In Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition, David Garland explains how capital punishment has persisted in the United States after being outlawed in all other Western nations. The endurance, he says, stems from the manner in which the American death penalty has come to bear the distinctive hallmarks of America’s political institutions and cultural conflicts. Below, Professor Garland outlines his anthropological approach to the topic and explains the implications of his book’s title. David Garland is Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law and Professor of Sociology at New York University. Peculiar Institution is new this month.
When I talk to people about my book on capital punishment, the first thing they invariably ask is, “Is your book for it or against it?” The answer, I tell them, is neither.
In its discussion of America’s death penalty, Peculiar Institution diverges from the familiar cultural script that shapes most of our conversation. Instead of treating capital punishment as a moral dilemma to be debated, a policy problem to be resolved, or a constitutional question to be settled, the book approaches the institution as a strange social fact that stands in need of explanation.
Most books and articles engage the normative debate, arguing for or against the practice. This one steps back from the fray and tries to take a cool, clear-eyed look at an institution that causes more than its share of consternation and puzzlement. Instead of criticizing America’s 21st century death penalty or defending it against its critics, Peculiar Institution engages the task of explanation: Why do we have this institution? Why does it look the way it does? What functions does it perform for American society and the wider culture? In other words, I approach America’s contemporary system of capital punishment – and the prolix debates and discourses that swirl around it – with the sorts of questions and concepts that anthropologists bring to bear on the exotic cultural practices of a foreign society they are struggling to understand.
The second thing my interlocutors invariably ask is: “Why is the book entitled Peculiar Institution?” After all, isn’t the death penalty a familiar American institution that everyone knows? What is “peculiar” about that? And occasionally someone will ask if “peculiar institution” isn’t the name that southerners used to give to the institution of racialized slavery and which Kenneth Stampp memorably described in his classic book of that name?
Here is what I reply: