Policing as a practice of categorisation – Reciprocal ascriptions in the control of public spaces

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement and the revelation of far-right online chats in several German police units, racism has become a key issue by which the police in Germany is associated. When conflicts between youths and police officers broke out at so-called ‘hotspots’ in 2021 and 2022, they often were discussed in the context of migration or in reference to racist police practices.

Continuing the project „Police-translations”, this project will study how actors reciprocally categorise each other during everyday policing and how these categories affect practices. With this approach, the project will engage with and expand on public and scholarly discourse by focussing on not only the police but also the municipal public order offices (Ordnungsamt), private security organisations, businesspeople, residents and the youths themselves as powerful actors, all of whom are engaged either in policing or in attempts to resist policing. Moreover, the research approach does not presuppose which categories of difference are most relevant. While actors certainly culturalise, ethnicise or racialise each other in these interactions, they also ascribe age, class, deviancy, gender, legal classifications, regional descent, religion, speech proficiency and other categories. The latter set of implicit factors has as much impact on practices as the former, and both are inextricably linked.

Foto: Ramona Huber

The research design operationalises these approaches through ethnographic research in two ‘hotspots’ – designated as such by actors and the media – in the Rhine-Main area. Among the hotspots are also football matches, where mutual categorisation practices and the conflict-ridden relationship between football fans and police forces will be at the center of ethnographic research. The fieldwork will involve actor groups who are clearly delineated, mistrust each other and have asymmetric power relations. Therefore, the study will be done by a team in which each researcher is the participant observer of her/his respective group. By further developing this collaborative ethnographic approach, the project also will advance the methodological toolbox of social anthropology.

‘Policing as a practice of categorisation’ aims to innovatively study a topic intensely discussed by the public and academia, thereby contributing to research on the police, security, the state, migration and racism. The project has the potential to develop – or ‘anthropologise’ – these fields of research by relying on concepts that originate in research in the Global South; by incorporating an ethnographic sensibility that interprets practices in context, emic terminologies and multiperspectivity; and by assuming a non-normative position of epistemilogical equistance that does not attempt to resolve contradictions but rather identifies them.



(selection, including previous project „Police-translations“, full list on publication as PDF)

2023 Beek, Jan, Bierschenk, Thomas, Kolloch, Annalena and Bernd Meyer. Eds.: Policing race, ethnicity and culture: ethnographic perspectives across Europe. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 330 pp.; ISBN 9781526165589.

2023 Beek, Jan and Marcel Müller. Talking with hands and feet: Language differences and translation in German policing. In Policing race, ethnicity and culture: ethnographic perspectives across Europe, edited by Beek, Jan, Bierschenk, Thomas, Kolloch, Annalena and Bernd Meyer, S. 219-239. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

2023 Beek, Jan. Policing and categories of difference. In Handbook of police ethnography, edited by Fleming, Jenny and Sarah Charman. London: Routledge. [ISBN 9781003083795]

2023 Huber, Ramona: Jugendliche am Rheinufer in Mainz – Praktiken und Diskurse(Arbeitspapiere des Instituts für Ethnologie und Afrikastudien der Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz 23). Mainz: Ifeas. https://www.ifeas.uni-mainz.de/files/2023/03/AP203_Huber_Jugendliche-am-Rheinufer-in-Mainz.pdf.

2023 Kolloch, Annalena and Bernd Meyer. Inclusive and non-inclusive modes of communication in multilingual operational police training. In Policing race, ethnicity and culture: ethnographic perspectives across Europe, edited by Beek, Jan, Bierschenk, Thomas, Kolloch, Annalena and Bernd Meyer, S. 195-218. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

2022 Beek, Jan. Die Kategorie Kultur in der Polizeiarbeit. Kontinuitäten und Umbrüche. In Polizei(en) in Umbruchsituationen: Herrschaft, Krise, Systemwechsel und offene Moderne, edited by Grotum, Thomas, Haase, Lena and Georgios Terizakis, S. 385-398. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

2022 Müller, Marcel. Der Umgang mit Differenz in der Polizeiarbeit. Eine auto-ethnographische Untersuchung. Dissertation, Institut für Ethnologie und Afrikastudien, FB 07, JGU Mainz.

2021 Bierschenk, Thomas, and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan. The anthropology of bureaucracy and public services. In Encyclopedia of public administration (Oxford research encyclopedia of politics), edited by Peters, Guy and Ian Thyme. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.2005.

