Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
Punishment is the universal response to crime and deviance in all societies. As such, it takes various forms. Criminal sanctions like imprisonment and death sentences are allocated and dispensed by state authorities. Other formal punishments involve civil lawsuits and administrative decrees to either reconcile or restore relations among the parties, compensate for personal injuries, and/or prevent further wrongful conduct through restrictions of ongoing practices. Punishment may also involve various types of informal sanctions by family, peers, and extralegal groups like vigilante committees and paramilitary organizations to promote their own interests.
Different types of punishments are used for different purposes. Criminal sanctions serve to reinforce cherished values and beliefs, incapacitate and deter those who may be considering criminal misconduct, and often function to maintain power relations in a society and to eliminate threats to the prevailing social order. The regulation and maintenance of social order is also an important function of civil and administrative sanctions. Both formal and informal punishments may further serve to dramatize the evil of particular conduct in a society, enhance communal solidarity against external threats, and provide the means for social engineering efforts directed at improving the quality of life.
Even a cursory look at punishments, however, reveals that they vary widely over time and place. Formal sanctions by the state or other “official” bodies were largely unknown in earlier agrarian societies, whereas social order in modern industrial societies is possible in many cases only by an elaborate system of formal sanctions.