Sykes Deprivation Model

Institutional aggression is the aggressive behaviours that occur in institutions such as prisons. Prisons are a form of punishment where criminals are isolated from society, and they are somewhat notorious for their associations with aggression and violence. 

Sykes Deprivation Model Sykes Deprivation Model

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Table of contents

    Some suggest a person is already violent before they go to prison, whilst others suggest that, due to prison conditions, people become aggressive and violent due to stress and frustration. Sykes deprivation model explores the latter.

    • We are going to delve into Sykes's deprivation model, exploring the meaning of the deprivation model and what it entails.
    • First, we will define the deprivation model.
    • To help illustrate our points, we will discuss various deprivation model examples throughout the explanation.
    • Then, we will cover the differences between the importation and deprivation models of imprisonment.
    • Whilst we discuss the deprivation model vs importation model, we will cover what Sykes meant by the pains of imprisonment.

    Sykes Deprivation Model, prisoner leaning on bars in a prison cell, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The importation and deprivation models explore how prisons relate to aggressive behaviours.

    The Deprivation Model: Situational Explanations

    Sykes’ deprivation model, also known as a situational explanation, addresses how prisons facilitate, exasperate and incite aggressive behaviours. The situational approach sees the problem in the conditions in prisons. In psychology, we distinguish between the importation and deprivation models of imprisonment.

    The deprivation model explains aggression in institutions by suggesting prison conditions create incidents of aggression. Gresham Sykes developed it in his 1958 book The Society of Captives.

    Sykes’ model assumes that aggression is situational; it arises from external circumstances rather than internal factors.

    The model proposes five pains of imprisonment, i.e., types of deprivations that produce aggressive feelings and behaviours in prison inmates.

    The Pains of Imprisonment: Meaning

    Sykes's model proposes that aggression in prison inmates occurs due to multiple environmental factors. Sykes' famously referred to them as the pains of imprisonment:

    Pains of ImprisonmentDescription
    Deprivation of liberty The deprivation of liberty describes how inmates lose many personal freedoms when imprisoned, such as choosing when to eat, bathe, sleep and wake up.
    Deprivation of autonomy The deprivation of autonomy describes how prisoners are given scarce choices in their day-to-day life. Prison staff almost entirely control their lives, leading to feelings of helplessness.
    Deprivation of goods/services The deprivation of goods and services describes how inmates cannot access many of the goods and services they would enjoy in the outside world, such as their favourite food or smoking.
    Deprivation of heterosexual intimacy The deprivation of heterosexual intimacy describes how heterosexual inmates mostly cannot continue or begin relationships or experience intimacy with their preferred gendered partner, leading to feelings of low self-worth, especially in male inmates.
    Deprivation of security The deprivation of security describes how inmates may feel unsafe or that their safety is threatened whilst in prison.

    According to the deprivation model, these so-called pains of imprisonment lead to many negative feelings, such as helplessness and low-self worth, resulting in stress and eventually leading to aggression.

    Sykes Deprivation Model: Examples

    The deprivation model shows how these situational factors can affect the likelihood of exhibiting aggression. Here are some deprivation model examples:

    An inmate who is usually independent on the outside has difficulty adjusting to the structure of his days in prison (deprivation of liberty).

    He is told when he is permitted to shower and when he is allowed to go outside (lack of autonomy), and the food is bland and oftentimes the same. His phone was confiscated upon incarceration (deprivation of goods and services).

    After a few weeks in the prison, he misses his girlfriend and the intimacy his relationship provided (deprivation of heterosexual intimacy). His cellmate is infamous for instigating fights and intimidating others, so the inmate also feels unsafe within his own room (deprivation of security).

    The stress and negativity build into frustration, and eventually, the inmate acts out aggressively.

    Sykes Deprivation Model, two prisoners arguing in a cell, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The pains of imprisonment lead to aggression, according to Sykes.

    Evidence for the Deprivation Model

    What evidence can we find for the Sykes deprivation model in psychological research? A 2009 study by Benjamin Steiner investigated the deprivation model.

    • In the study, he found that inmate-on-inmate aggression increased when there was more female staff on shift and when there was overcrowding, supporting the idea that situational factors increase aggression.

    Megargee (1977) observed young offenders in American prisons for three years. They found that the lower the amount of living space the inmates had, the more aggressive they became.

    • This finding supports the deprivation model, as small living spaces can contribute to the deprivation of autonomy and security. This finding also supports the idea that situational factors cause aggression.

    Strengths of the Deprivation Model

    There are a few strengths to this theory. Studies like Steiner’s and Mergargee’s help show how effective this model is at explaining aggression and the role of situational factors in aggression.

    The model also leads to useful strategies for reducing prison aggression and violence.

    For example, allowing prisoners more personal freedoms, such as choosing what time they’d like to have breakfast out of a few options, may help reduce their feelings of deprivation of autonomy and, therefore, reduce their likelihood of behaving aggressively.

    Research has practical, real-life applications that benefit inmates and the broader society.

    Weaknesses of the deprivation model

    The theory also has its weaknesses. Despite a lot of supporting evidence, research also challenges the deprivation model. A study by Hensley et al. (2002) found that when prisoners were allowed conjugal visits to still have intimacy with their partners, it did not affect levels of aggression.

