Book review: Violence and Punishment: Civilizing the Body Through Time

Mathieu Deflem
www.mathieudeflem.net

This is an electronic copy of a review of Violence and Punishment: Civilizing the Body Through Time, by Pieter Spierenburg (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013. 223 pp. $ paperback. ISBN: 978-0-7456-5349-5), published in International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 55(1), 2014.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2014. Review of Violence and Punishment: Civilizing the Body Through Time, by Pieter Spierenburg. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 55(1):85-86.


With the ongoing march of globalization, the world of criminal law enforcement, the administration of justice, incarceration, and related aspects of punishment has not been getting any smaller. Instead, more and more issues of penological interest are posed in the contemporary age, both involving increased transfers of punishment styles across national and other borders and the emergences of new and locally distinct forms of norm enforcement practices. With that mind, it remains a sad fact that the structures and processes of punishment across the world remain an underexplored aspect in the broader constellation of interests among comparative and globally oriented sociologists. It is to the credit of our colleague, criminological historian Pieter Spierenburg of Erasmus University in Rotterdam to have consistently worked to explore these issues from a systematic and historically informed viewpoint.

The work under review here presents a sort of concise magnum opus of Dr. Spierenburg in the form of a collection of essays, some of them published before in different outlets and different languages, to present a coherent and broad overview of the historical trends that can be observed in violence and punishment. What Spierenburg primarily seeks to account for are certain long-term historical processes, taking place in Europe since the Middle Ages, concerning the quantitative and qualitative changes that can be observed in violence and punishment as well as their interdependence. Most remarkable to be noted empirically is the decline in interpersonal violence over the past centuries and along with it a trend towards a decreasing severity in punishment. At the same time, Spierenburg notes, that there has been an increase, in very recent years comparatively speaking, that is, since the 19th century, in a growing societal concern over violence as a social problem in need of a binding solution by means of formal mechanisms of social control.

Violence in Spierenburg’s study refers to attacks against the physical integrity of the body, while punishment is understood as a judicial category as one dimension in a more broadly conceived field of mechanisms of formal and informal social control. The theoretical framework, as indicated in the subtitle, is indebted to the work of Norbert Elias in seeking to undercover the dynamics of violence and punishment in an ongoing civilizing process. As Spierenburg duly notes, this perspectives allows for a scholarly, non-judgmental and non-moral analysis of the course and consequences of violence and punishment as social, more particularly cultural issues emerging in the turn towards modernity. Related theoretical ideas are inspired by the works of Michel Foucault, Victor Turner, and Emile Durkheim.

The nine chapters in this book are presented in three parts, covering violence, punishment and other forms of social control, and the civilizing of the body, respectively. The chapters on violence begin with a discussion on homicide in Amsterdam, the famous capitol of the Netherlands. Despite the municipal focus, the chapters contains important and thus comparatively relevant reflections on the manner in which violence must be measured not only quantitatively but also in terms of kind and the variable contexts in which it takes place. Additional reflections are offered on the manner in which legal texts have dealt with the problem of homicide in self-defense. Also discussed are the links between violence and the concept of honor, especially applied to males, and how this relationship is relevant in studying homicide in the context of the specific history of the state formation process in the United States.

The chapters on social control theoretically engage with the seminal works of Elias and Foucault, especially by sympathetically evaluating their contributions to the study of history as the past of the present and their related albeit differing views on the pervasiveness of power. Spierenburg then argues that informal mechanisms of social control remained important for a long time, despite the relative increase in formal social controls, and that a decline only began when a new culture of privacy gradually emerged. Turning towards formal social control, Spierenburg next shows how the death penalty emerged, disappeared, and re-emerged over the course of the centuries. In the present context, the culture of punitiveness, however, is primarily reflected in ideas concerning incarceration rather than death.

The final section of this book, dealing with the cultural changes that accompanied changes in violence and punishment, allow Spierenburg to examine the history of the Western culture of manners, the civilizing of behavior at festivals and public gatherings, and the history of ideas about death and dying, especially from a religious viewpoint.

Research and reflection on violence and punishment have long acknowledged the role that historical antecedents play in shaping relevant present-day practices of social control. But it is rare for a scholar interested in the study of crime and social control to take this basic lesson quite as seriously as a professional historian can, while not, as the same time, abandoning the interests of the social scientist. A sociologically informed history is the best of what Spierenburg has to offer and that skill is clearly demonstrated in the pages of this informative and fun-to-read collection.

Notwithstanding the wealth of literature on punishment and violence, also, Spierenburg makes an important contribution because he is uniquely situated and gifted to offer a historically informed perspective. Additionally, his outlook is enlightening by showing parallel developments across different social areas. Admittedly, for the present reviewer, who remains staunchly interested in the explanation of variation in social life, some of Spierenburg’s attention could have gone towards the formulation of sound questions, if not answers, indicating causal mechanisms among variables. The absence of an explicit discussion on violence and punishment in the final chapters on manners, civilizing celebrations, and attitudes towards death is also disappointing in this respect.

There have been many developments within violence and punishment contexts that have been found worthy of critical reflection. But history and comparative analysis, alas, remain neglected in research on crime and social control. For some strange reason, which itself also has to be examined carefully, the look upon punishment and control has a tendency to readily inward and, moreover, to be oriented at intervention rather than illumination. The work of Pieter Spierenburg offers a sound antidote to such technocratic tendencies —so heavily at work in much of today’s research on crime and criminal justice— and should also engage sociologists and other social scientists in areas outside of this important criminological interest.