The Importation Model

When a person in prison or an institutional environment is aggressive, many begin to question the origins of such aggressive behaviour. Some blame the prison environment, suggesting it is a hotbed of illegal activities, and frustrating situations that incentivise aggressive acts, whilst others suggest it is due to individual traits already present in the person before they were incarcerated. The importation model, a dispositional explanation, suggests the latter.

The Importation Model The Importation Model

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Table of contents
    • We are going to delve into the importation model, first introduced by Irwin and Cressey (1963).
    • We will define what we mean by the dispositional explanation of behaviour, establishing how the important model is an example of the dispositional explanation.
    • We will highlight various importation model examples throughout the explanation and explore the deprivation model vs importation model.
    • Finally, we will provide an evaluation of the importation model, discussing the research into the theory.

    The Importation Model, tattooed prisoner holding onto prison cell bars, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The importation model was established by Irwin and Cressey (1962).

    Dispositional Explanation of Behaviour

    When discussing the dispositional explanation of behaviour, we talk about an individual's characteristics. Dispositional explanations assign personal attribution to actions or behaviours, suggesting they are a result or cause of feelings, judgements, traits, behaviours, social upbringing and associations, i.e., their dispositions.

    It focuses on the internal, psychological reasoning behind these behaviours, personal and specific to the individual.

    The Importation Model

    Established by Irwin and Cressey (1962), the importation model (a dispositional explanation) emphasises the individual's characteristics as the cause of aggression in institutions. How a person behaved before incarceration is linked to their aggressive behaviours in prison; inmates bring social norms and characteristics into prison with them.

    The Importation Model, prisoner standing on the bars of his cell with another prisoner laid reading behind him, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The importation model suggests prisoners bring aggression into institutions with them.

    The dispositional explanation focuses on the individual's disposition in that it emphasises the individual's inherent characteristics they developed before entering the institution being the cause of their aggressive behaviours. Their aggression stems from their personality and other factors, such as social class.

    In reference to social class, this relates to the social norms they were brought up around and the people they knew before entering an institution.

    For example, a person who associates with people who deal drugs or commit crimes may continue to perpetuate these behaviours once they have entered prison. They are used to this and may even seek out like-minded individuals.

    The importation model was developed by Irwin and Cressey (1962). Prisoners 'import' their behaviours and personality traits from outside into the prison and continue perpetuating these behaviours once 'inside'.

    Overall, the importation model explores the risk factors associated between a person's disposition and institutional aggression in prisons.

    The importation model is the counter model to the deprivation model, also known as the situational explanation.

    The Importation Model: Examples

    We can outline some specific importation model examples of risk factors here, and we have briefly touched upon them above.

    They include:

    • Norms in criminal circles (such as drug dealing, theft, assault and physical violence).
    • Anti-social behaviours.
    • Aggressive beliefs.
    • Gang behaviours/associations.

    As you can see, each example can affect a person's disposition. The norm in someone's social circle shapes their personality, and they bring these behaviours into an institution through importation. What they are familiar with on the outside will inevitably dictate how they behave on the inside.

    Evaluation: Research into the Importation Model

    Research into the importation model analyses the legitimacy of the theory. Let's explore some notable examples.

    Measuring Alcohol Abuse and the Incidence of Serious Misconduct in Violent Offenders

    Mills et al. (1998) wanted to identify if there was an association between alcohol abuse and institutional inmate aggression. Under the importation model, such associations would support the theory, as it is the inmate's disposition before the prison environment which is causing the behaviours.

    The researchers used:

    • A self-report measure of alcohol abuse (ADS, alcohol dependence scale).
    • 207 violent offenders sample.

    They found that offenders who had issues with alcohol abuse, specifically if they depended quite highly on alcohol, were more likely to be and were more involved in serious incidents than the controls. Those who had substantial dependence on alcohol were more involved in serious incidents.

    Gang Members, Career Criminals and Prison Violence

    DeLisi et al. (2004) wanted to investigate the association between prison violence and inmate involvement in gangs (both inside and outside of prison). As the importation model suggests, the prison inmates' violent/aggressive behaviours result from the involvement and inherent characteristics they develop in these gangs, which they bring with them into prison.

    The researchers used:

    • 831 male inmate samples from Southwestern USA.

    They found that the overall effect of gang membership was lower than first anticipated. Gang membership effects were smaller than other risk factors, such as chronic offending, violent history, and previous incarcerations. They suggested more research is needed in the case of the importation model.

    Race, Age, and Social Backgrounds

    Kane and Janus (1981) investigated the demographical risk factors associated with aggression. The investigation examines the idea of the importation model, as these are the inherent characteristics prisoners have before entering a prison environment; they predispose them, supposedly, to aggression.

    They found and subsequently reported to the Federal Prison System (FPS) some demographics that would increase the chances of violence occurring during incarceration:

    • Past dependence on drugs (such as opiates).

    • Unemployment.

    • Less education.

