The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects – The Television

The television: an electronic babysitter for the incarcerated?

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects is an innovative project that provides a social science perspective to everyday objects. It is inspired by the popular BBC Radio 4 series ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’, a 2010 partnership between the BBC and the British Museum.

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects project, initiated by Dr Jane Pilcher from the Department of Sociology, provides a social science angle to everyday objects through short articles written by University of Leicester academics. Drawing on their specialist research, academics from the College of Social Sciences deliver interesting and thought-provoking perspectives on objects in and out of the home, which might just change your perceptions on the things around us.

Why do you watch television? For relaxation? To doze in front of? To keep up with your favourite football team? The old Reithian ideal that TV should inform, educate and entertain (in that order) may be missing now that broadcasters cater largely to what Lord Reith disparagingly called the ‘lowest common denominator’ of public taste. But, in an era of X-Factor and TOWIE, do we seek more from television than we care to admit?

Social science research combining perspectives from criminological and media studies reveals that television has heightened significance for those in confinement. For years, personal TV sets in prison was a politically sensitive issue, with some critics claiming it pandered to an anti-social population who had forfeited the right to such ‘perks’. When finally introduced it was seen as a privilege to be earned through good behaviour, but social scientists noted that its benefits to the prison service were considerable, as in-cell TV reduced staffing costs. Fewer prison officers were required now that inmates could be locked in their cells with the ‘electronic babysitter’ to keep them quiet and ensure their compliance.

The importance that most prisoners assign to television is immense. In places where everyday life is sometimes described in terms of its ‘thinness’, access to media provides richness, colour and texture which are, in some ways, comparable to life outside. Popular shows among prisoners include nature documentaries for their vivid colours and sounds, and farming programs (Countryfile, One Man and His Dog), for the verdant, expansive landscapes and feelings of fresh air and freedom they bring to stale, airless cells painted institutional grey. Television also reinforces a sense of humanity, uniting the prison population with the wider society in common experience. When prisoners watch a Royal Wedding or big sporting occasion, they have a sense of us all being ‘under the same big sky’, diminishing their feelings of marginalisation.

Media analysis has shown that to those confined within prison, the capacity of mediated memories to ground notions of personal identity within contexts of national community and historical contingency may be especially significant. Memories evoked and shaped by media texts are an important part of the routine, politics and spectacle of everyday life and television can be central to people’s reminiscences of their former selves, deceased parents, ex- lovers, times past. Many inmates watch children’s TV, knowing that their own children are watching the same program at the same time. But the power of television to evoke the emotional content of relationships can also be especially painful, reinforcing feelings of loss and disconnection.

Whatever meanings we all attach to television – to entertain us, learn something new, fill time, relieve boredom, evoke memories or simply to ‘tune out’ of our everyday lives – are magnified in prison. However, criminologists have found that the introduction of in-cell TV also has significant downsides. Prisoners are locked up in their cells for longer, education has been curtailed, limits on personal property have been tightened and opportunities for social interaction have been curbed. For all its advantages to inmates, then, in-cell television is a ‘sweetener’ intended to mask or compensate for the stringent and restrictive security and control measures that have come to characterise contemporary imprisonment.

By Professor Yvonne Jewkes, Department of Criminology, University of Leicester.

Find out more about the Campaign for Social Science.

One Comment

  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 02/03/2013 at 08:59 | Permalink

    TV still informs, educates and entertains (at least on the BBC despite it being responsible for the trashiest and most socially damaging programme on TV today) and it is interesting that the Reithan programmes are the ones prisoners choose to watch. As in prison, so for those in the prison of poverty and infirmity in old age, which is why the BBC, and even the Open University, produce programes that feature our green and pleasant land for the city dweller.


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