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Study notes

Sociology of Punishment

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Sociologists debate the purpose of punishment.

Punishment has several purposes:


Rehabilitation &dash; one key purpose of punishment is to rehabilitate the offender; to ensure that they reform their ways and do no go on to commit more crime in the future.

Deterrence &dash; significant punishments can act as a deterrent to other people considering committing the same crime. If someone receives a large fine or a long prison sentence for a particular misdemeanour, this should discourage others from acting similarly in the future (this depends on criminals making a rational choice).

Incapacitation &dash; some punishments, such as prison sentences, directly prevent crime in the sense that the criminal is not able to carry out further crimes because they are physically prevented from doing so. The most extreme example of this is, of course, a death sentence.


Fines some crimes are punished by paying a fine or financial compensation to cover the cost of the damage they have caused.

Restorative justice – there are various approaches to restorative justice where people are encouraged to make amends for their wrong&dash;doing. This can include meeting their victims as well as carrying out activities that restore things to how they were prior to the crime.


For many in society, not least the victims of crime, punishment is about the criminal paying for their crime and for justice to be seen to be done. The criminal has caused harm and therefore some harm should be done to them in response.

Sociologists debate the purpose of punishment.

One of the key debates is between left and right realists.

Right realists emphasise the deterrence role of punishment: if criminals make a rational choice to offend and see people are punished severely for their transgressions, they should make a rational choice not to offend.

Left realists emphasise restorative justice and the idea that a key role of punishment is to make amends for the harm caused.

The sociology of punishment links closely to power and stratification and particularly to power. Those who hand out punishments are in a position of power over those who have committed crimes as well as those who are suspected of committing crimes and those who might consider doing so in the future. Surveillance is also very much about power. Individuals have less power and free will because of the awareness of being watched and judged by those who have power over them. This includes, but is not restricted to, the state. Postmodernists are particularly interested in the complex power relations that exist in contemporary society where not just the police but also private individuals and organisations conduct surveillance and have power.

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