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Going Nodal: Multi-sited Policing Ethnography

This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Taylor & Francis in the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Police Ethnography (Eds. Sarah Charman & Jennifer Fleming). Accepted on 1 October 2021.

Published onMay 11, 2022
Going Nodal: Multi-sited Policing Ethnography


Ethnographies of policing have overwhelmingly focused on the work of traditional security actors, namely the public police, in local communities. By comparison, ethnographic research on the poly-centric and multi-scalar networks of power that govern and provide security around the world remains a rarity despite increased theoretical interest in nodal governance, plural policing, transnational policing, and international police-building. In this regard, ethnographic research on policing appears to be disconnected from important theoretical developments in the field. At the same time, researchers who study these complex webs of security governance qualitatively typically rely on key stakeholder interviews and documentary sources rather than ethnographic methods. Accordingly, this chapter considers the methodological possibilities, benefits, and challenges of studying policing assemblages using multi-sited ethnographies. The primary benefit of multi-sited ethnography is that it allows researchers to situate themselves in different security nodes in order to examine the development, translation, and implementation of security policies and practices within and across different fields of power. This provides researchers with a strategy for developing first-hand, empirical insight into how and why policing mentalities, technologies, resources and institutions, are structured by their position in a wider field, and in-turn structure the field.


In recent decades, our theoretical understanding of policing has evolved in response to societal transformations associated with the structural and cultural effects of late modernity, neoliberalisation, and globalisation (Jones, Newburn and Reiner 2017). It is today widely accepted that policing, defined by Reiner (2010: 5) as the ‘the set of activities aimed at preserving the security of a particular social order, or social order in general’, involves a plurality of actors, institutions, and ‘actants’ which collectively operate through ‘webs’ or ‘assemblages’ (Brodeur 2010)1. Accordingly, policing today appears to be the policing of the future hypothesised by Bayley and Shearing (1996) almost three decades ago.

From a theoretical perspective, this characterisation of policing as pluralistic, networked, or nodal, is not particularly novel, revelatory or controversial and there is a rich literature on how we might conceptualise its architecture (see for example, Wood and Shearing 2006). We teach these ideas to our students and acknowledge them in our papers yet empirical research on policing, particularly ethnographic research, remains overwhelmingly police-centric. The public police continue to play an important role when it comes to governing and delivering security in most modern societies and it is not our intention to suggest that they have become, or are becoming, irrelevant. Rather, our concern is that the overwhelmingly police-centric focus of policing research, and ethnographic policing research in particular (see for example, Bacon et al 2020), serves to reproduce the normative assumption that ‘the state agency with the omnibus mandate of order maintenance’ (Reiner 2010: 6) is the most significant policing actor, rather than one of many actors who collectively govern and provide security. They do this not only in response to crime, but increasingly non-criminal ‘harmscapes’ which necessitate new ways of conceptualising and researching policing and the governance of security (Berg and Shearing 2018; Berg and Shearing 2021).

This chapter considers the methodological possibilities for aligning empirical work on policing, specifically that of an ethnographic nature, with the nodal governance framework, which conceptualises policing as the actions and interactions of different nodal actors and increasingly actants that form webs or assemblages as part of their efforts to collectively govern and regulate harms (Holley and Shearing 2017). We argue that this presents an important future horizon of ethnographic policing research, one that can help us to make sense of how the governance and delivery of security are shaped by the convergence between traditional and non-traditional security problems.2

We begin by reflecting on current traditions of ethnographic policing research to briefly highlight their police-centric nature and proceed to outline nodal governance theory and other related concepts that can help us to develop rich, empirical descriptions of the architecture of policing and security governance in specific contexts. In reviewing this tradition, we acknowledge there to be a scarcity of studies on policing assemblages which have utilised ethnographic approaches. Rather, nodal governance researchers typically utilise other qualitative methods such as key stakeholder interviews and documentary analysis to map and analyse nodal relations. Our argument is that complementing these traditional methods with multi-sited ethnographic research may provide nodal governance researchers with a deeper understanding of how the mentalities, technologies, resources and institutions of different policing nodes are shaped by actors’ and actants’ positionality within the wider field. The research significantly enriches the tradition of ethnographic research on policing by expanding our scope beyond the organizational activities and pathologies of the police. An example of a multi-sited policing ethnography which was undertaken by one of the author’s (Blaustein) is briefly discussed and the chapter concludes by reflecting on the possibilities for ‘going nodal’, along with the potential challenges associated with doing so.

