Introduction: Disciplines, fields, and problems

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology

Publication Title

The anthropology of police


The purpose of this volume is to explore a deceptively simple question: what are the potential contributions of anthropology to the study of police? The question is deceptively simple because embedded within it are two much thornier questions: first, what is disciplinarily distinctive about anthropology? Second, what exactly do we mean by “police”? Let's start with the second question. The challenge of defining “the police” as an object of inquiry can be fruitfully illustrated through an examination of its origins. It is conventional to trace the origin of modern police to London in the year 1829. A product of Robert Peel and the Metropolitan Police Act, the London Metropolitan police embarked on its first patrols on September 29 of that year, forming the blueprint for police as we know them today. The blue uniforms. The urban orientation. The tension between a mandate toward law enforcement and one of order maintenance. The correspondingly complicated relationship to (state-sanctioned) violence. But this account is contested (Brogden 1987; Sinclair 2011; Styles 1987). Some have traced the origins of police not to London, but to one of its colonial contemporaries, the Irish Royal Constabulary (IRC). The IRC was likewise formed under Peel, during his time as Irish Secretary. It came into being with the passing of the Irish Peace Preservation Force Act in 1814 (Jeffries 1952, 53). The IRC was quite different from the London police. Whereas the London “bobbies” (a nickname in honor of their progenitor, Robert Peel) were formally accountable to the citizens-indeed, the low pay that seems to accompany police work everywhere gained its philosophical justification here as Peel insisted on the importance of not setting police officers too far above those fellow citizens whom they were policing (Taylor 2017)-the IRC had no such mandate. As constituted, the IRC was closer to what we would today call a paramilitary force: adopting tactics more oriented toward outside occupation than co-existence with fellow citizens (Jeffries 1952; Brogden 1987). That there is a tension between different models and histories of police is, on its own, not the point. The point is that these models (amongst others) developed along different trajectories that have indelibly shaped the police institution as it exists today, even “returning home” to their purported point of origin. Indeed, if police are today a “global form,” able to be decontextualized and recontextualized across time and space, then this is the result of this earlier history (Garriott 2013). This insight sheds light on why there continues to be such strong debate regarding the proper role of police in contemporary social and political life. That police today are the subject of both valorization and vilification is a reflection of this history in which they have been tasked with serving as both an outside occupying force and as fellow citizens working to maintain the conditions of civil coexistence; as both a mechanism for preserving state authority and as a mechanism for administering and maximizing the public good; and as both a state-based, public institution and a private, for-profit enterprise (Brogden 1987). To speak of “police,” then, is to speak of a particular configuration of these various, and variously intersecting, tasks as made manifest within a particular moment in time and space. At this point we might return to the first question: what of anthropology? What makes anthropology distinct among the disciplines in its approach to police? This is a question with which anthropologists themselves grapple. It is also a question coming from scholars of police in other disciplines (such as sociology and criminology) where the interest in police is longstanding. Here there are interesting parallels, for just as specifying what is meant by “police” raises many questions, so, too, does the effort to specify anthropology's distinct disciplinary identity. Not only does the professional self-imagination of anthropologists differ from how they are perceived by their extra-disciplinary colleagues, but the question of anthropology's core raison d'être has been and remains exceptionally contested. Much of the debate centers on the continued relevance of disciplinary markers that have enjoyed hegemonic status in the past. One might ask, for instance: What about the higher tendency amongst anthropologists to do research in “nonwestern” locales (a tendency that is, of course, a legacy of anthropology's own connection to various forms of colonialism)? While the legacy of scholars such as Bronislaw Malinowski, often credited with establishing the standard paradigm for anthropological research, still exerts significant influence over anthropology (Manning, this volume), the discipline has long since moved away from the exclusive focus on so-called “primitive,” “savage,” “pre-modern,” “nonwestern,” or small-scale societies that once served as a disciplinary boundary between itself and other social sciences (Wolf 1982; Trouillot 1991; Baker 1998; Fabian 2014). And anthropology has worked hard to rid itself of the theoretical burdens implicit in the “cultural areas” paradigm that once defined research agendas (Malkki 1997). At the same time, it remains the case that a disproportionate amount of anthropological work does focus itself outside the Anglophone West, particularly in comparison to neighboring disciplines that likewise study police. Moreover, though anthropology has largely ceded the terrain of formally comparative studies-including comparative policing-to scholars formed in other disciplinary traditions, anthropologists continue to write with an implicit comparative, global awareness. This has led some to try to rework what a global approach itself might look like (Hannerz 1996; Tsing 2005; Inda and Rosaldo 2002; Appadurai 1996; Collier and Ong 2005), while the majority engage with work written about a diverse set of locales by virtue simply of reviewing the relevant literature on their particular topic of inquiry (such as police, cf. Karpiak 2013b; Karpiak 2016). Finally, there is an increasing tendency to design projects focused less on discrete, geographically bound populations and more on multisited inquiries that productively blur the distinction between locales (Marcus 1998). What about culture? The culture concept, particularly in the United States, is the concept most centrally associated with (cultural) anthropology. Yet its prominence has been challenged, particularly over the past four decades. During this time the culture concept has been subject to intense critique for, amongst other things, its inattention to questions of power, to history, and to the politics of representation (Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Wolf-Meyer 2007; Abu-Lughod 1996; Rosaldo 1993; Clifford 1988). This is not to say, however, that culture has disappeared from the anthropological lexicon. On the contrary, as Michael Fischer has argued, “[w]ithout a differentiated and relational notion of the cultural (the arts, media, styles, religions, value-orientations, ideologies, imaginaries, worldviews, soul, and the like), the social sciences would be crippled, reducing social action to notions of pure instrumentality” (Fischer 2007, 1). But the very need to make such a claim-and in the journal Cultural Anthropology, no less-demonstrates the degree to which culture has lost some of its hegemonic status. Moreover, anthropologists can no longer pretend to enjoy a monopoly over the term (Holmes and Marcus 2005, 2006; Deeb and Marcus 2011), as the insights of both “cultural criminology” (Hayward and Young 2004; Kane 2004; Ferrell, Hayward, and Young 2008) and studies of “police culture” (Skolnick 2008; Loftus 2010; see also Martin, this volume) can attest. What about ethnography? To be sure, anthropology is unique in its commitment to ethnography as the research tool of choice (Van Maanen 1988; Fassin 2017). But anthropologists are by no means the only discipline to employ the method. Ethnography and other forms of “participant observation” or fieldwork abound across the social sciences (one need only browse the pages of the journal, Ethnography). And within anthropology, the central place accorded ethnography continues to be rethought. For example, Gupta and Ferguson (1997) have shown that the idea of the anthropological “field” itself, and its concomitant sense of transformative experience, serves largely as a micropolitical academic practice that maintains a sense of disciplinary identity even as the methods themselves may seem inadequate to the analytical task at hand. In this vein, several prominent anthropologists have articulated visions of what an anthropology less centered on fieldwork might look like (Asad 2002; G. Feldman 2011), while others continue to stand by ethnography's value, working instead to reimagine and rework the practice of “fieldwork” and the ethnographic project itself.1 Notably, several of the contributions to this volume do not take a strictly ethnographic or even fieldwork-based approach. Instead, they offer reflections on practical engagements with police (Bornstein, Simpson), media analysis (Mutsaers and van Nuenen), and critical analysis of official documents, such as Department of Justice reports (Martin) and legal case files (Ralph). While none of these constitute an ethnography in the strict sense, all are informed deeply by the contributor's more conventional ethnographic work. Thus none of these tendencies, whether toward privileging ethnography, focusing on culture, or engaging in research outside “the West,” provides a stable point of orientation around which to organize an effort like the one pursued here: developing an anthropology of police. This is not to say, however, that they do not remain important tools. Didier Fassin's recent collection, for instance, shows just how powerful ethnography can be when applied to the “world of policing” (Fassin 2017). And Beatrice Jauregui's recent book shows how guiding theoretical presuppositions must be rethought when viewed from the perspective of a different geographic, cultural, and political context (Jauregui 2016). All the same, the anthropology of police envisioned here is a capacious enterprise, notable for the diversity of projects operating under this name more than for the singular perspective it promises. Just as police can be seen as a particular configuration of historically derived trends and tendencies, so, too, does anthropology operate in the shadow of, but not thereby defined by, its particular development as an institutionalized scholarly enterprise. In that spirit, this collection has been put together such that this multiplicity is highlighted rather than (superficially) disciplined or tamed. Indeed, what perhaps distinguishes current anthropological examinations of police from those taking place in other disciplines is that, in anthropology, it remains an emergent enterprise. Many anthropologists have come to their study of police unexpectedly, even reluctantly, pushed toward a consideration of police in the process of seeking answers to other questions, rather than in an effort to understand the police in and of themselves. This is true of the current volume's editors. For instance, Garriott (2011) began his research in the rural United States expecting to examine the treatment trajectories of those using (or working to stop using) the drug methamphetamine. He found, however, that such treatment trajectories could not be understood apart from the broader criminal justice apparatus in which police (as institution) and policing (as practice) played a disproportionate role. Similarly, Karpiak (2010, 2013a) came to study police only tangentially. It seemed a promising site to address one of the fundamental themes motivating his work: how to study and describe the operation of multiple modes of power and resistance simultaneously. In this pursuit, he found his fieldwork following these lines of flight well beyond the bounds of institutions and interactions traditionally understood as “police.” Stories in this vein are shared by many anthropologists who have turned to police as an object of inquiry. This emergent quality of the anthropology of police thus brings an openness and multiplicity to the various projects currently operating under this name. Rather than springing from a single scholarly canon, inquiries may be framed by a variety of theoretical concerns (the anthropology of violence, or drugs, or the state, for instance) or geographical interests. But as the anthropology of police continues to develop, we imagine such intellectual trajectories will become less normative. This volume appears at a moment in which anthropologists are increasingly designing projects that make police an explicit object of inquiry. As they make this shift, many are confronted with a unique cluster of questions, at once conceptual, methodological, and ethical. Put briefly, contemporary anthropologists are the inheritors of what Jean Comaroff has called a “classic legacy” in which there is a distinct tendency to focus on “the underdog, on marginal populations” (2010, 133). The power of this approach is that it has been and continues to be “profoundly counterhegemonic” (ibid.). As Comaroff notes: As anthropologists, we question surface categories; we question the stories that social institutions tell about themselves. In that sense, there is a tendency in anthropology to assume that authoritative structures and institutions should be questioned rather than accepted at face value. We “come from below” methodologically and theoretically.

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