Prison as a Diamond

Prison as a Diamond

Prison as a Diamond

            Culture is a difficult term to define because there are multiple events and experiences that can fall within the culture umbrella. However, cultural experiences and events can fall into broad categories that help us to understand culture and its significance to human life. Some examples of broad categories that people might regularly perceive include personal practices such as going to the swimming pool on weekends, elitist activities such as ballroom dancing, and national traditions such as ice festivals. Regardless of the ambiguity and multiplicity of application of the word culture, it is a distinct aspect of human beings and society. Additionally, culture is highly intertwined with society. It represents human expression in all its forms; therefore, culture can take extreme personal and societal diversity. Griswold (2013) describes various instances in which people engage in harmless personal or societal cultural expressions, including going to the gym and engaging in murder because of religious traditions respectively. Also, Griswold (2013) describes intercultural misunderstandings in an example about middle-class and white working-class people who keep their dogs at home. She contrasts it with working class black subcultures in which dogs stay in the yard, perhaps tied up. Therefore, an encounter between the two culturally different groups could elicit conflict. However, the author does not address the problem of cultural misperceptions. Since white and black subcultures relatively live alongside each other or can perceive each other’s cultural experiences using the traditional and online media such as popular televisions and online video broadcasts, each of them should be cognitively aware of each other’s idiosyncrasies. In prison, multiple social groups offer each other support similar to free society. The prison groups coalesce along racial lines. Prison offers an opportunity to study human culture in the most extreme conditions similar to prehistory societies, which had to subsist on very little. They lived in ‘survival of the fittest mode’ in small social groups from the same families or tribes similar to the small close-knit prison ‘families.’ The analysis will use Albert Woodfox’s prison experience to argue for an evolutionary theory approach to studying prison as a cultural diamond. A broad evolutionary description of culture and social groups is a better approach of implementing the cultural diamond compared to a narrow primarily sociological description of society and culture.

The human evolutionary tendency to view their social groups as in-groups and other groups as out-groups explains prison conflict. Prison conflict occurs between different social groups with the same racial or ethnic orientation, which was the predominant cause of conflict among pre-modern societies. Human beings are innately conditioned to view other social groups as out-groups, which is an evolution-inculcated tendency that could be traced to our animal origins. A particular society is a tribe or a pack since the particular society embodies the four cultural aspects that convey meaning to the in-group. Griswold (2013:3) adds that during “the last decades of the twentieth century,” sociologists added practices as a fifth cultural aspect. In prison, convicts use the five cultural aspects to identify members of a social group for protection to reduce in-group conflict. Also, they use them to differentiate out-groups during conflicts. Therefore, the existence of cultural differences and the emergence of conflict leads to differences in cultural expressive symbols, beliefs, values, practices, and norms. Woodfox and the Black Panther 3 had a culture that allowed Woodfox to endure years in solitary. In one instance, the Woodfox and his Black Panther friends describe themselves as the “original” Black Panthers to show their commitment to their in-group (Aviv 2019:4). The cultural affiliation allowed Woodfox to sacrifice his personal freedom to stay in his in-group. From an evolutionary perspective, commitment to one in-group ensures the survival of the individual and protects him or her from conflict (Aviv 2019). Consequently, when Woodfox went to prison, he reports that black and white inmates lived in separate prisons to avoid conflict (Aviv 2019:8). Explaining prison experience from an evolutionary perspective reduces the five items in sociological descriptions of culture to two.  

