An Exploration of Free Will from an Anthropological Perspective

Aliya Renee Khan
Sep 25, 2018 · 10 min read

Written for ANTHRCUL 330: Culture, Thought, and Meaning by Professor Eric Mueggler in Fall 2016

Anthropologists, ethnographers, and philosophers throughout history have commonly struggled with the concept of freedom: do we ultimately have free will? Or is our freedom limited by a number of other factors which define us as individuals? Edward Sapir in The Unconscious Patterning of Behavior in Society, attempts to describe what he calls “social behavior,” a type of behavior conceivable only if certain aspects of individual behavior are ignored and only the associations between individuals are given attention. Sapir believes that this “unconscious patterning of behavior in society” becomes manifest when people act in accordance with deep-seated cultural patterns. He uses language as an example of these “social behaviors,” noting the way that native speakers tend to have a language “built in” to their knowledge such that they do not constantly need to actively think about grammatical patterns in order to speak. Sapir furthers his argument by noting that the fact that these cultural patterns are manifest in our behavior but people are not directly aware of them allows them to control out behavior: in other words, we are each a product of the “social behaviors” to which we have grown accustomed. Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, presents a concept similar to that of “social behaviors” but on a more widespread scale: he believes that people are produced as “subjects” by their societal conditions. His main focus is power in the form of a discourse which will impose a set of regulations on each person in order to “remake their souls.” In essence, according to Foucault’s theory, individuals interact with power on a daily basis and become subject to it through a process of self-regulation. On individuality, Foucault states, “The individual is no doubt the fictitious atom of an ideological representation of society; but he is also a reality fabricated by this specific technology of power that I have called “discipline”” (Foucault 1977:204). According to Foucault, all individuals are “products” created by the discourse which they have been subjected to, just as according to Sapir, individuals are created by the “social behaviors” to which they are accustomed.

Lorna A. Rhodes, in Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison explores the idea of freedom in its most raw and restricted environment: that of a maximum security prison. Both the prisoners and the officials she encountered during her research provide distinct examples of the odd juxtaposition between the individual who committed an act out of his or her own free will, and the person who is a victim of a myriad of circumstances, both biological and social, that created the “criminal” he or she has become. As such circumstances are explored and arguments such as that of Foucault and that of Sapir are applied, the idea of free will turns from a black and white concept to a complex intertwining of circumstance, culture, and questions about what constitutes as humanity.

One question that the idea of human freedom poses is whether freedom is external to humans, or inherent to them. Prisoners in the maximum security setting which Rhodes’ studied are afforded very few external freedoms: they spend 23 hours per day in their cell with little to no social contact. Logically, given the sheer expansiveness of the power being exerted over them, they would follow all instructions given by the guards and pass their time “peacefully,” eventually becoming the societally-beneficial self-regulators that Foucault believes that this style of panoptic prison would create. However, the prisoners are much more prone to behave rebelliously than Foucault might have expected: they participate in small acts of defiance, such as throwing feces at the guards, refusing to return their trays after eating their meals, and otherwise attempting to force the guards to extract them from their cells. It seems that the “will” of these prisoners in their refusal to submit to authority is stronger than the power which is manifested in their surroundings. Whether these prisoners are in any way “free” is debatable: on one hand, there is a microscopic power exerting influence on every aspect of their everyday life, and on the other hand, they still refuse to submit to this power through acts of “free will.” However, these “acts” generally worsen their situation and tighten the grip the power has over their lives. So ultimately, they do not gain anything except for a small expression of their will. On page 41, Rhodes gives an account of a prisoner who refuses to return his tray after eating a meal: “If he acquiesces, he shrinks into a debilitating visible anonymity, a tacit acknowledgement that he has been tamed or broken. If he refuses, a team of officers organized into the prison version of a SWAT team and encased in protective gear will forcibly extract him from his cell” (Rhodes 2004:41). Despite the negative consequences of the withholding of the tray, the prisoner refuses to give it up, solely to display that he has not been “broken.” This type of obscene exercising of free will and masculinity seems to be part of what Sapir would term the “social consciousness” of the prisoners. Sapir states, “It is strange how frequently one has the illusion of free knowledge, in the light of which one may manipulate conduct at will, only to discover in the test that one is being impelled by strict loyalty to forms of behavior that one can feel with the utmost nicety but can state only in the vaguest and most approximate fashion” (Sapir 1949:549). In this case, the prisoner is being impelled by loyalty to the social consciousness of displaying his masculinity. In the end, the prisoner has expressed freedom in the fact that he chose defiance in the face of limited options. No matter how much these prisoners rebel, however, there is almost no chance that they will change their current situation. Derek Janson, a particularly charismatic prisoner, has the stance “I’ll die if I stop fighting,” which is an attempt to “hold onto himself under conditions that — in his and their [the prison staff’s] view — rob him of manhood as well as freedom” (Rhodes 2004:72). In the end, prisoners attempt to retain some sort of freedom by holding onto themselves, but this “self” they are holding onto comes into question when it is considered how it was created in the first place.