    Another weakness of the deprivation model is that it ignores any biological factors and their influence on aggression, such as testosterone levels (which have been found to increase aggression, Batrinos, 2012).

    It also ignores mental health conditions (Alcorn et al., 2013), such as antisocial personality disorder, which has also been shown to increase aggressive behaviour in some individuals. The importation model (Irwin and Cressey, 1962) explores these dispositional factors of aggression that challenge the deprivation model.

    Importation and Deprivation Models of Imprisonment

    In a sense, the importation model (also known as the dispositional explanation) is the opposite of the deprivation model.

    Irwin and Cressey (1962) argued that the internal characteristics of prisoners are brought into prison with them, which results in institutional aggression, as opposed to arguing that the confinement of prison produces violent/criminal behaviour through deprivation.

    The importation model highlights how internal characteristics and social situations influence behaviour inside prisons.

    Deprivation Model vs Importation Model

    According to Irwin and Cressey (1962), the deprivation model places far too much emphasis on the deprivation of pleasures and the sole influence of confinement.

    The importation model also emphasises the narrow view of the deprivation model and asserts that the deprivation model does not correctly explain the factors outside the prison situation that contribute to violent behaviour, highlighting its reductionist nature.

    It also stresses the problems with the deprivation model’s failure to account for past experiences or future experiences when the individual’s situation has changed.

    • As we may know, prisoners often have contacts inside and outside their environment, contributing to their behaviour and access to specific situations or opportunities.
    • Thus, the importation model builds on the deprivation model by acknowledging the factors the deprivation model does not mention and expanding on the factors that influence behaviour in a prison setting.

    Sykes Deprivation Model, woman's hands leaning out of prison cell bars with a blurred background of her, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The importation model highlights internal characteristics and social situations in institutional aggression.

    The Interactionist Model

    The interactionist model combines the approaches of both the deprivation model and importation model rather than viewing them as competing ideas.

    This model suggests that a combination of dispositional and situational factors contribute to whether someone acts aggressively.

    Remember, we refer to the importation model as the dispositional explanation, and the deprivation model as the situational explanation also.

    This model takes a more holistic approach as it considers multiple factors contributing to aggression. Humans are complex beings, so it is reductionist to explain behaviour by only viewing one explanation for inmates’ aggression.

    Jiang and Fisher-Giorlando (2002) suggest that both factors affect different types of aggression. They suggested that the dispositional and situational models explain inmates’ aggression toward prison staff, such as correctional officers. Their relative power differs in how they explain aggression; for example, the dispositional explanation has more power in explaining violence against correctional officers, and the situational explanation is the most powerful for explaining inmate misconduct in prison.

    Dobbs and Waid (2004) suggest an alternative interactionist perspective. They argue that all inmates will experience some form of deprivation when they enter prison, and whether or not these situational factors cause them to become aggressive is based on already present dispositional factors.


    Sykes Deprivation Model - Key takeaways

    • The deprivation model (also known as a situational explanation) explains aggression in institutions by suggesting prison conditions create incidents of aggression. Gresham Sykes developed it in his 1958 book The Society of Captives.
    • Sykes suggests that aggression is situational; it occurs due to external circumstances rather than internal factors.
    • Sykes describes the five types of deprivation, known as the pains of imprisonment: deprivation of autonomy, deprivation of liberty, deprivation of goods/services, deprivation of heterosexual intimacy, and deprivation of security.
    • Sykes states these deprivations lead to many negative feelings, such as helplessness and low-self worth, which can lead to stress, frustration, and, eventually, aggression.
    • The importation model, developed by Irwin and Cressey (1962), suggests that the internal characteristics and social situations that the prisoners bring into prison cause institutional aggression.
    • A weakness of this model is that it ignores any biological factors and their influence on aggression (reductionist), such as testosterone levels (which have been found to increase aggression). An interactionist approach (combining the two models) is often favoured.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sykes Deprivation Model

    What is Sykes deprivation theory?

    The deprivation model (also known as a situational explanation) explains aggression in institutions by suggesting prison conditions create incidents of aggression. Gresham Sykes developed it in his 1958 book The Society of Captives.

    What is the deprivation model?

    The deprivation model explains aggression within institutions. Sykes suggests that aggression is situational; it occurs due to external circumstances rather than internal factors. External circumstances in this context refer to prison conditions and how the pains of imprisonment lead to aggressive behaviours.

    What are the 5 deprivations and pains of imprisonment?

    The five types of deprivation, also known as the pains of imprisonment, that Sykes describes are:


    1. Deprivation of liberty.
    2. Deprivation of autonomy.
    3. Deprivation of goods/services.
    4. Deprivation of heterosexual intimacy.
    5. Deprivation of security.

    What does the deprivation model suggest?

    Sykes' deprivation model suggests that aggression is situational; it occurs due to external circumstances rather than internal factors. The external circumstances in the context of prisons refer to the conditions, i.e., deprivations/pains of imprisonment, which lead to frustration and, eventually, aggression. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who developed the deprivation model?

    What type of factors does Sykes suggest explains aggression?

    How many ‘pains of imprisonment’ does Sykes mention?

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