Spring 2015

Punishment, Politics, and Culture

Listed in: Political Science, as POSC-360

Formerly listed as: POSC-60

Moodle site: Course


Austin D. Sarat (Section 01)


[IL] Other than war, punishment is the most dramatic manifestation of state power. Whom a society punishes and how it punishes are key political questions as well as indicators of its character and the character of the people in whose name it acts. This course will explore the connections between punishment and politics with particular reference to the contemporary American situation. We will consider the ways crime and punishment have been politicized in recent national elections as well as the racialization of punishment in the United States. We will ask whether we punish too much and too severely, or too little and too leniently. We will examine particular modalities of punishment, e.g., maximum security prisons, torture, the death penalty, and inquire about the character of those charged with imposing those punishments, e.g., prison guards, executioners, etc. Among the questions we will discuss are: Does punishment express our noblest aspirations for justice or our basest desires for vengeance? Can it ever be an adequate expression of, or response to, the pain of victims of crime? When is it appropriate to forgive rather than punish? We will consider these questions in the context of arguments about the right way to deal with juvenile offenders, drug offenders, sexual predators (“Megan’s Law”), rapists, and murderers. We will, in addition, discuss the meaning of punishment by examining its treatment in literature and popular culture. Readings may include selections from The Book of Job, Greek tragedy, Kafka, Nietzsche, Freud, George Herbert Mead, and contemporary treatments of punishment such as Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Butterfield’s All God’s Children, Scarry’s Body in Pain, Garland’s Punishment in Modern Society, Hart’s Punishment and Reasonability, and Mailer’s Executioner’s Song. Films may include The Shawshank Redemption, Dead Man Walking, Mrs. Soffel, Minority Report, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Limited to 15 students. Spring semester. Professor Sarat.

If Overenrolled: I aim to admit a mix of students from different classes and with different backgrounds in political science and in other fields in order to foster a rich interdisciplinary conversation


2015-16: Offered in Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015