LL4CL      Half Unit
Explaining Punishment: Philosophy, Political Economy, Sociology

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Peter Ramsay NAB 6.27


This course is available on the LLM (extended part-time), LLM (full-time), MSc in Criminal Justice Policy and University of Pennsylvania Law School LLM Visiting Students. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

This course is capped at 30 students.

Course content

The course aims to provide students with a comprehensive overview of the theories that explain the practice of punishment, a practice that defines the criminal law. It will do this by introducing students to philosophical, sociological, political economy and comparative approaches to punishment. It will involve the discussion of all the major philosophical justifications and critiques of state punishment, and sociological and political economy explanations and critiques of punishment.

After an introduction discussing the different approaches to punishment, three seminars will discuss the classical philosophical justifications of punishment and a fourth the contemporary critiques of those classical approaches. Seminars 5 and 6 will discuss punishment from the perspective of sociology and political economy. Seminar 7 will consider comparative approaches to punishment. Seminars 8 and 9 will look at two key aspect of the sociology of punishment, punishment as a cultural phenomenon and punishment as an exercise of power and authority. The final seminar considers the relation between these different perspectives.


This course is delivered through a combination of classes and lectures totalling a minimum of 20 hours in Michaelmas Term.  This year teaching will be delivered through recorded online lectures and a mix of both in-person and online classes to accommodate students who are unable to physically be on campus. This course includes a reading week in Week 6 of Michaelmas Term.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the MT.

Indicative reading

• A von Hirsch, A Ashworth and J Roberts, Principled Sentencing: Readings on Theory and Policy (Hart, 2009)

• B Hudson, Understanding Justice (Open University Press 2003)

• N Lacey, The Prisoners’ Dilemma: Political Economy and Punishment in Contemporary Democracies, (Cambridge University Press 2008)

• J Simon and R Sparks (eds), The Sage Handbook of Punishment and Society (Sage 2013)

• D Garland, Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory (Oxford University Press 1990)


Exam (100%, duration: 2 hours, reading time: 15 minutes) in the summer exam period.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Law

Total students 2019/20: 18

Average class size 2019/20: 18

Controlled access 2019/20: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills