Is the police anthropologist an asshole?

6 minutes to read
Paul Mutsaers


Paul Mutsaers (Tilburg University) argues eloquently that a police anthropologist should be an asshole. Meaning that an ethnographer has the democratic duty to question the police definition of the situation.



The police anthropologist is a relatively new creature that is currently populating the departments of the Social Sciences and Humanities. As might be expected from an anthropologist, it has already begun to cover quite a bit of the earth’s surface, including countries such as France (Fassin, Karpiak), Brazil (Caldeira, Denyer Willis, Robb Larkins), the United States (Garriott, Simpson), India (Jauregui), South Africa (Hornberger), and the Netherlands (Çankaya, Mutsaers). 

One of the key characteristics of the police anthropologist is that s/he is engaged and commited to the world of policing. S/he is not afraid of public debate and takes the task of translating academic work into the pragmatics of everyday policing very seriously. Despite our recent appearance, some of us are already working, for instance, in government positions from where we advise on law enforcement and criminal justice issue. We may therefore justifiably talk about a “public” anthropology of policing (Fassin 2013; Mutsaers, Simpson en Karpiak 2015).  However, this is not to say that we can all skip merrily off into the sunset. 

Police anthropology has also become the object of much politicking and, sometimes, mockery. In this short text, I will give three examples: Didier Fassin’s Enforcing Order (2013), Graham Denyer Willis’s The Killing Consensus (2015), and my own A Public Anthropology of Policing (2015). 

Interestingly, all three of us have been critical, albeit in a nuanced fashion, of police and the criminal justice system more generally. Fassin has addressed the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the French criminal justice system. Denyer Willis critically discussed the structural and institutional failures of the public security system in Brazil. 

In my own PhD project, I tied the Dutch police to the notion of “thickening borderlands”, arguing that the police are complicit in arousing a feeling of “deportability” among migrants in the Netherlands. 

Now, let us briefly turn to the reception of these works and embrace Fassin’s (2015) call to take the “afterlife” of (police) ethnographies as a genuine object of discussion and inquiry. Considering the scope of this text, this occurs with simplifications compared to the said authors own reflections, which are definitely worth reading.


Ethnographic lessons from the Parisian anticrime squad

Didier Fassin spent 15 months with an anticrime squad operating in the deprived Parisian suburbs, scrutinizing interactions between police and (mainly) ethnic minority youth through the lens of the vernacular and action of the day. However, applying for a follow-up project in a different police region, he was confronted with the closed and secretive nature of the French police:

 ‘I came up against a ban on the continuation of my work. A ban couched in “civil” terms, but imposed with a persistence that left little doubt as to the determination to prevent me from completing a study that had been initiated under the best auspices’ (Fassin 2013: 13-14). 

When his study was published (and widely mediatized) several years later, police comments were rare due to an embargo on police voices in the media. Those who did respond argued that the described practices of racial profiling and discrimination were individual incidents rather than a structural problem. We are immediately reminded of Maurice Punch’s (2003) comments on police misconduct, that is, that it is automatically framed by police as a “rotten apple” problem, prioritizing a human failure model of deviance, even if such deviances are clearly of a systemic and endemic kind – a “rotten orchard” problem.


The killing consensus and the security vacuum

Graham Denyer Willis’s The Killing Consensus is a valuable contribution to the debate on statehood and sovereignty. The book is a product of intense ethnographic labor that took place in São Paolo, that Brazilian megacity where crime and violence run rampant and where routinized killing takes place involving police and organized crime groups such as the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). 

Denyer Willis discusses the “security vacuum” that has left urban residents to devise their own security solutions. It is in this light that he understands collectives such as the PCC – they are also security-oriented collectives, which sometimes make the streets of São Paolo safer with their clandestine justice systems. 

His op-ed in the New York Times on his research project led to a number of surprisingly positive rank-and-file responses. Street cops felt they had been given a voice. However, the governor refused to respond and when another article appeared on the online news site Universo On-Line, a rebuttal of the Public Security Secretariat was published that framed Denyer Willis in a highly inappropriate way as someone creating “myths” and romanticizing criminal life.


