American Capital Punishment: A Theoretical Problem for Sociological Analysis

David Garland

Capital punishment may be seen as the highest expression of the power of the penal state. Yet the forms and functions of capital punishment, as practiced in 21st century America, are not well understood by sociological theory. The interpretive frameworks found in the sociological literature are mostly premised upon historical rather than contemporary practices, while the legal and criminological studies that do engage with the contemporary are primarily concerned with legal and moral critique rather than sociological understanding. This paper develops a theoretical account of the modern American death penalty. Drawing on historical and comparative research, and addressing the distinctive characteristics of the American polity and group relations, the analysis aims to explain the specific forms through which capital punishment is currently administered and the social uses to which it is put.

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