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

This information is for the 2023/24 session.

Teacher responsible

Professor Nicola Lacey (Course Convener), Dr Federico Picinali and Professor Peter Ramsay


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 demand is typically high. This may mean that you’re not able to get a place on this course.

Course content

The course aims to provide students with a comprehensive overview of the theories that purport to explain and/or justify the practice of punishment, a practice that is central to 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 using a case study (which varies from year to year).


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

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce one essay in Autumn Term and give one brief presentation in class during the term.

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 spring exam period.

Key facts

Department: Law School

Total students 2022/23: 27

Average class size 2022/23: 27

Controlled access 2022/23: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

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.

Personal development skills

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