Compromised power, dialogical legitimacy, and negotiated order in a Ukrainian prison

A. Symkovych

University of Johannesburg,

Although previous research in non-Western societies demonstrates that underfunded and understaffed prisons generate a much more negotiated order than that described in the West, generally this research has omitted the role of legitimacy in power negotiations between prisoners and authorities. Drawing on a semi-ethnographic study, this article offers empirical evidence of the dialogical nature of legitimacy in a case study Ukrainian prison. Data show that a legitimacy dialogue between power-holders and their subjects is not necessarily sequential; officers lay their legitimacy claims in anticipation of, not only in reaction to, their subjects’ response. In the Ukrainian context a law-based order would be costly to maintain and difficult to legitimise. Conceptualised as peace in daily operations by both prisoners and officers, order results from avoidance and under-enforcement of official rules. Whilst inherent power asymmetry has not vanished in Ukraine where historically the powerful have oppressed and subjugated ordinary citizens, both officers and prisoners engage in a legitimacy dialogue as moral agents; their legitimacy claims and responses account for both utilitarian and moral consequences of power.


Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg