State Sensorium: Rethinking the Role of Senses and Affects in Street-Level Bureaucrats’ Discretion

By Julia Leser

Virtual Edition 2022 Bureaucracy and Tactics


While I was doing ethnographic research on a German midsized town’s local vice squad and their raiding practices in 2015, there was a moment when I noticed that some of the police officers were wearing latex hand gloves whenever they were out on their raids, visiting sex workers’ homes and brothels. During a pre-raid meeting, the officer in charge jokingly asked everyone right before leaving the station if all of them remembered to take latex gloves with them so as not to touch anything. The officers were wearing them while knocking on doors, ringing doorbells, and checking the sex workers’ documents. They recoiled from touching anything in the sex workers’ apartments. They were open with one another in expressing their disgust: they made condescending remarks about the state of the rooms and wrinkled their noses at the scent of perfume and cigarette smoke. These reactive gestures were police officers’ practices of making the city’s local red-light district that of the other, almost underworldly. They were making the “milieu”—as they called the decentralized network of local sex work sites—through sensory practices.

Since Lipsky’s (1980) seminal work, Street-Level Bureaucrats, we know how police officers and other state agents working on the streets and in offices “make” the state and “know” the populations they govern in their everyday and mundane practices. Street-level bureaucrats such as police officers are playing by ear when they find themselves in complicated situations which call for exercises of discretion. They usually draw from extensive experience and bodies of practical knowledge. Discretion essentially allows officers to choose situationally where and how to intervene. As Lipsky put it, “Street-level bureaucrats have considerable discretion in determining the nature, amount, and quality of benefits and sanctions provided by their agencies. Policemen decide who to arrest and whose behaviour to overlook” (13). He also argued that while officers act as individuals when making these decisions, “when taken in concert, their individual actions add up to agency behaviour” (13).

Reflecting on Lipsky’s seminal study to explain some of the actions and rationales of the vice squad police officers I have been observing in their daily working routines, I wondered about two additional aspects of how discretion is exercised.

First, how is discretion influenced by the individual street-level bureaucrats’ affects and senses? As I have shown elsewhere, the discretionary realm of police officers is affected by their senses in particular situations. During raids, officers often articulated and enacted the sight and the odor of “the milieu” as unruly:  the sex workers as out-of-the-norm; their living and working spaces, too warm; their dogs, too loud. How, I wondered, do their senses, particularly these sensory intolerances, inform the officers’ decisions in particular situations?

Second, how, exactly, does individual behavior in the officers’ discretionary realm add up to agency behavior, as Lipsky puts it? For instance, the disgust that the officers felt and expressed during the raids I have been observing—manifest in expressions such as nose-wrinkling, condescending remarks, and glove-wearing—was, to my ethnographically observant eye, a matter of situationally-embedded and individual form of behavior. And yet, over the course of my research these situations added up, i.e., several officers were engaging in sensory practices like that, and such instances occurred during several raids I had been observing. How are sensory performances such as expressions of disgust during raids in everyday police practice consistent and prevailing, and where does that stem from? How does this add up to specific ‘agency behavior’ in form of bias towards the red-light district and its inhabitants? Finally, what can we learn from this consistency about particular (including sensory and affective) practices about “the state”?

Disgust, nose-wrinkling, and glove-wearing in the realm of policing the sex industry are just a few examples of biased behavior of police officers. Most of us can recall other forms of bias that are specific to police in their interactions with citizens. Former police sergeant Jonathan M. Wender’s (2008) book Policing and the Poetics of Everyday Life is a particularly potent resource for examples of the police officer’s mentality. When he writes about the “passive eye for suspicion” of police officers, Wender explains that the officers’ gaze is attuned to very particular behavior cues, such as “taking almost too much trouble to ‘look innocent’” (68). These, in turn, inform their suspicion about someone or something, and whether to make the decision to act on it.

If an officer stops someone who manifests this gaze, and ends up making an arrest, the vindicated judgement of suspicion, is often reported to a colleague as follows: “I just had to stop him: he gave me the look” (68–9).

The police officer always keeps a watchful eye, and is, in the words of police ethnographer Jerome Skolnick (1966), “generally a ‘suspicious’ person” (44). In policing, many different forms of biased behavior prevail. And bias is not an issue of a few individuals (the ominously-termed “bad apples”); it does, in fact, add up. How can this be explained? In his study forty years ago, Lipsky (1980) argued that “the origins of bias in street-level bureaucracies may be sought in the structure of work that requires coping responses to job stress” (141). He explained that bias is a coping mechanism that helps officers make “their jobs psychologically easier to manage” (141). And yet I learned from my ethnographic observations that the officers’ stereotypes about the bad-smelling, disgusting and potentially contaminated red-light district—that they performed in practice by putting on the latex gloves like a shield—maintain and reproduce a specific social and moral order. In analyzing these emerging patterns of sensory practices, I found that there is more to it than merely coping responses to work stress.

