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“Punishment and Modern Society, a Study in Modern Theory” by David Garland

The question of who has the right to pronounce and dispense punishment to a criminal, what constitutes a crime, and what role does the family and community have in both preventing and allowing crime to flourish has been the foundation of the criminal justice system throughout time. Dave Garland followed the history of the criminal justice system from its inception to modern times in order to answer these questions in his book Punishment and Modern Society, A Study in Modern Theory (Studies in Crime and Justice). David Garland has won several awards including the Distinguished Scholar Award from the American Sociological Association’s Crime, Law, and Deviance Section as well as the Outstanding Scholarship Award of the Crime and Delinquency Division of Society for the Study of Social Problems.

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David Garland’s work covers an immense historical range. It begins with a focus on the sociology of punishment with an emphasis on current practices and then provides an in-depth analysis of several sub-sections of criminology and their historical roots. The work includes sections on such topics as social solidarity, construction of authority, class control, and the rationalization of punishment (Garland 1990: 1). By providing sections on these topics Garland is able to utilize the published work of historians including Emile Durkheim and Weberian Themes to assist him as he combines these subsections that create the framework for current punishment practices.

In most cases of criminology theories are complementary concepts instead of being used as stand-alone theories. This is done because one theory might not have explored an area fully and the use of an additional theory can be used to bridge the gap that has been occurred. It is also possible that more than one theory can be applied to a particular crime because crime and punishment are not straightforward occurrences. There are many different reasons and situations in which crime is committed just as there are different types of punishments that can be applied to the crime. This can be seen in Garland’s work as he combines at least three criminology theories that are explored in this work.

The first theory is the social disorganization theory. In this theory, crime is committed because of the disorganization in the social community. If a society lacks the social controls that are necessary to maintain order then the society will face an increase in crime and disorder in the society. The theorists that have focused on this theory are Shaw and McKay, Sampson and Bursik, and Grasmick.

The second theory is the differential association social learning theory. In this theory crime is a learned association through criminal definitions. These definitions focus on the neutralization that justifies crime including the interaction with antisocial elements. In this case, the criminal behavior will be repeated with the increased danger of becoming a chronic problem. The theorists that have focused on this theory are Sutherland and Cressey, Skyes and Matza, Akers, Wolfgang and Ferracuti, and Anderson.

The third theory is rational choice. In this theory, it is assumed that individuals have the ability to determine the behavioral choices that they make and that the choices are made by using rational consideration about the potential rewards and consequences of an action. The theorists that have focused on this theory are Stafford and War, Patternoster, Cornish and Clarke, and Matsueda.

David Garland’s work opposes the anomie institutional-anomie theories in which the gap between the goal of achieving the American dream and the financial realities of the American dream creates stress and the weakening of the behavioral norms (Garland 1990: 3). When social norms are weakened by the increase in stress and the combination of poor social institutions and an increase in crime will be observed.

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Because crime and punishment are complex social interactions the theories it is important to explore the body of social research that has been established on both crime and punishment. David Garland critiques the available research. The book has been critiqued by Contemporary Sociology, the American Journal of Sociology, and the British Journal of Criminology.

Punishment and Modern Society is an outstanding delineation of the sociology of punishment. At last, the process that is surely the heart and soul of criminology, and perhaps of sociology as well—punishment—has been rescued from the fringes of these ‘disciplines’…. This book is a first-class piece of scholarship.”—Graeme Newman, Contemporary Sociology. In this review, Newman is focusing on Garland’s research which traces the evolution of scientific research through modern times. The depth of the work allows the reader to obtain a full view of the various factors involved in the system of punishment.

“Garland’s treatment of the theorists he draws upon is erudite, faithful and constructive…. Punishment and Modern Society is a magnificent example of working social theory.”—John R. Sutton, American Journal of Sociology. In Garland’s work, the researcher’s work that he cited always clarified the point that he was trying to convey with his research. By choosing the correct quotes and the correct time in which they were used the reader is able to gain a fuller understanding of the philosophy surrounding crime and punishment.

“This is a superbly intelligent study. Its comprehensive coverage makes it a genuine review of the field. Its scholarship and incisiveness of judgment will make it a constant reference work for the initiated, and its concluding theoretical synthesis will make it a challenge and inspiration for those undertaking research and writing on the subject. As a state-of-the-art account it is unlikely to be bettered for many a year.”—Rod Morgan, British Journal of Criminology. This review is focusing on both the quality of work and the unique sociological perspective that Garland has provided in this work. His work can be used on several levels both by individuals that work in the field as well as a source of research for individuals that are conducting research and writing papers.

