Introduction

Ethnographies of Private Security

in Conflict and Society

ABSTRACT

This introduction emphasizes the value of an anthropological lens within the research on private security. Although much scholarly work has been conducted on private security throughout the past decades, anthropological attention for this subject was somewhat delayed. Yet, the works that have emerged from this discipline through ethnographic fieldwork have provided new and diff erent types of insights, namely bottom-up understandings that explore the daily practices and performances of security and the experiences of the security actors themselves, that other disciplines can unquestionably draw from. As the introductory piece of this section, it also familiarizes the four articles that constitute various “ethnographies of private security.”

Whether in the supermarket, university, airport, or shopping mall, we constantly encounter private security agents in our daily lives. This growing presence of private security across the globe has received ample scholarly attention over the past decades. We have increasing insight in the social realities of companies such as Blackwater and Securitas, and we have begun to understand the dynamics behind the growth of this large industry and its social, economic, and political consequences.

Within academia, the fields of political science, international relations, criminology, and international law have dominated the analytical quest to unravel the workings of private security actors. Studies within international relations have focused on the implications for state sovereignty and authority (Avant 2004, 2005; Leander 2005, 2013; Singer 2003), the role of private security companies in the domains of humanitarian aid (Spearin 2001), how companies engage in identity work and self-framing (Berndtsson 2011; Franke and von Boemcken 2011; Joachim and Schneiker 2012a), and the role of gender discourses and masculinities (Higate 2012; Joachim and Schneiker 2012b). In the field of international (humanitarian) law, scholars have addressed the legal frameworks in which such companies can and cannot operate (Boghosian 2005; Joh 2005; Zarate 1998; Kinsey 2005; Schreier and Caparani 2005; Thorburn 2010) and the crucial role that national and international regulation plays in determining such legal parameters (Berg 2003; Cockayne 2008; Sarre and Prenzler 1999).

Another field that has contributed significantly to the evolving conceptualization of private security is criminology, where the term “private policing” is more commonly used. This research includes canonical contributions by Clifford Shearing, Margaret Farnell, and Philip Stenning (1980), Shearing and Stenning (1983), and Nigel South (1988), and the field continues to generate the bulk of work on private policing. These studies, which often employ a quantitative approach, have analyzed the occupational standards and cultures of private security officers (Berg 2010; Button 2007; Manzo 2010; Rigakos 2002), larger processes of crime prevention and management (Johnston 1992; McManus 1995; White and Gill 2013), the changing nature of public and private spaces (Kempa et al. 2004; Shearing and Wood 2003; Wakefield 2003), and how such entities interact with state authorities and other policing actors (Crawford and Lister 2006; Diphoorn and Berg 2014; Jones and Newburn 1998; Noaks 2000). In addition, a more sociological perspective within criminology has addressed normative ideas of private security consumption and whether policing should be seen as a public good (Goold et al. 2010; Loader 1999, 2000; Loader and Walker 2007; Spitzer 1987). Working from these various disciplinary approaches, these scholars have produced an enormous volume of work on private security, and in the past two years, two encompassing and insightful edited volumes have emerged that bring these various perspectives together, namely the Handbook of Private Security Studies (Abrahamsen and Leander 2015) and the Routledge Research Companion to Security Outsourcing (Berndtsson and Kinsey 2016).

This special section builds directly on this extensive scholarly literature on private security, but aims to emphasize insights being produced within anthropology, a discipline that began to focus on the growth of private security somewhat later. Although there are various ethnographic accounts of security providers operating outside of the state, such as gangs or militias (e.g., Baker 2008, 2010; Buur 2006; Goldstein 2005, 2012; Hansen and Stepputat 2005; Harnischfeger 2003; Jensen 2008; Pratten and Sen 2007; Rodgers 2006), an ethnographic focus on commercial security entities (including companies such as G4S and various security consultants) were extremely limited until very recently. This has changed in the past few years with the emergence of a few ethnographic accounts that focus specifically on private security from the point of view of the security actors (e.g., Diphoorn 2016; Konopinski 2014; Stockmarr 2015), numerous articles that depict how these actors operate in particular localities—for example, Daniel Goldstein’s (2015) analysis of the performance of local sovereignty in Bolivia, Erella Grassiani and Lior Volinz’s (2015) piece on how policing (re)produces different audiences in East Jerusalem, and Paul Higate’s (2011, 2012) insights on gender issues among private contractors—and an edited volume that specifically focuses on the role of private security companies in Africa (Higate and Utas 2017). Combined, these anthropological contributions provide more (local) insights into how private security employees perceive and experience their own security practices, how daily interactions with other security providers influence power dynamics, and how citizens experience the growing presence of private security. This anthropological lens not only supplies a more local and bottom-up perspective of private security, but has also contributed greatly to larger conceptual debates on key issues, such as sovereignty, citizenship, belonging, and exclusion.

In this section, we extend this focus by highlighting the innovative insights and advantages of this growing anthropological scope. For decades, the method of ethnographic fieldwork defined the discipline of anthropology. More specifically, participant observation was regarded as the hallmark of the discipline and the method that distinguished anthropologists from other qualitative researchers. However, we believe, with others (Ingold 2008), that anthropology is not solely defined by ethnography or participant observation; the questions we ask and the conceptual insights anthropology offers are equally important. Yet we value the ethnographic method here as particularly important to understand how private security agents give meaning to their work within the national, historical, and social contexts they live in and the power relations they are part of. It also shows us the ways private security work relates to issues of sovereignty, gender, and power.

This special section is based on contributions by authors who have conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork and have used participant observation as a key method to uncover how private security actually works. Each article in this section highlights a different facet of the enormous and diverse private security industry and is based in a different locality. The first contribution, by Francesco Colona and Tessa Diphoorn, analyses the power dynamics between local security providers in Nairobi, Kenya. By focusing on the dynamics between private security companies, Kenyan police officers, and various resident initiatives, the authors use their empirical data to show the dominant role of the state police, with private security providers relegated to the role of acting as their “eyes, ears, and wheels”. This, they argue, counters much of the literature on African policing that tends to interpret the growth and prominence of the private security industry as an indication of state weakness or state failure. Using rich ethnographic material, the authors emphasize the multitude and continuously changing dynamics between security providers that move beyond frequently used abstract frameworks of “security assemblages” (Abrahamsen and Williams 2010) and “security networks” (Dupont 2004).

The second contribution, by Maya Mynster Christensen, brings us to Sierra Leone. In this piece, Mynster Christensen explores the practices and processes through which Sierra Leonean ex-soldiers and ex–militia members have been engaged in private security provision for the US government in the aftermath of the civil war in their country. The author focuses on the experiences of these “ex-servicemen,” who are (waiting to be) deployed in Iraq, thereby also demonstrating the globalized nature of security networks. In addition to understanding how militarized networks are transformed in a postwar context, this article uncovers, using the concept “shadow soldiering,” how these networks gradually morph into new ways of blurring of the public with the private and the visible with the invisible.

The final two articles, by Paul Higate and Erika Robb Larkins, explore embodiment as a dimension of private security that is often overlooked. Higate’s contribution zooms in on the domain of private security training for close protection officers in two distinct localities, namely the United States and Eastern Europe. He employs an explicitly embodied methodology to analyze how armed close protection officers translate abstract ideas of security to material security practices. Higate aims to show the crucial role of embodiment in doing ethnographic research and reflects on his role as both researcher and participant in the trainings. In so doing, he offers an explicit focus on the embodied dimension of intersubjectivity that is lacking in many fields outside of anthropology.

Erika Robb Larkins also focuses on “embodied security work,” reflecting on her own embodied approach to understanding security practices in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Identifying various types of bodies and exploring how security is experienced as a particular form of embodied labor by guards, she argues that security work itself depends on performatively subduing different kinds of bodies, both those of potential threats and those of the guards themselves. This analysis highlights the racialized dimensions of security work (see also Diphoorn 2015; Kempa and Singh 2008; Samara 2010), and the extent to which security practices are always directed towards a dangerous Other.

Across the different themes and localities, the ethnographic approach of these authors unites the various contributions of this section. The authors have all spent a substantial time doing extensive, in-depth research in their respective fieldwork sites, conducting numerous interviews with the relevant actors and participating in various activities, such as trainings, social events, and patrols, that constitute the private security domain. This detailed engagement with everyday security practices and the meanings attributed to these practices by on-the-ground private security professionals across diverse cultural, political, and economic contexts all add to our understanding of such practices as they are performed by private agents across the globe. It is precisely this dimension that an ethnographic approach uncovers, namely, how daily security practices are performed and how various, often conflicting, perceptions on security are created and connected. Other approaches, such as the ones we refer to above, have mostly relied on policy analysis, statistics, and a top-down approach to understand and conceptualize security. And although the anthropological lens may have developed later, we argue that it not only builds on and contributes to existing approaches, but also provides something different from which other disciplines can draw from.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This project was funded by an ERC Starting Grant (337974), titled “Transforming Citizenship through Hybrid Governance: The Impacts of Public-Private Security Assemblages.”

REFERENCES

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BoghosianHeidi. 2005. “Applying Restraints to Private Police.” Modern Law Review 70 : 177218.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • GoldsteinDaniel M. 2005. “Flexible Justice: Neoliberal Violence and ‘Self-Help’ Security in Bolivia.” Critique of Anthropology 25 (4): 389411.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • GrassianiErella and Lior Volinz. 2016. “Intimidation, Reassurance and Invisibility: Israeli Security Agents in the Old City of Jerusalem.” Focaal 75 : 1430.