Historical analysis of culture shows that sociocultural groups such as European western cultures could be compared to the prison in-groups and out-groups. The push by 19th century enlightenment thinkers tried to impose culture on society and failed to recognize that western enlightenment was just one of the various social groups and cultures. They failed to realize that by idealizing culture and elevating one sociocultural group as having a superior culture. They were condemning other sociocultural groups to damnation. Evolutionary theory could have removed the enlightenment narcissistic denial of diversity were it not for the tooth-and-claw understanding of Darwinian evolution that developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Griswold (2013) alludes to the tendency for human beings to form self-serving social groups, which is a fact predicted by evolutionary theory when an analogy is made between human and animal social systems. The Western European culture sought to develop a human culture that was superior and was an expression of the highest cultural values. The author rightly notes that the narrow ethnocentrism was the eventual outcome of the effort to define human culture in terms of social outcomes or progress. Similarly, sociology that considers physical evolutionary science as second to a sociological study of human society and culture risks attempting to define the two concepts in terms of observable human outcomes. Consequently, behaviors such as western ethnocentrism can appear inexplicable or at least complicated from a purely sociological view or a sociological view that places the humanities as the primary source of developing conceptual frameworks in sociology.

Evolutionary theory shows that conflict within prison and in society is inevitable, proving that prison is a cultural diamond with the same dynamic as society. Just as in prison, sociocultural conflict in society is inevitable. Sociology has attempted to suggest that because of the multiplicity of culture, viewing the world as a complex entity can remove the tendency of societies to form social groups that become ethnocentric. Griswold (2013: 7) cites academics such as Herder who stated that social groups in the world have “their own, equally meritorious cultures.” However, there is no indication that all cultures are equally meritorious considering the inhumane cultures that have existed in prehistory and in history. A culture that does not support human evolution through collective action is not meritorious. According to Polasky, Carpenter, Folke and Keeler’s (2011:398-399) extensive study, in case of contextual factors such as scarcity, the human cultural landscape could collapse, leading to a breakdown of society into smaller social groups. While Griswold (2013) does include the social world (context) in the culture diamond framework, the context is an extremely broad definition that creates endless variables and factors in an attempt to understand how context could influence or help explain cultural and social development. From an evolutionary perspective, a human being’s sense of self is determined by his or her social context, which influences the response to culture and norms. For example, when Albert Woodfox was released from prison after serving a long time in solitary confinement, he had problems adapting to sociocultural norms. He could not see the value of keeping lawns mowed but could appreciate them (Aviv 2019). Also, he acquired behaviors such as being easily offended when a cab driver asked them to pay for a ride before it had ended, which might be a norm in some locations (Aviv 2019: 27). Griswold’s (2013) focus is on micro-interactive dimensions of culture, which is a narrow view. From the macro-societal level of culture adopted by Polasky, Carpenter, Folke and Keeler (2011:398-399), the primary factors that shape cultural and societal evolution are the same basic ones that shaped human evolution. From such a broad perspective, it is possible to understand historical developments such as the enlightenment’s desire to impose the western ethnocentric culture and society to the rest of the world. Cultural superiority driven by evolutionary instincts embedded in the human collective unconscious being is innate in human beings.

The analysis has demonstrated that prison is a cultural diamond from an evolutionary perspective. The evolutionary perspective has identified similarities between formation of social groups in prison and in society. Also, it has demonstrated why multiplicity of cultures and conflict are inevitable elements of prison and society. Using historical examples and Woodfox’s experience in prison, evolutionary provides a simpler framework for interpreting prison culture. While the cultural diamond provides a sufficient basis for investigating micro-interactive dimensions of culture such as racial prejudice, it is not an effective conceptual model because of the multiplicity of perspectives it allows. An evolutionary perspective is a broad, simple but powerful conceptual framework to inform sociological studies on culture and society. Also, it can be used in conjunction with the cultural diamond to study inexplicable sociocultural phenomena.   


Aviv, R. 2019. How Albert Woodfox Survived Solitary. The New Yorker, April 1, 2019.

Griswold, W. 2013. Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. New York: Sage Knowledge.  

Polasky, Stephen, Stephen R. Carpenter, Carl Folke and Bonnie Keeler. Decision-making under

great uncertainty: environmental management in an era of global change. Trends in

Ecology and Evolution 26 8: 398-404.


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