Participatory Theater as Fieldwork in Chinese Prisons: A Research Note

Date01 December 2021
AuthorZhang Xiaoye
Published date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Participatory Theater as
Fieldwork in Chinese
Prisons: A Research
Zhang Xiaoye
This methodological reection is based on the authors own experience tak-
ing part in participatory theater projects in mainland Chinese prisons over
the past 5 years. This article demonstrates how the authors participation
in prison theater projects secured otherwise unattainable research access
by forming collaborations with various organizations. Participatory theater
workshops also offered the space for sustaining long-term rapport. This
research note discusses why trusting relationships are the most important
guarantee to obtaining valid data in Chinese prison research. The ndings
contribute to understanding methodological challenges and innovations of
conducting eldwork in criminal justice systems with no formal research
access channels.
China, prisons, eldwork, prison theater, participatory theatre
The study of participatory theater in penal institutions has been a subeld of
performance studies since the early 1990s (Balfour, 2004; Cox, 1992; Heard
East China University of Political Science and Law, Songjiang District, Shanghai, China
Corresponding Author:
Zhang Xiaoye, Department of Law and Criminal Justice, East China University of Political
Science and Law, 555th Longyuan St., Songjiang District, Shanghai, China.
The Prison Journal
2021, Vol. 101(6) 742761
© 2021 SAGE Publications
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00328855211060342
et al., 2013; Herold, 2014; McAvinchey, 2011). In recent years, theater in
prison has begun to enter the eld of criminology as a way of using the per-
forming arts to bring about positive, prosocial changes among offender par-
ticipants (Cauleld, 2015; Cheliotis, 2014; Colvin, 2015; Crichlow &
Joseph, 2015; Davey, Day, & Balfour, 2015; McNeil, 2011). Studies on
this subject range from participatory theater as a correctional intervention
to an emphasis on its creative process and intrinsic values. This article
offers a new perspective on participatory theater in prison by focusing on
how it can be a creative and effective way of gaining access to valid data
from Chinese prisons.
A long and precarious negotiation period and, sometimes, total rejection
characterize research access to prisons across the globe. Besides the lack of
staff to assist researchers and security considerations, there is also a reputa-
tion riskthat leads to penal institutionscensorship of research access, as an
academic investigation might expose information and compromise the intan-
gible assets of an organization (Watson, 2015). Reiter (2014) argued that
methodological creativity,such as collaboration and drawing on multiple
disciplines and methods, can help researchers overcome access barriers.
This may be achieved by drawing data and materials from multiple sources
rather than relying solely on the gatekeepers to prison sites. But, more impor-
tant and directly relevant to this article, is Reiters (2014) argument that net-
working and collaboration with various governmental and social actors, such
as NGOs and prison ofcers, may lead to access that would otherwise be
denied with more conventional approaches.
Obtaining admission to these institutions, however, is only part of the
success of this approach: the interaction between researchers and inmates
is what denes the entire research project(Schlosser, 2008, p. 1510).
Access to research participants and the establishment of trusting relationships
is a continuous process during eldwork and is no easier than getting in. The
most commonly used qualitative method is interviews, and numerous articles
have focused on the challenges of conducting them inside prisons, such as
researcher identity (Schlosser, 2008), ofcer interference (Sivakumar,
2018), and possible coercion (Copes et al., 2013). While a number of
researchers have shared how collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches
have beneted their prison studies, there is a lack of consideration of how a
creative methodology has informed and enhanced the quality of their investi-
gation, especially during long-term eldwork studies.
Positioned against the cultural and political background of Chinese prison
studies, this article discusses participatory theater as a means of gaining
access to a penal institution and to diverse and representative participants,
as well as the relationships built with prison management, ofcers, and
Xiaoye 743

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