Police culture: What it is, what it does, and what we should do with it

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter defines police culture as a process through which structural violence is translated into overt, tangible form. Police, as an institutional component of modern governance, are defined in part by their distinctive relationship to violence. “[P]olice are a mechanism for the distribution of non-negotiably coercive force,” as Bittner’s definition put it (Bittner 1990, p. 131). By contrast, the study of culture has generally been conceived as addressing a sphere of meaningful phenomena. To talk of “police culture” begs the question of how two radically different categories-violence and meaning-might be related. One approach to this question begins by interrogating the meaning of the word “violence” itself. At a surface level, the English word “violence” is oriented by the semantic field of its Latinate root, violatio, “injury, irreverence, profanation.” This is, selfevidently, a field of violations-negations of bodily health, of social respect, of spiritual divinity. These negative overtones suffuse the idea of violence with a pejorative sensibility, imbue talk about violence with polemic qualities, and make the category of violence politically reactionary and unstable as an analytic referent. Peter Imbusch argues that the term “violence” per se is “is more a label than a clear description, it is a ‘summary symbol’ and functions as an intensifier” (2003, p. 33). The content of the category is historically dynamic; things appear self-evidently “violent” today which were not experienced as such in other times and places, and vice versa (ibid.). Contemporary political discourse deploys the category as an arena of active struggle. Indeed, this is exemplified in symbolic struggles over the meaning of police force deployed in political contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Anthropology of Police
EditorsKevin G Karpiak, William Garriott
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781317419099
ISBN (Print)9781138919655
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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