Social Conditions and Cross-National Imprisonment Rates: Using Set-Theoretic Methods for Theory Testing and Identifying Deviant Cases

Date01 May 2017
Published date01 May 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2017, Vol. 33(2) 152 –172
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/1043986216688815
Social Conditions and
Cross-National Imprisonment
Rates: Using Set-Theoretic
Methods for Theory Testing
and Identifying Deviant Cases
Terance D. Miethe1, Emily I. Troshynski1,
and Timothy C. Hart2
Macro-level theories of punishment suggest that particular social conditions explain
national imprisonment rates over place and time. Important causal factors underlying
these theories include a country’s level of development, criminality, socioeconomic
inequality, and political volatility. Based on a sample of 166 nations and set-theoretical
methods, the present study uses the formal logic standards of necessity and sufficiency
to evaluate the empirical merits of these widely assumed causal relations. After
summarizing the confirmatory evidence and patterns of exceptional cases, results
are discussed in terms of their implications for refining current macro-level theories
of punishment and future testing of them through the conjunctive analysis of set-
theoretic relations.
cross-national imprisonment, set-theoretic methods, necessary and sufficient
Cross-national studies of punishment differ widely in their theoretical approach, ana-
lytic methods, and sampling units. They span functional and conflict theories, multiple
methods, research designs, and diverse samples. Despite these differences, however,
1University of Nevada, Las Vegas, NV, USA
2Griffith University, Southport, Queensland, Australia
Corresponding Author:
Terance D. Miethe, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 Maryland
Parkway, Las Vegas, NV 89154-5009, USA.
688815CCJXXX10.1177/1043986216688815Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeMiethe et al.
Miethe et al. 153
previous macro-level studies share a common interest in the explication of the particu-
lar social conditions that enable and constrain the use of state-sponsored punishment.
Based on existing functionalist and conflict theories, the most commonly identified
risk factors for high imprisonment rates in modern societies include a country’s level
of development, criminality, socioeconomic inequality, and political volatility.
Although different theoretical perspectives provide alternative interpretations of the
causal mechanisms by which these antecedent social conditions influence punishment,
these causal conditions assumed to underlie national imprisonment rates reflect a more
general concept of “social threat” (Liska, 1992).
Using set-theoretic methods and a large sample of nations (n = 166), the present
study investigates the causal significance (i.e., the necessity and/or sufficiency) of
particular set relations involving social conditions and national incarceration rates.
Both crisp- and fuzzy-set analyses are used to identify the separate and conjunctive
influences of nations’ levels of socioeconomic development, criminality, inequality,
and political volatility among high- and low-imprisonment-rate nations. After sum-
marizing the confirmatory evidence and patterns among deviant cases, these findings
are discussed in terms of their implications for future research on testing macro-level
theories of punishment and conjunctive analyses.
Social Threat and State-Sponsored Punishment
Socio-legal scholars have developed an impressive array of macro-level theories of
societal conditions to explain the prevalence and nature of criminal punishment.
Within the general framework of functionalist and conflict theories, this scholarship
explores the relationship between criminal sanctions and social solidarity (Durkheim,
1893/1997), economic conditions (Rusch & Kirchheimer, 1939), cultural changes in
the methods of control (Elias, 1939/1982; Foucault, 1977; Garland, 1992), population
heterogeneity (Ruddell & Urbina, 2007), the global diffusion of neoliberal ideology
(Wacquant, 2009), and partisan politics at the state and local levels (Jacobs & Helms,
1996; Sutton, 2004; Tonry, 2004).
Although interpreted from diverse perspectives, a central premise of most macro-
level theories is that the prevalence of state-sponsored punishment is a reflection or
consequence of the level of threat or disruption in that society. The nature of this threat
can take various forms. For example, these threats may be real (e.g., due to an “objec-
tive” rise in crime rates), real in their consequences (e.g., when citizens worry or are
fearful of crime [Ditton & Farrell, 2000; Lee, 2007]) or socially constructed (e.g., as
reflective of moral panics [Cohen, 2002; Ruddell & Urbina, 2007]). They may also
derive from multiple sources, including social differentiation, economic conditions,
and/or political forces. Depending upon the source and nature of these threats,
increased incarceration may serve as one of many potential mechanisms of state-spon-
sored social control for dealing with these disruptive influences and/or maintaining the
status quo.
From this general social-threat perspective and specific applications of it, particular
social conditions have theoretical importance in explaining imprisonment rates over

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