Weak Police, Strong Democracy: Civic Ritual and Performative Peace in Contemporary Taiwan

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Abstract

Weber defined the state as having a monopoly on violence. Theories of policing that rely on his definition conceptualize police as technicians of sovereign violence. This marginalizes the nonviolent dimension of policing and occludes the broader spectrum of ways in which modern political life is implicated in police powers. I propose to expand theoretical engagement with policing beyond a narrow focus on sovereign violence to a broadly “performative” understanding of police power grounded in anthropological theories of ritual. Through a case study of the relationship between a group of Taiwanese police and a locally powerful union, I illuminate the dynamics by which violence, politics, and policing are connected in a Taiwanese city. How do police who lack the capacity to impose order by force effectively keep the peace? I answer this question by reference to my observation of a tense but nonviolent encounter between police and union members. By contextualizing this interaction in its cultural and historical conditions of possibility, I show how Taiwanese democracy has taken root in a polytheist political theology. This illustrates how the weakness of police power can be treated as an index for the strength of democratic values institutionalized in the wider political environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)657-685
Number of pages29
JournalCurrent Anthropology
Volume61
Issue number6
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology

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