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Institutional aggression occurs where aggressive behaviour has become the norm in an
institution. It may occur `within' groups or institutions, such as the armed forces, prisons
and mental institutions. It may also occur `between' different groups such as sections of
society or religious sects.
An alternative explanation of institutional aggression `within' groups is the `Deprivation
model', which focuses on situational factors. The model argues that prisoner or patient
aggression is the product of the stressful and oppressive situations of the institution
itself. These include; crowding; assumed to increase fear and frustration levels, and staff
experience. For example, Hodgkinson et al. (1985) found that trainee nurses were more
likely to suffer violent assault than experienced nurses, and in prisons, experienced
officers were less likely to suffer an assault. This supports `staff experience' as being a
situational factor likely to increase aggressive behaviour.
Support for situational factors as explanation for aggression, was provided by the findings of
Zimbardo et al (1971) in his classic mock prison study. Randomly allocated students rapidly adapted
to their roles of prisoners or guards, stepping beyond the boundaries of what had been predicted.
Reports after the study showed no significant differences between the guards and prisoners
personalities. Situational factors therefore were concluded to have caused the aggression by the
This experiment however, has been criticised for lacking ecological validity as the participants were
aware that it was role-play and they were simply acting. This decrease the internal validity of the
study and consequently the credibility of the theory it supports. Zimbardo however, replied to this
criticism by pointing out the genuine distress pps experienced; symptoms of stress were so severe
that the experiment had to be stopped. This suggests that the pps had internalised their roles within
the experiment and were really behaving as they would in real life.
On the other hand, the sample was self-selected; people replied to an advert on the newspaper.
This may have caused the sample to be unrepresentative as pps may have shared some
characteristics such as wishing to be helpful or the need for the money they were paid. The findings
of this study and therefore the theory it supports cannot be applied to the general population.
In addition, this study raised numerous ethical problems. Informed consent was breeched as although
pps knew the general aspects of the study, some details such as the home arrests were omitted. Pps
were also deceived as some pps thought that was being observed was the behaviour of the
prisoners and this impression was not corrected. In addition, pps were not protected from harm, as
prisoners were clearly suffering during the experiment.
Significant ethical issue have been found not only in this study but also in research studying people
who have been really subjected to institutional aggression. This is an emotionally charged area of
research on topics that are clearly difficult to face, as such this is socially sensitive research (SSR).
These are important ethical concerns with this type of research, which require careful consideration.
For example, it is particularly important to ensure complete anonymity and confidentiality. Ultimately,
researchers need to carefully consider the risk/benefit ratio of such investigations before embarking
on research of this nature.
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One explanation of institutional aggression `within' groups is the `Importation model' which
focuses on interpersonal factors with regard to prisons. Irwin and Cressey (1962) claim
that prisoner's bring their own personal traits and histories with them into prison, and this
influences their adaptation to the prison environment. They argue that prisoners are not
`blank slates' when they enter prison, and that many of the normative systems developed
on the outside world would be imported into the prison.…read more