by Philip Smith; Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008, 224 pages, $19
Dr. Kaempf is assistant professor of clinical psychiatry, University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson.
Asked to define punishment, many people would likely give a response such as "a penalty inflicted for wrongdoing." Many may go on to list retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, or rehabilitation as possible underlying motives for doling out such consequences. These sorts of concepts seemingly date back to some of the earliest of human ideologies. Despite such a relatively stable general understanding of punishment and the reasons for it, specific forms of acceptable penalties have varied enormously over time and continue to differ across cultures and jurisdictions. Furthermore, interest in finding suitable, satisfactory punishments to match shifting standards of decency has apparently endured over centuries; evidence abounds in the rehashing of related themes in literature, music, art, film, television, news media, and political debate. If punishment is an age-old, seemingly settled construct, why then does society continue to focus so intensively on penal activity, and why do methods of punishment change over time and across communities? In Punishment and Culture, Philip Smith, associate professor of sociology at Yale University, sets out to tackle these questions by examining the evolution of the criminal justice system through the lens of social science theory.
In the introductory chapter, "The Penal Imagination," Smith presents his main premise that punishment is not merely about bureaucracy, power, reason, the law, or justice, as is commonly assumed. Rather, he contends that punishment and culture are intricately bound and influence one another through irrational symbols, unpredictable emotional reactions, and illogical ritualized efforts to contain evil and disorder. Smith's theoretical framework is largely adapted from the late 19th century to early 20th century works of Emile Durkheim, a prominent French sociologist who viewed punishment as an irrational emotional reaction driven by a culture's desire to maintain solidarity. In his alliance with Durkheim, Smith explicitly opposes the arguments put forth by the influential French philosopher Michel Foucault in his seminal book Discipline and Punish, published in 1975. Smith disputes Foucault's assertion that modern-day methods of punishment, which include imprisonment and monitoring, are isolated from cultural influence and represent callous, scientific attempts to control and "normalize" deviants. In contrast, Smith argues that cultural inputs have become more important in the administration of justice in recent times.
In the ensuing five chapters, Smith proves his point through a series of compelling case examples. He begins with a thoughtful examination of the fall of the public execution, linking its demise to the unpredictable crowd response and unruly carnival atmosphere that frequently accompanied it. He then moves on to explore the emergence of the prison system, covering a vast array of sites, including rowdy jails of the 18th century, Victorian-era institutions, chain gangs, and supermax and "country club" prisons. In the next chapter, Smith provides an interesting discussion of the panopticon, an 18th century plan to detain prisoners under constant surveillance. Another chapter offers an enlightening portrayal of the history of the guillotine. One of the book's highlights is the chapter dedicated to the study of the rise and fall of the electric chair and offers especially fascinating discourses on the cultural origins of the chair, the mysterious properties of electrical power, botched executions, and the chair's replacement—lethal injection. In his investigation of these diverse examples, Smith demonstrates that cultural ideas about order, disgust, beauty, and evil have had a significant and continuous impact on penal activity.
Despite the captivating subject matter, Punishment and Culture is not necessarily a page-turner. It is a highly academic, jargon-rich text that assumes the reader has at least a basic background in social theory. At times, Smith's intriguing argument gets eclipsed by his use of somewhat awkward metaphors and overly complex language. Readers should be familiar with the literature of the sociology of punishment, most notably the works of Foucault and Durkheim, to fully appreciate Smith's noteworthy contribution to the area. For those already well versed in the field, Punishment and Culture is an essential read.
The reviewer reports no competing interests.