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date: 26 February 2024

Police and Policinglocked

Police and Policinglocked

  • Paul T. ClarkePaul T. ClarkeHarvard University
  •  and Julia HornbergerJulia HornbergerUniversity of Witwatersrand


Policing, perhaps more than any modern institution, has become the subject of intense political contestation. Police killings have sparked clashes in the public sphere and in the streets over the role of policing in society in diverse places such as the United States, Eswatini, Brazil, France, Hong Kong, and Iran. At the same time, policing from the vantage point of policymakers is often taken as a straightforward way of reordering society, of putting law into practice. What, then, could be gained by studying the police anthropologically—by following them in their everyday work, listening to them in their own words, and seeking to understand them in the context of their own environment? The anthropology of police and policing understands its object of study neither as just reflection of society nor pure execution of policy but as a potent force of imagination and action in itself. On the one hand, policing throws into stark relief the wishful thinking of what orderly society would like to be. This dynamic can take the form of people projecting their desires onto the police or the police performatively enacting these expectations and their own visions of power and authority and who they would like to be. On the other hand, policing manifests itself as a means of exclusion, inequality, and violent differentiation. It operates as a key force within societies at odds with the flourishing, and even survival, of many of those who live within it.

The anthropology of policing’s unique perspective originates from the subfield’s diverse geographical and institutional scope, encompassing state and nonstate policing practices in places across the globe. It is also a product of the broader discipline’s approach to quotidian practices as always already embedded in multiple layers of context and inflected by broader social institutions. Within this vein, anthropologists have mobilized ethnographic studies to explore how states are given force and effect through mundane bureaucratic practices and how more foundational notions such as sovereignty, legitimacy, and authority are enacted through policing. Other scholars have shown how policing’s seeming ability to materialize these more transcendental aspects of statehood has lent policing to be embraced and animated by religious practice and justification. Crucial within this scholarship is an emphasis on policing as a provisional and emergent form of authority, which is ultimately dependent on spectacular and quotidian forms of performance. As a consequence, policing has become a rich site for the anthropology of policing to explore how contemporary citizenship is taking shape, how structures of exclusion within it are emerging, and how these exclusions are contested at multiple scales. As these contests have taken greater prominence, the subfield itself has been home to debates not simply over how best to do an anthropology of the police but also whether, in this tense political moment, it is worth studying the police ethnographically at all.


  • Sociocultural Anthropology

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