Recently, societies have become more repressive, their laws more relentless, their magistrates more inflexible, independently of the evolution of crime. In this book, using genealogical and ethnographic approaches, anthropologist Didier Fassin, James D. Wolfensohn Professor in the School of Social Science, addresses the major issues raised by this punitive moment through an inquiry into the foundations of punishment. Asking three simple questions: What is punishment? Why punish? Who is punished? he initiates a critical dialogue with moral philosophy and legal theory about the definition, justification, and distribution of punishment. Discussing various historical and national contexts, mobilizing ten years of research on police, courts, and prisons, and taking up the legacy of Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, he shows that the link between crime and punishment is a historical artifact, that the response to crime has not always been the infliction of suffering, that punishment does not only proceed from the rational logics used to legitimize it, that more severity in sentencing often means increasing social inequality before the law, and that the question, What should be punished?, always comes down to the question, Whom do we deem punishable?—and whom do we want to be spared? Rejecting the triumphant penal populism, this investigation proposes a salutary revision of the presuppositions that nourish the passion for punishing and invites us to rethink the place of punishment in the contemporary world. This volume is based on the Tanner Lectures on Human Values that Fassin delivered at the University of California, Berkeley. The theses that he develops in it are discussed by criminologist David Garland, historian Rebecca McLennan, and sociologist Bruce Western, to whom he responds in a short essay asking: What is a critique of punishment?
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