Risk, responsibility and reconfiguration: penal adaptation and misadaptation

Fergus McNeil, Nicola Burns, Simon Halliday, Neil Hutton, Cyrus Tata

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

100 Citations (Scopus)


This article draws on the findings of an ethnographic study of social enquiry and sentencing in the Scottish courts. It explores the nature of the practice of social enquiry (that is, of social workers preparing reports to assist sentencers) and explores the extent to which this practice is being reconfigured in line with the recent accounts of penal transformation. In so doing, we problematize and explore what we term the ‘governmentality gap’; meaning, a lacuna in the existing penological scholarship which concerns the contingent relationships between changing governmental rationalities and technologies on the one hand and the construction of penality-in-practice on the other. The findings suggest that although policy discourses have, in many respects, changed in the way that these accounts elucidate and anticipate, evidence of changes in penal discourses and practices is much more partial. Drawing on Bourdieu, we suggest that this may be best understood not as a counter-example to accounts of penal transformation but as evidence of an incompleteness in their analyses which reflects the ‘governmentality gap’ and requires the development of more fully cultural penology drawing on ethnographies of penality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)419-442
Number of pages24
JournalPunishment and Society
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2009


  • risk
  • sentencing
  • criminal justice
  • probation
  • pre-sentence investigation
  • social enquiry
  • social inquiry
  • Penology
  • punish
  • criminal justice social workers
  • scotland
  • Scottish


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