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“Towards the ‘Decivilizing’ of Punishment?”

Pratt, John
June 4, 2015

Source: (1998) Social & Legal Studies. 7(4): 487-515

This article examines the cultural significance of some new ’signs and symbols’ of
punishment that are to be found taking place (albeit in uneven measure) across
English-based jurisdictions at the present time. What I want to suggest is that these
developments may be pointers to the emergence of a new penal culture, which makes
possible a set of arrangements and strategies that are different from those which had
been in the forefront of the modernist penal framework. Some of the values on which
this structure had been founded, particularly during the welfare era of the 20th
century, bear correspondence to trends seen by Norbert Elias (1939; 1982) as central
to the ’civilizing’ of modern Western societies. For him, the ’civilizing’ process was
not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but a social construction based on contingent
historical developments – which at any time could be thrown into a ’decivilizing’
reverse by such phenomena as war, natural disaster and economic collapse (Garland,
1990). Under such circumstances, there is likely to be a resurrection of practices and
behaviour from different cultural eras (Mennell, 1990). This theoretical framework
will be used here to analyse current penal trends and their implications.


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