Police ethnographies

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to canvass the rich tradition of police ethnography and consider the theoretical and methodological norms that have shaped this body of, but a few key observations are worth reflecting on. As noted above, ethnographies of policing overwhelmingly focus on the police, and they always have. This is attributable to the fact that sociological literature on policing in general has historically been preoccupied with this modern, state institution which has been bestowed with the unique authority to legitimately exercise coercive force upon its own citizens (at least in the Peelian tradition; but see Brogden 1987 for a colonial critique). As Waddington (1999) and other police sociologists have argued, (state) policing provides a valuable vantage point for understanding wider social relations, and how societies attempt to manage social conflict. To this effect, Bacon, Loftus and Rowe (2020a: 2) suggest that the tradition of police ethnography was born out of a series of conflicts involving police and marginalised groups during the 1960s and 1970s. Ethnographic research was therefore used to understand these crises of legitimacy and ‘attention was shifted away from those who broke the law to those who enforced it’ (Ibid: 2).

Early police ethnographies set the agenda for police sociology and established a number of core concepts and themes that remain central to this field of scholarship today. As Souhami (2020) argues, they also established the methodological norms of police ethnography which continue to shape how ethnographers interpret and reconstruct the cultures and subcultures, routines and practices, decision-making processes, and interactions between police and the policed. A typical police ethnography might therefore involve a researcher, generally an academic who is not a member of the police organisation (but see Holdaway 1984; Hendy 2020), assume the role of a participant-observer and embed themselves with a group of police officers for an extended period of time. Realist accounts of police work also increasingly include a reflexive component that affords the reader insight into the positionality of the researcher in the field. This is important, argues Souhami (2020), because accessing the (state) policing field necessitates not only formal access, but also informal access. That is, police ethnographers must demonstrate that they have established rapport and trust with their participants if they are to convince the reader that their ethnographic data provides a credible interpretation of police work. In this respect, Souhami argues that ethnographic field notes and ethnographic narratives are curated in ways that intentionally and subconsciously reproduce dominant ideas about what police ethnography, and, by extension policing, is:

‘…an orientation towards action limits interest in the tedious, endless hanging around that is the primary substance of both fieldwork and police work. Yet these boring, mundane, routine activities are both what most police work is, and the site at which contested understandings of occupational culture, identity and belonging are manifested and negotiated.’ (Souhami 2020: 220; see also Sausdal 2021)

Ethnographic representations of police work are therefore constructed in relation to the norms of this literary tradition. This in-turn serves to reproduce these established ways of doing ‘real’ police ethnography, and the genre contributes to the ongoing conflation of police work with policing.

It is important to note that a few ethnographic studies have seemingly defied the norms of the genre examining the work of private security actors (for example, Wakefield 2003; Hobbs et al 2003; Calvey in this volume). Arguably the most important example in recent years is Tessa Diphoorn’s (2016) ethnographic study on ‘twilight policing’ in South Africa which examined the activities and social impacts of private security actors in this context (see also Dipohoorn in this volume). From a theoretical standpoint, the South African context has long been particularly noteworthy for policing researchers because it is home to the largest private security sector in the world along with what is widely recognised to be dysfunctional system of state policing. Accordingly, researchers like Diphoorn who study policing in South Africa have overwhelmingly eschewed the typical normative assumptions about the centrality of the police to policing, and designed their studies with this in mind (see also Beek and Faull in this volume). The questions of ‘who governs and who delivers policing?’ are therefore approached as empirical ones, and it is understood that a mapping of the policing field should precede any attempt to theorise what policing is or what its impacts are. This perspective is consistent with the core foundational assumptions of nodal governance theory as a framework for conceptualising and studying policing assemblages.

Theorising the transformation of the policing

Most ethnographies of policing remain fixated on the public police but police sociologists have long acknowledged that policing is a pluralistic enterprise that involves a range of different actors and increasingly, actants. Policing actors often include: state institutions such as the public police but also other law enforcement bodies and regulatory agencies; private security companies or contractors; private corporations such as insurance companies which shape the governance of risk; and community organisations and community members. In some instances, actants may also reproduce the interests or mentalities of the actors which designed and created them but in other cases, they may become semi-autonomous and structure the field in unanticipated ways (Latour 2005).

Nodal governance theory provides a useful framework for examining these governmental shifts and their impact on regulatory and policing activities (Wood and Shearing 2006). The fundamental idea is that security is governed and delivered through various nodes, actors or actants, which can collectively be studied as webs or assemblages. The governing activities of each node are shaped by a combination of factors including mentalities, material resources, institutional resources through which they derive authority and legitimacy, and technologies. These are in-turn influenced by, and may influence, the position of nodes within the wider security assemblage. The framework is particularly well-suited for understanding how policing operates in different security environments because it holds no a priori assumptions about the centrality of police to policing, or the state to governance (Holley and Shearing 2017). This is not an ideological position derived from neoliberal principles advocating the withdrawal of the state, but rather, a methodological position based on the paradigm’s commitment to radical empiricism and its recognition of the fact that the architecture of policing is unique in every context.

