2015 Virtual Edition: Kevin Karpiak

Postscript to Of Heroes and Polemics: ‘The Policeman’ in Urban Ethnography

This piece had a long gestation. The earliest version of this article was written in 2002, while I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, as a field statement in preparation for my qualifying examinations. I was planning my dissertation research on policing in France, a topic to which I had come to only lately and indirectly as part of a larger interests in both studying unmarked forms of power (such as whiteness and masculinity) as well as developing anthropological inquiries that, if not quite studying “home,” did not rely on an exotic or cultural Other as their core. France was in the midst of a political drama, in which a new type of political figure—a young Nicolas Sarkozy—was given the politically dynamite task of reforming the Police National, and so seemed an excellent potential fieldsite.

The field statements were meant to address the gaping lacunae in my knowledge of France, generally, and policing, in particular. I found the former cluster—concerning the sociology, anthropology and history of France and its former colonies—to be both dauntingly vast and comfortingly solid as a canon. I quickly realized that the amount written on those matters exceeded what any individual scholar—especially a dilatant such as myself—could hope to master; the best I could hope was to have a sense of the broadest strokes and, one day, my potential contribution to it.

The second cluster of topics—concerning especially the anthropology of police—was a different story. There did exist an amount of police historiography, even if most of the Anglophone material tended to focus almost exclusively on the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. There did also exist a type of macro-sociology or comparative law approach to policing that my ethnographic bent found frustratingly shallow and trite. Through several courses in urban sociology and cultural geography, I was also vaguely aware of a kind of qualitative sociology of policing, but even this seemed at best to “write out” the most interesting aspects of ethnographic fieldwork in favor of a quasi-positivist reportage.


Image by the author.

Instead I looked to the anthropological literature that was my home and comfort zone and found… nothing. I could find no major anthropological works on policing[1] per se. There was a burgeoning literature on the nature of crime, and especially criminalization, but no one who had conducted extensive ethnographic research with police. As a graduate student this was both exciting and terrifying. On the one hand, it pointed to an obvious, and important gap in the literature. On the other hand, I had absolutely no idea how to fill it; not only did I have no idea what questions to ask, or how to frame them (just learning such terms as “community policing” and “broken windows” let alone the complicated semiotics of the French “police de proximité”), but also no sense of the practical elements—how to get in contact or arrange such things, what kind of bureaucratic hurdles would be thrown up and how could one negotiate them as a fieldworker? My preliminary research among police officers in my hometown of Chicago had been relatively easy, saturated as it was with the kinship networks so important to many urban US forces, and occurring before the security politics of 9-11.

To a great extend, those practical questions remained unanswered until I worked them out, to the degree that I ever will, over the course of several years “in the field.” Even after that, however, as I returned “home” and put together what became the final version of this piece, it felt like a shout into the dark; a piece composed, in the Nietzschean mode, to find intellectual comrades among a readership that did not yet exist.

How things have changed. I soon found a handful of other young anthropologists, interestingly and importantly at a similar stage in their careers, also doing fieldwork with police. Out of this core came the first tentative and experimental steps of the group blog Anthropoliteia through which we began to collectively think through some of the questions raised in “Of Heroes and Polemics”: what would an anthropology of police look like? What would it focus on? What insight does it have to offer over and above, say, an anthropology of crime or traditionally criminological police studies?  Why has it seemed like an important topic to engage to a growing number of us at this juncture in history? These were important, ground-setting questions. In the meantime an emerging canon began to form as more work found its way into publication.

One of the first of these were Sarah Hautzinger’s work on gendered violence in Brazil and PoLAR Co-Editor William Garriott’s Policing Methamphetamine, followed by the edited volume Policing and Contemporary Governance in which I also published a chapter based on the same fieldwork as “Of Heroes and Polemics.” Soon after came Didier Fassin’s Enforcing Order, based on fieldwork roughly contemporaneous and geographically overlapping with my own, as well as several articles in peer reviewed journals and edited volumes by Beatrice JaureguiJeff MartinPaul MutsaersBen PenglaseJennie SimpsonMeg StalcupMichelle Stewart and others. At the same time, a series of highly public incidents in the United States and abroad have pushed the issues of policing, violence and inequality to the forefront of anthropological consciousness, so that events emphasizing support for the #BlackLivesMatter, as well as how anthropological work can be shaped to support the movement, were central events at the last American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings in Washington, DC, an emphasis which continues in the 2015 program. The intellectual, and political, climate in which an anthropology of police finds itself seems radically different than even just a few years ago.

Re-reading “Of Heroes and Polemics” again, the passages which turn to Geertz stand out as the central insight: that the question of “police” has been oddly both marginal to the development of cultural anthropology and intrinsic to it; that “police” as a conceptual, practical and ethical issue has informed both the anthropological gaze, body and pen in ways that create a set of particular pathologies that need to be addressed if we are to move forward. The rest of the piece, it seems to me, stands as a fumbling attempt to get out of that relationship; a knot I’m not sure has been untangled.

Which, again, is not to say that that there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of important and innovative anthropological work on the police in the interim. Rather, it gestures at how much more can be done on the topic. We have learned so many lessons: that police, even when—maybe especially when—they appear to be violence incarnate unconstrained by law are not unilateral or isolated actors; that the scope of “police” is broader than our inherited disciplinary categories will allow; that core anthropological questions about “the human thing” are tied up with political and ethical questions such as “what is good police” and, by extension, “can a liberal democratic order be peaceful and just?”

Yet I think we have not quite fully grappled with the fundamental pathos of the piece: that the anthropological project is, at its core, at stake as we turn to “police” as an object; that it forces us to rethink and take perhaps uncomfortable positions in the broader scope of the field, beyond merely the men in uniforms we call “police: what is a human. What, for example, does it mean to “shed humanity,” both in the sense oftentimes used by police to describe those they govern, but also as accusations against them? Such questions force us to examine not only the ways in which the project of “police” is tied to the project of “anthropology,” but also the ways those very same projects (police/anthropology) are themselves imbricated in practices of dehumanization. What should this insight mean for how we do our work, or how we might do it otherwise?

Kevin Karpiak is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. He founded and maintains a group blog on the anthropology of policing, called Anthropoliteia.


[1] I have since developed a deeper appreciation of much of that pre-existing qualitative work on policing, most especially John van Maanen’s Tales of the Field and Peter Manning’s more recent inquiries, as well as Bonnie McElhinny’s research on how female police officers negotiate gender roles and masculinist professional expectations.