Heath Cabot: How did you come to this project: both the book, and looking critically at the anthropology of policing more generally? How do you situate it within the larger context of your work?
William Garriott: My book, Policing Methamphetamine, is where I first began working with the police concept. This generated a more general interest in the topic of police and policing. I soon met other anthropologists who were likewise engaged in the study of police. After a panel on policing at the AAAs, I was approached by Palgrave Macmillan about doing an edited volume.
One thing that distinguishes my work from many of my colleagues is that I have not focused on the police per se–that is, the uniformed officers that we typically think of when we hear the word “police.” For me, policing is a much broader enterprise. The uniformed police force is just one component, albeit a privileged one.
HC: If not the uniformed police officer, which kinds of persons comprise your understanding of policing?
WG: When we look at police more broadly—say at the level of policing or police power—then it starts to expand the number and kinds of persons involved. Activities such as licensing, record keeping, and other forms of administrative regulation may also be seen as constitutive of “police.” And that’s just at the level of the state. A full appreciation of police power goes beyond persons altogether.
A full appreciation of police power goes beyond persons altogether…. even some of our most cherished, intimate relationships are implicated in police
One point of reference for me is the legal concept of the police power. In the US context, this is, in essence, the state’s lawmaking or regulatory authority itself—“the Legislature’s power to enact rules to regulate conduct, to the extent that such laws are ‘necessary to secure the health, safety, good order, comfort, and general welfare of the community,’“ as one recent court opinion has it (Goodridge v Department of Public Health).
This, of course, harkens back to the earlier, broader definition of “police” that I reference in the introduction to the edited volume, and that scholars such as Mariana Valverde and Markus Dubber have recently reengaged in their “new police science” project. The court case I just referenced was concerned with marriage—marriage between couples of the same sex, in this case, but in order to make a ruling the authors of the opinion felt it necessary to articulate how marriage functions as a product and site of the police power more generally, of the state’s powers, interests and obligations as previously defined. So, from this perspective, even some of our most cherished, intimate relationships are implicated in police.
HC: Can you tell us more about what you mean by policing in practice? One of the more elegant aspects of your introduction is the genealogy you conduct of the concept (as opposed to purely the figure) of “police” in modernity. You show that the concept was, perhaps originally (if we can speak of such a thing), tied to the regulation of governance, and broader aspects of the social realm, such as cleanliness, productivity, and order. The figure of the officer is, you show, a fairly recent and specialized aspect of this. Yet, many current anthropologists interested in policing are interested in police, per se: to what extent does the uniformed officer correspond to these longer term formations of governance, and to what extent does policing, as a global form, innovate upon the genealogy that you develop?
WG: The volume makes the case that it is important to locate the modern figure of the police officer—and the mode of power this figure represents—within the genealogy of the police concept. Acknowledging the earlier, broader definition of police allows for a study of police officers that places them within a wider governmental milieu. This encourages us to look at the relationship between police officers and, say, zoning laws or public health programs, as well as, say, culture, as Erik Haanstad and Jeffrey Martin do in their chapters. At the same time, it is important to look at the figure of the police officer in its specificity. This is also a point the volume tries to make. Taking seriously the specificity of the modern police officer, as law enforcer, peace officer, violence worker, or what have you, forces us to take a different perspective than one purely informed by the earlier understanding of the term.
This different perspective is particularly important as we see the modern concept of policing, as something done primarily by uniformed police officers with a mandate to maintain “law and order,” etc., begin to reach the status of a global form utilized in diverse contexts. The UN, for instance, has spent the past decade working to expand its police force so as to better meet its traditional mandate within a changing world. What I hope other observers of contemporary police will ask is, Why is it that this particular institution has come to be seen as so relevant and necessary to the exercise of power today? What about it, in its specificity, has made it seem so essential?
HC: Great point that police as an institution is not simply restricted to state based governance. Where else do you see policing at work in contemporary formations of power? I am thinking specifically of my own work on border regimes in Greece, and how EU interventions sometimes buoy up but in many cases challenge state sovereignties. When does policing reinforce, and when does it challenge, the state? And to what extent has policing linked not just to penal practice, but also to the enactment of peace, humanitarian practice, and even care?