In contrast to much of the existing literature on modern policing, nodal governance theorists typically view the Peelian model of policing as the product of a particular moment in history. By extension, nodal governance theorists reject the Hobbesian assumption that the fundamental purpose and role of the modern state is to provide security and order for its citizens. This may occur in some instances, but nodal governance scholars observe that there are many contexts, both historical and contemporary, where states are not the primary architects or providers of security (Holley and Shearing 2017; see Diphoorn 2016 discussed above). Nor should it be assumed that policing, police-centric or otherwise, fundamentally exists to advance public or collective interests. It is therefore no coincidence that much of the empirical work that draws on nodal governance theory has focused on South Africa, a country where historically, the state and the police have acted as a source of oppression rather than security for the majority of the population. Following Apartheid, nodal governance scholars remain interested in this context as the governing and policing capabilities of the South African state remain limited, a significant private policing industry has developed to address consumer demand for security services, and informal community-based models of policing have emerged in the absence of state security (Brogden and Shearing 1993).

The appeal of nodal governance theory as a framework for conceptualising policing has perhaps been greatest in those countries where the realities of public policing are obviously distinct from the Hobbesian/Peelian myth, but it is also relevant for exploring transformations of governance and security in countries where this myth remains dominant. In Anglo-American contexts, these transformations became evident to policing scholars during the latter decades of the 20th Century when police-centric policing experienced various crises of legitimacy as a consequence of societal changes including, for example, progressive social movements and rising levels of inequality, particularly following the introduction of neoliberal reforms (Jones, Newburn and Reiner 2017). Whereas many police-centric policing researchers initially advocated various models of community policing as a platform for re-establishing the legitimacy and efficacy of these traditional security actors, nodal governance scholars were typically interested in how policing assemblages as a whole were evolving (or not evolving) in response to these changes. In this regard, much of their work has drawn inspiration from Foucault’s concept of governmentality which describes the ‘techniques and procedures for directing human behaviour’ (Foucault 1998: 82; quoted in Rose, O’Malley and Valverde 2006). Foucault was primarily concerned with liberalism as a particular ‘art of governing that arises as a critique of excess government’ and thus, his work on governmentality prompts consideration of how this occurs in different contexts through ‘different sites, in relation to different objectives’ (Rose, O’Malley and Valverde 2006). Nodal governance scholars have long embraced this Foucauldian tradition of de-centring the study of governance from the modern state, and by extension, the study of policing from the modern police.

The influence of Foucault’s work on nodal governance scholarship is evident early on from a pioneering study by Shearing and Stenning (1984) of the policing of Disneyworld. Drawing on ethnographic reflections from a recent visit to the ‘quintessent[ial] American playground’, Shearing and Stenning (1984: 317) reflect on how ordering technologies are embedded throughout the park to discipline visitors and render them the primary source of their own control. Disneyworld is therefore argued to exemplify a model of security governance that achieves control through voluntary compliance, and coercive authority (i.e., the threat of exclusion and the denial of consumption) is only evident in those rare instances when other technologies of regulation fail.

The developments described above have had a significant impact on policing and policing research and today, most policing researchers acknowledge the intersections between policing and what were perhaps once peripheral fields of social control (for example, situational crime prevention or punishment). They also recognise that police and other traditional state policing actors increasingly work with a range of partners to address traditional criminological harms along with new and emergent forms of risk. The pluralisation of the policing field is not only widely discussed in the literature, but actively advocated by applied policing researchers who recognise the importance of developing effective and sustainable partnerships between police and other stakeholders (see for example White 2010, 2014; Crawford 2006). For example, in Australia proponents of ‘third-party policing’ advocate police-initiated partnerships as a strategy for developing comprehensive and coordinated solutions to complex issues, particularly those which stretch the traditional remit and capabilities of police (Ransley and Mazerolle 2009).

One potential criticism of adopting a nodal governance lens is that the concept of ‘policing’ becomes too broad and thus, impossible to differentiate from the institutions and practices associated with regulation, governance and social control. Our response to this concern is that narrower conceptualisations of policing remain grounded in historically-specific, Hobbesian and Weberian assumptions concerning the legitimate authority of the state and its unique capacity to govern and deliver security and order in modern societies. Accordingly, unless we decide to limit ourselves to a myopic and historically/contextually specific understanding of what policing is, and who polices, then it may not be possible to meaningfully distinguish policing from broader policies and practices associated with regulation, governance and social control. That is, policing nodes, be they conventional or unique, should be studied as components of wider assemblages of governance in order to make sense of what they are, what they do, and why they do it.

A final point to address relates to how nodal governance scholars conceptualise the transnational policing field. Most policing research has historically focused on domestic policing actors and this is again a reflection of the aforementioned Hobbesian and Weberian assumptions about the nature of modern policing. In recent decades however, policing scholars have advanced our understanding of how policing assemblages are being transformed by globalisation (Bowling and Sheptycki 2011).3 This has prompted greater cooperation between police organisations in different jurisdictions (e.g. Bowling 2010) along with the emergence of new fields of governance which are oriented towards aligning the mentalities and capabilities of local policing actors (and actants) with an agenda for global governance (Ryan 2011; Ellison and Pino 2012).

