Punishment exists universally as a form of social control, spanning a continuum from the physically inconsequential to lethality. What explains observable variations in punishment, or lethal punishment as a form of social control? This paper builds upon Black’s pure sociology framework and Milner’s theory of status relations to argue that lethal punishment occurs mainly under conditions of marginalization, disruptions of the previous social geometries, and social polarization that characterize interpersonal encounters or inter-group relationships. These conditions facilitate the status degradation processes that lead to the dehumanization of the “other.” By the same token, such conditions do not often prevail in familial settings and hence lethal punishments are far less common than the lethality associated with other forms of moralistic violence and state-sanctioned punishments.
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