WG: The UN police force referenced above provides one example of what you’re talking about. Interpol provides another interesting example. This is the focus of Meg Stalcup’s contribution. She notes the paradox that Interpol is not a police force in any conventional sense of the term, yet its own self-representations position it as the premiere global crime fighter. But to the extent that Interpol is engaged in “global policing,” it is through its role as a coordinator. The coordination of people—primarily domestic police officers from countries around the world—and information are two of the primary police functions it serves in this regard. This particular niche that Interpol has come to occupy is the result of the challenges of global policing and governance in our current political context where state sovereignty remains a powerful organizing principle. Thus, even as Interpol draws on the conventional image of the “crime fighter” to buttress its position as a police organization, the actual activities in which it is engaged may have the effect of modifying our understanding of what it means to “police” and “fight crime,” particularly on a global scale.
HC: Can you tell us more about what it means to take seriously the specificity of the modern police officer, from an ethnographic perspective? In the book, it becomes clear that this is not just a matter of “studying up” – or exploring the subjectivities and experiences of particular police. Though that, of course, may have a place… What are some of the specific methodological and ethical approaches and challenges that frame the ethnography of police in practice? Any particular ethical dilemmas or struggles that have emerged from your own ethnographic practice that might be illustrative?
WG: This issue runs throughout the book. One of the biggest issues, of course, is the issue of violence. Police have a unique capacity to employ violence, which can often put the ethnographer in difficult and even dangerous positions. The contributors to the volume encounter and react to this issue in different ways. Benjamin Penglase talks about being caught between the police and the “criminals” in the Brazilian favela where he carried out his research, neither of whom were particularly appealing interlocutors with which to identify. Teresa Caldeira illustrates what I would call a “lateral” approach to the study of police violence in Brazil. She uses statistics, media accounts, and interviews with the policed population to generate a holistic and highly nuanced understanding of the causes and consequences of police violence.
Kevin Karpiak offers an ethnographic perspective on the ethical conversation surrounding the use of force (amongst other things) in the context of actual police training among police in France. Beatrice Jauregui offers the most direct discussion of this issue, asking, after witnessing a rather brutal interrogation, whether ethnographic engagement with police constitutes a kind of “dirty anthropology” precisely because of the kind of ethical issues it raises. Finally, Philip Parnell’s chapter includes an interesting moment in which he discovers he cannot take pictures of the dwellings in urban Manila in which his interlocutors are residing. This was because their residence there was often not legal. They worried the picture would document their occupancy, draw attention from the government authorities, and result in the demolition of the building. Thus the ethnographer, here, had to avoid inadvertently being incorporated into the state’s own policing projects.
HC: I have just returned from a trip to Athens, the site of my own research (some of it involving policing). And I spoke with some of my interlocutors about how the increasing presence of the uniformed (and armed) police officer – on street corners, at airports, in public spaces — has become less a symbol of order and more an indication of the general disorder of both the Greek state and Greek society. One might argue that this is the case in other sites as well. How does that fit with your understanding of the relationship between order, disorder, and policing?
WG: Great question. Certainly police are a source of disorder in some communities. Benjamin Penglase’s chapter on the policing of Brazilian favelas shows precisely this. It may also be that police presence has come to signify danger more generally. I am reminded of when I arrived at a train station in the US that was overrun with police, including the explosives detection squad, bomb sniffing dogs, officers in riot gear, etc. It was not a reassuring scene to witness moments before boarding the train.
HC: I guess I am also asking how the semiotics that shape policing have or have not changed – or may be changing — in contemporary governance, amid increasing global fears around extra-state violence? On the one hand, we see that policing has become increasingly taken for granted as not only a legitimate but necessary aspect of forms and practices of governance. On the other hand, though, it seems to me that the increasing visibility of police – and other aspects of securitization – throw into relief the underlying aspects of disorder on which this institution is based.