    Similarly, in terms of race and age, non-white and younger inmates were more likely to be violent. According to Kane and Janus (1981), this may be due to a lack of support systems for these populations compared to others and how the subculture within non-white and younger inmates may encourage violent solutions.

    Those who are unemployed for longer periods of time are more likely to be aggressive and violent. Overall, this supports the importation model.

    The Importation Model, graffiti sprayed across walls in run down building, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Research suggests certain demographics are more at risk of violence and aggression due to lack of support systems in society.

    Overall, we can say that there is research evidence for and against the importation model. Whilst Mills et al. (1998) and Kane and Janus (1981) support the model, DeLisi et al. (2004) highlight issues with the theory. Problems with such research lie in them being androcentric, as seen in the study by Harer and Steffensmeier (1996), which investigated 58 male prisoners of different races.

    Whilst they found that black inmates had higher violent misconduct in prisons and white inmates had higher drug offences in prison, supporting the importation model, they focused on male prisoners, reducing the generalisability to the population and female prisoners.

    They also fail to provide causal evidence. For instance, the results were correlational in Kane and Janus (1981). Some argue that the model is too simplistic and ignores other important factors that may incite aggression. Other models, such as the deprivation model, explore other factors affecting aggression.

    The Deprivation Model vs Importation Model

    The deprivation model can be considered the counter model to the importation model in that it emphasises the institution's conditions as being the cause aggression in individuals in institutions. The deprivation model is a situational explanation.

    In an institution such as a prison, certain liberties are taken from the inmates, such as freedom and access to certain luxuries. Some of those are:

    • The loss of autonomy

    • The loss of liberty

    • The loss of security

    • The loss of heterosexual relationships

    • The loss of luxuries (services and goods)

    Sykes (1958) described these deprivations as the pains of imprisonment, and as this would suggest, it causes stress and discomfort for the inmates. This is not entirely unwarranted, as the institution enacts these deprivations as a form of punishment.

    The inmates have committed a crime and therefore deserve to be punished in some regard, and lack of such liberties is the punishment.

    The deprivation model argues that these losses (autonomy, liberty, luxuries etc.) cause stress and frustration, which inevitably leads to aggression, alongside other factors within the institution, such as staff behaviours and environmental factors.

    The importation model, as we have discussed above, argues the causes of aggression lie in the dispositions of the individuals themselves; they import them into the institution with them from their previous backgrounds when they enter, rather than placing blame on the pains of imprisonment.

    Studies that support the deprivation model include Megargee (1977). Over three years, they found that crowding in prisons was correlated with disruptive behaviours.


    Dispositional explanation: The importation model - Key takeaways

    • The importation model was developed by Irwin and Cressey (1962). It is also known as the dispositional explanation. The importation model is the countermodel to the deprivation model, also known as the situational explanation.
    • Dispositional explanations assign personal attribution to actions or behaviours, suggesting they are a result or cause of feelings, judgements, traits, behaviours, social upbringing and associations, and so on.
    • Overall, the importation model explores the risk factors associated between a person's disposition and institutional aggression in prisons. Prisoners 'import' their behaviours and personality traits from outside the prison into the jail and continue to perpetuate these behaviours once 'inside'.
    • Risk factors associated with the importation model include gang associations, criminal behaviour and norms adopted before incarceration, anti-social behaviours, social upbringing and other personality traits.
    • Mills et al. (1998) and Kane and Janus (1981) support the model, whilst DeLisi et al. (2004) highlight issues with the model. Overall, the importation model has issues with reductionism and androcentric research support.
    The Importation Model The Importation Model
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    Frequently Asked Questions about The Importation Model

    What is the importation model?

    The importation model was developed by Irwin and Cressey (1962). It is the idea that prisoners 'import' their behaviours and personality traits from outside into the prison and continue to perpetuate these behaviours once 'inside'. It attempts to explain aggressive behaviours in institutions. 

    What is the dispositional explanation?

    The dispositional explanation focuses on the individual's disposition, in that it emphasises the individual's inherent characteristics they developed before entering an institution as the cause of their aggressive behaviours. Their aggression stems from their personal characteristics and social norms. 

    What is the difference between the deprivation model and the importation model?

    The deprivation model argues that the deprivations in an institution (loss of autonomy, liberty, luxuries, etc.) cause feelings of stress and frustration, which can then cause aggression, alongside other factors within the institution, such as staff behaviours and environmental factors. The importation model argues that the causes of aggression lie in the individuals' dispositions; they import them into the institution from their previous backgrounds. 

    What are the five pains of imprisonment?

    Sykes suggested that the five pains of imprisonment are:


    • The loss of autonomy
    • The loss of liberty
    • The loss of security
    • The loss of heterosexual relationships
    • The loss of luxuries (services and goods)

    What is the importation hypothesis?

    The importation hypothesis proposes that aggressive behaviours in an institution stem from an individual's dispositions before they entered the institution.

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