There are four things which we believe are theoretically interesting about these developments from a nodal governance perspective. First, the research on transnational policing highlights that policing actors, including the public police which are traditionally theorised as agents of state control, are in fact semi-autonomous actors who develop international linkages and partnerships which may be subject to limited state oversight, regulation, or control. Second, it highlights the potential value of studying multi-scalar dimensions of security governance which extend above and beyond the state and shape policing practices (Sausdal 2021). As discussed below, Blaustein (2015) and others have described this as the ‘governance of security governance’. Third, it illustrates that the institutional legitimacy of policing actors, even state policing actors, may not be derived from the state but rather, international benefactors like the United Nations or a foreign government which provides financial or operational support for what some scholars characterise as ‘police building’ missions (Goldsmith and Shepytcki 2007). Finally, the literature draws attention to a growing transnational security consultancy industry which increasingly intersects with state security agencies (O’Reilly 2010) and even the military industrial complex (Whyte 2007).

Researching Nodal Governance

The issues discussed above all highlight the need for policing researchers to develop methodological strategies for de-centring the study of policing from the activities of the police. Nodal governance scholars typically stress the importance of using rich, contextualised descriptions of policing assemblages as the starting point for any theoretical analysis. In other words, a policing assemblage must be mapped before it can be understood. Typically, this is achieved through a two-step process. A desktop review is typically used to identify key nodal actors and actants and to develop preliminary insight into their positionality, mentalities, and technological, institutional and material capabilities. Once the assemblage is mapped, nodal governance researchers will typically then utilise key stakeholder interviews to establish deeper insights into the nature and activities of these different nodes, and this information is then analysed to produce a refined empirical description of the assemblage and theorise its nature, purpose and impacts (e.g. Brewer 2014). There are of course variations on the specific methods and methodological strategies used to research nodal policing assemblages, but the fundamental principle centres on dissociating the study of policing from a priori, normative assumptions about who governs and delivers security, how this is achieved, and who is best positioned to do so in ways that advance public interests (Wood and Shearing 2006; Berg and Shearing 2018).

Lacking however is an established tradition of ethnographic research on nodal governance which could seemingly offer greater depth of understanding with regards to the distinct institutional features of different actors/actants, their relationality and positionality within assemblages or fields, and by-extension, the nature of their governmental power. Arguably, the most significant methodological obstacle to doing what might be described as nodal policing ethnography is that it seemingly necessitates situating oneself in multiple nodes with varying degrees of visibility and accessibility. This is a challenge for practical reasons, but it is also potentially limiting from a methodological standpoint insofar as it necessarily entails sacrificing some degree of depth for breadth. In other words, a typical police ethnography involves the researcher spending a sustained period of time with a single police organisation (i.e., a single-site ethnography), typically a specific unit within the organisation, and developing a really intimate understanding of how they operate.

Nodal policing ethnography would seemingly necessitate splitting one’s time between multiple sites which may limit the researcher’s ability to develop rapport and become fully immersed in these settings. What further complicates the prospect of undertaking nodal policing research is the fact that policing assemblages are by definition complex and dynamic entities. As noted above, the boundaries of these assemblages are often unclear and perhaps impossible to demarcate from wider policy assemblages associated with governance, regulation and social control. Beyond this however, the nature and purpose of nodal policing assemblages may change over time, particularly in response to overarching shifts in governance. For these reasons, we do not wish to propose that ethnography alone represents a methodological strategy for developing comprehensive or definitive perspectives into nodal policing systems. Rather, we suggest that methodological approaches that broadly fit with the tradition of multi-sited ethnography, discussed below, offer a relevant tool-kit for generating rich, empirical accounts of policing assemblages, their cultures, and their nodal relations.

Multi-sited ethnography

Multi-sited ethnography emerged within the field of anthropology in the 1980s and 1990s as an alternative to traditional, single-sited and comparative ethnographies. Whereas traditional ethnographic approaches typically rely on the work of macro-theorists or secondary sources to contextualise their empirical interpretations of the object of study, multi-sited ethnography ‘defines for itself an object of study that cannot be accounted for ethnographically by remaining focused on a single site of intensive investigation’ (Marcus 1995: 96). The ‘object’ may take various forms, depending on the focus of the research, for example, people, cultural or material objects, discourses or ideas, policies, and practices. The emphasis is that these ‘objects’ are increasingly mobile or alternatively, their situated character is increasingly shaped by factors and forces which would normally exist beyond the scope of traditional ethnographic studies. Some anthropologists go even further in arguing that the idea of an ‘object’ itself should be reconceptualised as relationships or processes because the assumption of ‘concreteness’ is ‘misleading’ (Ferguson 2011: 198)

Multi-sited ethnography is therefore not a traditional ethnography of place, or of people or objects in place, but rather the study of movements, relations and/or connections within systems, fields or assemblages, which are sometimes networked (Marcus 1995; 2011). Accordingly, multi-sited ethnographers seek to map the relational architecture of social systems by following or tracing their object(s) of study, however these might be conceived, across multiple sites or fields. Falzon (2009: 3) explains:

‘…research design proceeds by a series of juxtapositions in which the global is collapsed into and made an integral part of parallel, related local situations, rather than something monolithic or external to them.’

