Sociology Of Police Research Paper

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Sociology of police as a specialized area of study can be defined as the empirical and theoretical analysis of those organizational agencies—usually but not exclusively established by state governments—that are charged with investigation and prevention of crime and or offences against formally adopted routines and rules as well as with maintaining public order, safety, and peace. It embraces the systematic sociological enquiry about the role of police in modern societies, the general characteristics of policing bodies and their relation to other institutions, the institutional development and internal structure of police forces, the collective and individual behavior of their members, and the interactions or relations of those agencies with individuals, different social groups, institutions, and the general public.

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1. Police As A Matter Of Sociological Concern

Both police and sociology are offsprings of modernity and progressively diversified societies. Although the modern contours of both became obvious only in the nineteenth century—the former as a new formal institutionalization of governance, the latter as an accomplishment of enlightenment and a new academic discipline—there is a line of discourse which can be traced back to ancient times, when Roman emperors struggled to get or keep their rule by using armed forces and when philosophers reasoned about the art of best governance. In spite of the fact, that the modern notions of ‘police’ and ‘sociology’ were not yet discovered then, the reasoning about the necessity of establishing and maintaining a public force to control crime and to ensure public order—and the critical discussion of its actual appearance—is as old as the discourse on the res publica.

Later on, the issue of police was embedded into the broader philosophical topic of the state and government—as it was for the early classic sociologists: police were discussed mainly as an instrument for the sovereign’s power to govern. Max Weber’s often quoted notion, that the state is that human community, that successfully claims a monopoly of legitimate use of force within a certain territory, still prevails within academic reflections on the police (Bittner 1991).

With the growing urbanization of the countries in industrial transition, there was also an increasing body of literature on police matters from a pragmatic perspective in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet it took some time for the police to become an explicit and original matter in sociological thought and empirical inquiry, primarily in English-speaking countries.

2. Determining The Subject

At first glance and seen from the surface it seems rather trivial to determine who and what constitutes ‘the police.’ One would expect that the police as a public institution is represented by (sworn) officers, i.e., representatives of the state and its government, who are (often) specially trained professionals and are invested with certain powers (like the authority to search or arrest a person). Usually this ‘apparent’ kind of police will appear in public as officers on the beat, a crew in a patrol car, behind a desk in a police station, or as plain-clothes detectives, doing investigations in the field. This is the common and popular image (in the Western world) of what police actually are, transmitted by the media and supported by occasional ordinary encounters. From time to time this picture is widened by the appearance of riot police in full gear, underlining the state’s authorization and capability of using legitimately physical force against disobedient citizens or rioting crowds.

When one looks again at who and what constitutes police, the semblance becomes more complicated: on the level of involved actors it becomes apparent that a good portion of the workforce employed by police consists of civilian staff, like secretaries or the clerks in the forensic laboratories; some sworn officers, such as staff who are responsible for conducting statistical analysis of criminal incidents or running a computer program for matching data, are rarely out in the field, while certain field officers, like undercover agents or specialists in charge of surveillance of telecommunication, often do not act openly as police. Furthermore there are other state agents who, having similar powers of investigation or intervention, perform certain functions of policing, but are not seen or labeled as ‘police.’ One might think here of custom officers, secret agents, public health inspectors, or prison guards. Still others appear in a police-like guise but are clearly not officers (at least lacking their full powers): city wardens, commercial guards and patrols, hired investigators, vigilante organizations like the ‘Guardian Angels,’ bodyguards, stewards in a football stadium, or bouncers.

As professionals trained to use force legitimately in the name of the state’s power, police share this somewhat exclusive right with the military and other law enforcement officials (prison, customs). But on the level of routine work processes, this distinguishing feature is a rather rare event compared to the overall picture of police duties. Instead, research has shown that a considerable part of the modern police workload is not at all focused on crime control and investigation of criminal cases, but consists of responding to general emergency calls, mediating conflicts, regulating motor vehicle traffic, and communication with other institutions or agencies like social services, insurance companies, etc.

Although it might be clear from a commonsense point of view, what ‘police’ actually are—basically that formal institution which is vested with the powers and resources to respond to criminal acts or public order disturbances and calls itself ‘police’—the subject in question gets more diverse, the more we see it from a perspective of a peculiar organized social activity rather than as a matter of institutionalism. Thus a true ‘sociology of policing’ would cover a wider area and embrace more organizations than the initial ‘police studies.’

But even from an institutional approach one has to speak of ‘the police’ either from a very abstract level or from a single case point of view only. Besides the common similarities in terms of historical developments, organizational models, practical strategies and tactics, and legal accountabilities, every country’s police system has its own particularities and unique arrangement of forces.

It should not be overlooked that police as a subject of sociological interest is linked in many ways with other social systems, all of them carrying their own, often overlapping, bodies of literature: as an instrument of executive governance ‘the police’ can be seen as a segment of the sociology of the state. Its quality of being an important part of the criminal justice system and its more or less explicit legal bindings does make it a component of the sociology of law. Last but not least, on the level of empirical studies there are clear ties to the field of organizational sociology.

3. Changes In Focus And Emphasis

Although some academic work on the police can be traced back to the 1950s, the first surge of sociological studies of police work occurred as an aftermath of the increasing social and political changes which affected most countries of the Western world from the early 1960s on. In a time when social and political conflicts were brought onto the streets, and rising concerns about crime and disorder became a public issue, ‘the police became increasingly visible, controversial and politicized in response to these tensions and pressures’ (Reiner 2000, p. 210).

According to Cain (1979), five types of studies, following a rough chronological sequence in the shift of areas of interest, can be identified for this period: (a) a law-related concern with civil rights, when confronted with police powers and discretion; (b) examinations of the police organization by participant observations (Skolnick 1966 and Manning 1977 are well-known examples); (c) studies of the role the police take in the social construction of deviants and the fabricating of public images of deviance; (d) analysis of the interactions and relationships of the police with the social environments they are working in; and (e) studies questioning the political contexts, presumptions, and consequences of police activities. It can be said that all these topics overlap in a way and have persisted during the following decades. There are two important points to note: one is that the main characteristics of this work, coming out of universities, were motivated by a concern with issues of police deviancy and generally tended to be critical of the police as a powerful institution of the state. The other is that this research was created overwhelmingly in the USA and the UK.

In a second wave from the early 1980s on, police research was done more often outside the academic sphere. Governmental bodies like the Home Office in the UK began actively to do their own research on police issues. Furthermore think tanks and independent research organizations began to enter the field to offer their own agendas and expertise. This development enlarged and in a way altered the agenda of police research and with it the accessible knowledge on the sociology of police. Thus the momentum of studies changed—beyond the Anglo-Saxon universe—from an outside critique of police behavior and police institutions to questions of good practice and evaluation of reform measures, generated under policy and managerialist perspectives (Reiner 2000).

4. Current Theory And Research

It is still the case that the bulk of police studies which are relevant for the sociology of police in one way or the other is produced in English-speaking countries, with the USA in a clear lead. This might be seen as the reason why, on an international level, the discourse on police and policing issues mainly reflects on these countries. For example debates on ‘community policing’ or ‘zero-tolerance strategies’ originate from the development of police policies in the USA. But as matters of cross-border and international police cooperation have become more important since the early 1990s, there is a growing interest in comparative perspectives (Brodeur 1995, Findlay and Zvekic 1993).

The contemporary sociology of police and policing has to take two aspects into account. First of all, there are quite a lot of significant differences in how police institutions are organized and how policing is actually achieved between different countries. This is mainly due to the diverse national historical background. The diversity lies particularly in the arrangements of the police system influenced by legal, political, and occupational cultures (Busch et al. 1985, Monjardet 1996). The other aspect is that when it comes to the level of policing, i.e., how police work is actually achieved and what kind of resources and strategies are used, some striking similarities and convergences can be noted. There seems to be an increasing transfer of issues in the international police discourse.

The sociology of police is fed in a significant way by historical research on police institutions and forces, be it on the local or the national level. These studies show that there are certain issues in reflecting on police and policing, which have persisted for a long time, most prominent among them effectiveness, deviance, and accountability.

Contemporary research on police and policing embraces also immanent occupational and organizational aspects like recruitment and education, gender and minority issues, the role of unions and professionalism and specialization. The question at stake here is what police are actually doing.

A good portion of police research literature is still concerned with issues of internal as well as external control mechanisms of individual and institutional police behavior. In this respect the institutional autonomy of the police in the face of the government and the judiciary is one side of the question, the control of the behavior of individual officers another (Marx 1988).

Increasingly matters of police management and evaluation are discussed, especially connected with institutional police reforms in the UK. Modernization seems to have been an enduring issue in police reform since the 1970s.

