Critical Criminology

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 125–139 | Cite as

The Social History in Death Penalty Defense Advocacy

  • Jesse Cheng


This article offers an epistemologically focused descriptive account of the “social history” in American death penalty defense advocacy. Under British scientific empiricism, sufficient investigation forms the basis for representations that aspire to be adequate to investigated realities. As defense advocates see it, however, the very idea of humanity resists the goal of epistemological finality that comes with empiricist adequation. I argue that the social history investigation instrumentalizes this aesthetic of investigation-then-representation, allowing advocates to affirm to themselves the humanity of their clients while sidestepping the goal of adequation.


Social History Moral Disengagement Defense Advocate Mental Health Evaluation Capital Case 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Thanks are due to Bill Maurer and George Marcus for their feedback on earlier drafts of this piece, as well as to the numerous capital defense advocates who lent me their valuable insights during my fieldwork. Financial support for ethnographic research was provided by National Science Foundation grant #SES-0548835, and the Department of Anthropology, the School of Social Sciences, and the Center for Ethnography at the University of California, Irvine.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.PasadenaUSA

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