Renewing Debate Around the Problem of Punishment

Henrique Carvalho @HRDCCarvalho
Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Warwick

Anastasia Chamberlen @a_chamberlen
Assistant Professor, Sociology Department, University of Warwick

This is a rather appropriate time to foster scholarly debate about punishment. As the world at large experiences a series of social, political and economic crises, and these lead to shifts and transformations in notions of security, belonging, justice and social order, the many established approaches to punishment theory and practice, which rose to prominence in the late nineties and early noughties, find themselves on insecure grounds and in need of reassessment. By the same token, many of the critical perspectives on penal scholarship and institutions encounter difficulties in dealing with the increasing ambivalence of the role of punishment in contemporary societies: the more awareness there seems to be about the failures and limitations of punishment, the more punishment appears in public discourse as something that is needed and desired. We seem to have lost the grounds for a cogent and effective critique of punishment. At the same time, this troubling moment offers a unique opportunity for scholars to inquire into the foundations of their field and to renew their engagement with this intrinsic, and inherently problematic, aspect of modern social life.

The Problem of Punishment is an ongoing collaborative project and research network, which was developed with exactly these issues in mind. Sponsored by the Social & Legal Studies journal and by Warwick Law School, it aims to pursue a trans-disciplinary examination into the role of punishment in contemporary Western democracies that bridges gaps between philosophical, legal, psychosocial, sociological and political understandings of punishment. The main purpose of this examination is to renew a critical engagement with our current penal practices, in order to raise awareness about their problems and limitations and challenge the way in which they are understood and promoted, especially in public policy and discourse. The theme of this network thus seeks to highlight how the problem of punishment expresses broader pressures, contradictions and transformations in contemporary societies, so that it is intrinsically linked to issues of social and self-identity. In other words, the nature and impact of penal and punitive practices are related to how we imagine, perceive and experience ourselves and one another in our socio-political context.

So far, the network has organised two public seminars, hosted by the Criminal Justice Centre at the University of Warwick. The seminars have been organised around thematic reflections on a specific approach to the problem of punishment. In each event, different speakers were invited to offer their own perspective on the question: ‘How, and to what extent, does punishment (as idea, institution, process, and/or phenomenon) influence, condition and affect people’s sense of self in everyday life—their identities, self-consciousness and social experiences?’ The first meeting focused on ‘Theoretical Reflections’ to the problem of punishment, and addressed the different ways in which punishment and penal practices can be understood, conceptualised, contextualised and criticised. It held presentations by Professors Mary Bosworth (University of Oxford and Monash University), Antony Duff (University of Stirling) and Alan Norrie (University of Warwick). The second encounter turned its attention to ‘Methodological Reflections’ on the problem of punishment, enquiring about the challenges of conducting research on punishment, the contrasts between theoretical and empirical perspectives, and the need to constantly re-engage with our knowledge about punishment. The speakers for this seminar were Professor Susanne Karstedt (Griffith University) and Anita Dockley (Research Director, The Howard League for Penal Reform), and Henrique and Anastasia acted as discussants.

The lively conversations that flourished from these two seminars generated a common thread of perspectives and concerns around the theme, which the group intends to pursue in a series of future events and collaborative pieces of work. Future plans include a third seminar on ‘Psychosocial Reflections’ on the problem of punishment, and a workshop in the next academic year. The workshop is being organised around a forthcoming special issue in Social & Legal Studies, ‘The Problem of Punishment: Renewing Critique’, co-edited by Henrique Carvalho, Anastasia Chamberlen and Antony Duff. In the workshop (details still to be announced), the contributors to the special issue will discuss their papers for the special issue together with discussants and other participants.

Through this project, we seek to shed new light on the problems surrounding punishment, and to suggest that punishment in itself, as institution and as practice, poses and expresses some of the most fundamental problems existent in contemporary societies, which must be addressed. We hope that these events and contributions can foster an environment for this debate, which will be joined by many others.

Henrique Carvalho and Anastasia Chamberlen are the authors of ‘Punishment, Justice, and Emotions’ (2016) Oxford Handbooks Online (Criminology and Criminal Justice, Punishment Theories), New York: Oxford University Press, 1-31. The paper is available here.


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