Let’s Build a Prison: Exploring Structural Functionalism


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This in-class activity centers around how students understand the creation and construction of prisons within the United States. Suited for any level of sociology or criminology courses, this activity could be utilized in a criminology course or in a sociology lecture/discussion about structural functionalism, criminal justice systems or Foucault. In sum, the activity shows how normalized prison buildings that students develop can often mirror already existing structures, such as a panopticon. It also offers a moment for critically analyzing how structures are reproduced over time. However, this discovery has the potential to occur after they all come together as a class and describe their structure and how their “prison” would work and how they would adjudicate criminal justice issues for entry and exit.


Resource Type(s):
Class Activity 
Stephanie Marie Baran  
Date Published:
Subject Area:
Social Organization 
Class Level:
Class Size:

Usage Notes:

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Time: 30-35 mins This assignment was in response to students essentially asking, ‘if we know prisons are bad, why do they exist?’ Coincidentally, we were also talking about structural functionalism and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk about how prisons function as a cog in the machine, without giving...

Learning Goals and Assessments:

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Goal 1:
Students should be able to clearly explain how structural functionalism can appear and operate and what that means for society.
Assessment 1:
Discussion of how structural functionalism manifests in everyday life.
Goal 2:
Assess and critically examine patterns in the creation and display of individual prisons/communities in their groups.
Assessment 2:
Post-activity writing opportunity to see how theory is actually actionable inside and outside the classroom.
Goal 3:
(depending on when you use it):Discussion of panopticons and Foucauldian theories of self-policing.
Assessment 3:
Discussion/pair/share/writing of post-activity understanding

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Build a prison - Trails - Updated.docx