Knowledge, domination and criminal punishment revisited: Incorporating state socialism

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A theory of criminal punishment that introduces the organization of knowledge production and of political and legal decision-making as central concepts (Savelsberg, 1994a) is further developed. This article first explicates the general theoretical model. Second, the comparative perspective is enhanced as a previous comparison between the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the United States (US) is extended to include the experience of state socialist systems. Three distinct empirical patterns of punishment dynamics are identified. Each of them is associated with a distinct type of social organization: decentralized domination - personalistic; decentralized domination - bureaucratic; and monopolized domination - bureaucratic. An analysis of the cases of Poland, building on earlier work by Greenberg (1980), and the German Democratic Republic reveals that the organization of domination and knowledge production are crucial to the understanding of criminal punishment under conditions of totalitarianism as well. Yet, bureaucratization does not necessarily lead to stability in punishment trends as the US-West German comparison had suggested. Bureaucratization in combination with monopolization of decision-making power is likely to result in rather dynamic trends. Further, punishment under conditions of totalitarianism appears to follow immediate and strategic political rationales. Politics of punishment in such contexts also do not face the translation problems that haunt the application of political motives to control practices in systems with decentralized power structures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-70
Number of pages26
JournalPunishment and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1999

Bibliographical note

Copyright 2011 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Criminal punishment
  • Domination
  • Imprisonment rates
  • Knowledge
  • State socialism
  • Totalitarianism


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