Music and identity in prison: Music as a technology of the self

Posted by ap507 at Sep 24, 2018 12:37 PM |
PhD candidate Kate Herrity explores how music is utilised in strategies of coping in prison

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to 

For many, music is fundamental to navigating the prison sentence. In the rush to demonstrate that music can be a powerful tool in lessening the impact of imprisonment, insufficient energy has been devoted to demonstrating how music is used to accomplish this.

I speak to this absence, drawing on observations and interviews conducted at a number of sites for research projects between 2014 and 2018. Much literature on prisons charts the deprivations of imprisonment and the assault on the self which can occur as a result[1]. Speaking specifically on the effects of long-term imprisonment, Ben Crewe refers to the process of acclimatising to prison as “coming to terms with a profound set of dislocations”[2]. Yvonne Jewkes argues imprisonment can suspend the life course resulting in a hiatus to accounts of personal life[3]. Tia DeNora identifies music consumption as a technology of the self: a means of expressing identity and constructing personal narrative[4]. I apply this understanding to explore how music is utilised in strategies of coping in prison.

I first detail the research projects this paper draws from[5]. I then elaborate on DeNora’s concept of music as a technology for the self and its application to people in prison spaces. I go on to apply this idea to three aspects of music consumption as identity work to consider how music is used to stitch the self together: as a means of doing emotion work and reinvigorating aspects of identity given little room for expression in prison, as “tactics”[6] for navigating everyday life inside, and for constructing narratives of life after prison. I conclude by briefly drawing these aspects of music consumption together to consider the implications of this for music practice in prison.

[1] Eg; Sykes, G. (2007, 1958) (new edition) The Society of captives: A study of a maximum security prison. With a new introduction by Bruce Western. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Liebling, A., Maruna, S. (2005) (eds) the effects of imprisonment. London: Routledge. Crewe, B. (2011) “Depth, weight, tightness: revisiting the pains of imprisonment” Punishment and Society Vol.13, No.5

[2] Crewe, B. (2018) “the problems of long term imprisonment” Seminar, University of Leicester Prison research group seminar series, 24th April 2018

[3] Jewkes, Y. (2012) Identity and adaptation in prison pp40-42 in Crewe, B., Bennett, J. (2012) (eds) The prisoner. London: Routledge.

[4] DeNora, T. (1999) “Music as a technology of the self” Poetics Vol.27, No.1

[5] Herrity, K. (2014) The significance of music to the prison experience, dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London. Herrity, K. (2015) Prison Sound ecology: a research design, dissertation, University of Oxford. Herrity, K. (ongoing) An aural ethnography of a local men’s prison: Exploring the significance of sound in prison. PhD, University of Leicester.

[6] Yvonne Jewkes uses DeCerteau’s concept to detail the ways prisoners find ways to reassert agency within the constricting social relations of carceral spaces. Jewkes, Y. (2013) “On carceral space and agency” in Moran, D., Gill, N., Conlon, D. (eds) Carceral spaces: Mobility and agency in imprisonment and migrant detention. Surrey: Ashgate. De Certeau, M. (1984) The practice of everyday life. California: University of California press


Share this page: