Insa Koch was welcomed to the Centre for Criminology for the first All Souls Seminar of the year and to present her findings from her most recent research. Her paper, ‘Moving Beyond Punitivism: Anthropological Engagement with Punishment and State Failure’ explores the ways in which disenfranchised residents living on an English council estate interact with the state and how they adopt notions of law and order into their everyday lives.

Koch began her talk by bringing Thomas Hobbes’ account of ‘Leviathan’ to the forefront of our minds which considers sovereign authority as an essential component for the maintenance of social order. Hobbes argues that citizens use the state as a tool for protection and safety, however, throughout her talk, Koch challenged this narrative. Her research found that local residents on the council estate have a paradoxical relationship with the state, viewing police officers as either ‘allies or enemies’ in producing a sense of security which opposes the top-down portrayal of the Leviathan.

Koch’s ethnographic fieldwork was conducted over an 18-month period on a council estate in England which had over 11,000 residents living there. In this time, Koch lived with various families on the estate and followed their daily lives in classic anthropological style. Koch noted that crime was a persistent issue in the neighbourhood with police officers failing to respond to serious crimes whilst being overly punitive towards low level offending with a real emphasis being placed upon the prevention of anti-social behaviour.

Interestingly, Koch observed that the lack of police intervention towards serious criminal events did not prevent residents from engaging with law enforcement officers. Citizens in this neighbourhood appropriated the state in ways that do not alight with the law through their willingness to involve police officers in quotidian disputes with family members, lovers and friends. This illustrates a personalised conception and utilization of law and order which considers the state as an appropriate arena for disputing every day issues. Moreover, this ‘welfarisation of the police’ (Hornberger, 2009) sees officers being transmitted into the private sphere of citizen’s lives – a notion which links to wider criminological debates regarding the function of the police in contemporary society. Koch spoke of police officer’s frustration is these situations as they were being treated as ‘personal assistants’ which ultimately prevents them from carrying out ‘real’ police duties.

However, whilst residents welcomed the police to deal with private matters, they rejected state involvement when serious levels of victimization and crime were taking place in the neighbourhood. Koch explained that this was due to the police’s prior ineffective responses and lack of intervention which caused frustration amongst the community. This illustrates a paradoxical relationship between citizens and officers whereby state representatives abruptly turn from ‘allies to enemies’. Furthermore, in some cases Koch noted that the lack of police engagement caused local residents to create informal networks in an attempt to maintain social order in potentially dangerous situations. Whilst the state has the ability to exert violence, the lack of such expression towards serious crimes fuelled a vigilante representation of the local. This personalised use of law is symbolic of an institutional failure from the criminal justice system and indeed represents a collapse of sovereign power and authority.  

Koch concluded by arguing that dominant discourses of the criminal justice system are overly state-centric and this ought to be revised. Her ethnographic research illustrates how citizens on this estate reject supreme power in situations of serious threat thus challenging the top-down Leviathan narrative. Moreover, Koch argues that this illuminates the weakness of the state’s claim of absolute authority and consequently argues for a reassessment of the relationship between democratic politics and the criminal justice system. Thus, Koch argues that one must reconsider the notion of ‘social order’ and reconfigure the typical bureaucratic approach of understanding the state by having those who are most subordinated at the focus.

In essence, Koch’s talk provided a unique insight into how marginalised groups interact with state representatives through her ethnographic, anthropological observations. Indeed, her work raises a number of broader question for criminologists to consider regarding the changing perception of the police force, and the state’s ability to provide security to all. Whilst these questions have previously been raised by scholars and other practitioners, Koch’s work offers innovative answers which advance our knowledge in the academic field and have valuable implications for wider society.