Sociological Perspectives on Punishment – a key component of SOCIAL CONTROL (MTEC mechanisms to ensure conformity)
Key questions: What is the relationship between punishment and the particular society it is found in? What does punishment do? Why does its form vary over time?
Functionalists like Durkheim argue that the function of punishment is to uphold social solidarity and reinforce shared values. Punishment is
expressive, it is designed to express society’s emotions of moral outrage at the offence. Public trials and punishments (even extreme ones like
executions) reaffirm society’s shared values and reinforce a communal sense of moral unity
retributive justice in
and restitutive justice
in modern societies
not so clear cut e.g.
societies blood feuds
than by execution or
murder. Also still an
expressive role of
birth of the
Two types of justice
While punishment functions to uphold social solidarity, it does so differently in different types of society. Durkheim identifies two types of justice,
corresponding to two types of society.
1.TRADITIONAL SOCIETIES: Characteristics: little specialisation of task and people are bonded together by their similarity to each other.
Use Retributive justice – because the collective conscience is so strong in these type of societies when people offend it the reaction is swift
and vengeful as a means of repressing the wrongdoer. Punishment is severe and cruel and its motivation purely expressive e.g. stocks, hangings…
2.MODERN SOCIETIES: Characteristics: extensive specialisation of task so people are bonded together by their interdependence (reliance
on each other)
Use Restitutive justice – crime damages the interdependence between individuals so this needs to be repaired and restored to the preoffence state of affairs. Punishment here is restitutive, it takes an instrumental role of restoring society’s equilibrium, e.g. through compensation.
Nevertheless even here punishment has an expressive element – it expresses collective emotions e.g. US triumphalism after killing Bin Laden.
For Marxists the function of punishment is to maintain the existing social order. Part of the REPRESSIVE STATE APPARATUS(Althusser).
E.P Thompson (1977): In the 18th century punishments such as hanging, and transportation to the colonies for theft and poaching were part of the
‘rule of terror’ by the aristocracy over the poor.
Rusche & Kirchheimer (1939) argue that each type of economy has its own corresponding penal system. For example money fines are impossible
without a money economy. Under capitalism imprisonment became the dominant form of punishment because the capitalist economy is based on
the exploitation of wage labour.
Melossi & Pavarini (1981) argue that imprisonment reflects or corresponds to capitalist relations of production:
PRISONS IN CAPITALIST SOCIETIES
Puts a price on worker’s time
Prisoners ‘do time’ to ‘pay’ for their crime or ‘repay a debt to society’.
Factories use strict discipline
Prisons use strict discipline, subordination and loss of liberty
Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish opens with a striking contrast between two different forms of punishment, which he sees as examples of
sovereign power and disciplinary power.
Sovereign power was typical of the period before the 19th century, when the monarch had power over people and their bodies. Inflicting
punishment on the body was the means of asserting control. Punishment was a spectacle such as public execution.
Disciplinary power becomes dominant from the 19th century. In this form of control, a new system of discipline seeks to govern not just the body
but also the mind or ‘soul’. It does so through surveillance.
Foucault demonstrates his point with the panopticon, a prison which was designed so that the prisoners could be observed by the guards at all
times. Because they might be watched the prisoners behaved themselves at all times so the surveillance turns into self-surveillance/ self-discipline.
Foucault argued that the panopticon was one of a range of institutions that, from the 19 th century, increasingly began to subject individuals to
disciplinary power through self-surveillance. Other institutions include mental asylums, work houses, factories and schools. To Foucault
disciplinary power has infiltrated all parts of society, even into the human ‘soul’. Therefore according to Foucault this change in the form of
punishment from sovereign to disciplinary power in the penal system tells us how power operates in societies as a whole.
1 Fails to explain the
differing experiences of
women and ethnic
groups in the prison
2 Too deterministic and
simplistic to suggest
that punishment is
directly linked to the
economic base of
1 The shift from
physical punishment to
imprisonment is less
clear than he suggests.
2 Expressive aspects of
3 He exaggerates the
extent of control that
the state has over
(1962) showed how
inmates can resist
controls in prison and