Much like nodal governance researchers, multi-sited ethnographers thus study the composition of dispersed and connected social fields empirically. Both argue that descriptive knowledge, the ‘mapping’, represents a necessary prerequisite for understanding systems, and that this is the foundation for theory building (Marcus 2011: 24-25). The compatibility between nodal governance theory and this methodological perspective is perhaps best explained by the fact that both traditions are heavily influenced by post-modern (e.g., Foucault, Deluze and Guattari, Latour) critiques of universalising theoretical assumptions concerning the essence or nature of society, or the empirical significance and centrality of modern institutions (Marcus 1995: 102-103).

For nodal governance theorists, the focus has primarily been on de-centring the study of power from notions of sovereign authority. For multi-sited ethnographers, much of the early work at least was inspired by their growing awareness of globalization or transnationalization, which challenged established Malinowskian traditions of situated anthropological research which centres on bounded sites or subjects (Falzon 2009: 5). In essence, proponents of multi-sited ethnography argue that culture as the traditional focal point of Malinowskian ethnography can no longer be interpreted as a product of a particular place. Rather, what we often recognise as culture is actually constructed through systems and relations that transcend, and (re)constitute, our fields of study which are reflexively constructed through our own positionality and that of our ‘subjects’ (i.e. the para-ethnographic perspective). Accordingly, Marcus (2011: 28) argues that ‘location in space is not the salient factor in defining its context of significance as much as location in time – its detailed situatedness in ‘the contemporary’.’ This ontological position, described by some multi-site ethnographers as constructivist but arguably, at least in our view, more consistent with Bourdieu’s constructivist-structuralism, is consistent with how nodal governance conceptualises security (and insecurity) as products of assemblages which are themselves continuously evolving in form and function in relation to mentalities, institutional, material and technological capabilities of its constituent parts. Marcus (2011: 28) acknowledges for example that multi-sitedness has multiple connotations including ‘the objective relations of a system…the relations set into play as an artifact of research design…and the para-ethnographic perspective’. Multi-sited ethnography thus represents a reflexive ‘conversation’ between these perspectives.

A nodal or multi-sited ethnography of a policing assemblage may therefore reveal elements of a security culture that transcends beyond the traditional organisational boundaries of those policing actors which appear most visible or symbolically important in that context. The degree to which the global or transnational character of these systems factors into the research design is perhaps less certain with nodal governance research as this will very much depend on the (presumed) nature of the assemblage being studied. That said, Blaustein (2015) and others have elsewhere argued that most of what we might associate with policing is becoming increasingly ‘glocal’ in nature. That is, ‘local’ policing mentalities, functions and capabilities are increasingly being shaped by developments from elsewhere. The influence may be subtle and indirect, but it is arguably observable using ethnographic methods to examine the continuities and discontinuities of a particular policing assemblage.

In our view, multi-sited ethnography offers a potentially fruitful avenue for expanding the methodological repertoire of policing ethnographers by shifting the empirical focus from the activities and cultures of police organisations to the relational dynamics of policing assemblages. Examples of what this might entail are discussed below however first, it is necessary to consider some prominent criticisms of this ‘alternative’ tradition by Anthropologists.

Is ‘multi-sited ethnography’ really ethnography?

Critics of multi-sited ethnography have argued that it is inherently at odds with the fundamental aim of ethnography which is to develop rich, situated interpretations of culture or people in place based on an extended period of field work. Elsewhere, Geertz (1973: 320) referred to this as ‘thick description' where ‘the aim is to draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured facts, to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them exactly with complex specifics.’ The practical and theoretical challenge with multi-sited ethnography is that focusing on multiple sites and that which connects them (or at least appears to from the perspective of participants) necessarily entails sacrificing depth for breadth. Simply, all researchers have finite time and resources so the prospect of simultaneously inhabiting multiple sites or locations at once represents a significant challenge. Beyond this, multi-sited ethnographers must: grapple with questions relating to the selection or sampling of sites (which sites are theoretically significant and how should this be determined? How many sites? How dispersed or connected should they be?); establish the boundaries of the field; negotiate access to multi-sites; and establishing rapport under these conditions.

Proponents of multi-sited ethnography have widely acknowledged these issues (Marcus 2011; Falzon 2009) but note that the aim of their work is not to produce a definitive or comprehensive representation of their ‘object’. Rather, they seek to account for how the ‘object’ is constructed through its interactions with different nodes within the field. Hence, they acknowledge that any multi-sited ethnography is inherently incomplete and suggest that combining different research designs, methods and data sources can nevertheless help to composite accounts of different sites or nodes within the field which cannot be achieved using a traditional, single-site study design. In some instances, there may be opportunities for field work which lend themselves to thick description while in other instances, ‘thin description’ will suffice (Falzon 2011).

There is also acceptance amongst proponents that the multi-sited ethnographer’s journey through the field is typically serendipitous. That is, they may begin with a sense of the assemblage’s architecture and hold theoretically-informed assumptions about which sites or nodes are interesting and relevant to their research questions, but their ability to navigate the field and the manner in which they do so will be ultimately shaped by the opportunities which present themselves, the situated perceptions of their gatekeepers (the para-ethnographers described by Marcus 2011), and the researcher’s own identity which may influence their membership status in different fields. There are also other critiques which have been levelled at this approach, including those of scholars who question it’s purported ‘novelty’ and the desirability of ‘novel’ ethnographic approaches, and those who suggest it is simply a cheap substitute for real ethnographic research for scholars lacking time and resources (Ferguson 2011). These debates are perhaps less relevant to our discussion here so we will leave them to our colleagues in anthropology for now.

Multi-sited approaches in criminology and regulatory studies

The methodological approaches described above are not entirely novel within the field of criminology, or perhaps more accurately, within its sister-discipline of regulatory studies. The popularity of multi-sited field work in regulatory studies is probably unsurprising given that regulatory systems are typically conceptualised as assemblages comprised of different nodes (Drahos and Kyrgier 2017). The methodological approaches and methods advocated by scholars in this field are therefore compatible with, and in many cases consistent with, what multi-sited ethnographers advocate for above. As Losoncz (2017: 79) notes:

‘Regulatory research involves the description and explanation of complex interplays between structural and systemic conditions and actors and their agency over time and at different levels.’

There is an objective element to regulatory research which involves ‘mapping’ as noted above, but also a subjective element which focuses on understanding how different regulatory mechanisms are understood and experienced by those who govern and are governed (Ibid). Building on this account, Henne (2017: 97) argues that multi-sited fieldwork is ideally suited to capturing the ‘globalised undercurrents’ of regulatory networks as well as the ‘many factors that emerge across structural, systemic and local levels’. Examples of studies that have utilised multi-sited fieldwork are provided by Henne (2017) and have examined a range of regulatory fields (e.g. Braithwaite and Drahos 2000; Merry 2006). These are diverse in their focus and research questions but, ultimately ‘shar[e] a common concern: to describe and explain how regulation is embedded in world systems’ (Henne 2017: 98). None of the examples cited by Henne (2017) focus on policing in a traditional sense, but all of the regulatory systems and processes which have been examined using multi-method ethnographies seemingly fit with the broad definition of policing proposed by Reiner (2010) presented above. This brings us back to the question raised above: assuming one adopts such a broad definition of policing, what, if anything, is distinct about policing assemblages compared to other assemblages of regulation and governance? Perhaps it is that the former has a ‘human security’ focus, but then we might also consider that our conceptual understanding of what security is and how traditional human security problems are understood and governed is changing over time. For example, nodal governance theorists have recently argued that traditional conceptualisations of security are grounded in Holocenic ideas about the human world being distinct from the natural world whereas in the Anthropocene, the boundaries between human and environmental security issues become increasingly blurred (Harrington and Shearing 2017). This convergence of human and environmental security issues and the need to overcome siloed approaches to addressing complex problems is also increasingly recognised by international policy makers as evident from the Sustainable Development Goals so this perspective is not only academic (Blaustein, Pino, Fitz-Gibbon and White 2018).

Criminologists have also recently recognised the potential benefits of multi-sited fieldwork in recent years however, examples of empirical studies that have actually utilised this remain a rarity. Much of the interest in this within criminology has come from researchers with an interest in criminal justice policy transfers. Traditionally, this work has attempted to analyse how and why crime control policies travel between jurisdictions, and what the implications of this are for the recipient context (Newburn and Jones 2006). More recently, these scholars have shifted their focus to ‘policy mobilities’ (Newburn, Jones and Blaustein 2018; Jones, Blaustein and Newburn 2019), an idea developed by human geographers (McCann and Ward 2012; Peck 2011), who are critical of the perceived linearity of ‘policy transfers’ research and the positivist methods used to study these movements. From a policy mobilities perspective then, policies are said to be assembled and disassembled through their interactions with various sites or nodes as they move from one context to another. They not only take on new meaning and significance through their interactions with different sites or nodes, but also shape these sites in the process. Like multi-sited regulatory studies, the policy mobilities approach is grounded in similar ontological assumptions as multi-sited ethnography.

Criminological proponents of the ‘mobilities’ approach have embraced the methodological possibility of ‘following the policy’ (McCann and Ward 2012) using ethnographic methods where possible (Jones, Blaustein and Newburn 2018). It is no coincidence that the only criminological example of ‘following the policy’ ethnographically which Jones, Blaustein and Newburn (2018) were aware of at least, was that of Blaustein who also happens to be one of the current authors. To our knowledge, it remains the first and only example of a multi-sited ethnography of policing, yet it would be misleading to suggest this policy ethnography was necessarily devised as such or intentionally grounded in the anthropological tradition of multi-sited ethnography developed by Marcus. Rather, Blaustein’s research journey was shaped by his serendipitous encounters with the field and in particular, the perspective of his gatekeepers – his para-ethnographers.

Policy translation and international police capacity building

Like many multi-sited ethnographers (Marcus 2011), I (Blaustein) initiated my study of international police capacity building in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a PhD student back in 2009. It was never my intention to conduct a multi-sited ethnography as it was not a methodological approach that I was introduced to as part of my criminological research training. It was therefore only after I had completed my field work in 2011 that I encountered a theoretical and methodological vocabulary which would enable me to articulate what I had done and why this was actually significant. I sourced this vocabulary initially from the work of policy anthropologists whose work on ‘policy ethnography’ (Shore and Wright 1997) and ‘policy translation’ (Lendvai and Stubbs 2009) helped me to interpret my experiences in the field and the data I generated through my ethnographic encounters with two loosely connected sites of policing power. Both sites proved to be theoretically significant insofar as they afforded me important and distinct insights into how local policing and security practices were being shaped by a combination of ideological, institutional and material forces from a distance. In other words, anchoring my study of local policing in the wider literature on liberal state-building (e.g., Chandler 2000) enabled me to consider the diffuse and upwardly responsive nature of policing power in this context where the Bosnian state lacked sovereign authority and thus, the Weberian credentials and capabilities of its ‘Western’ counter-parts. At the same time, adopting an ethnographic approach to studying the multi-scalar and poly-centric nature of security governance in this international protectorate highlighted that exogenous influences were actively negotiated by local and intermediary actors who took on the role of policy translators in their efforts to reconcile international (donor) interests with local realities and needs (Blaustein 2015).4

The first node I encountered was that of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Safer Communities Project in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Located in the UNDP office in Sarajevo, the node was comprised of a small team of local development experts and a former police officer who were working to promote a generic model of police-community partnership throughout the country. The team’s limited resources and knowledge of community policing afforded me the opportunity to join the team as an unpaid ‘intern’ for three-months and actively contribute to the development and implementation of the model. In exchange for my help on the project, I was permitted to document my experiences, interview my colleagues, and reference project documents in my research. With the exception of a few visits to the pilot sites, the majority of my time was therefore spent in the UNDP office where I led the development of a policy proposal to introduce ‘Citizen Security Forums’ and a SARA-based community policing approach in Sarajevo Canton. Through this experience, I not only had the opportunity to observe policy-translation first-hand, but I actually took on the role of a policy translator. The ‘glocalised’ nature of our efforts to shape the governance and provision of security in Bosnia and Herzegovina became readily apparent through our creative attempts to reconcile what we perceived to be the interests of international donors (whose investment was required to upscale and sustain the initiative) with UNDP’s capacity building mandate which emphasised local ownership and participation. The security mentality or habitus which emerged as a product of these interactions was thus an amalgamation of various influences that could be traced to other nodes which collectively comprised a wider security and development assemblage (often referred to as the ‘security-development nexus’; see Jesperson 2016), but which were ultimately enacted through our work in a manner that reflected our positionality in the field.

The second node I encountered during my field work was perhaps more typical of the established tradition of policing ethnography because it involved a relatively brief period of participant observation with local officers in Sarajevo Canton who were tasked with piloting a different community policing model which had been introduced and funded by the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (see also Blaustein 2016). Devoting all of my time to examining their activities rather than splitting it between the two sites would have arguably produced a richer and more rigorous ethnographic account of local police-centric policing in this particular context. However, I believe this would have been unfeasible and undesirable For example, my access to undertake this research with local police was secured with support from my colleagues at UNDP and this highlights the role that para-ethnographers play in shaping the multi-sited ethnographer’s encounters with the field. More significantly however, narrowing my focus and prioritising depth over breadth would have limited my ability to interpret the local policing practices as part of a wider transnational assemblage of power which was not fundamentally concerned with crime, but rather, stability and security. As I argue in my book, most actors who contributed to the governance of security, both international and local, had only an ephemeral or peripheral interest in police-centric policing and crime prevention. Indeed, a survey commissioned by UNDP to gauge community perceptions of public safety and security revealed that in Sarajevo, many Bosnians were not overly concerned about crime. Rather, respondents were concerned about non-traditional policing issues like stray dogs. This example is particularly interesting because apparently, the Yugoslav police would previously shoot stray dogs to manage this risk but after the Bosnian War, they could no longer do so because animal welfare and protection laws had been introduced by the international community (see Blaustein 2015).

