Let ‘Em Rot: Understanding Public Punitiveness and Forgiveness Toward Offenders

Shadd Maruna, Criminology, Northwestern University

Research Grant, 2003, 2004

The University of Cambridge Public Opinion Project (UCPOP) is an investigation into individual variation in punitive attitudes towards offenders. We are interested in the psychosocial characteristics of individuals who hold highly punitive attitudes (e.g., support for the death penalty, corporal punishment, and longer prison sentences) and those who decidedly do not. The purpose of the project is to better understand the nature and source of these differences in punitive views. In doing so, it is hoped that this study might contribute towards humanizing the “punitive public” and lifting the conversation around crime and public opinion beyond the stereotypes that plague all sides of the debate (e.g., notions of “authoritarian, ignorant cowboys” in favor of the death penalty and “bleeding-heart elites” in opposition).

The aim ultimately is to transcend the usual predictors of punitiveness and explore the "psychological functions" of these attitudes from the perspective of the "whole person."

We argue that understanding the nature of individual punitiveness requires an exploration into individuals’ self-identities, worldviews, and personal biographies (see Gaubatz, 1995; Hochschild, 1981). In particular, a hermeneutic enquiry into punitiveness and identity may be useful for untangling people’s conscious contradictions and internal inconsistencies regarding attitudes towards crime and punishment that may be contributing to discrepancies in survey-based studies of the phenomena. This study, then, explicitly seeks to complement and supplement the considerable theoretical work in the sociology of punishment (e.g., Garland, 2001) and the wealth of survey research on punitive attitudes based on public opinion polling (e.g., Hough & Roberts, 1998). The aim ultimately is to transcend the usual predictors of punitiveness and explore the “psychological functions” of these attitudes from the perspective of the “whole person.”

This project consists of three separate parts. The first step is a brief survey of households in the UK that serves the dual purpose of testing some basic correlates of punitive attitudes and identifying these two samples of individuals who can be studied more in depth. Next, two small samples (one consisting of individuals holding strongly punitive views and the other of strongly nonpunitive respondents) will be interviewed in depth in order to generate grounded hypotheses regarding the psychology behind these attitudes. Finally, these hypotheses will be “tested” with larger samples of both “types” using a mixed nomothetic-idiographic strategy that will allow for the development of quantitative indices derived from qualitative information (see Maruna, 2001).

  1. Garland, David (2001). The Culture of Control. Chicago: University of Chicago.

  2. Gaubatz, Kathyrn Taylor (1995). Crime In The Public Mind. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

  3. Hochschild, Jennifer L. (1981). What's Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

  4. Hough, Mike and Julian Roberts (1998). Attitudes to Punishment: Findings from the British Crime Survey. London: Home Office.

  5. Maruna, Shadd (2001). Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books.

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