Unemployment, imprisonment, and social structures of accumulation: Historical contingency in the Rusche-Kirchheimer hypothesis

Raymond J Michalowski Jr, Susan M. Carlson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

42 Scopus citations


This study explores the relationship between punishment and social structure by combining the work of Rusche and Kirchheimer with current theorizing regarding social structures of accumulation (SSAs). Specifically, we theorize that the unemployment-imprisonment (U-I) relationship is historically contingent. In particular, we argue that qualitative changes in the configuration of labor markets, state strategies for managing surplus populations, and international relations across SSAs and stages within them result in changes in the magnitude and direction of the U-I relationship. In other words, changes in the qualitative relations among capital, labor, and the state are reflected in quantitative changes in the relationship between rates of unemployment and imprisonment. We hypothesize that three stages of the Fordist SSA (exploration, 1933-1947; consolidation, 1948-1966; decay, 1967-1979) will manifest varying levels of a positive and significant U-I relationship, while the first stage of the new globalized, cyber-technology SSA (1980-1992) will be characterized by a negative U-I relationship due to the co-emergence of a (semi)permanent underclass and an intensification of punitiveness. We test this model using a structurally periodized analysis to determine if the relationship between rates of unemployment and new court admissions to prison (net of rates of violent crime) differs across the four periods studied. Our analysis of the U-I relationship within each SSA phase, and time-varying parameter tests of the periodization of twentieth-century capitalist development, indicate that the U-I relationship is indeed historically contingent and warrants further structurally periodized analysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)217-247
Number of pages31
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1999
Externally publishedYes


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine

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