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  • HansenThomas Blom and Finn Stepputat. 2005. Sovereign Bodies: Citizens Migrants and States in the Postcolonial World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HarnischfegerJohannes. 2003. “The Bakassi Boys: Fighting Crime in Nigeria.” Journal of Modern African Studies 41 (1): 2349.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HigatePaul. 2012. “Drinking Vodka from the ‘Butt-Crack’: Men, Masculinities and Fratriarchy in the Private Militarized Security Company.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 14 (4): 450469.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HigatePaul and Mats Utas. 2017. The Politics of Private Security Provision in Sub-Saharan Africa: From the Global Assemblage to the Everyday. London: Zed Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • JensenSteffen. 2008. Gangs Politics and Dignity in Cape Town. Oxford: James Currey.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • JoachimJutta and Andrea Schneiker. 2012b. “New Humanitarians? Frame Appropriation through Private Military and Security Companies.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 40 (2): 365388.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • JonesTrevor and Tim Newburn eds. 1998. Private Security and Public Policing. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • KempaMichael and Anne-Marie Singh. 2008. “Private Security, Political Economy and the Policing Of Race: Probing Global Hypotheses through the Case of South Africa.” Theoretical Criminology 12 (3): 333354.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KempaMichaelPhilip Stenning and Jennifer Wood. 2004. “Policing Communal Spaces: A Reconfiguration of the ‘Mass Private Property’ Hypothesis.” British Journal of Criminology 44 (4): 562581.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KinseyChristopher. 2005. “Challenging International Law: A Dilemma of Private Security Companies.” Conflict Security & Development 5 (3): 269293.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KonopinskiNatalie. 2014. “Borderline Temporalities and Security Anticipations: Standing Guard in Tel Aviv.” Etnofoor 26 (1): 5980.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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Contributor Notes

ERELLA GRASSIANI is an anthropologist and Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam. She is the author of Soldiering Under Occupation: Processes of Numbing among Israeli soldiers in the Al-Aqsa Intifada (Berghahn Books, 2013). Her current research is part of a wider project on privatization and globalization of security with a specific focus on Israel and security mobilities, and it traces the flows of the (Israeli) security worldwide and looks at how cultural ideas, technologies, and consultants move around globally.

TESSA DIPHOORN is Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Utrecht University. She has conducted extensive ethnographic research about private security in South Africa and is the author of Twilight Policing: Private Security and Violence in Urban South Africa (University of California Press, 2016). She is now working on a new research project that analyzes the regulation of police (mis)conduct in Kenya.

Conflict and Society

Advances in Research

  • AbrahamsenRita and Anna Leander eds. 2015. The Routledge Handbook of Private Security Studies. London: Routledge.

  • AbrahamsenRita and Michael C. Williams. 2010. Security Beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • AvantDeborah. 2005. The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • AvantDeborah. 2004. “The Privatization of Security and Change in the Control of Force.” International Studies Perspectives 5 (2): 153157.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BakerBruce. 2008. Multi-Choice Policing in Africa. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.

  • BakerBruce. 2010. Security in Post-Conflict Africa: The Role of Nonstate Policing. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

  • BerndtssonJoakim. 2011. “Security Professionals for Hire: Exploring the Many Faces of Private Security Expertise.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 40 (2): 303320.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BerndtssonJoakim and Christopher Kinsey eds. 2016. Routledge Research Companion to Security Outsourcing. London: Routledge.

  • BergJulie. 2003. “The Private Security Industry in South Africa: A Review of Applicable Legislation.” South African Journal of Criminal Justice 16 (2): 178196.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BergJulie. 2010. “Seeing Like Private Security: Evolving Mentalities of Public Space Protection in South Africa.” Criminology and Criminal Justice 10 (3): 287301.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BoghosianHeidi. 2005. “Applying Restraints to Private Police.” Modern Law Review 70 : 177218.

  • ButtonMark. 2007. Security Officers and Policing: Powers Culture and Control in the Governance of Private Space. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BuurLars. 2006. “Reordering Society: Vigilantism and Expressions of Sovereignty in Port Elizabeth’s Townships.” Development and Change 37 (4): 735757.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CrawfordAdam and Stuart Lister. 2006. “Additional Security Patrols in Residential Areas: Notes from the Marketplace.” Policing and Society 16 (2): 16488.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CockayneJames. 2008. “Regulating Private Military and Security Companies: The Content, Negotiation, Weaknesses and Promise of the Montreux Document.” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 13 (3): 401428.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DiphoornTessa. 2015. “The ‘Bravo Mike Syndrome’: Private Security Culture and Racial Profiling in South Africa.” Policing and Society. doi:10.1080/10439463.2015.1089869.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DiphoornTessa. 2016. Twilight Policing: Private Security and Violence in Urban South Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DiphoornTessa and Julie Berg. 2014. “Typologies of Partnership Policing: Case Studies from Urban South Africa.” Policing and Society 24 (4): 425442.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DupontBenoît. 2004. “Security in the Age of Networks.” Policing and Society 14 (1): 7691.

