Document Type



Review of When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition, by Austin Sarat (Princeton University Press, 2001) Final publication at 102 Columbia Law Review 1129 (2002)


Austin Sarat’s When the State Kills explores the interrelationship between capital punishment and American culture. Utilizing scholarly approaches drawn from sociology, literary criticism, cultural studies, and political science, Sarat illuminates ways in which the official legal regime of capital punishment creates, reflects, and reinforces broader cultural attitudes about crime and punishment. Moreover, he argues that the destructive cultural consequences of state killing provide reasons for abolition over and above criminological or doctrinal arguments against the practice. Thus, When the State Kills is a powerful intervention in the ongoing death penalty debate, but it is also a case study for considering the benefits of studying law through a cultural lens. This Review Essay suggests that a cultural analysis of law is more than simply an “add-on” to doctrinally focused legal policy debates. Instead, sociolegal scholarship provides useful insights into just the sort of normative questions that are at the heart of such debates. A cultural approach demands that we attend to the important relationship between law and culture: how legal institutions construct social reality, how “law talk” gets dispersed throughout society, how individuals deploy and resist legal norms, and how law symbolically reflects and reinforces deep cultural attitudes, fears, or beliefs.

Date of Authorship for this Version

April 2002

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