Book review: Punishment and Culture

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a book review published in Social Forces 88(1):481-482, 2009.

Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2009. Book review of Punishment and Culture, by Philip Smith. Social Forces 88(1):481-482.

This book by sociologist Philip Smith deals with the culture of punishment in the theoretical background of the fatigue that has befallen those who have been practicing so-called critical scholarship in criminological sociology. Fair enough, revolutionary paradigms must turn into their own worst enemy, so that alternative routes of thinking are not only refreshing, but necessary as well. Yet, independent of the excitement that comes with doing things differently, new ways of looking at standing themes must also be examined in terms of their intellectual worth. Looking at punishment from the viewpoint of cultural sociology, Smith develops a theoretical perspective that is oriented at the meanings of punishment.

Smith’s argument is set up in the context of discussions on the relative value of critical criminology on the basis of Foucault versus cultural sociology on the basis of Durkheim. While acknowledging the gains made in our thinking about punishment and social control in the former tradition, it is the turn to the latter that Smith advocates. The main reason for this shift is Smith’s contention that the Foucauldians have not escaped from instrumentalist reasoning in their reorientation of the punishment question from an affirmation of its self-declared effects as a mode of control, to a denial of the same. What instead ought to be asked are not questions on the effects of punishment in terms of control, but on the meanings thereof. It is this cultural analysis, geared towards developing a meaning-rich understanding, that, pace Smith, the (new) Durkheimians can adequately address. What this Durkheimian orientation implies is a sociological look at punishment as involving meaningful symbols and practices that revolve around an opposition between order and disorder, purity and pollution, and sacred and evil. The discourses and practices of punishment thus regulate by categorization and through the allocation of meanings on deviance and its control. The bulk of the book consists of applications of the stated theoretical outlook to various manifestations of punishment, including the public execution, the prison and the Panopticon, the guillotine, and the electric chair.

The popularity of the sociology of culture is presently at an all-time high, a cultural fact that sociologists of culture generally do not care to examine. But what is the culture of cultural sociology and what are its meanings? Take this book. Author Smith remarks that his work was written between 1992 and 2006, but one can assume he did other things during that period as well and that, therefore, this book is also an assemblage of pieces. Smith tells us that the book, as a whole, involved a “deepening, thickening, consolidation, and generalization” of previously developed insights (p. viii). But along with the occasionally hip language employed in this work, such tales cannot refute the validity of questioning this infusion of culture into a work thereabout. And the reception of a book such as this will not be unaffected, not even intellectually, by its style and its imbeddedness, structurally as much as culturally, in a socio-historical context.

From the viewpoint of offering a sociological theory of punishment, Smith’s work reads —as such works should— as an extended essay that is illustrated with various case studies. Yet, in this effort to develop “a truly cultural sociology of punishment” (p. 12), it is not clear to this reviewer that the analysis is not merely one on the cultural dimensions of punishment, rather than on punishment as culture. Even if the contributions of cultural sociologists are more modest than their ambitions, there must remain a place in sociology today, not for instrumentalist works that estimate the effects of punishment on the control of behavior, but for those endeavors that analyze the effects of punishment in the light of the explicit function of punishment. The task then is to show time and again when and where punishment does not do what it explicitly intends to do, rather than to argue once and for all how the heterogeneous cultural meanings of punishment need to be decoded. Smith’s proposal for a cultural sociology of punishment aims at questions that are profound, to lay bare a conceptual logic of punishment, but it cannot substitute for an analysis of the social experiences of punishment. Besides, it cannot without consequence go about addressing the culture of punishment as if that culture is not structured as well. Meaning is fine, but so is location in time and space. I hope that this serious book, which obviously provides much food for thought, will be read by sociologists of punishment and social control. But I also hope that this will not be the only work on punishment and social control that is read by cultural sociologists and other non-specialists.

See other writings on social control and criminal justice.