Max Weber Lecture with Nicola Lacey, Oxford University, 15 February 2012 at 17.00, Villa La Fonte, Conference Room

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Prof. Nicola Lacey

About the Speaker: Professor Lacey holds a Senior Research Fellowship at All Souls College and is Professor of Criminal Law and Legal Theory at Oxford University. Her research interests are in criminal law, criminal justice, legal, social and political theory, biography, law, history and literature. Among other books, she is the author of A life of H.L.A. Hart:The nightmare and the noble dream.

The Max Weber Lecture with Professor Lacey is entitled:

“Revisiting the Comparative Political Economy of Punishment”


In this lecture, I will address recent attempts to understand the relevance of political forces and institutions in shaping the practice and the social meaning of punishment. I will focus on one argument about the relevance of the political which has been especially influential during the last decade.

This is the ‘neoliberal penality thesis’: the argument that politics can usefully be characterised as broadly neoliberal, or as social democratic: and that the decline or attenuation of social democracy, and the concomitant rise of neoliberalism have been associated with an intensification of penality. I will sketch what I take to be the key arguments for that thesis, before presenting a critique of both its method and its substantive conclusions.

Though exponents of the neoliberal penality thesis often present it as an ambitious, general theory, I shall argue that it fails the key test to be applied to any such account: viz, does it have the capacity to shed explanatory light on the relationship between punishment and society?

The shortcomings of the neoliberal penality thesis at an explanatory level derive, I shall argue, from a failure to explicate just which political, economic and social institutions constitute neoliberalism; how, systematically, they relate to one another; and precisely how they are implicated in producing neoliberal penality.

These problems may best be illuminated by asking not only what neoliberalism ‘is’ but also analytic, historical and comparative questions about how it has emerged and what sorts of institutional structures are needed to sustain the policies, practices and arrangements which have come to be associated with neoliberalism; when they emerged; and where they hold sway.

In conclusion, and in consequence, I shall make the case for a more differentiated and specifically institutional account of the defining features of political systems integrated within a broad comparative political economy of punishment.

All are welcome to attend, but for organizational purposes, please register with [email protected].