Resolved: Culture is the Center of the Anthropology of Policing

This is the second entry in my series of posts on the question: “What is the curriculum for the anthropology of policing?” As promised, in this post I will share a syllabus I taught last semester, and follow Kevin’s lead in using critical reflection on my teaching experience as a way to think about the challenges of “canon formation” for the anthropology of policing. Before I do this, however, I should put all my cards on the table and say that I am beginning from a particular assumption about the anthropology of policing. My ‘original position’ (apologies to Rawls) is this: (a) the disciplinary core of anthropology is its concern with culture and, therefore, (b) the integrating core of the anthropology of policing is an anthropological concern with culture. Based on this assumption, I expect the answer to the question of my previous post (i.e. overlap in the syllabi for three hypothetical courses on the anthropology of policing pitched to the distinct audiences of (i) practitioners, (ii) undergraduate liberal arts majors, and (iii) anthropology graduate students) to be “Yes.” And not just “Yes,” but “Yes, there is an overlap. And it consists of a particular literature about the culture of policing.”

So, the ultimate purpose of this exercise in public auto-critique is to rise to the challenge of converting the vague prejudices of an American-cultural-anthropologist into a bibliography of canonical ideas about the culture of policing. The job will be finished when we have assembled a bibliography robust enough to answer critiques registered on behalf of any of the three audiences listed above. And if, at the end of this ordeal, my culturalist prejudices have not been crushed under the jackboot of political economy, or scattered to the winds of the policy community, then I will call myself a winner and buy everyone a drink at the November AAAs.

So, on to the syllabus. It is for a course I taught last semester, called Policing: An International Perspective, as an elective in the University of Hong Kong’s masters program in criminology. This is a popular two-year coursework-based degree “designed as a professional qualification for practitioners in criminal justice and related fields (including NGOs), [but also] open for people with an interest in the field of criminology in general.” The program is housed within a sociology department that awards PHDs in sociology, anthropology and criminology. Thus the experience of working here has thus brought me into contact with all three audiences mentioned above. The course itself enrolled 18 students, about half of whom were serving in what is locally known as the “disciplined forces.” I designed the course before I came to Hong Kong, however. And the lack of a practical familiarity with my audience gave a rather free rein to my personal sense of the how the anthropology of policing fit together as a coherent topic of instruction.

So, without further ado, for your apprasial and critique, here is the syllabus.

Where do you think its grand intellectual vision crumbled most dramatically in its confrontation with the realities of the classroom?


5 thoughts on “Resolved: Culture is the Center of the Anthropology of Policing

  1. Joe Wicentowski says:


    Great syllabus, thanks for sharing, and a great topic for discussion. I’d be interested to hear more about how the course went. I noticed a fair number of readings on the history of policing, but was intrigued that you didn’t include much on the history of policing in East Asia, since the course is taught in Hong Kong. As I’m sure you know, Hong Kong itself has an interesting place in the history of policing, as, for example Naoyuki Umemori’s dissertation dealing with the effect of British policing in Hong Kong on Japan’s police system shows, and certain episodes in Elizabeth Sinn’s book (Power and Charity) suggest. (Not to mention your own work on policing in Taiwan!) You mentioned that you began designing the course before arriving in Hong Kong, but I’m interested to know: Are most readings on East Asia not adequately rich from an anthropological view, or are they too close to home for your classroom?


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  2. Hi Joe,
    Just a quick note here to thank you for your input and to say that the issue you are raising here is quite profound. Anthropology and history have a rather porous boundary and, as I suspect you know well, there are good arguments for the necessity of anchoring anthropological objects on historical grounds. The choice of structuring this course around a “functionalist” thematization of policing was motivated by considerations that I hope to explore at length (hopefully in a more timely manner than I seem to be doing at present), and perhaps reject entirely in favor of trying out an approach to the course next year as a comparative history of policing in different places (Hong Kong being one), in which case I suppose I will begin the Taiwan section with your work on policing public health. Anyways, great to see you on the blog and hope to talk more with you about these issues soon.

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  3. Jeff,

    A couple of first impressions: First, I really like this, especially the beginning (although I don’t know all of that lit). I’m going to have to explain my approach to “policing” to a group of sociologists and criminologists in a couple of weeks, and these are exactly the kinds of “touchstones” that I think are going to be necessary to use in order to actually explain the particularity of an anthropological approach. In fact, it kind of makes me want to start our discussion about “what is the anthropology of policing” with a group evaluation of Bayley’s work…

    …Besides that I might nitpick about whether “essence” is the right word for Weber’s view on what the police’s role is in the modern state… I would probably say something more like “ethos” or even “praxis” of the state. But again, that’s nitpicking.

