Institutional Aggression

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Institutional Aggression

<span>Institutional aggression can be defined as any aggression that is

influenced by the institution in which it takes place.</span>

It includes aggression <span class="underline">within the same group, e.g. bullying in a

school, or aggression between different groups, e.g. prison guards

being aggressive to inmates.</span>

The two main theories of institutional aggression revolve around the debate of whether aggression occurs in institutions as a result of the people that are in there (the importation model) or the (often negative) environment that the institution provides. 

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Institutional Aggression

The Importation Model

Irwin and Cressey (1962) developed the importation model to specifically explain institutional aggression displayed by prisoners.

They argued that it is the person, not the place that causes the aggression. The argument is that aggressive individuals end up in prison and thus ‘import’ their aggressive traits into the prison environment with them.

The importation model can also explain why some people are drawn to certain groups or professions. The model would argue that members of the armed forces are naturally aggressive people who are drawn into the forces as a means of expressing their aggression in a socially acceptable way. 

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Commentary on the Importation Model

On a positive note there is research evidence to support the importation model. For example, Harer and Steffensmeier (2006) collected data from 58 prisons and found that black inmates had significantly higher rates of violent behaviour but lower rates of alcohol related and drug related misconduct than white inmates. These patterns parallel racial differences in these behaviours in US society and so support the importation
Why is this relevant? The findings show that the prisoners were acting in a way
that was consistent with how they normally would and so had ‘imported’ their behaviours into the prison. 

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Institutional Aggression

Furthermore, Keller and Wang (2005) found that prison violence is more likely to occur in facilities that have the most troublesome inmates. For example, they found that prisons holding maximum security inmates had higher levels of assault on staff by inmates, than prisons with lower security inmates.
Why is this relevant? This supports the importation model because it shows that it is the natural traits of the prisoners that caused them to be aggressive rather than the prison environment.

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A limitation of the importation model is that Zimbardo et al’s (1973)
study goes against the theory. In this study US college students
were checked for physical and psychological wellbeing and then
randomly allocated to play the role of either prisoner or guard in a
role play situation in a fake prison environment. They found that the
prisoners did not show any violence in this situation but that the
guards became quite brutal towards the prisoners. The guards would
do things such as force the prisoners to do humiliating and unsanitary
acts, make them do roll calls in the middle of the night and place
them in solitary confinement.
Why is this relevant? If the importation model was correct we would not expect to see the guards show violence. This is because they were checked beforehand for psychological health. None were found to be overly violent. They were then randomly allocated to the role of guards. It would be an extreme coincidence if all of those participants who had a tendency towards violence ended up being allocated as guards

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Institutional Aggression

Sorensen et al. (2011) recently found that prisoners serving sentences for violent offences were significantly more likely than other prisoners to assault staff. Moreover, results showed that prisoners with a history of violence were four times more likely than property offenders and other non-violent offenders to commit serious assaults against staff.
Why is this relevant? This shows that aggression is not equal among inmates but is a product of their personality. This supports the importation model’s idea that aggression is ‘imported’ into the prison. 

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DeLisi (2004) looked at records of 831 male inmates sampled from South Western USA to look at the prison violence records of inmates involved in street gangs and prison gangs. There was a small, but significant relationship between gang membership and prison aggression.
Why is this relevant? It could well be the case that subcultural values had been imported into prisons by gang members thus supporting the importation model.

A limitation of the importation model is that it takes the ‘nature’ side of the nature-nurture debate and in doing so ignores important environmental factors (such as those outlined by the deprivation model) that might contribute to institutional aggression.


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The Deprivation Model

The deprivation model takes the opposite view to the importation model. Instead of the people, it blames the place. When looking at prison violence it argues that the extreme stress and frustration caused by loss of liberty causes prisoners to become aggressive to both other inmates and prison staff. This claims that situational factors play a role in institutional aggression. Sykes (1958) argued that the origins of prison subculture came from within institutions rather from the outside. Sykes outlined 5 deprivations that came from the indignities and degradation by becoming an inmate:

·         Deprivation of liberty- Prisoners cannot be trusted to live in the free world. They are rejected by society and lose their civil rights.

·         Deprivation of autonomy- Prisoners have no power and few choices to makes on a daily basis.  Staff control behaviour, leading to feelings of helplessness, which result in hostility and aggression. Prisoners are unable to change things they are unhappy about.

·         Deprivation of goods and services -  Prisoners are deprived of many things that are easily available in the outside world. The Western emphasis on possessions to display success also makes prisoners feel frustrated.

·         Deprivation of heterosexual relationships- for heterosexual men, female companionship is an important part of personal identity. Denial of these relationships can therefore lead to a reduction in self-worth. In addition, the proliferation of homosexual behaviour in prison can lead to anxiety in some prisoners.

·         Deprivation of security- Prisoners often fear for their own security , as many inmates are perceived as aggressive, leading to a heightened sense of physical threat.


As a consequence of these deprivations, prisoners feel that they need to act aggressively to reduce stress, or obtain resources. The prisoners will see the prison staff as the controllers of the privileges and so often the aggression will be directed at them.  

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Commentary on the Deprivation Model

A strength of this model is that it can also be used to explain
institutional aggression in settings other than prisons. Factors
that make the environment feel unsafe and frustrating can
include things such as staff experience. Hodgkinson et al (1985)
found that trainee nurses are more likely to suffer violent
assault than experienced nurses.
Why is this relevant? This shows us that it is environmental
rather than personality factors that lead to aggression in institutions.

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Light (1990) studied aggressive acts committed in prisons. He found that the motives behind aggressive acts were consistent with the deprivation model. He found that over 25% of assaults committed on prison staff had no apparent motive. This suggests that they were brought about as a direct result of feeling stressed and frustrated (due to the deprivation experienced) and were carried out as a way of reducing stress. When looking at the other assaults on staff Light found that many were ‘protest assaults’ brought about from a power battle between officer and guard. Such assaults would be motivated by the lack of control caused by the prison environment.
Why is this relevant? This shows us that the frustrations of being in prison can lead to outbursts of violence and so supports the idea that prison violence is a result of the environment rather than the personality of the offender. 

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Wilson (2005) found that reduced levels of crowding, heat and noise at HMP Woodhill led to a dramatic reduction in aggressive behaviour among inmates.
Why is this relevant? This shows us that environmental factors that lead to stress and feelings of deprivation are linked to violence. In this example, making the environment more pleasant led to a decrease in violence and so supports the deprivation model. 

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McCorkle et al (1995) argues against the deprivation model. They argue that the stresses of prison life (e.g. overcrowding, loss of freedom) are constant whereas serious outbreaks of violence are not. This suggests that the environment cannot be to blame, if this was the case then we would expect to see more frequent violence in prisons.

A limitation of the deprivation model is that it takes the ‘nurture’ side of the nature-nurture debate. This is because it suggests that institutional aggression comes about as a direct result of the environment that one finds themselves in. This is a limitation as it ignores the role of factors such as those highlighted by the importation model which argues that a person’s personality is to blame for aggression in such situations. 

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Overall conclusions

It is sensible to suggest that both theories have some merit but may explain institutional aggression in different situations. Jiang and Fisher-Giorlando (2002) studied 431 male prison records in the southern states of the USA and found that the deprivation model was the most likely to explain inmate violence towards staff. The prisons with the most restrictive regimes had the highest incidences of violence. However, the importation model was the most likely to explain inmate violence towards other inmates, as gang cultures persisted inside the prisons. 

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