Punishment and Its Connection to Retaliation and Mediation

Conference at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology on penal norms and social order

February 06, 2018

A conference titled “Punishment – Negotiating Society” will take place at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle on 14–16 February 2018. Thirty international anthropologists and legal scholars will examine, among other topics, the role of criminal law and its norms in structuring and legitimating the social order. The conference is part of the research programme of the International Max Planck Research School on Retaliation, Mediation and Punishment (REMEP), which investigates how forms of retaliation and mediation function as principles for the re-establishment and maintenance of social order. The conference will be held in English.

Diverse ways of managing conflict
The conference is organized by Prof. Dr. Günther Schlee, the speaker of REMEP, and Dr. Timm Sureau, the research school’s coordinator. “Criminal law is a central regulatory system by which states impose their authority and which heavily influence societal conditions”, says Günther Schlee. “It is a system that is subject to constant historical change; simultaneously, the norms vary profoundly between from country to country. Analysing discourses about the purpose, legitimacy, and severity of punishment thus makes it possible to view the normative orders of a polity in a more differentiated manner.” The REMEP research group was founded in 2008 as an interdisciplinary collaboration between legal scholars and anthropologists. This interdisciplinary approach offers several advantages – for example, social conflicts and differing sanctions against violations of norms can be interpreted both from a state and legal perspective as well as a social one.

Victim compensation not part of modern criminal law
“The principle of punishment always presupposes the existence of an overarching authority that is entitled to intervene in conflicts”, Günther Schlee says. “As social anthropologists we are also interested in conflict regulation and principles for maintaining order at a societal and non-state level, such as forms of retaliation and mediation.” Revenge and retribution, in particular, have often been viewed as archaic and pre-modern forms of settling conflicts. But from an anthropological perspective this view is too simplistic. Schlee explains: “Everywhere in the world there exist highly sophisticated forms of retaliation that are intended to prevent escalating cycles of revenge and counter-revenge. For example, by ensuring that victims receive appropriate compensation.” Schlee argues that there is much to be learned from such forms of restorative justice, for “in contemporary criminal law systems there is no provision for making reparations to victims. The principle of state punishment pays little or no attention to the interests of the victim. Many legal scholars see this as a significant flaw.”

Other influences: populism and the neurosciences
The conference will also consider how societal discourses can influence state penal norms. One case study, for example, shows how Romanian and Bulgarian migrants in the UK encounter systematic impediments to accessing the job market; consequently they find themselves at the margins of society and often end up engaging in criminal activities. “Migration is in and of itself not, of course, a criminal act”, Schlee says. “But exclusion can under certain circumstances force entire groups of people into illegality. This phenomenon can be interpreted as a reaction of the state to the populist demand to take a hard line on migrants.” In addition to this form of penal populism, the role of the neurosciences in criminal law will also be discussed at the conference. American courts in particular are relying increasingly on neurological assessments when passing judgments on serious crimes. Günther Schlee sees this as a development that could have far-reaching impacts: “If this insight becomes widespread – namely, the idea that certain people become offenders on account of physiological characteristics that limit their autonomy – then it will surely also become necessary to reconsider the concept of state punishment. For the idea of punishment is inseparably linked to the idea of free will. But if the offender is not free to act and therefore cannot act otherwise than to commit an offense, then he cannot be punished for his deed either.”

Studying global social change
The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. It was established in 1999 by Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, and moved to its permanent buildings at Advokatenweg 36 in Halle/Saale in 2001. Marie-Claire Foblets joined the Institute as Director of the department ‘Law & Anthropology’ in 2012.
Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects. Some 175 researchers from over 30 countries currently work at the Institute. In addition, the Institute also hosts countless guest researchers who join in the scholarly discussions.

Conference programme

More information on REMEP

Contact for this press release
Prof. Dr. Günther Schlee
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Department ‘Integration and Conflict’
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-101
Mail: schlee@eth.mpg.de

PR Contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Press and Public Relations
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425
Mail: schwendtner@eth.mpg.de

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