Political Theory Project

David Skarbek

Associate Professor, Political Science

Biography

David Skarbek is Associate Professor of Political Science at Brown University. His research seeks to understand how extralegal governance institutions form, operate, and evolve. He has published extensively on the informal institutions that govern life in prisons in California and around the globe. His work has appeared in leading journals in political science, economics, and criminology, including in the American Political Science Review, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Journal of Law, Economics & Organization, and Journal of Criminal Justice. His book, The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System (Oxford University Press), received the American Political Science Association’s 2016 William H. Riker Award for the best book in political economy in the previous three years. It was also awarded the 2014 Best Publication Award from the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime and was shortlisted for the British Sociological Association’s 2014 Ethnography Award. His work has been featured widely in national and international media outlets, such as the Atlantic, BBC, Business Insider, the Economist, Forbes, the Independent, and the Times. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from George Mason University in 2010.

Awards

The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System

​Winner, 2016 William H. Riker Book Award in Political Economy 

American Political Science Association, Political Economy Section

Winner, 2014 Outstanding Publication Award

International Association for the Study of Organized Crime

Shortlisted, 2014 Thinking Allowed Ethnography Award

British Sociological Association and the BBC  

Publications

The Puzzle of Prison Order: Why Life Behind Bars Varies Around the World

Many people think prisons are all the same—rows of cells filled with violent men who officials rule with an iron fist. Yet, life behind bars varies in incredible ways. In some facilities, prison officials govern with care and attention to prisoners’ needs. In others, officials have remarkably little influence on the everyday life of prisoners, sometimes not even providing necessities like food and clean water. In The Puzzle of Prison Order (OUP, 2020), David Skarbek develops a theory of why life in prison varies so much. He investigates life in a wide array of prisons—in Brazil, Bolivia, Norway, a prisoner of war camp, England and Wales, women’s prisons in California, and a gay and transgender housing unit in the Los Angeles County Jail—to understand the hierarchy of life on the inside. Drawing on economics and a vast empirical literature on legal systems, Skarbek offers a framework to understand why life on the inside varies in such fascinating and novel ways, and also how social order evolves and takes root behind bars. 

Talk at the London School of Economics on "Order without Law?"

Discussion on The Remnant podcast

Read an excerpt on Google Books

The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System

When many people think of prison gangs, they think of chaotic bands of violent, racist thugs. Few people think of gangs as sophisticated organizations (often with elaborate written constitutions) that regulate the social and economic life of the prison. Yet, as David Skarbek argues, gangs form to create order among outlaws, producing alternative governance institutions to facilitate illegal activity. This book is a fascinating look into the seemingly irrational, truly astonishing, and often tragic world of life among the society of captives.

​Winner, 2016 William H. Riker Book Award in Political Economy 

American Political Science Association, Political Economy Section

Winner, 2014 Outstanding Publication Award

International Association for the Study of Organized Crime

Shortlisted, 2014 Thinking Allowed Ethnography Award

British Sociological Association and the BBC  

Reviewed in The Economist

Discussed on EconTalk