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Many congratulations to Alison Liebling, who has been awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2020-2023) to spend 80% her time on the project ‘Moral rules, social science and forms of order in prison’.

Leverhulme Major Research Fellowships provide replacement teaching costs to enable well-established academics in the humanities and social sciences to focus for two or three years on a specific piece of significant, original research.

Alison retains Director of the Prisons Research Centre responsibilities, PhDs and post-docs, the RAP Committee, and some MSt teaching.

Principal Investigator:

Professor Alison Liebling

Alison Liebling 100x100

Aim of the Project:

The aim of this project is to clarify, and then systematically explore and explain, the role of ‘moral rules’ in human survival and well-being, using deep knowledge of the prison as a naturally existing test-bed for ideas of more general social significance. Humans are beings to whom things matter, but this fact has been avoided rather than made good use of in the generation of social scientific knowledge. Because of the prison’s unique characteristics, and as a result an innovative research methodology including Appreciative Inquiry, which explores the most life sustaining aspects of experience, it has been possible to identify both what matters and to measure the moral differences between survivable and non-survivable prison environments. We can see, with unusual empirical clarity, that order, survival and growth depend largely on what goes on between people.

Project Components:

The project has 4 components:

(i) a contemporary history of order, disorder and attempted recovery in prisons in England and Wales, based on several completed research projects and a detailed analysis of national moral quality data in prisons over the last 15 years and their relationship with outcomes such as violence and suicide;

(ii) a theoretical synthesis, drawing on a rapidly growing and highly relevant body of moral and philosophical literature, fusing the rich empirical insights in (i, and iii below) with conceptual reflection on ‘the moral’ and its significance both in prisons specifically and in human well-being more generally;

(iii) an empirical and analytical account of the differences between ‘survivable’ and ‘non-survivable’ prisons, and those that generate anger and alienation versus those that help and assist; and

(iv) a methodological 'manifesto', showing how the empirical, the normative and the conceptual interweave. Alison will describe how ‘person-centred social science’ and ‘ethnography-led measurement’ work, and how Appreciative Inquiry has been fundamental to their development.  Through these methods, developed over decades, she finds that human beings ‘shrink and contract’ when they are treated with indifference, carelessness or brutality; they survive, or grow and flourish, when they are treated decently: the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ are fused. The overall project will describe the ‘moral rules’ that support survival, cooperation and human flourishing in prisons and beyond.

The project will result in a book, and several articles.


For recent relevant publications, and a podcast outlining the background to the project, see:

Liebling, A. (2020) ‘Finding George Eliot in Prison: Reflections on its Moral Life’, George Eliot Review 51: 80-88.

Liebling, A. and Williams, R. (2020) ‘More Mind Games: How ‘The Action’ and ‘The Odds’ have Changed in Prison’, British Journal of Criminology.

Liebling, A. (2020) ‘The changing ‘regime of the custodians’: Visions of order and authority in high security prisons in England and Wales, 1988-2019’ in Crewe, B., Goldsmith, A., and Halsey, M. (eds) Power and Pain in the Modern Prison: Revisiting the Society of Captives. Oxford: Oxford University Press Clarendon Series.

Podcast: No. 21: Prof. Alison Liebling - Appreciative Inquiry and the moral performance of prisons


Prisons Research at Cambridge University


The Prisons Research Centre (PRC) was founded in 2000, under the Directorship of Professor Alison Liebling. The Centre has received funding from a wide range of sources, including the Prison Service/NOMS, the Nuffield Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust, the ESRC, KPMG, the Home Office and UKDS (now Kalyx).

The Cambridge Institute of Criminology Prisons Research Centre aims to provide a stimulating research environment in which a coherent strategy of high quality research can be pursued, and integration between funded and non-funded, and applied and theoretical projects can be facilitated. We investigate how prisons operate, socially, morally and operationally, how they are experienced, and the relationship between these moral and social qualities, and their effects.

Members of the PRC team carry out, individually and collectively, methodologically rigorous and theoretically relevant field-based studies addressing problems of human and social values, punishment practices, and the organisation and effects of aspects of prison life. We strive to forge links with other prisons researchers, scholars in the broader fields of criminology and sociology, and with practitioners. Our vision is to develop a rigorous and person-centred model of social inquiry.

You can read more about the latest projects in our Annual Reports.