Exceptional states : the political geography of comparative penology

Brangan, Louise (2020) Exceptional states : the political geography of comparative penology. Punishment and Society, 22 (5). pp. 596-616. ISSN 1462-4745 (https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474520915995)

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It is now common in the sociology of punishment to lament that comparative penology has not matured as an area of research. While there have been seminal works in the comparative canon, their conceptual tools tend to be drawn from grand narratives and macro-structural perspectives. Comparative researchers therefore lack concepts that can help capture the complexity of penality within a single nation, limiting the crossnational perspective. Why is this relative lack of comparative refinement still the case? This article investigates this question by looking specifically at penal exceptionalism, a concept central to comparative penology. While punitiveness as a comparative and descriptive category has been critiqued, its converse, penal exceptionalism remains prevalent but undertheorised. Examining exceptionalism reveals that it is not merely the macro-structural approach to comparison that has limited the development of cross-national sociology of punishment, but the Anglocentric assumptions, which are the bedrock of comparative penology. In this essay, I argue that penal exceptionalism versus punitiveness is an Anglocentric formulation. These taken-for-granted assumptions have become so central to the comparative enterprise that they act as a barrier to developing new innovative comparative frameworks and concepts. The article concludes by suggesting some methodological strategies that are intended as a way of helping comparative penology to expand its toolkit and support the ongoing development of more equitable criminological knowledge.