This seminar is being delivered in collaboration with our Research Seminar Series.


Drawing from ethnographic and archival research on parole in the USA, this talk proposes conceptual shifts in how we understand risk practices, technologies and knowledges. It argues that technologies of risk assessment (e.g., algorithmic assessment instruments, classificatory schemas) operate performatively. That is, they do not just report on but also create and structure the social world. This happens through influencing the beliefs of parole personnel and establishing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet, it also happens through risk technologies triggering material, bureaucratic and automatic effects – independent of or even contrary to beliefs – that turn risk/dangerousness into a legal and institutional ‘fact’. In tracing these performative effects, I contend that risk practices are undergirded not by a logic of risk (and attendant uncertainty), but by a logic of threat that imagines dangerousness as a certainty.

Presenter biography

Dr Robert Werth is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Rice University. He received his PhD in Criminology, Law and Society from the University of California, Irvine. Broadly, his work explores how societies think about, produce knowledge on, and govern crime, ‘criminality’ and penal subjects. His current research entails two overlapping foci. First, it ethnographically explores how individuals on parole experience and navigate state efforts to regulate their conduct and personhood. Second, it examines the ways in which parole field personnel utilize and deploy technical (e.g. algorithmic risk assessments, institutional classifications), moral and affective knowledges in supervising individuals in the community and instantiating agency mandates (e.g. promoting public safety, fostering rehabilitation). His work has been published in journals including Social & Legal Studies, Punishment & Society, Theoretical Criminology, and the British Journal of Criminology, and in Ruth Armstrong and Ioan Durnescu (eds.), Parole and Beyond: International Experiences of Life after Prison (London: Palgrave MacMillan). His new research project explores how treatment courts (e.g., drug courts, veterans’ courts) – that encourage alternatives to incarceration – understand, frame, and attempt to address trauma and offending.


Level 2, TC Beirne School of Law
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The University of Queensland
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