Monday, December 26, 2016

Big Ideas in Punishment and Society: Reboot

A year and a half ago, I had committed myself to writing a series on what I saw as the twelve big ideas in Punishment and Society. I did not followup. Now that things have settled down, and as we furiously finalize our syllabi for next semester/quarter, I thought this would be a good time to revisit the series. My previous post laid out the various caveats and biases I saw in my list, including their skewing to my interests and my training, which will likely lead to a slightly different list than others would create. As I was laying out a schedule for this series and revisiting my list of big ideas, however, I decided to change things up a bit by describing the ideas chronologically. This, then, triggered additional ideas about trends in the various big ideas. This post lays out these trends, while subsequent posts will discuss the ideas in turn.

My evolving list of 10 to 12 big ideas seems to fall into several periods of action, each of which has a theme:

  1. 1940s-1960s: The Birth of Prison Sociology 
  2. 1970s-1980s: Critical Looks at Punishment as Social Control, or the Futility of Reform  
  3. 1990s-2000s: Understanding the New Normal 
  4. 2010s: The Resurgence of General Theories of Penal Change 
These periods are not equally distributed. For example, in Period 1 (1940s-1960s), I basically combine the major concepts from prison sociology---inmate culture, prisonization, pains of imprisonment, and secondary adjustments---into one big idea. By contrast, Periods 2 (1970s-1980s) and 3 (1990s-2000s) have four or five distinct ideas in each. Period 4 (2010s) is difficult to assess because it is ongoing and I have yet to decide how much to discuss this period until we can better assess the long-term impact of these ideas, but it too is on the smaller side. 

I've never really thought about periodizing punishment and society research before, beyond a general cut-off around 1990 with the formalization of the field in the birth of our namesake journal and the publication of Garland's Punishment and Modern Society. I had always described punishment and society with a heavy leaning toward this more recent work: I would first say it's the field that generally treats punishment as a social institution, meaning it does not assume crime shapes punishment but instead describes how punishment and society are mutually constituted (or rather how society affects punishment and vice/versa)---borrowing heavily from my script for explaining law and society. I would then add that its main goal recently (for the last twenty-plus years) has been to understand the causes and consequences of the punitive turn, most notably the emergence of mass incarceration. This was always a little unsatisfying because it left out other studies that were clearly punishment and society, but I could never really articulate a way to link them together except by playing a few degrees of Kevin Bacon. 

When I taught punishment and society classes, I put the punitive turn at the center and set up the class to describe (1) what punishment was like before and what it's like elsewhere, and thus how the new approach is different, (2) what are the major components of the punitive turn, (3) what are its consequences, and (4) what do we think caused it (see this post). This seemed to me to be a pretty good representation of the field. (In an earlier version, I used the evolution of prison sociology to provide a window (problematic as it was) onto changes in doing time over time.) Certainly, I left out some things, but I got to teach these in my law and society class, my prison history class, or my org theory class. 

But thinking through the big ideas---thinking about what concepts or theories really left their mark and that we still see cited such that we can start to create a genealogy of the field (one that starts after Durkheim, Marx, and Weber)---helped me realize this longer periodization. It's also helping me to see  how ideas that might not really seem like they fit (e.g., classic prison sociology) do in fact fit together, but under the broader tent of punishment studies and how that field has evolved over time. In this case, the relationship between punishment and society is more flexibly defined and examined than the way I had conceived it. 

It's also interesting to think about how each of these periods responds to the major concerns of the time. In mid-century, a relatively consensus-heavy focus on society---and eventually membership in and exclusion from society. In the post-1969 period, the disappointment with society, the seemingly inevitable failure of reforms (for so many reasons), and the neo-Marxist approach are powerful. In the 1990s, we came to grips with one of the biggest changes in punishment---mass incarceration---and tried desperately to understand how it happened and what it means. Now that mass incarceration is no longer new and people are turning to new topics (including its future and the mixed attempts at reigning it in), and a new generation of scholars are emerging who were trained after the earlier backlash to general theories, we're starting to see people look beyond explaining the punitive turn and go back to making general statements about punishment---but with a twist, illustrating that they understand the problems with traditional general theories.  

When I turn to the individual posts, I will try to develop these themes more, but the main focus will be on the individual ideas themselves and, secondarily, how they relate to the general thrust of the literature at the time. 

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