Virality of a police ethnography

When my own dissertation on law enforcement and migrants in the Netherlands was published, it went viral in the Dutch media. Just like Denyer Willis, I was approached off the record by many police officers who acknowledged the validity of the study. 

In contrast, the top brass replied in a different manner. Immediately after the press release, I was approached by a spokesperson of the National Police (NP), who tried to nudge me to use a different, less critical wording. In police press releases and newspaper articles, the Chief of the NP refused to accept my conclusion that police discrimination is a structural problem – in contrast, he talked about “incidents” (steering clear of Punch’s rotten orchards idea). 

Specific instruments to counter ethnic profiling – such as “stopforms” – which I had negotiated on a local level were all of a sudden taboo. When the Minister of Security and Justice was questioned in Parliament with respect to my dissertation and the stopforms specifically, he replied in writing that such stopforms are damaging police capacity and performance and as such, he ignored the core message of the dissertation: bureaucracy is needed to slow down and keep police in check, to prevent “sloppy” police work on the basis of stereotypes, and to work without regard to person.


The police ethnographer as an asshole

In his much-cited text on police typifications, John van Maanen (1978) distinguishes “The Asshole” as someone who does not accept the police definition of the situation. Obviously, he is referring to street encounters, but we may use this “ideal type” to think about how critical anthropologists are perceived in the police’s sight. 

Are we the assholes? As argued at the beginning of this text: not necessarily. Some police anthropologists now have a hand in police policy and practice. On the other hand, others have suffered under the yoke of police power. We have been denied access, we have been accused, and we have been mocked. Considering the nature of policing as a frontline societal function, this is a serious problem requiring continuous attention.  

Without undue distortion, we can apply Howard Becker’s (1967) notion of the “hierarchy of credibility” to understand the relationship between police and nonpolice. Both are part of a system of ranked groups, and this system allocates to police members the right to define a situation – to tell relevant others what “really” happened. 

In addition, nonpolice are denied the luxury of what James Scott (1990) calls negative reciprocity – trading a slap for a slap, an insult for an insult, a bad joke for a bad joke – and one is advised to accept this lest the risk is taken of being conceived by police as the “asshole” who talks back. With these qualifications of police work in mind – hierarchy and nonreciprocity – we begin to understand that policing, as a state prerogative, is liable to become fiercely debated once operations that are normally kept concealed from the public, are exposed to the world that exists beyond the walls of criminal justice. 

The social explosions that occur at such rare moments of transparency have recently been witnessed all over the world, from Ferguson, New York and Chicago to The Hague, Paris, Kiev, Delhi, Hong Kong and so on. I believe that it is exactly this exposure of what is normally kept concealed by police organizations, which should be understood as the democratic function of police ethnography. 

Instead of assholes, police anthropologists ought to be seen as democrats who reveal what is generally concealed and as such re-establish citizens in their responsibility to know what is going on behind the walls of criminal justice (Fassin 2013).



Becker, H.S. (1967) Whose Side are We On? Social Problems 14(3): 239—247.

Denyer Willis, G. (2015) The Killing Consensus. Police, Organized Crime, and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Fassin, D. (2013) Enforcing Order. An Ethnography of Urban Policing. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Fassin, D. (2015) The Public Afterlife of Ethnography. American Ethnologist 42(4): 592—609.

Mutsaers, P., Simpson, J., and Karpiak, K. (2015) The Anthropology of Police as Public Anthropology. American Anthropologist 117(4): 786—789.   

Mutsaers, P. (2014) An Ethnographic Study of the Policing of Internal Borders in the Netherlands: Synergies between Criminology and Anthropology. The British Journal of Criminology 54(5): 831—848.

Mutsaers, P. (2015) A Public Anthropology of Policing. Law Enforcement and Migrants in the Netherlands. Dissertation, Tilburg University.     

Punch, M. (2003) Rotten Orchards: “Pestilence”, Police Misconduct and System Failure. Policing & Society 13(2): 171—196.    

Scott, J.C. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Van Maanen, J. (1978) The Asshole. In: Manning, P. and Van Maanen, J. (eds.) Policing: A View from the Streets, pp. 221—238. McGraw-Hill Companies.