“Actually existing” abstract space: Accounting for staff in a private prison

Christine Cooper, Jane Andrew*, Jonathan Tweedie, Max Baker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper

Abstract / Description of output

This paper draws on Henri Lefebvre’s (1968; 1991) conceptualisation of abstraction to consider the role accounting plays in the concretisation of ‘“actually existing” abstract space’. According to Lefebvre, abstract spaces are used to nurture and reproduce capitalist social relations through simultaneous processes of fragmentation, homogenisation, and hierarchy. This process relies on a suite of technologies, such as accounting, to ensure these abstract spaces function concretely. In taking up Lefebvre’s work on the violence of abstraction, and his exploration of social practices that work to concretise the abstract, our spatial interpretation of accounting is developed through a case study of staffing practices at a privately managed prison, Rosebury Private Prison (RPP). We show how RPP’s calculation of ‘adequate staffing levels’ created what Lefebvre called a “concrete abstract” and how this abstraction then formed the basis of social, political and managerial assessment of the prison, and privatisation more broadly. At RPP, management used a staffing practice known as cross deployment to count one officer in two spaces at the same time and this translated into fewer correctional staff performing the same dangerous work. Despite the significant increased risk to officers, we show how the calculation of staffing levels in an artificial space at a fixed point in time ensured the lived experience of “cross deployment” was separated from the calculation used to staff the prison. In providing a rich empirical study of the staffing practices at RPP, we show how staffing levels defined the spatial politics of the prison, and how these were used to deny the contradictions between adequate staffing levels and the embodied practices of work within the prison. Absent the lived, qualitative experiences of prison officers, the effects of cross deployment on the officers and on their experiences at work could be ignored.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2023
EventCritical Perspectives on Accounting Conference - Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogata, Colombia
Duration: 23 Jul 202326 Jul 2023


ConferenceCritical Perspectives on Accounting Conference
Internet address


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