Many of the arguments regarding individual prisoners in the maximum security setting involve discourses about whether a person has the freedom control their own actions, or whether their actions were a result of a series of unfortunate circumstances: whether a prisoner willingly committed a crime, or if his actions are a result of a long string of circumstances which culminated at that point. Was it inevitable that this person would become a criminal? Or could they have somehow stopped themselves? Prison workers, mental health workers, and inmates in Rhodes’ analysis had contrasting views on this matter. One custody supervisor stated “There’s always another fork in the bad road; you can always get back to the good road if you are willing to make a good choice” (Rick Trumble, qtd in Rhodes 2004:82). This stance comes into question in an environment where many of the prisoners are confined for life and oftentimes do not see a purpose in choosing the so-called “good road.” One states, “Personally speaking, I’m beyond rehabilitation. I mean, I’m gonna do what I want to when I want to do it, and anybody who gets in may way or says differently is gonna be dead. I’m doin’ the rest of my time in prison, I really have nothing to lose.” (Rhodes 2004:68). Prisoners like this one decide to make choices that lead to negative consequences in a desperate attempt to preserve some part of their free will. Ultimately, the idea that the prisoner has the ability to make his own choices is what makes the prison an effective means of control: “The choice making individual with a sharp personality is sharply contrasted with out-of-control automatons at the mercy of psychological and social forces” (Rhodes 2004:67). Interestingly, this prisoner after his extreme statement of his own autonomy, says “I’ve been doing this [prison] my whole life, since I was a kid. You can say I’m institutionalized. Yeah, I consider this home, it’s all I know” (Rhodes 2004:68).

Mental health workers seem to take a different stance with regards to the amount of freedom that these prisoners have in their decision-making. The inmates are meticulously categorized according to their conditions:

“These inmates are described as individuals with specific constellations of symptoms (fear, worry, aggression), diseases (epilepsy), genetic tendencies (every relative is mentally ill), diagnoses (variations on those in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), behaviors (suicide, head banging), and responses to the environment (deciding not to be a skinhead, deterioration in genera population)” [Rhodes 2004:118]

This can be likened to Foucault’s description of how examination has allowed an individual to be categorized: he claims that the documentation surrounding an individual makes each individual into a “case”, or a combination of features and measurement that culminate into his or her “self.” He describes how the modern prison system has turned offenders into “delinquents,” stating that “The delinquent is to be distinguished from the offender by the fact that it is not so much his act as his life that is relevant in characterizing him” (Foucault 1977:219). He later states that each delinquent is not only considered the “author” of his or her acts, but also “is linked to his offense by a whole bundle of complex threads (instincts, drives, tendencies, character)” (Foucault 1977:220). This seems to suggest that the offender was responsible for the act, but also there are a number of circumstances which share the responsibility. The records taken by mental health workers in Rhodes’ prison seem to frame these “delinquents” as victims: “The victimization [inmates have experienced] is tremendous” (Rhodes 2004:125), states one mental health worker. In the end, the outlaw seems to be a combination of this factor of choice and factor of circumstance: “The inmate was a blank slate, on which a dysfunctional self was inscribed […] the true self can be found only if he can see himself not as merely inscribed but as having chosen” (Rhodes 2004:74). The acceptance of a person that he or she has some degree of control, is what allows them to move forward and improve, no matter how heavily circumstances weigh on the decisions of the past.

Outside of the prison environment, the way individuals are created can be seen as a confluence of several factors, the most prevalent of which are social and cultural norms. The idea that people are controlled by “norms” limits the amount of freedom each individual can possibly have, because all people are influenced by the society around them. Foucault describes discipline in general as a normalizing factor, claiming that by quantitatively measuring qualities of individuals and submitting them to hierarchies, they are introducing “norms” and an idea that people must conform to a certain manner of behavior. He goes further as to suggest that this normalization is enforced through microscopic means of power: people are subjected to this power constantly because they are always being “watched.” This constant surveillance causes them to choose to behave in a manner relating to the “norms” that they are used to, thus limiting the freedom of their action, but not necessarily in a negative manner. Sapir also describes norms as a latent force, but considers them to be more internal than relating to a type of power: he believes that people are conditioned by their culture to view the world in a certain way, and therefore act in a certain way. People cannot deviate from this “cultural force” because it is woven into their very being. Relating this to the prison environment, Rhodes quotes a prisoner who decides to respond to a racial attack: “I just went in and did what I felt I needed to do. As a man. My manhood, my integrity was challenged by somebody saying something that was totally out of line. I made a decision … I knew the consequences” (qtd by Rhodes 2004:78). This prisoner, while acting out of free will, is also acting due to a set of cultural and social norms that he has experienced: he feels it necessary to defend his pride and his manhood and later face the consequences, and although there seemed to be a choice, he ultimately did not have a choice in his actions because he just followed the “norm” that he is a product of.

Ultimately, the idea of freedom, especially in the environment of the prison, presents a juxtaposition between choice and circumstance: how much of an individual is “imprinted” on him or her from the moment he or she is born, and how much of them is created through their personal choices. Freedom within the individual seems to be focused mainly on free will, yet the individual is limited in what he or she can accomplish no matter how much free will exists, due to external factors in society limiting freedom, sometimes called “norms”. Additionally, culture can shape a human to make choices a certain way, while also providing this individual with a unique knowledge that will allow him or her to make choices freely. Rationality seems to be an important factor in determining whether an individual has freedom of choice. In the end, the circumstance a person finds himself or herself in must be explained primarily by choice but with consideration given to unique circumstances.


Works Cited

Sapir, Edward. Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality, Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. University of California Press, 1949.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. 1977.

Rhodes, Lorna A. Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison. University of California Press, 2004.

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Adventurer, vegetarian food enthusiast, lover of all things colorful. Advocate of sustainable and ethical consumption and believer in human resilience.

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