The State from Below: Distorted Responsiveness in Policed Communities


Gwen Prowse, Vesla M. Weaver,  and Tracey L. Meares

Full citation: 
Prowse, G., Weaver, V. M., & Meares, T. L. (2019). The State from Below: Distorted Responsiveness in Policed Communities. Urban Affairs Review. First Published August 13, 2019. DOI: 10.1177/1078087419844831
This article uses a new technology, “Portals,” to initiate conversations about policing between individuals in communities where this form of state action is concentrated. Based on more than 800 recorded and transcribed conversations across 12 neighborhoods in five cities, the largest collection of policing narratives to date, we analyze patterns in discourse around policing. Our goal in closely analyzing these conversations is to uncover how people who experience state authority through policing characterize democratic governance by mapping citizens’ experiences with and views of the state, how they judge the responsiveness of authorities, and their experience-informed critiques of democracy. Methodologically, we argue that observing through Portals real conversations of ordinary people largely unmediated by the researcher allows us to transcend certain limitations of traditional, survey-based techniques and to study politics in beneficially recursive ways. Theoretically, we demonstrate that Portals participants characterize police as contradictory—everywhere when surveilling people’s everyday activity and nowhere if called upon to respond to serious harm. We call this Janus-faced interaction with the state “distorted responsiveness,” and we demonstrate the organic connection of this characterization of police to our participants’ theorization of their broader relationship with the state. We argue that their understandings of their own relationships with the key state institutions in their lives are foundational to developing a fuller understanding of democracy in action. In short, by focusing on how individuals experience citizenship in the city through ordinary experiences with municipal bureaucrats who figure prominently in their lives, we can develop a theory of the state from below.
Supplemental information: 

Link to article here.

This paper is part of the Portals Criminal Justice Dialogues project ( ; co-PIs Tracey Meares of Yale Law School, VeslaWeaver, and Gwen Prowse).

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Milwaukee, WI; Newark, NJ; Chicago, IL; Baltimore, MD; Los Angeles, CA
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