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

This information is for the 2021/22 session.

Teacher responsible

Professor Peter Ramsay and Professor Nicola Lacey


This course is available on the LLM (extended part-time), LLM (full-time) 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 has a limited number of places and we cannot guarantee all students will get a place.

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 will have two hours of teaching content each week in Lent Term, either in the form of a two hour seminar or an online lecture and one hour class. There will be a Reading Week in Week 6 of Lent 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.

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2021/22 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 differing needs of students in attendance on campus and those who might be studying online. For example, this may involve changes to the mode of teaching 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 2020/21: 31

Average class size 2020/21: 15

Controlled access 2020/21: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

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