Our Students - Profiles
Ashley T. Rubin
Year: Advanced to Candidacy (ABD) - JSP
I study criminal justice from sociological and historical perspectives. I am particularly fascinated by the history of the prison, capital punishment today and throughout time, modern rituals of punishment, penal sentencing trends, individuals' and society's varying levels of punitiveness, and postmodern social control. I have been trained as an interdisciplinary scholar, but my closest disciplinary identity is tied to sociology. I am also catholic in my use and appreciation of diverse methodologies, using whichever method or combination of methods fits the research question.
My research is generally shaped by two theoretical commitments: First, I seek to use historical settings as comparative cases to the present to further test and develop contemporary theory. Second, I seek to utilize organizational theory to better illuminate penal developments and to generate a more theoretically rigorous account of punishment, penality, and penal change.
Substantively, my research seeks to answer two general questions: First, what accounts for punitiveness? I am especially interested in support for various penal policies in public opinion surveys; the popularity of purposes of punishment over time; references to rehabilitation in rhetoric and formal structures; the role of extralegal factors in shaping sentencing decisions; and the diffusion of social control beyond the penal sphere. Second, to what extent is there a gap between theory/law and practice in punishment, and what determines the presence or absence of such gap. I am particularly interested in the unintended consequences of progressive penal reforms and the reliance on rhetoric or formal structures that offer legitimacy but ultimately have little influence on practice.
Research Question: How does an organization resist strong institutional pressures to conform to its otherwise isomorphic environment?
I offer a historical case study of a prison that failed to conform to its environment in a period of institutional isomorphism in the face of tremendous pressures to conform. Eastern State Penitentiary (founded 1829 in Philadelphia) was one of the first modern prisons and one of few---and the last---to rely on the "separate system" of incarceration. Under this system, inmates were confined to their own cells for the duration of their sentence, working, eating, learning, and praying alone. By contrast, most prisons---in every other state by 1860---followed the "silent system" in which inmates performed factory style labor by day and retreated to solitary cells by night.
I found that the structural factors that (we would expect) would lead Eastern to abandon the separate system were overcome through the agency of Eastern's administrators. I argue that the separate system at Eastern became institutionalized in the Selznickian (1949, 1957) sense of becoming "infused with value"; specifically it was the source of two benefits to administrators. By defending and adhering to the separate system, administrators established a desirable identity or a status. To preserve this identity/status required preserving the reputation of the separate system and their prison. This became the basis of an imperative that shaped their decisions, a particularly useful source of clarity in light of ambiguity and uncertainty that plagued early prisons and Eastern especially.
This study also illustrates several important lessons of taking organizations seriously when examining penal change: Organizational scholars have long known that an organization "has a life of its own," which will have important consequences for how policy is carried out (Selznick 1949, 10). This study illustrates this point quite well, but while other studies of punishment have found evidence towards this end, scholars have not studied prisons as organizations, for the most part, since the 1960s (e.g., Cressey 1960). Similarly, my study illustrates the importance of administrators in shaping the organization and policy; their role is particularly important given empirical findings suggesting a gap between administrators and front-line workers' perceptions of their work (e.g., Lynch 1998, 2000). Finally, despite Eastern's status as a deviant case, I also demonstrate the otherwise accuracy with which neo-institutionalism describes penal history (see also Sutton 1996) that makes Eastern that much more of a puzzling case. I suggest that neo-institutionalism, and organizational theory more generally, offer predictive theories that can enrich the study of punishment.
Dissertation Committee: Malcolm Feeley (chair), Cybelle Fox, Calvin Morrill, and Jonathan Simon