  • FrankeVolker and Marc von Boemcken. 2011. “Guns for Hire: Motivations and Attitudes of Private Security Contractors.” Armed Forces and Society 37 (4): 725742.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GoldsteinDaniel M. 2005. “Flexible Justice: Neoliberal Violence and ‘Self-Help’ Security in Bolivia.” Critique of Anthropology 25 (4): 389411.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GoldsteinDaniel M. 2012. Outlawed: Between Security and Rights in a Bolivian City. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • GoldsteinDaniel M. 2015. “Color-Coded Sovereignty and the Men in Black: Private Security in a Bolivian Marketplace.” Conflict and Society 1 : 182196.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GooldBenjaminIan Loader and Angelica Thumala. 2010. “Consuming Security? Tools for a Sociology of Security Consumption.” Theoretical Criminology 14 (1): 330.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GrassianiErella and Lior Volinz. 2016. “Intimidation, Reassurance and Invisibility: Israeli Security Agents in the Old City of Jerusalem.” Focaal 75 : 1430.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HansenThomas Blom and Finn Stepputat. 2005. Sovereign Bodies: Citizens Migrants and States in the Postcolonial World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HarnischfegerJohannes. 2003. “The Bakassi Boys: Fighting Crime in Nigeria.” Journal of Modern African Studies 41 (1): 2349.

  • HigatePaul. 2011. “‘Cowboys and Professionals’: The Politics of Identity Work in the Private and Military Security Company.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 40 (2): 321341. doi:10.1177/0305829811425752.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HigatePaul. 2012. “Drinking Vodka from the ‘Butt-Crack’: Men, Masculinities and Fratriarchy in the Private Militarized Security Company.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 14 (4): 450469.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HigatePaul and Mats Utas. 2017. The Politics of Private Security Provision in Sub-Saharan Africa: From the Global Assemblage to the Everyday. London: Zed Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • IngoldTim. 2008. “Anthropology Is Not Ethnography.” Proceedings of the British Academy 154 : 6992.

  • JensenSteffen. 2008. Gangs Politics and Dignity in Cape Town. Oxford: James Currey.

  • JoachimJutta and Andrea Schneiker. 2012a. “Of True Professionals’ and ‘Ethical Hero Warriors’: A Gender-Discourse Analysis of Private Military and Security Companies.” Security Dialogue 43 (6): 495512.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • JoachimJutta and Andrea Schneiker. 2012b. “New Humanitarians? Frame Appropriation through Private Military and Security Companies.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 40 (2): 365388.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • JohElizabeth E. 2005. “Conceptualizing the Private Police.” Utah Law Review 2005 : 573617.

  • JohnstonLes. 1992. The Rebirth of Private Policing. London: Routledge.

  • JonesTrevor and Tim Newburn eds. 1998. Private Security and Public Policing. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • KempaMichael and Anne-Marie Singh. 2008. “Private Security, Political Economy and the Policing Of Race: Probing Global Hypotheses through the Case of South Africa.” Theoretical Criminology 12 (3): 333354.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KempaMichaelPhilip Stenning and Jennifer Wood. 2004. “Policing Communal Spaces: A Reconfiguration of the ‘Mass Private Property’ Hypothesis.” British Journal of Criminology 44 (4): 562581.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KinseyChristopher. 2005. “Challenging International Law: A Dilemma of Private Security Companies.” Conflict Security & Development 5 (3): 269293.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KonopinskiNatalie. 2014. “Borderline Temporalities and Security Anticipations: Standing Guard in Tel Aviv.” Etnofoor 26 (1): 5980.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LeanderAnna. ed. 2005. “The Market for Force and Public Security: The Destabilizing Consequences of Private Military Companies.” Journal of Peace Research 42 (5): 605622.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LeanderAnna. 2013. Commercialising Security in Europe: Political Consequences for Peace Operations. New York: Routledge.

  • LoaderIan. 1999. “Consumer Culture and the Commodification of Policing and Security.” Sociology 33 (2): 373392.

  • LoaderIan. 2000. “Plural Policing and Democratic Governance.” Social Legal Studies 9 (3): 323345.

  • LoaderIan and Neil Walker. 2007. Civilizing Security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • ManzoJohn. 2010. “How Private Security Officers Perceive Themselves Relative to Police.” Security Journal 23 (3): 192205.

  • McManusMichael. 1995. From Fate to Choice: Private Bobbies Public Beats. Aldershot: Avebury.

  • NoaksLesley. 2000. “Private Cops on the Block: A Review of the Role of Private Security in Residential Communities.” Policing and Society 10 (2): 14361.

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