Degradation Ceremonies and the Criminalization of Low-Income Women

Kaaryn Gustafson

University of Connecticut - School of Law

April 19, 2013

3 U.C. Irvine Law Review, Vol. 3, 2013, Forthcoming

This article, a call for both empirical social scientists and critical race theorists to engage with each other in careful interpretive analysis, applies sociologist Harold Garfinkel’s concept of ceremonial degradation to policies, practices, and proposals targeting low-income women of color in the United States. This article offers several examples of degradation ceremonies, including: excessive penalties and extrajudicial public shaming for women convicted of welfare fraud; mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients; high-publicity criminal prosecutions of mothers who violate school district residency requirements to enroll their children in more affluent schools; and tough criminal penalties for those who possess stolen infant formula or other necessities low-income Americans have difficulty obtaining. This article also describes some of the functions served by degradation ceremonies, including: the legitimation of material inequality, the perpetuation of social and economic myths, the policing of status quo distributions of property, and the satisfaction of the public’s emotional desire for sadomasochistic ritual. The article’s final section calls upon policy makers and scholars to acknowledge the degradation of low-income women that now occurs through policy and practice and offers broader suggestions for subverting the ceremonial degradation of the poor.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 60

Keywords: Criminal law, Punishment, Shaming, Degradation ceremonies, Deniable degradation, Criminalization of poverty, Critical race theory, Poverty, Property poachers, Moral empathy, Inequality, Welfare, Drug testing, TANF, Welfare fraud, School district fraud, School residency, Shoplifting, Symbolic power

JEL Classification: D63, I3, J78, K14, K42, P16

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Date posted: April 20, 2013  

Suggested Citation

Gustafson, Kaaryn, Degradation Ceremonies and the Criminalization of Low-Income Women (April 19, 2013). 3 U.C. Irvine Law Review, Vol. 3, 2013, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2254054

Contact Information

Kaaryn Gustafson (Contact Author)
University of Connecticut - School of Law ( email )
65 Elizabeth Street
Hartford, CT 06105
United States
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