The editors of Anthropoliteia welcome Johanna Römer with a Dossier in our From the Field section.
“The history of prisons in Spain?” a Catalan prison guard asked me, a man in his mid-forties, his hands resting on a heavy leather belt. “Everything has already been written. Our vocabulary, our forms of punishment – even the word cell itself, all come from Catholic and monastic practices.”
He turned to face the thick glass wall of the bunker.
“I spent years teaching…in law enforcement, in the private sector, and now I just want to be here, with these guys [inmates], where I can have peace and quiet,” he said, nodding towards a small group of men talking softly around a checked tablecloth whose color was imperceptible through the glass.
“Look at that. No one makes problems.”
While monitoring the inmates through the glass, the guard narrated other stories of prison work; but his last seemingly unremarkable comment, “no one makes problems,” stayed with me.
Psychologism and profiling ‘the other’
It is common knowledge in the sociology of police that law enforcers do not merely apply legal maxims but ‘employ discretion in invoking the law’, as Egon Bittner already put it in 1970 in The Functions of the Police in Modern Society. There is often not much consistency in the application of the law as beat officers have a large leeway when they operate in the blind spot of their desk superiors, that is, on the street. While on the beat, policing may be turned into a mechanism of social ordering that has the potential to significantly alter the life prospects of those who are encountered. When roaming in the districts, containing a demonstration, responding to an emergency call, mediating a conflict, investigating a homicide, or containing a riot, the police are actually (re)producing social hierarchies and differences in the settings in which they operate. Continue reading