The modern-day penal system is believed by many to be less than effective in the prevention of crime. David Garland’s work Punishment and Modern Society attempts to show that while the concern over the functionality of the prison system has been debated by historians and philosophers since the first prison was created. The current list of punishments is inefficient in preventing or reducing crime and the high cost of the penal system to produce less than stellar results. Two individuals whose work assisted David Garland’s research are Michel Foucault and Lawrence Stone. Michel Foucault argued that the failure of the penal system has been a persistent and almost functional requirement of the modern prison system since its original conception (Garland 1990: 5). Lawrence Stone was another historian whose work generally rebuffed Michel Foucault agreed with him on this topic when he said that the twentieth-century prison system was less useful than the appendix in the human body (Garland 1990: 5).

Punishment for a crime is a requirement to maintain social order. By reacting to the crime with punishment the social order is maintained. Unfortunately, the penal system has turned toward more a managerial method when reacting to crime. By reacting to crime in this fashion the penal system is not providing the means to maintain the social norms that punishment is supposed to maintain (Garland 1990: 8). By failing to punish crime and the criminals that commit the crime will cause the law-abiding individuals to lose faith in the system that protects them from the criminals. A second result of punishing crimes consistently is that it provides the individuals that rely on the system the comfort that there are individuals that work for the system that is competent and, that the system is effective and functional and that most importantly crime is outside the norm of acceptable behavior (Garland 1990: 9). Having the majority of individuals believe in the system that protects them will result in less crime creating a more effective legal system due to the decrease in crime.

There is an additional concern if the general population believes that the threat of punishment and the punishment itself were routinely used to attempt to control the social order without being effective a similar decline in those individuals who believe in the system maintaining the social order would be seen (Garland 1990: 37). This can be seen in the case of adolescent offenders and the judicial system’s response to their crimes. Because the punishments for the crimes are ineffectual in scope yet consistently pursued the belief that the system can control teenager’s behaviors through effective punishment has significantly declined.

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The failures of the penal system can be seen with the available statistics on the rate of individuals incarcerated, the number of individuals that return to jail after being pardoned, and the number of minor crimes that require a fine or community service to be paid instead of time behind bars (Garland 1990: 39). Individuals that are responsible for the running of the system believe that the failures of the system can be resolved if significant changes in funding and staff are received as well as an increase in communication and cooperation among the agencies that are a part of the penal system. Unfortunately due to the failure of the system itself has been called into question resulting in a loss of confidence in the institution by many individuals (Garland 1990: 42).

The concept currently in use today for the prison system is that individuals that are broken the law should be punished in a positive manner by an impersonal system (Garland 1990: 52). This belief has been held by the general population since the beginning of the modern penal system which began during a reform movement in the late 1800s (Garland 1990: 142). This reform began as an attempt to bring law enforcement and judicial proceedings out of the shadows and into the light. Before this reform movement was successful an individual could be investigated for a crime without any notification other than torture until the hearing when the judgment and punishment were declared (Garland 1990: 140). During this time knowledge was considered a form of power and maintaining that power was vital as it kept those individuals in power. The reforms believed that allowing the public and the accused to be informed of the legal proceedings prevented a system based on fear from flourishing and promoted more rights for the individual rather than remaining solely with the state and government (Garland 1990: 142). Before these reforms, the criminal justice system was defined as a crime against the sovereign and the justice meted out was considered an act of vengeance delivered by the state against one of its enemies (Garland 1990: 140). While torture was not completely banned by these reforms the limitations that were placed on the practice made it more likely that the individual was guilty of the crime being investigated (Garland 1990: 140). As the criminal justice system evolved with these reforms the rights of the individual began to protect the individual from the powers of the state.

The reforms continued allowing the criminal justice system to evolve into a form similar to what is being practiced today in the early 1900s. However, with the problems facing the criminal justice system today, the public opinion is for the reforms process it is believed that the flaws of the system could make it an unreasonable proposition (Garland 1990: 58). The flaws of the system create a form of skepticism in the belief that the prison system could be used as an additional method of social engineering the perfect society.

