Staying Cool in a Hot Spot: Epistemology, Ethics and Politics in Police Ethnography

Jeffrey T Martin, Austin Hoffman

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter reflects on the ethics of producing knowledge about policed populations on the basis of experiences of two ethnographers working as part of a mixed-methods research project on hot spots policing in a mid-sized US city. Through participant observation, interviews, and focus-groups, we catalogued discursive articulations of the ‘feelings of home’ in policed communities, as correlated to crime maps generated by the local police department. This presented us with challenges related to locating an ethnographic ‘site’ within a statistically defined problem space. Any mode of accessing human beings through mechanisms of state surveillance is ethically fraught, particularly in a field of asymmetric and potentially violent relationships. Representing a population defined by the targeting mechanisms of police attention as the ‘ethnos’ of an ethnography raises a tangle of issues. How can a researcher ethically represent the experience of people who purposefully make themselves invisible to state surveillance? Our struggle with this question led us to develop a critique of visual epistemology, grounded in our ethnographic consideration of the intersection between knowledge and ethics. Within the relationship between police surveillance (the watchers) and the experiences of those it seeks to surveil (the watched), we identified a poetics of temperature, whereby the ‘heat’ generated by policing and exposure to interpersonal and structural violence is counteracted by attempts to ‘stay cool’ or ‘chill out’. This cooling metaphor provided us with a way to articulate the community-building processes that generate collective sentiments of peace and security against the excessive ‘heat’ that often functions to erode bonds of social solidarity. On this conceptual basis, we developed an epistemological stance aligned with bottom-up processes of communication rather than top-down processes of observation, which allowed us to render intelligible the life-world of a quasi-fugitive space by giving it an audience rather than exposing it to surveillance. This, we argue, is an ethical mode of access. This chapter describes our methods and our findings; offers a critical contribution to policing studies; and reflects on what all this might suggest for the larger project of political ethnography.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRoutledge International Handbook of Police Ethnography
EditorsJenny Fleming, Sarah Charman
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781000812916
ISBN (Print)9780367539399
StatePublished - 2023


  • Policing
  • Ethnography
  • Ethics
  • Methods
  • Hot-Spots
  • Surveillance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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