Summary and Keywords
The political economy of punishment is a critical approach within the sociology of punishment that hypothesizes the existence of a structural relationship between transformations of the economy and changes in the penal field. Inspired by a neo-Marxist framework, this materialist critique of punishment explores—from both a historical and a contemporary perspective—the connections between the reorganization of a society’s system of production and the emergence, persistence, or decline of specific penal practices. Thus, materialist criminologists have investigated the parallel historical emergence of factories as the main sites of capitalist production and of prisons as the main institutions of punishment in modern societies. Scholars in the field have also explored the correlations between incarceration rates and socioeconomic indicators, such as unemployment rates, poverty levels, welfare regimes, and labor markets. This materialist framework has been criticized in mainstream criminological literature for its alleged economic determinism. In particular, critiques have focused on the theory’s tendency to overlook the cultural significance of punishment and the politico-institutional dimensions of penality, as well as on its exclusive emphasis on the instrumental side of penal practices as opposed to their symbolic dimensions. In response to these critiques, some recent works have tried to integrate the old political economy of punishment with epistemological tools from different disciplinary fields in order to overcome some of the limitations of the materialist approach. This broadening of the structural paradigm in criminology could point toward the envisioning of a “cultural political economy of punishment.” Particularly in its more recent iterations, the materialist critique of punishment provides a powerful lens for investigating current transformations in the penal field, such as the advent of mass incarceration and the ongoing prison crisis in the United States.
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