As a further demonstration of the lack of confidence in the penal system the belief in the ability to rehabilitate individuals in jail has also been a victim of the inefficiencies of the system. While the principles of rehabilitation used to be frequently heard from individuals associated with the penal system when this book was written the word and principles in which it was used have been removed from many jurisdictions or used without confidence and only in certain situations (Garland 1990: 257). The eroding of faith in the penal institution’s ability to rehabilitate prisoners has robbed the institution of one of its main purposes. If the population believes that prison does not deter crime or rehabilitate those who are incarcerated within them then a new course has to be set for the penal institution (Garland 1990: 130). By searching for a new course of action to be taken by the system individuals who have been employed by the penal system have been forced to rethink the basic principles of their actions including being able to justify the penal sanctions. In order to create more effective penal sanctions, a strong foundation of institutional identity needs to be formed.

While the penal system has evolved in contemporary society the focus has changed from ritualized procedures to regulative measures. The regulative measures require an increased openness of the criminal justice system (Garland 1990: 70). In the United States, the criminal justice system is comprised of three distinct activities. The crime is investigated by a police unit and an arrest is made. After the arrest, the case is brought to a trial where the court system determines guilt or innocence, and punishment is decided upon. The third step is where the criminal caries out the punishment either in the forms of a fine, community service, or imprisonment. In the first and third stages, the general population is not allowed to visit or interact with the process. During the court case, however, the public is allowed and even invited to come into the courtroom and hear both the testimony and the decided upon punishment (Garland 1990: 73). By allowing individuals to witness the trial and allocation of punishment the belief that the main body of work in the criminal justice system is carried out by the courts is enhanced in the minds of the population. The public also generally believes that prisons are merely tools available to the court to carry out the punishments. Because of this, it is very difficult to create reforms in the prison system.

This concern over social engineering and the failures evident in the penal system has opened a debate over the justice model and general deterrence. Some of the questions that have been raised by this discourse include the right to punish, the limits on state power, the responsibility of a community in both causation and prevention of criminality, and the role of the victim (Garland 1990: 158). These questions represent both the solutions to the problems in the criminal justice system as well as the extent of the problems facing the system. By considering both the roots and the social ramifications will assist in the formation of a new penal system without the flaws of the current code.

The criminal justice system is a complex organization that is influenced by a wide range of social and political ideas. The influence on the criminal justice system has been in effect since the beginnings of the criminal justice system. Because the United States is a melting pot of different cultures, political ideologies, and religious beliefs the criminal justice system has to accommodate those varied beliefs.

As research has continued into ways to improve the criminal justice system can be improved is looking for ways that include dispersing the punishment throughout the community. This has included searching for ways to discipline the offenders. This attempt to find improved methods of punishment and has resulted in a greater understanding of the intricacies of the criminal justice system. Due to this understanding researchers and analysts are able to objectively analysis the concepts of criminology and the effect of current actions and ways of thought on the penal system.

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The book covers the historical creation of the legal and penal system following the theories of many prominent historians and sociologists and then using their theories to create a compelling look at the entire sociological perspective of the study of crime. As the book covers writings covering several hundred years of thought and research on the subject it provides the reader with an in-depth look at the many factors that surround crime and punishment under the current method of controlling crime.

After this book was written there was an increase in the body of research. Due to this work individuals that work in this field became interested in the concepts presented in this work such as the notion of social control and the nature of power in a penal setting. By focusing on these two concepts it will be possible to create change in the penal system that will assist both the individuals that are working in the field, the criminals that are affected by the standards and structures of the field and the communities that relay on the criminal justice system to prevent crime in their neighborhoods. While further research in these two concepts is needed the necessary first steps have been taken due to the research presented in this work.

Because the book covers such a wide scope of historical perspectives on criminology as well as the synthesis of the research it manages to be both an excellent book for students conducting research as well as individuals that work in the criminology field. Areas in the field of criminology that would be epically rewarded by reading this book are sociologists that work within the criminal justice system throughout every level. They would be assisted in their work by receiving a greater understanding of the how the principles of criminology are affected and assisted by sociological principles. Because of the books versatility and functionality it is a great addition to the field of criminological research and development.

Individuals that would benefit from reading this book are an individual that is interested in the field of crime and punishment as well as individuals that are already employed in the field. By reading this work individuals that are working in this field will be able to understand the roots of their field allowing them to understand the concepts that shape the requirements of their work responsibilities while promoting the social change necessary to reclaim the ability to orchestrate social change in a positive manner. For individuals that are interested in the field of criminology they will also provide a solid foundation in the history and theory of the field. Based on this increased understanding of the history they will be able to make a more informed choice about continuing their study of the field and perhaps offer suggestions on what aspect of the field of they would like to focus their study and their future career on.


Garland, David 1990. Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory (Studies in Crime and Justice). The University of Chicago Press.

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