Justifying ‘Justice’: Tracing the Cultural Politics of Punishment in the Wake of the 2011 English ‘Riots’

Peacock, Chloe. 2021. Justifying ‘Justice’: Tracing the Cultural Politics of Punishment in the Wake of the 2011 English ‘Riots’. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

Taking the English ‘riots’ of August 2011 as a lens, this thesis explores how criminal justice professionals make sense of the punitive system within which they work. Though the four nights of unrest precipitated by the Metropolitan Police force’s killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham have attracted a vast amount of sociological and criminological analysis, relatively little critical academic attention has been paid to the criminal justice reaction that followed.

The thesis draws on qualitative interviews with prosecutors, sentencers, defence lawyers and policymakers who were responsible for designing and delivering the swift and strikingly severe response, characterised by extraordinarily harsh practices at each stage of the process. It applies a critical discourse analysis approach to professionals’ accounts, identifying the imaginations and narratives that allow them to variously rationalise, normalise and problematise this vindictive response to the disturbances.

The thesis contends that agnosis, disavowal, denial and obfuscation are vital to justifying ‘justice’. The analysis shows how four interlocking and overlapping elements enable professionals to frame the punishment of rioters as proportionate, necessary and fair: forgetting England’s long history of unrest and ignoring or dismissing Duggan’s killing, distorting the demographics of ‘the rioters’, summoning a highly selective notion of public opinion, and obscuring the racialised and classed harms that prisons perpetuate.

The thesis offers insight into the cultural politics of punishment in the contemporary conjuncture, highlighting the common sense ideas that sustain the criminal justice system from within. It suggests that a delimited, decontextualised and depoliticised notion of crime, racialised and classed discourses of criminality, an imagination of a monolithically punitive public, and strategic ignorance of the harms of punishment are integral to legitimising a violent and inherently racist and class-based system, both in the wake of the ‘riots’ and in their longer aftermath.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

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Riots; Punishment; Critical Discourse Analysis; Cultural Political Economy; Agnotology

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31 January 2021

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Date Deposited:

14 Apr 2021 16:09

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:18



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