From time to time, I've thought about teaching a special topics class, probably at the graduate level, on what I see as the Ten Big Ideas in Punishment and Society. As I define them, the Big Ideas are those that either generated much followup work by other scholars and/or enjoyed a very strong reception from folks. They are not always uncontroversial---I include the Prison Industrial Complex on the list despite major reservations about this phrase and how it has been used (for a great take down, see Wacquant's article on the subject)---but they are tremendously thought provoking and productive of further research (even if that research counters some of the claims in the original). While there are some biases in the list (see below), I have tried to shape the list according to what I think others also think are Big Ideas---there are some concepts I do not use in my own work, but I recognize that they are very influential for others in our field.
The Big Ideas on my list are skewed in two ways, and skirt what we might consider to be the boundaries of the Punishment and Society field.
First, the ideas are skewed towards studies of prison, because that is where my interests lay most strongly and the works with which I am most familiar. These Big Ideas, though, are not only drawn from micro-studies of the prison, but also macro-studies of society and the changes in the use of the prison---the kind of studies we perhaps most associate with Punishment and Society.
Second, the ideas are skewed towards those that I learned about early on. This is a subjective list: while I am trying to identify the most influential ideas, there is a lot of my own preferences and biases, implicit or explicit. For example, my former advisors appear on the list several times--I don't think it is a coincidence, but I do think of these as major works. They are kind of like movies from the 1990s---I enjoy thrillers from the 90s (and early 2000s). I watched these as a child/teenager, so they have a certain nostalgic appeal, in addition to the fact that I think they are great movies. However, someone who did not watch them growing up might not like them as much. I think there is a similar nostalgia at play for works I learned in undergrad and early grad school, which may have a greater appeal than they would otherwise. This is not to say these Big Ideas aren't good and it is only my bias at work. It is to say that it is a possible (likely) bias in the list; overall, I think it is a good list; but others will very likely have their own list that might differ in various ways.
Third, some of the ideas exist at the boundaries of punishment and society, and may or may not fit within the boundaries others draw. For example, the first item on the list--key concepts from prison sociology (inmate culture, prisonization, pains of imprisonment, secondary adjustments) might be considered by some as more properly designated criminology. Given the flurry of activity with these concepts lately in Punishment and Society, I would disagree, but again, these are subjective assessments on my part.
There are plenty of Big Ideas that do not make my list. For example, in this first post, I do not begin with Durkheim's collection of Big Ideas---the Collective Conscience, Social Solidarity, or the Two Laws of Penal Evolution. This is not because I do not like Durkheim's theory--it is actually my favorite by far of the classic social theories. In fact, I tried to resuscitate it in my first year of grad school (see here). His absence from the list does not mean Durkheim's theories are not Big Ideas or really important ideas; nor is it to say that they were not influential. I think many, if not most, punishment courses begin with a discussion of Durkheim. But it is not clear to me that scholars use Durkheim in the same way as they do others ideas on this list. I think his work has been integrated elsewhere--Kennedy's article on punishing the "monstrous," Erikson's Wayward Puritans, and Garland combines insights from Durkheim and others (especially Foucault) in Peculiar Institution. But Durkheim's theory does not strike me as the same kind of cottage industry that other items on the list do.
A few logistical notes about the list. First, some of the Big Ideas are really groups of big ideas along the same lines or that must be discussed together. If I was more disciplined, I could probably limit them to one, but I would rather discuss them together. Second, after careful consideration, I've decided to make the list 12 Big Ideas instead of Ten. At the end, I might also add a bonus prediction for what will be the 13th Big Idea if we jumped ahead five years.
Over the next few weeks, I will do a post on each Big Idea in which I describe the basic premise(s) and defend my choice of the Idea as a Big Idea. My next post will start with Key Concepts in Prison Sociology: Inmate Culture, Prisonization, Pains of Imprisonment, and Secondary Adjustments (Clemmer, Sykes, Goffman).
Update: I forgot to mention that I'll be really interested to see what people think of the list---what they think I left off or what they think doesn't belong.