The goal of this study is to determine how ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ under the Eighth Amendment is shaped as a social construct when applied to cases concerning conditions of confinement. For this research, I conducted an analysis of ten Supreme Court cases which evaluated the constitutionality of a punishment within the parameters of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. Using Emile Durkheim’s theory of the conscience collective and penal evolution to interpret the results, I found that the most prevalent themes in the cases relate to individualism. My findings indicate that the opinions of the Court continue to rely on retributive understandings of punishment while also framing issues in individualistic terms, illustrating how differing aspects of American punishment have both evolved and remained constant. I argue that it is ultimately a societal respect for the individual which motivates the justices to vote in a particular way. This study helps to bridge a gap in the literature by examining Supreme Court opinions on punishment through a sociological lens.


Nurse, Anne


Sociology and Anthropology



Publication Date


Degree Granted

Bachelor of Arts

Document Type

Senior Independent Study Thesis



© Copyright 2020 Elizabeth Main