Comparative penology has focused on identifying the primary source of cross-national contrasts in punitiveness, with the debate largely split between political or cultural explanations. However, cultural heritage and political institutions provide only partial illumination. It is not simply that these frameworks tend towards a macro perspective, but that comparative theories have been curiously insensitive to the empirical realities of penal politics. Yet punishment is always a product of political processes, it is governmental work that makes laws, and produces penal programmes, practices and regimes. To address this gap, this paper presents the concept of political culture.

Political culture is defined as the sets of cultural sensibilities and political ideas that form a logic of practice for how penal power is deployed. My argument is that our respective political cultures are critical in shaping national penal characteristics, and are thus pivotal in determining comparative differences in penality.

Using the comparative case studies of Ireland and Scotland (looked at here from the 1970s), the paper aims to show that by taking the time to recover and interpret the prevailing political cultures, we will be better able to illuminate and make sense of cross-national penal patterns. Rather than merely adding local or idiosyncratic detail to our macro comparative accounts, the approach outlined below aims to develop a more theoretically and empirically ambitious research agenda than what tends to prevail in the comparativist’s toolkit.


Louise Brangan is a Chancellor’s Fellow in Criminology at the University of Strathclyde. Her research concerns the comparative and historical study of penal cultures. She is the author of The Politics of Punishment: A comparative study of imprisonment and political culture (2021). This summer she will commence a 3-year ESRC funded study on mass decarceration in the Republic of Ireland, focusing on Magdalen Laundries.

This is the latest workshop in the Social Analysis of Penality Across Boundaries series which is co-organised by Professor Richard Sparks, SCCJR/University of Edinburgh and Máximo Sozzo from Universidad Nacional del Litoral, Argentina.