Punishment & Society

Punishment is, after war, one of the most dramatic exercises of state power. Regardless of the form it takes (execution, confinement, fines, or torture), punishment has profound consequences for individuals, families, communities, and society at large. Sociologists argue that punishment is at the center of what it means to be social in that punishment, in some form or other, has existed at all times and in all places (cancel culture, anyone??). This course interrogates theoretical debates regarding the nature of modern punishment and explores why we punish, what forms punishment takes, and how these forms are a product of political culture, socioeconomic arrangements, race, gender, and history. Throughout the course, we will move from sociological theory to a directed analysis of contemporary punishment regimes, critically interrogating the sociological and legal ramifications of mass incarceration, punitive crime policies, and social inequality.

Sociology of Law

Sociologists define the law as a social institution — one that structures social life as it is itself structured and informed by the social. As such, the law is not free from the influence of larger forces like history, culture, and the political economy nor are we free from it. Our actions, identities, bodies, and relations are organized by legal categories and practices. The analysis of the way that law shapes and is shaped by social life is, in large part, what distinguishes the sociology of law from other ways of thinking about legal ideologies and systems. The first part of the course will consider the purpose of the law and examine how legal systems evolve and change. Such questions have been crucial for social theorists and we will spend a good bit of time wrestling with the ideas of key classical thinkers like Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, and more contemporary theorists like Bell, Foucault, MacKinnon, and Crenshaw. Throughout the course, we will consider the relationship between law and social inequality, with a focus on race and gender.  In democratic societies, a central project of the law is to abrogate and remedy past and current forms of social inequality. In actual practice, the law occupies a more ambiguous position. 

Research Seminar in Wrongful Convictions

This research seminar provides an opportunity for students to identify and analyze systemic problems in the criminal legal system that give rise to wrongful convictions and unjust outcomes. Wrongful conviction cases include people who are factually and/or legally innocent of a crime, as well as people who are the victims of malicious prosecution and/or over-sentencing. This is an applied research seminar in which students will utilize their social science training to research, investigate, and analyze actual cases. Topics include false confessions, unreliable eyewitness identifications, law enforcement corruption and misconduct, informants, flawed forensics, racism and racial inequality, sexual coercion and gender inequality, inflammatory media coverage, and ineffective assistance of counsel. Throughout the semester we will grapple with the role that courts and the law play in facilitating wrongful convictions.