In theoretically oriented academic research the emphasis is clearly shifting from an institutional understanding of police towards policing as a socially structured, dynamic, and multilayered process. The background for this hidden paradigm shift is on the one hand the growing role nonstate policing bodies (security enterprises, insurance companies, vigilant citizens etc.) are gaining in many countries (Shearing and Stenning 1987) and on the other the increasing relevance of technology and information for the police (Ericson and Haggerty 1997).

5. Methodological Issues

The police is a specific institutional field and bears special problems for sociological research. Studies on police and policing in a sociological sense started to be done by university researchers. As long as police behavior could be observed from the outside, especially in respect to its effects on citizens, it was a matter of external description and analysis. In a way these studies could be seen as a type of ‘legal journalism,’ mostly case-oriented. A new field of empirical data was opened, when researchers were able to do participant observation of police work. With that, the internal perspective of the field actors were reflected in the research on police. Of course, there have always been some difficulties for police organizations granting outsiders access to internal functional mechanisms, because it carries the risk of ‘occupational secrets’ becoming subjects of public discussion.

Generally, from a methodological point of view three points deserve attention. First, police studies relevant for sociological interests can be roughly divided between pure empirical, pure theoretical, and those studies which combine or at least claim to combine both aspects.

Another issue is, who initiates and/or carries out the research in question. It might make a difference for methodological approaches, as well as for the broadness of the theoretical perspective, if studies are done by researchers coming from police or other government institutions or whether they are carried out by university institutes. Furthermore there is a clear difference between research for and research about the police. Usually the former tends to be preoccupied with practical issues or management problems. Although there quite often exist interesting sociological aspects within these perspectives, a genuine sociology of police and policing is coupled with research about the police, i.e., its meaning in relation to the law, the state, or society in general.

Finally, the term ‘police’ might be a category too broad when it comes to empirical analysis and theoretical conclusions. Not only do national police systems embrace a variety of more or less specialized forces, with specific, sometimes unique ways of division of labor among units, but police organizations also refer to very different geographical ranges of jurisdiction. This situation becomes more complicated when nationally focused studies are compared on an international level: for a full comprehension of the differences and convergences national particulars have to be taken into account.

6. Future Directions Of Theory And Research

There seem to be three major paths of future research which will contribute to knowledge about the sociology of police. One line of advancement will come from the shift that police institutions will be interpreted more and more in terms of the market. One issue will be what can be called the ‘economy of police and policing.’ In this regard commercialization of police functions will become more important, not only in terms of private police or privatization of policing but also in terms of adopting service orientation as a primary goal and private business structures within the framework of public police. Another research topic will be connected with the growing internationalization of police work. The emerging concept of liaison officers, the creation of multinational task forces—Schengen and Europol as well as Interpol arrangements on policing, etc.—are headed toward changes in particular in the relationship between policing and space. Finally, recently emerging approaches in maintaining order in transnational zones of disorder (i.e., the former Yugoslavia), established drug control policies, and antiterrorism policies, demonstrate the apparent convergence of internal and external security and safety concepts, and convergence between military and secret services on the one hand and police on the other.


  1. Bittner E [1980] 1991 The functions of police in modern society. In: Klockars C B, Mastrofski S D (eds.) Thinking About Police. McGraw-Hill, New York, pp. 35–51
  2. Brodeur J P (ed.) 1995 Comparisons in Policing: An International Avebury, Aldershot, UK
  3. Busch H, Funk A, Kauss U, Narr W D, Werkentin F 1985 Die Polizei in der Bundesrepublik. Campus, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  4. Cain M E 1979 Trends in the sociology of police work. Inter- national Journal of the Sociology of Law 7: 143–67
  5. Ericson R V, Haggerty K D 1997 Policing the Risk Society. Clarendon Press, Oxford
  6. Findlay M, Zvekic U (eds.) 1993 Alternative Policing Styles: Cross-cultural Perspectives. Law and Taxation Publishers, Deventer, The Netherlands
  7. Manning P K 1977 Police Work: The Social Organization of Policity. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  8. Marx G T 1988 Undercover Police Surveillance in America. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  9. Monjardet D 1996 Ce que fait la police (Sociologie de la force publique). La Decouverte, Paris
  10. Reiner R 2000 Police research. In: King R D, Wincup E (eds.) Doing Research on Crime and Justice. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, pp. 205–35
  11. Shearing C D, Stenning P C (eds.) 1987 Private Policing. Sage, Newbury Park, CA
  12. Skolnick J H 1966 Justice Without Trial. Wiley, New York


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