In case of the vice squad, we can consider the issue of bias towards sex workers from a genealogical perspective on the relation between vice squad and prostitution. Within the (short) genealogy of the police institution, its development and differentiation, the attendance to the problem of prostitution has always been a focal point. As criminal police departments within major European cities professionalized and specialized during the nineteenth and around the turn of the twentieth century, differentiated institutions of the criminal police evolved according to the localization and exclusive policing of particular types of crime. Among these specialized criminal police departments in Germany, the Sittenpolizei (vice squad) was assigned with policing prostitution. Historians and sociologists have shown how the governance of prostitution has been shaped by discourses, images, and ideas about the norms and normativities of sex and sexuality. For example, in his study of these ideas in nineteenth-century France, Alain Corbin (1986) illustrates the moral-symbolic dimensions that came to underlie the regulatory project of prostitution with the figure of the putain—the bad-smelling whore:

The putain does not just symbolize moral rot; she is literally a putrid woman, as demonstrated by the odor she emits. By frequenting her, one risks the living corruption of syphilis. . .  This image was to have a long life at the heart of traditional society (210–11).

The sensorial steretypes I observed among police officers were practically the same as those Corbin analyzes in regulatory discourses on prostitution in nineteenth-century France. We can trace the consistency of these stereotypes for hundreds of years, across national contexts—so why is that? Here, ethnographic insight can shed light on the order-making functions of sensory practices applied in routine vice squad procedure. The decisions of street-level bureaucrats and the routines they establish do not only “effectively become the public policies they carry out” (Lipsky 1980, xiii). These decisions also serve different repertoires of order than mere public policies. Through sensory practices, the officers drew the boundary between order and disorder, and these boundary-making practices corresponded to particular moral codes and standards of “the police.” The officers made these moral standards visible and present through situationally performing what was right and what was wrong, what did not smell right, what did not look proper, and what should not be touched. When raiding the red-light district, vice officers’ performances coded morality about acceptable forms of sexuality and the “proper” behavior of women in society. This can be seen as a performative mode of governing, and a mode of reproducing “the state” in practice.

To return to Lipsky’s argument, how individual behavior adds up to agency behavior is not just a matter of developing useful coping mechanisms. It is not just a matter of training, or collective experience, or police culture. Situational interactions in street-level bureaucracy are shaped by the broader social and normative environment in which they occur. As such, the segments of Lipsky’s study that aim to explain the processes of adding up from individual to state behavior is worth re-evaluating in light of recent ethnographic insight into the milieu of street-level bureaucracies. Helpful here are the studies of Vincent Dubois (2010) and Bernado Zacka (2017), who both studied discretionary decision-making in social welfare agencies. Both found that morality and moral sentiments informed bureaucrats’ decisions. On the one hand, Dubois (2014) argued that while bureaucrats’ stereotypes might influence how they exercise their discretion, the seemingly personal or arbitrary decisions they make do not necessarily contradict the state’s logics; rather, he argues, “individualization and uncertainty can instead signify a consistent mode of state governance in which the state exerts power over its citizens by affording street-level bureaucrats discretion and leeway” (38–9). From this perspective, the welfare client’s distinction between feeling the effects of  “the state” and the agency of individual street-level bureaucrats becomes blurred. Dubois says that, in essence, the state acts through the individual agents, and consequently, confers judgements on citizens and concerning cases through these agents. In other words, the disposition of street-level bureaucrats is integral to the power effects of the state. On the other hand, Zacka (2017) argues that the moral sentiments of individual bureaucrats “act as filters that regulate how bureaucrats make use of their discretionary power” (11–2). Here, again, we should see their moral sentiments not as mere individual properties of the officers and agents. Rather, they reflect normative moral orders that emerge situationally in the form of a plurality of moral judgements, including sensory and affective forms—for instance, the nose-wrinkling of an officer entering a sex worker’s apartment, or saying something along the lines of “It stinks in here!”

In the form of street-level bureaucrats, “the state” is embodied, with eyes, ears, and noses. We need to investigate further how “the state” knows and acts on the basis of sensory practices—and not only how the suspicious “police eye” is trained and used in decision-making practices, but also how the “police nose” smells, how the “police ear” hears, and in what ways senses such as touch and taste—in all their dimensions—effect the choices that are made in (often) unforeseen and surprising situations the officers are confronted with in their daily operations.

I would suggest that the state—manifested in performance in the practices of the police officer on a raid, for example—makes use of a sensory apparatus to know the world that it governs. Ethnography, I would argue, allows us access to explore these sensory and embodied facets of stateness and the practices of its everyday reproduction. Thinking in terms of the sensory apparatus of the state-in-practice—the state sensorium—allows us to further understand how state agents perceive and explain the world.

