I want to...

Punishment and society

Offer semester
2nd semester

Lecture time
Monday 6.30pm – 10.00pm

Lecture venue

Course description

Why do all societies impose punishment? If you have time, write down all the forms of punishment you can think of. Should any one of them be abolished? Or should they be re-introduced? Punishment, as one of the major social institutions in our society, has always been a central object of social theory and in many ways a mirror of society and its norms. Why and how should we punish wrongdoers in our society?

The course aims to explain punishment and society in a multi-dimensional context, entrenched in disciplines including criminology, penology, sociology, psychology, ethics … punishment, in other words, is far more than a technical problem linked to certain institutions of crime control and prevention.

The course will look at the different functions of punishment, like retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restoration. We will trace those functions historically and culturally, finding vast cultural and social differences in the way in which punishment is practiced. For instance, there is a vast difference in how Americans and Europeans think about and practice punishment, and we even find other approaches to punishment in China.

The course will start by looking at the popular opinions about punishment, reminding us that the issue of punishment is both a normative and a scientific issue.

Course learning outcomes

By the end of this programme, you should be able to:

  • Understand the differences between common sense approaches and
    scientific evidence based approaches to the effects of punishment;
  • Understand basic philosophical arguments about punishment
  • Learn how to see punishment in a comparative and historical context;
  • Identify basic issues of rehabilitative and retributive approaches to
  • Discuss basic issues concerning the death penalty


Individual assignment (3,000 words)40%
Group presentation20%
Group presentation – written script5%
In-class test30%
Preparatory assignment5%

Required reading

Miethe, Terance and Hong, Lu (2005). Punishment: A Comparative Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Recommended reading

Brooks, Thom (2012). Punishment. Abingdon: Routledge.

Garland, David (1991). Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Simon, Jonathan and Sparks, Richard (2012). The Handbook of Punishment and Society. London: SAGE.

Course co-ordinator and teachers