At the same time, the UNDP survey revealed that police remained an important security actor in this context as 84% of respondents from Sarajevo indicated that they would contact the police in the first instance if they had a security concern. By comparison, only 4% stated they would contact another security institution (e.g., a private security company) and only 2% stated that they would contact their municipal government. Encountering this data was not only confirmed that the police as a nodal actor remained empirically and theoretically significant, but also that this actor was embedded within wider networks of policy and practice. The fact that both nodes, UNDP and the local police, were working to promote distinct, arguably competing, models of community policing also highlighted that the assemblage was governed through the convergence of loosely connected mentalities and interests rather than a homogenous set of donor interests, or a discernible global security culture.


The example above highlights the value of adopting a multi-sited approach to studying the transnational dimensions of policing assemblages but similar methods could also be utilised in a variety of security contexts. As a starting point, this necessitates mapping a field and identifying key nodal actors and actants and approximating their position in the field. From there, the aspiring multi-sited ethnographer might seek to identify an initial entry point into the field. Ideally, this will be a node that appears to be theoretically significant but given the nature of multi-sited ethnography and the challenges associated with access discussed above, this might just be one that is interesting, or even simply convenient. From there, the multi-sited ethnographer’s journey through various sites will (hopefully) provide important unique empirical and theoretical insight into the connections between these actors, how security is constructed and negotiated through their interactions, and their positionality and significance within a wider security assemblage. Adopting ethnographic methods, where feasible, promises to add a level of depth which is currently missing from most of the existing research on nodal governance, while locating ethnographies of policing in this nodal governance approach will help to ensure that our sociological understanding of policing is not constrained and skewed by a police-centric orientation and the norms of the police ethnography genre.

A seemingly perfect example of where both police-centric policing and nodal governance research would benefit from the use of multi-sited ethnography is in relation to the emerging phenomenon of ‘resilience policing’ (Mutongwizo, Holley, Shearing, & Simpson, 2021). The focus here is on how traditional policing actors contribute to disaster management activities in response to the acute and chronic impacts of climate change. Resilience policing is fundamentally about how police interact with non-traditional security actors including emergency management agencies, local governments, business and industry, and community-based organisations. While a community impacted by a natural disaster might offer an ideal entry point, the interactions which a researcher might observe within this site will undoubtably help them identify other sites of governance and policy making which directly and indirectly shape activities on the ground. For traditional policing scholars, this promises to generate important insight into the transformation of both police-centric policing practices and established partnerships. For nodal governance scholars, multi-sited ethnography promises to advance our understanding of the architecture of resilience policing which is being shaped by the convergence of human and environmental security threats. Generating knowledge of this nature is important for not only advancing our theoretical understanding of policing, but for developing innovations in security governance, policy and practice that will enable societies to move beyond siloed thinking and develop systems that support effective and equitable models of adaptive governance (Djalante, 2012).

Admittedly, there are several challenges which a prospective multi-sited policing ethnographer faces if they are to pursue this approach and ‘go nodal’. For starters, all of the issues relating to access, sampling, and sacrificing depth for breadth which are noted above deserve careful consideration by researchers. In relation to Blaustein’s (2015) study for example, it is also questionable whether ‘depth’ or ‘breadth’ was truly achieved as it only focused on two sites. A more comprehensive, ethnographic account of the security assemblage would have necessitated field work at additional sites. This would have in-turn required additional time and money, something that is rarely available to tenured-researchers, let alone PhD students who are increasingly expected to complete their field work in 6-12 months. Perhaps a way forward then is to approach multi-sited policing ethnographies as a collaborative enterprise that draws on the expertise, experiences, contacts, and positionalities of multiple researchers with a collective interest in a common security assemblage. Interdisciplinary collaboration may be particularly valuable in this regard, particularly if the multi-sited policing ethnography is concerned with a new or emerging harmscape that stretches the capabilities of traditional policing actors and scholars.

Beyond this however, the issue of feasibility is further complicated by the fact that it may be increasingly difficult to reconcile the demands of multi-sited ethnography with the institutional conditions that researchers experience. Contra to the criticisms of those who view this as an efficient or convenient strategy for doing ethnographic field work, multi-sited ethnography is actually time and resource intensive, especially if it involves negotiating access with multiple stakeholders, background research, travelling between multiple sites, and situating oneself in different locations for extended periods of time. More problematic however is that fact that multi-sited ethnography necessitates a degree of flexibility which is perhaps difficult to reconcile with the increasingly rigid and risk-averse research cultures of funders and universities. It is difficult to imagine that a funding body would award a major grant to a researcher who intends to ‘follow the policy’ or use ethnographic research to trace the counters of a policing assemblage without pre-defining which sites are significant and why. That in itself is perhaps at odds with the exploratory nature of the tradition of multi-sited ethnography, and its epistemological assumptions about how objects are constructed through their interactions with different sites in a larger assemblage.


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