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Control as Explanation and as Topic to be Explained

Peter Moskos wrote a great editorial, “The Cop’s Eye View” in the Baltimore Sun in which he discusses a number of issues related to the Gates arrest. He describes the well known tactics for making someone arrestable by convincing them to step outside of their house in to the public space. But more importantly he describes the salience of control to himself and other police officers.  I think it is worth quoting Moskos in extenso:

“As police are almost always outnumbered, personal safety depends on a little bravado and a little bit of bluff. When I was a police officer in Baltimore, and somebody hanging out on the corner mumbled he was going to “get me,” he had to be confronted with swift, certain and appropriate deterrence. If there was a threat to my face, jail was automatic. If somebody said he was going to kick my ass, he probably could.

Police have a strong, justifiable need to control the situation. I didn’t want to be loved. I didn’t mind being feared. Respected was OK. But all that really mattered was to be obeyed. To have authority, police need a legal, all-purpose charge to arrest people when nothing else will do. In Baltimore, it was loitering. In New York (and, I suspect, Cambridge), it’s disorderly conduct. Police also need smart officers to not abuse their discretion.”

Often discussions of police conduct forget that police officers are social beings who play social games delimited by a peculiar set of spatial and temporal realties.  Policing is an “on the field” gig. Cops are engaged in face to face interactions in which there is little or no “time out” to reflect, deliberate, or work by committee. Temporal restraints come in the form of high call volume (the need to rapidly complete one situation so that a officer can move to the next); the fact that there is enormous uncertainty in how others will engage with the officer  means that officer do not have a stable set of temporal expectations for how any given encounter will unfold; and the strip of behavior (sequential exchange) that makes up any given police-citizen encounter tends to occur on the plane of micro-interactions in which gestures and movements are the fabric of reality and are themselves unfolding rapidly. The fact that cops work with citizens and suspects in close physical proximity also means that there is little time to act and react. Hence police officers have cultivated a set of situational perceptions and practices for managing their temporal reality; they call it “control.”

In this setting “control” is not about an authoritarian personality,  motives, intentions, or a psychological need for dominion and respect. Rather, control and its attendant categories like obeying and authority are, from the cops point of view, methods of stabilizing interactions and creating order. The lessons of social psychology and ethnomethodology is that social order, i.e. stable predictable interactions, are an ongoing and highly contingent accomplishment of active social agents. “Control” is very much about creating some kind of stable footing in a unstable social encounter in which there is not time to build mutual understandings of the situation.  Seeing “control” as a folk method having everything to do with social stability and mutual understanding may not be popular but may be sociologically necessary to understanding police behavior. In other words, what Peter sees as the procedural “working acts” of navigating a situation, bystanders see as a quality of the actor.

The need for the police to bluff, bluster, and beat their chests is not something to be denigrated. Peter is absoultey right about how much officer safety depends on the ability to project not simply an authoritative presence but one that must be taken “seriously.” When out numbered no single officer can physically control a group. But the performance of being able to “do what it takes” to maintain “control” is a strategic presentation of self that is often necessary. It is no different than the need of gang leaders or “bad asses” described by Jack Katz in The Seductions of Crime to present a front of danger and unpredictability that will keep dangers opponents and underlings at bay.

According to Katz, the “bad ass” has to be willing to “go all the way” and must occasionally engage in frenzied violence so that violence is not situationally necessary the majority of the time. What bad asses or gang leaders do is similar to cops “controlling” gang members or generating fear on the street (for example see Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street). Respect is a fragile thin on  the streets and to the extent that face must be guarded and continually restituted, violence becomes the “bangers” answer to slight. Without respect bangers loose standing and their power. Sadly for cops this is often the world they are operating in. Officers don’t get to define “the street,” they are visitors who learn to operate according to similar principles, i.e.  routine grounds of interaction.  Similarly, cops need the ability to make an arrest when challenged in doing their job. Cops can’t “thump” people for disrespecting them, challenging their legitimacy, or threatening them. It is not about control for controls sake. It is about quilting together a patchwork of interactive strategies that are, like it or not, are the fabric of face-to-face interactions on the street.

All of this is necessary, as Peter indicates, because officers need to be able to enter and exit situations swiftly and safely. There can’t be debate each time about the definition of the situation or the relevant systems of classification that are going to be deployed in each encounter (this is the conflict that Jonathan Wender describes eloquently in  Policing as Poetry). We may not like police “control” at a visceral level. But before we judge it it is worth understanding how police use “control” as a folk methodology for negotiating order and maintaining their safety at the micro level.

To see “control” sociologically is not to look down on social action, but to see the complicating position of the method of actors. “Control” thus has to be understood as belonging to the realm of practical activity. When cops talk of control they do so within a realm of action different than the world of activity in which outside spectators use it. Control can exist in different  language games, so to speak, and it is critical that outside commentators beware of the dual existence of “controls” use in speech. We can judge it at a distance but before ridiculing it we must also make some attempt to understand the officers practical relationship to the concept and practice of control and see what it does for the office in situ. This is what seeing policing sociologically must mean.