    The real issue I think we need to talk about, and I think you saw this coming from me a million miles away and it’s why you’re a brave man, is the utility of the term “culture”. I mean, I think I know what you might mean by that (and what I think you mean is that the things police do, think and feel are tied up with a whole large complex of everyday practices and attitudes which are usually rather arbitrarily cordoned off by other disciplines), but I’m not sure, because it can mean so many things.

    And even if I *was* sure about what you might mean by “culture,” it wouldn’t seem useful–in the sense that, as a tool, it causes you to have to go on more caveats explaining what you *don’t* mean by it than it’s worth. For example, you can’t possibly mean that “police” is a homogeneous population with shared beliefs, customs, etc everywhere from Hong Kong to Zimbabwe. Or that “policing” is separate from, say, “politics.” But those are completely plausible readings of what “culture” might mean. So as soon as you use the term you have to go about *undoing* all the negative work it does for you–explaining, refining, disavowing certain uses, etc.. More trouble than it’s worth, it seems to me.

    What if we just avoided the term? What would we put in its place? Something like “the things police do, think and feel are tied up with a whole large complex of everyday practices and attitudes which are usually rather arbitrarily cordoned off by other disciplines,” and then go about with the business of what we really want to do, which is *showing* what those things are and *how* they’re connected in people’s everyday lives?

    My second issue with using “police culture” as an analytic term that supposed to be useful for explanation is that, at least in my “field” the term was used by my informants themselves. So what they might mean by this term “culture” and what work it did for them was itself something that needed explanation; and this ‘splaining couldn’t be done with the very term that needed to be explained…

    So, at the end of the day, I don’t really think what I see, and what I want to show are that different from you. I just want to delete that word from our vocabulary and force us to find a new language that doesn’t have all those old problems… what would that be?

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  4. Kevin,

    This is great! Exactly right. I agree with everything you say! However, in pursuit of intellectual productivity through agonistic exchange, let me try to articulate a rationale for disagreeing with you.

    As anthropologists of police, I think we ought to “make a stand on culture” not because it is the most logical way to understand the police, but because it is the most strategically effective position from which to define ourselves as a recognizable voice within the vast, centuries-old international, interdisciplinary conversation about policing.

    Is this a cynical, anti-intellectual position? I hope not.

    I agree that “culture” is a term overflowing with meanings. And I know from experience how hard it is to communicate once you have become the “culture guy” in a room full of people with un-anthropological understandings of culture. The trouble is: we have to take a stand somewhere. And if not on “culture” then where? Productive analytical tropes are prime disciplinary real estate, and the old “anthropological poaching license” doesn’t carry much weight at the entry levels of a collapsing job market. If we say policing is a sociological object, or a historical object, or a criminological object, or whatever, then where do we get off not being sociologists, or historians or criminologists or whatever to study it? In my experience, usually after the first round of interviews, or with an “inadequate literature review, don’t resubmit,” type of a thing. And in respect of these kinds of practical challenges to the disciplinary foundations of intellectual authority, it seems easier to me to stake out a founding stance inside the classical-if-oversaturated trope of my disciplinary background, rather than trying to build something entirely new outside of it. For example, I agree completely that what I am writing about is how the “things police do, think and feel are tied up with a whole large complex of everyday practices and attitudes.” But, at the same time, it seems like the easiest way to communicate this effectively is through a literature review about how a certain set of anthropologists have described culture as a particular kind of “complex of everyday practices and attitudes” in critical contrast to other sorts of ideas about culture.

    I really like your idea about using Bayley as foil for thinking about what we are doing. That 1975 article is a classic. Moreover, it’s part of an edited volume by Charles Tilly that is mentioned in an absolutely awesome 2009 article by Patrick Carroll as defining the first of three “waves” of state-theorizing. It might be interesting to compare the 1975 article with 2006 Changing the Guard in light of Carroll’s discussion of the emergence of the cultural school of state-formation theories (Carroll, Patrick 2009 “Articulating Theories of States and State Formation,” Journal of Historical Sociology v.22, n.4: 553-603).


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  5. Pingback: CFP – THE CULTURE CONCEPT IN CONTEMPORARY CIRCULATION « Anthropoliteia: the anthropology of policing

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