Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Conflicted Contours of Police and Policing

This is the seventh installment of the themed series on Border Criminologies network members. The series aims to present our members’ ongoing research, recent publications, new course modules they might be developing, grants and awards, partnerships and collaborations, and questions they have been considering or struggling with.



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Paul Mutsaers, Researcher, Tilburg University.

As a police anthropologist, I’m interested in the ethnographic study of police, particularly in what Graham Denyer Willis calls the ‘conflicted contours of police and policing.’ As Graham correctly observes, ethnography―and, in the end, anthropology―is ideally suited to detail these conflicted contours. Anthropologists like to be in the ‘thick of things,’ where the bickering and the contestation, the in- and exclusion, the law-making and law-breaking take place. My focus on these conflicted contours has materialized in some output that can be divided in four subcategories.   

1. Police unlimited?  Anthropologists tend to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. In some of my work, I adopt a different take on what we generally know as police discretion. Instead of looking at the familiar legal definition of police discretion, I focus on a somewhat strange notion: the ‘psychological freedom’ of police officers (cf. article in Critique of Anthropology). During my fieldwork amongst police officers in the Netherlands between 2008 and 2013, I noticed that officers were increasingly inspired to bring to work their ‘authentic selves.’ A wide swath of soft skills, basically psychological profiles, were introduced by means of personal development schemes, leadership programs, and awareness trainings. These new governmentalities started to blur the boundaries between the private and the public, de facto turning the Dutch police into a ‘greedy institution’. This didn’t only lead to the ‘inclusion’ of the whole personality and personal judgement of police officers at work, but also to a police force that no longer hesitates to work itself into the private lives of the public (as I wrote in my dissertation A Public Anthropology of Policing and will write in my forthcoming book with Oxford University Press). In these various publications I’ve specifically concentrated on the discriminatory effects of these developments within the organization―that is, the effects on ethnic minority police officers. However, beyond the well-known link between ‘discretion’ and discrimination, we must also worry about the wider tendency towards an unlimited police. The introduction of psychological profiles goes hand-in-hand with a bureaucracy bashing that increasingly widens the authority of the Dutch police. One of the examples is project ‘PsyCops,’ a project that I discussed earlier in a Border Criminologies post. On a larger scale, police anthropologists also warn for a (informal) privatisation of police. These developments keep me busy and keep me concerned.

2. Policing borders. The conflicted contours of policing also came to the fore in my work on the ’thickening of borderlands’. Concentrating on Somalis in my hometown in the Netherlands and their entanglements with police, I made some observations on the policing of internal borders. I concluded that police officers work in a web of relations that is spun by a wide range of public, semi-public, and private agencies, including their own. These security networks are control apparatuses that keep migrants in check and in place, and make their lives slow, inert, and sclerotic. They fuel what Zygmunt Bauman once called the ‘hierarchy of mobility.’ I very much encourage the work on this topic, done by the Border Criminologies community, such as Ruben Andersson’s work on the ‘business of bordering Europe.’

3. Protesting police. In a text that I recently uploaded as a working paper, co-authored with my colleague Tom van Nuenen, we address the conflicted contours of police through a theoretical discourse on anti-police protest. In this text we respond to Diarmaid Harkin, who called for a theory of ‘police punishment’ and its public response. We lend our support to his demand for a penal theory of police, but disagree in regard to his explanation of the relative quiescence of ‘the public’ in the face of police punishment (which we can loosely define with Lucia Zedner as the actions of police that mark the end point of a continuing legal process, rather than its start). Where Harkin argues, in lieu of Durkheim, that protest against police is conspicuously absent because the police generally receive much popular support, we raise the fundamental epistemological question, ‘how do we know protest?’ We argue that an epistemology that leverages marked and evident protest alone (a ‘face value’ epistemology such as Harkin’s) isn’t well equipped to distinguish resistance, accommodation, defeat, or fear in the face of police violence. Instead, we turn to James Scott’s notion of ‘hidden transcripts’ and the infrapolitics of resistance: concealed types of resistance organized by complex, interlinked, and plugged-in publics (cf. my web publication on Anthropoliteia on so-called ‘hashtag activism’ against police). In addition to this particular text, I’m also working on a book chapter to be discussed at the Race, Criminal Justice, and Migration seminar at the University of Oxford in September 2016. It deals with the ‘ethics of illegality’ (cf. Janet Roitman) that guide Syrian refugees on their way through Europe. With this it is meant that people develop an ethical reasoning that helps them live with particular actions that are criminalized by the European authorities (e.g., paying a human smuggler, buying fake documents, etc.). To put it in the words of an informant: ‘human smugglers have helped me; in contrast, the new deal with Turkey is a politicized [meaning dirty] game of human trafficking.’ Given the context in which people live and travel, they etch out a space of ethics that cannot be understood in reference to a fixed and external code of morality.  

4. Debating police. An important facet of my work on police is public engagement, captured by the idea of a ‘public anthropology of policing.’ With my colleagues Jennie Simpson and Kevin Karpiak, fellow members of a network of police anthropologists, and others interested in police, security, law, crime, and punishment (see Anthropoliteia), I published an article in American Anthropologist, in which we explicate the various dimensions that we deem important in a public anthropology of policing: ‘practicality,’ ‘epistemic solidarity,’  and publicity. In essence, a public anthropology of policing needs to take local police knowledge seriously, needs to lead to practical results, and must reveal police operations that are normally kept concealed in order to allow for scrutiny by an assemblage of actors and institutions. This last aspect features prominently in an article under review at American Ethnologist, a journal in which Didier Fassin recently pleaded to take the public afterlife of ethnography seriously. In my article, provisionally titled ‘Police, Anthropology, and Publicity: The Hierarchy of Credibility,’ I analyze the public afterlife of my own ethnography on police discrimination in the Netherlands. I take my lessons from Becker’s half-a-century-old deliberations on the role of scholars in the hierarchy of credibility, and apply them to the context of (the anthropology of) policing in the Netherlands. Covered by Becker, I argue that accusations of bias addressed to researchers, are likely to occur when a researcher gives credence to the perspective of the subordinate group in the hierarchical relationship (the field of law enforcement is exemplary). See my web publication on Border Criminologies for a preview.  

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Mutsaers, P. (2016) The Conflicted Contours of Police and Policing. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/06/conflicted (Accessed [date]).

With the support of