Sociology of punishment

This course is not offered for study in the current academic year.

Course description

The course aims to explain the elementary aspects of punishment in a comparative and historical context. The social institution of punishment is a central object of social theory and in many ways a mirror of society and its norms. Punishment, in other words, is far more than a technical, pragmatic problem linked to the practices of certain institutions of crime control and prevention.

The course will look at the different functions of punishment, like retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restoration, but will also focus on punishment in a historical and cultural context. There is a vast difference in how America, the UK, Hong Kong or China view and practice punishment. The issue of punishment is both a normative and a rational issue.

Course learning outcomes

After completing this course, you should be able to:

  • Examine the notions and practices of punishment from a comparative and historical perspective;
  • Grasp how punishment has been analyzed by major social theories;
  • Explain the different functions of punishment in different contexts;
  • Appreciate the plural ways in which punishment is viewed and practised across time and place;
  • Reflect on the nature of punishment as both a normative and rational issue.



Required reading

Terance, D. Miethe, Hong Lu, Punishment. A Comparative Historical Perspective, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Recommended reading

Adams, R. The Abuses of Punishment, London, MacMillan, 1998,

Bakken, B. “Moral Panics, Crime Rates, and Harsh Punishment in China”, in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, Vol. 37, Supplement 2004, pp. 67-90

Braithwaite, J. Restorative Justice and Responsive Regulation, Oxford ; Oxford University Press, 2002.

Brooks, T. Punishment , Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY : Routledge, 2012.

Duff, R.A. and Garland, D. “Introduction: Thinking about punishment”, in Duff, A. & Garland, D. A Reader on Punishment, Oxford Readings in Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 1-28.

Foucault, M. Discipline & Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, New York, 1979,

Hood, R. The Death Penalty. A World Wide Perspective (3rd edition), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004, Chapter 7, The Question of deterrence, pp. 208-232.

Melossi, D. (Ed.) The Sociology of punishment: socio-structural

Student view

This course provided me with the opportunity to explore how a region or nation’s history and culture interacts with its punishment system, as well as the nature of different types of punishments, from different sociological perspectives.

-Timothy Wong, 2nd year Undergraduate student in Criminology Major