The state sensorium as a conceptual device can contribute to the conversation about individual decision-making through bureaucratic discretion and provide a theoretical perspective on how individual actions add up to a state rationale. The concept draws on the “sensorial turn,” in particular on Constance Classen’s and David Howes’ advancement of an anthropology of the senses. In their book Ways of Seeing, Howes and Classen (2014) argue that the world is experienced differently depending on different social and cultural contexts. How we perceive the world, act on this perception, and ultimately feel about it is structured by cultural norms and situationally embedded in power relations. In case of the police—as one of the many parts the state is made of—we have been investigating the social life of police institutions and occurrences of specific police (or “cop”) cultures for decades. Police culture encompasses our understandings of particular attitudes and forms of behavior that shape both policing practices and the ways police officers see and make sense of the social world. In the long history of the entanglements between police and prostitution, there is a legacy of officers’ sensory practices which reproduce a sexuality-related moral order by reinforcing their uncleanliness, and otherwise shaming the sex workers. Through everyday police practice, ideas about the abject nature of sex work are (still) embedded in police culture.

Jacques Rancière (2010) —who uses the term “police” in its original semantics to explain the appearances and logics of order—suggests that the production of social order is essentially the “distribution of the sensible.” Sensing, then, is decidedly political, for different modes of perceiving the world are also modes of making the world, distributing, classifying, and ordering objects, people, and relations. Howes and Classen (2014) thus use the term “biopolitics of the senses” to relate to sensory practices that inherently produce social hierarchies, for example conferring or denying value to specific tastes, smells, sounds and sights, and in that way producing the “lower” and “higher” classes and orders throughout history. The sensory and the affective are undeniably linked in these forms of biopolitical order-making and maintaining certain relations of power, as Sara Ahmed (2004) has explained of the feeling of disgust:

Lower regions of the body—that which is below—are clearly associated both with sexuality and with ‘the waste’ that is literally expelled by the body. It is not that what is low is necessarily disgusting, nor is sexuality necessarily disgusting. Lowness becomes associated with lower regions of the body as it becomes associated with other bodies and other spaces. The spatial distinction of ‘above’ from ‘below’ functions metaphorically to separate one body from another, as well as to differentiate between higher and lower bodies, or more and less advanced bodies. As a result, disgust at ‘that which is below’ functions to maintain the power relations between above and below, through which ‘aboveness’ and ‘belowness’ become properties of particular bodies, objects and spaces (89).

When police officers put on latex gloves before a raid, avoiding direct contact with the population they police, they also partake in knowing and making a world that is disorderly, disgusting, and not just other, but below. This of course does not mean that the world of the red-light district really is like that. But to the vice squad officers on their raids, this is what they see and experience: a world which is so abject and repugnant that the police’s presence has to be called to put this world in order. The officers’ expressions and enactments of seemingly basic sensations contribute to establishing a relation of moral order and an asymmetrical relation of power between the officers and the sex workers. In essence, I was observing policemen telling women that what they were doing on a daily basis was wrong and revolting.

The concept of state sensorium encompasses the many ways state agents such as police officers perceive and make sense of the world, enact their feelings about this world, and thus strive to make that world an image of their sense of social order when they associate criminality and vice with sexuality, waste, and low-ness. In the practice of putting on their latex gloves before entering that world and thus anticipating the sensorial cues that triggers the officers’ disgust, we can see that the state sensorium works like a prism through which the world is structured. By the uniqueness and primacy of “the state” as the modern institution of governance, it might be worthwhile to investigate what Howes and Classen call “the biopolitics of the senses,” and through the concept of the state sensorium further investigate the relations between sense and power, sensation and order.

Julia Leser is a political anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her fields of interest include political ethnography and affect studies, and further include national security and migration control, nationalism, populism, and political theory.


I would like to thank Monika Lemke Pietka for their valuable feedback and helpful commentary on early drafts of this piece.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Abindgon, Oxfordshire:  Routledge.

Corbin, A. 1986. “Commercial Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century France: A System of Images and Regulations.” Representations 14:  209–219.

Dubois, V. 2010. The Bureaucrat and the Poor: Encounters in French Welfare Offices. Farham, Surrey:  Ashgate.

Dubois, V. 2014. “The State, Legal Rigor, and the Poor: The Daily Practice of Welfare Control.” Social Analysis 58(3):  38–55.

Howes, D., & Classen, C. 2014. Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society. Abindgon, Oxfordshire:  Routledge.

Lipsky, M. 1980. Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York:  Russell Sage Foundation.

Rancière, J., & Corcoran, S. 2010. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. New York:  Continuum.

Skolnick, J. H. 1966. Justice without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society. Hoboken, NJ:  John Wiley.

Wender, J. M. 2008. Policing and the Poetics of Everyday Life. Champaign, IL:  University of Illinois Press.

Zacka, B. 2017. When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency. Cambridge, MA:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


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