s topics include mass incarceration, women’s empowerment and human rights, and intercultural dialog. Lori Labotka will give the first talk on Wednesday, February 25, at 6:30 p.m. in the Susquehanna Room of the HUB, entitled “Healthy, Beautiful Hair: Cultivating the Self in a Women’s Prison.”


The U.S. prison system has grown rapidly over the past three decades, raising numerous questions about the aims, implications, and mechanisms of modern punishment. Based on a year and a half of fieldwork with women incarcerated in Arizona, this talk addresses some of those questions and claims that anthropology is uniquely suited to do so despite the relative lack of anthropological work on prisons.

I focus in particular on the ways incarcerated women attempt to construct a sense of self in the extraordinary context of the prison, exploring the linguistic and semiotic mechanisms by which they negotiate imposed inmate symbolism in relation to gender, race, class, and other aspects of identity critical to their self-understanding. For instance, women engage in hair care rituals that infuse long hair with value as a symbol of beauty, worth, and productive prison time. While these practices are critical claims to dignity, they often are subject to punishment as women’s bodies become sites of state domination and control.

Ultimately, I argue that the same threads of humiliation and degradation that have been explored in the extreme conditions of solitary confinement carry across spaces of incarceration, framing the mundane methods of minimum-security punishment. This analysis points out that incarceration threatens the humanity of prisoners, indicating a core ideological tenet of modern punishment.

Department of Anthropology