My dissertation, The Police Against Itself: reassembling a ‘post-social’ police (UC Berkeley, 2009), is an ethnography of police administrative reform in France under former Minister of the Interior (and current president) Nicolas Sarkozy. It asks the question: “what would be the contours of a post-social police?” In so doing, it is centrally concerned with describing the mechanisms of state governance in a French bureaucracy attempting to negotiate the broader set of ethical orientations and management techniques usually labeled “neo-liberal”.
Appointed in order to reform the French national police, Minister Sarkozy, as one of his first official acts, publicly denounced the prevalent mode of policing, a socially-orientated strategy of policing known as the police de proximité, in favor of what he called the “culture of results”. This latter mode of policing was to achieve economic efficiency and accountability of action for individual police officers through a series of organization reforms. My dissertation brings together these two modes of police reform within the same analytic lens in order to see them not as epochal shifts in the way policing is organized, oriented and practiced in France but as a tension which is itself telling of the role, authority and legitimacy of the French State in an increasingly global Europe.
In order to clarify the particular stakes of this problem-space, I make use of a body of literature which could be described as the ethnography of the ‘neo-liberal state’. Researchers working on this topic have argued that ‘the state’, as a social and cultural form, is not just a theory of governance and legal precedent nor an abstract organizational structure, but a set of complex yet concrete practices guided by particular ethical valorizations and performed by actors variously enmeshed in (and constituted by) power relations. Such scholars argue that it is precisely these practices that require ethnographic description if we are to understand what can be meant by “state power” today.
Similarly, I argue that what is at stake in contemporary debates surrounding the reorganization of the French police is not only the contours of what would constitute a legitimate form of accounting for police practice-what form would it take and to whom would it be directed?-but also the very moral authority upon which State action is grounded. In other words there is a profound anxiety at the core of contemporary French policing, one that occupies much of the intellectual and emotional energies of police officers and administrators: what right do we have to do what we do; how do we know that what we’re doing is just? The answers to these questions require that we carefully reconsider the practical content of many of the key components of Weber’s definition of the state: violence, legitimacy, territory.