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Conference Report: Punishment – Negotiating Society

November 13, 2018

The conference “Punishment – Negotiating Society” on 14–16 February 2018, the third conference organized as part of the International Max Planck Research School on Retaliation, Mediation and Punishment (IMPRS – REMEP), provided a forum for discussion between researchers studying punishment in a wide variety of contexts. The participants, representing such diverse disciplines as history, political science, legal studies, criminology, social and cultural anthropology, sociology, human geography, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience, came from Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

In spite of the conference title, the focus of the presentations was not on punishment itself. Rather, participants were interested in how punishment/punitive measures and society mutually influence one another. Analysis of criminal law illuminated topics such as racism, populism, the treatment of minorities, the role of the police, class issues, sovereignty, legitimacy, the role of the media, and migration and democracy. “Punishment” was thus both a subject of investigation as well as a means for explaining social dynamics. During the discussions it became clear that the decoupling of punishment and justice can contribute to greater analytic clarity and precision. The examination of law and normative ideas of justice made it possible to consider the social conditions to which the courts and legal decisions are always subject. It also shows that full prisons and long prison terms can be economically desirable for prison operators and that the rehabilitation of prisoners or protection of society is not always the primary concern. This is the case, for example, when the prison system is partially or entirely privatized, as in the United States. It is not in the interest of the operators of these private prisons to promote mild punishments, early release, or expensive rehabilitation programmes.

The international and multidisciplinary composition of the conference provided an excellent opportunity for participants to learn about new and unfamiliar perspectives on the relationship between law and justice. Many of the participants plan to continue the discussion in the form of further collaboration. An edited volume collecting selected papers from the conference is in preparation.

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