WG: Indeed, and this is why it is not surprising that both John Comaroff in his foreword, and Joe Masco in his afterword, engage with Walter Benjamin’s discussion of police in “Critique of Violence.” Masco notes, “The very need for police is evidence for Benjamin of a failed social contract and the continual postponement of a truly just society” (265). So, for Benjamin, the use of police by a particular regime signifies that it is force, rather than justice, that is maintaining its authority. It is not hard to find examples of police performing this function in the contemporary world. In fact, the news is so often filled with stories and images of protestors facing off with police officers that this scene of “clashes with police” has become something of a cliché, so much so that it is “readable” across cultural and political contexts. All of this relates back to the question of violence in the context of state power and democracy—a theme which many of the contributors use their engagement with police to address.
Politeia was very much an expression of how the whole social order was constituted. It also refers to the way in which someone conducts their life. VERY distinct from the meanings of krateia (territory and the state) and kyvernisi (government).
HC: A final, more personal point: your discussion of the Greek is relevant. Politeia was very much an expression of how the whole social order was constituted. It also refers to the way in which someone conducts their life. VERY distinct from the meanings of krateia (territory and the state) and kyvernisi (government). In Greece now, I find that the household is very often the metaphor through which politeia is represented: through the Oikos, the house and the family. IE, the then prime minister said, with regard to the austerity measures, that we must “nikokirepsoume” (“clean house”). It invites us to think about the slippage of public and private in aspects of contemporary governance. What do you see as the relationship between public and private in the current “global” concept of police?
WG: I am reminded here of Markus Dubber’s work on the police power. Though writing about the US, he traces the concept of police to the patriarchal management of the household by the householder. For Dubber, this is an essential and constant aspect of the police power. And it deserves critical attention because such power is virtually limitless and largely discretionary. To the extent that Dubber’s analysis is correct, I think it encourages a focus on how such power manifests itself in diverse contexts today. The household provides an interesting site where the older, more general notion of police-as-governance might meet the more recent, specific notion of governance-as-police. Sticking with the US, changes in the response to domestic violence come to mind. What just a few decades ago was seen as a private matter has now been more formally criminalized and thus made a matter of police intervention.
HC: Where do you see the ethnography of police and policing headed? What about in your own work?
WG: It is an exciting time to be engaged in the ethnography of police and policing, particularly as an anthropologist. Anthropologists, of course, are not the only ones engaged in the ethnographic study of police, but they do face unique challenges. One key issue is that the “counter-hegemonic” orientation of much anthropology, if I may put it that way, has made police a somewhat problematic object of study.
the “counter-hegemonic” orientation of much anthropology… has made police a somewhat problematic object of study…. But it is for precisely this reason that anthropologists are poised to make a unique contribution to the ethnography of police and policing.
But it is for precisely this reason that anthropologists are poised to make a unique contribution to the ethnography of police and policing. I think the process of adapting standard disciplinary techniques and training to the study of police will be productive both for anthropology and for the wider scholarly study of police.
Moreover, the uniquely central place of ethnography to anthropology puts anthropologists in a privileged position to think through the question of what it means to do ethnography in the context of police—both for our understanding of police and for the practice of ethnography.
Each chapter in the edited volume deals with this either explicitly or implicitly. Likewise, Didier Fassin recently convened a conference at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton on “Ethnography and Policing” that took up this issue. There is an edited volume planned. I’m excited both to read it myself, and to see how it is received within anthropology and the wider field of police studies. Indeed, my own work at the moment includes continued reflection on police and policing as an object of ethnographic investigation and anthropological analysis. As noted above, police and policing are somewhat troublesome objects for anthropology—productively so, in my opinion.
Heath Cabot teaches anthropology at the College of the Atlantic. She is the author of On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. William Garriott is Assistant Professor in the Law, Politics and Society Program at Drake University. In addition to editing Policing and Contemporary Governance, he is the author of Policing Methamphetamine: Narcopolitics in Rural America and co-editor (with Eugene Raikhel) of Addiction Trajectories.