5 thoughts on “Control as Explanation and as Topic to be Explained

  1. This deserves more of a response than I can give now, what with my deadlines and jet-setting, but I do like where you’re pushing us here: to think of control beyond a personality (or social, for that matter) disorder.

    Two quick thoughts, though:
    French police almost never patrol alone– always in two or threes. The whole of their training is based around that fact: how to handle situations in different environments, etc. This doesn’t annul what you’re saying above about cops, but points both to the “Americanness” of the situation and towards something like a comparative ethnomethodology of control.

    Second, you claim that “The lessons of social psychology and ethnomethodology is that social order, i.e. stable predictable interactions, are an ongoing and highly contingent accomplishment of active social agents. “Control” is very much about creating some kind of stable footing in a unstable social encounter in which there is not time to build mutual understandings of the situation. Seeing “control” as a folk method having everything to do with social stability and mutual understanding may not be popular but may be sociologically necessary to understanding police behavior.”

    These might be the lessons of social psychology and ethnomethodology (I’m not even really sure who that might be), but it sure is not the lesson of anthropological ethnography over the past thirty years. Anthropologists have shown exhaustively and convincingly that not only are social situations highly fluid but that representations of “order” in social scientific analyses are themselves in large part effects of the texts social scientists create. Bourdieu, among many others (including John Van Maanan, on the police) have written about this.

    If I can be a bit more provacative, i think part of where we’re bumping up against each other is that you’re much more of a “social scientist” than i am: you’re looking for truths that can stand as building stones in an edifice of more or less stable knowledge (Foucault would call this monumental knowledge), while I’m interested in understanding what Paul Rabinow (via Foucault) would call anthropological problems


    • socdeputy says:


      I am not sure I get where you are going with your statement about representations of order in social scientific analysis. Garfinkle, made this argument as far back as 1949 and it was his critique of scientific discourse about order that lead to the development of ethnomethodology. Bourdieu’s contribution to ethnomethodology was trying to explain the regularity that occurs even when social agents are creating order themselves.

      I guess what I want to know is if you think that an anthropologist would disagree with treating “control” as a phenomena to explain or understand. Would they treat control as something that is to do the work of explanation? As I see it, Anthropological ethnography has a long and rich history of making the counter intuitive move to try and understand how phenomena like magic both move people to act and at the same time how people constitute the phenomena of magic as a part of their reality. Whether talking about Evans-Pritchard and the Nuer or Csordas on Charismatic religion, I think the task is the same- trying to understand how social phenomena appear either as magic or the sacred, or in my case, control. In other words, what about control isn’t being presented as a anthropological problem?


  2. Also, I forgot:

    Jonathan Wender does point out this bureaucratic gaze of control in his book, but also part of his point is that it doesn’t need to be the only gaze in these situations, and in fact goes to pains to describe moments in which a more “holisitc” approach to the situation lead to better policing (understood not just as resolving a specific and temporally finite problem, but in a larger–dare we even say Foucaultian?–sense of a better social life)


    • socdeputy says:

      Wender does talk about how to get a better grip on the situation. However, he is also the first to tell me about being decisive in use of force. Point in fact, while he was reading one of my field notes on doing a search of a van for marijuana he not only gave me sociological feed back but his feedback as a sergeant. He was quite clear about the need to cuff people, sit them down or line them up in order to maintain control for officer safety.


  3. jeffmartin00 says:

    I agree with Kevin that this is a great post, and opens up some very interesting questions. For example, I wonder how we might use this ethnomethodological framing of police control to reflect on the connection between real-time action and the larger political implications of particular techniques and strategies of control. It seems to me that a clear sense of the kind of control games cops need to play is the proper place from which to think about how policy reform proceeds through “game changing” decisions by various legislative bodies about the kinds of powers they bestow on police. Predicting the outcomes of these decisions is a site in which sociological and anthropological work has a unique contribution to make. So, as a kind of counterexample to the present case, I seem to recall that Robert Peel’s original argument for constabulary patrols was designed to assure the British Parliament that their police wouldn’t be anything like those illiberal French 🙂 and the fact that the Bobbies were to be unarmed was a central feature in this argument. That is, the work of the British patrolman was here defined by their relative physical disadvantage: denying them firearms was a mode of focusing their work onto an ongoing grooming of relationships within the community, the individual patrolman had an immediate interests in maintaining an alignment of patrol work with the sensibilities of the community that would ensure that bystanders would intervene on the side of the policeman in the case of physical resistance that exceeded the individual officer’s capacities. Obviously, 180 years later across the Atlantic, we are living in a different world than this, where conventional understandings of the balance between physical and social means of control involved in routine police work are now weighted overwhelmingly towards the former. This is appears here in framing of “tactical” concerns by a need to “enter and exit” quickly, and the conventional assumption that individual encounters between police and policed are properly understood as a confrontation between strangers, rather than a moment in a continuing fabric of longer term/”community” relationships. Reflecting on the way that these framing assumptions reflect historically particular kinds of common-sense, leads me to wonder if the kind of sociological paradigm that Brian is talking about here might also be useful as a way of thinking about what the Gates controversy & related issues reveals about the culture of democracy that currently exists in America?


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