2021 Kolloch, Annalena. 2021. “I understand the culture. So, I understand who is lying” – Language and cultural mediators as brokers and para-ethnologists. The Mouth 8: 110-129.

2021a Müller, Marcel. Umgang mit Differenz am Beispiel von Verkehrskontrollen. Eine auto-ethnografische Forschung im Rahmen der Ausbildung von Kommissar-Anwärter/innen. Frankfurt a.M.: Verlag für Polizeiwissenschaft.

2021b Müller, Marcel. Was ist Auto-Ethnografie? Eine Positionierung vor dem Hintergrund einer ethnologischen Forschung zur Polizei und Sicherheit (Arbeitspapiere des Instituts für Ethnologie und Afrikastudien der Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz 194). Mainz: Ifeas. https://www.ifeas.uni-mainz.de/files/2021/02/AP_194.pdf

2020a Beek, Jan and Thomas Bierschenk. Hrsg. Bureaucratic practices and cultural difference Sociologus 70 (1), Special Issue.

2020b Beek, Jan and Thomas Bierschenk. Bureaucrats as para-ethnologists: the use of culture in state practices. Sociologus 70 (1): 1-17.

2020 Staut, Jonathan, and Thomas Bierschenk. Polizei und Sicherheit. Wahlprogramme der deutschen politischen Parteien im Vergleich (Arbeitspapiere des Instituts für Ethnologie und Afrikastudien der Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. 193). Mainz: Ifeas. https://www.ifeas.uni-mainz.de/files/2020/07/AP_193.pdf

2019 Bierschenk, Thomas and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan. How to study bureaucracies ethnographically. Critique of Anthropology 39 (2): 243-257.

2019 Bierschenk, Thomas. Postface: Anthropology, bureaucracy and paperwork. Journal of legal anthropology 3 (2): 111-119.


The project in the media

„Wer trifft am Winterhafen aufeinander? Forscher der Uni haben sich die Beteiligten über längere Zeit genau angeschaut“, Mainzer Allgemeine Zeitung, 06. April 2022, by Paul Lassay and Nicholas Matthias Steinberg. https://www.allgemeine-zeitung.de/lokales/mainz/stadt-mainz/mainzer-winterhafen-willkuer-und-politisches-versagen-1797698.

„Studie zum Polizeialltag: Umgang mit sprachlichen und kulturellen Differenzen“. Deutschlandfunk, Aus Kultur und Sozialwissenschaften, 11. March 2021, by Michael Stang. https://share.deutschlandradio.de/dlf-audiothek-audio-teilen.html?audio_id=909115.

"Polizei und Rassismus: Unter Verdacht“. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 26. November 2020, by Friederike Haupt. https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/untersuchung-wegen-rassismus-vorwuerfen-bei-der-polizei-17062454.html.

"Die Angst vor dem, was der Beruf mit einem macht“, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 22. November 2020, by Friederike Haupt. https://zeitung.faz.net/fas/politik/2020-11-22/die-angst-vor-dem-was-der-beruf-mit-einem-macht/534923.html.

"Umgang der Polizei mit anderen Kulturen", SWR 4 Rheinland-Pfalz, "Am Mittag", 28. October 2020.

"Mainzer Studie: Polizeiarbeit und die bunte Gesellschaft“, Mainzer Allgemeine Zeitung, 26. October 2020, by Paul Lassay. https://www.allgemeine-zeitung.de/lokales/mainz/nachrichten-mainz/mainzer-studie-polizeiarbeit-und-die-bunte-gesellschaft_22486557.


Conferences and panels

2022, Police officers at work [AnthroState]. Panel organized by Thomas Bierschenk, Jérémie Gauthier and David Sausdal, Belfast, EASA 2022 (26.-29. July)

2022, Collaborative Research and Writing. Workshop organized by Jan Beek, Lisa Borrelli and Anna Wyss, Neuchâtel (5.-6. May)

2020, Politicized bureaucrats in and beyond Europe. Conflicting loyalties, professionalism and the law in the making of public services [LAWNET]. Panel organized by Sophie Andreetta and Annalena Kolloch, EASA 2020 (20.-24. July)

2020, Police-Translations: The Construction of Cultural Difference in European Police Work. Konferenz organized by Jan Beek, Thomas Bierschenk, Annalena Kolloch, Bernd Meyer, JGU Mainz (13.-15. February) Plakat, Programme

2019, Denied translations. Panel organized by Jan Beek, Thomas Bierschenk and Bernd Meyer bei der DGSK (30. September)