Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 23–37 | Cite as

Enacting the sacred: nation and difference in the comparative sociology of the police

  • Karim MurjiEmail author


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    M. Banton, The policeman in the community, London, Tavistock, 1964. I am indebted to Michael Banton for generously taking the time to answer various queries about his research and for his comments on an earlier version of this paper; some of these have been incorporated into the discussion.Google Scholar
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    Though he did add that, ‘there were already signs which led me to believe that social tensions associated with police-public relations might well be on the increase’ (1964: ix). On this point, Banton further notes that, ‘I thought the police were working as well as the church, the civil service or the shipbuilding industry…. (I could have added the universities!). I certainly thought that the social isolation of police officers was greater than it needed to be. I had heard stories of chief constables of the county forces who wanted explanations of village policemen if they failed to attend church on Sundays, etc. Of course, I was aware of police accountability as an issue, but thought that would require a different study and a different approach’. This and all following unreferenced statements by Banton have been obtained through personal communication with him in the course of researching this article.Google Scholar
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    Banton recognises that his research had been based ‘chiefly on observation of police conduct in a relatively law-abiding Scottish city and among above-average American police departments.’ He says that, ‘I have not been able to study what happens in situations where policemen are subject to strain and provocation, and [I] can say little about the sorts of incident that attract newspaper publicity’, Banton, 1964, p. xii.Google Scholar
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    Banton’s incomplete account of his methodology probably accounts for some confusion among interpreters of his book. In Manning’s overview of police research, he lists interviews, observation and questionnaires as Banton’s methods, with observation as the major data source. Manning further distinguishes users of this method between ‘active’ participants and ‘passive’ observers, placing Banton in the latter. In discussing sponsorship, funding and legitimation, Manning points out that most studies originated from highly respected universities (he lists MIT among them).Google Scholar
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    However, in revisiting and adding to Manning’s table, Reiner, (R. Reiner, ‘Assisting with enquiries: problems of research on the police’, Quantitative Sociology Newsletter, no.22: 37–67 (1979)), p. 40 indicates some differences: I have also reclassified his [Manning’s] placement of Banton’s 1964 book as primarily an observational study. I believe that Manning’s judgement must be based on his list being restricted to studies of the American police. Banton’s work is a comparative study of the British and American police, and taking it as a whole it is clear that the major data sources were interviews and questionnaires, not observation. (In a personal communication, Michael Banton has concurred with this view.) (Underlining in the original). In this article, I clarify this further, drawing on Banton’s own comments about what time he spent observing the police in Scotland and the USA.Google Scholar
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    Banton is satisfied that he received the co-operation he sought in Scotland, but he does observe a clear national difference. While US officers invited commentary on what an outsider thought of them, ‘in Britain outsiders are not thought to be in any position to pass judgement upon police efficiency’, Banton, 1964, p. 239.Google Scholar
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    The significance of this point is that only some parts of the police organisation are brought into view through the methods employed. Banton was aware of this at the time and does acknowledge that ‘the approach adopted…tends to reflect the police view of public relations and does not adequately explore the attitudes and experiences of different groups within the public’, Banton, 1964, p. xii. In a reaction to me, he argues that given the dearth of sociological work on the police it was important to get a study done.Google Scholar
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    For overviews of police research see, P. Manning, Police Work, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1977, and Reiner, 1979 and 1985.Google Scholar
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    A surprisingly common aspect of the commentary on the book is the way in which it is read as a study of the English police, or taken to stand in for British policing as a whole despite the fact that the research was clearly conducted in Scotland.Google Scholar
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    Banton repeats virtually the same formulation while reviewing several books on the police in the Times Literary Supplement (22 July 1977, p. 889). He observes that the British police rely upon impersonal authority to represent themselves as serving the public good, while the New York police are a product of conflicts that divided people and find it more difficult to be seen as impartial servants.Google Scholar
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    The duality between the state and the market is a reason why a number of police scholars have characterised the police in quasi-sacred terms to critique neo-liberal, market-driven ideologies towards the public sector.Google Scholar
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    See, B. Forst and P. Manning, The privatization of policing: two views, Washington DC, Georgetown University Press, 1999Google Scholar
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    Ironically, it is the supposed localism of the police in Britain — and their autonomy from central government and mundane party politics — that is viewed as the basis of their hard- won legitimacy, see M. Brogden, The police: autonomy and consent, London, Academic Press, 1982, and Reiner 1985.Google Scholar
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    For a view that journalism is a sacred occupation see T. Broddason, ‘The sacred side of professional journalism’, European Journal of Communication, 9: 227–248 (1994). Broddason maintains that occupational sacredness derives from the mysteriousness of exclusive knowledge and the nobleness of self-sacrifice. He argues that journalists fit this as they can be seen as performing a service of vital and sometimes hazardous need; as working long and irregular hours; and because the media itself performs a socially integrative role. Much of this is of course precisely what is claimed for the police, the monarchy and the church.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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Copyright information

© Taylor & Francis 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sociology DepartmentOpen UniversityUK

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