Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Changing Police Culture: Policing in a Multicultural Society

Janet B. L. Chan
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
ISBN 0 521 56420 4
£40.00 (hb)
xi + 255

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Chan documents Australian police racism and recent attempts to control it, and offers a new conceptualization of police culture. Researchers have done much to document police occupational culture, but the conceptualization seldom strays from its roots in the work of US scholars such as Bittner, Bayley, and Manning. Whether this is really due to analytic purchase and the universality of police culture or to researchers' humble desire to ground their work in the literature, the picture is remarkably similar whatever the setting. Periodically new angles emerge; for example, Muir's bathetic account, or Reiner's chief constables, poised uncomfortably on the sharp point of change. Such accounts prod at the more facile understandings endlessly informed by the gruesome bonhomie of 'canteen culture' and missing the undercurrents, inconsistencies and quirks which make of any working culture a far more subtle thing. We must consider whether prevailing conceptualizations of police culture are as resistant to change as the New South Wales police appear to be.

As Chan notes, police/minority relations were not a critical public issue until NSW police were shown at work in a 1992 TV documentary. Ironically, the force had engaged substantially with reform, so the routine brutalism of the cops seemed to signal not the need for reform but its failure. Using interview and survey data (the latter achieving only a modest 56% response rate) Chan addresses the question of why NSW's investment made no difference to police racism. Her first two chapters examine Australia's history, and explanations of police racism. Chapter 3 reports policy options for improving police/minority relations but argues that they are informed by misunderstandings of police culture. She aptly criticizes existing conceptualizations for 'their inability to account for differences in culture, their neglect of the active role played by officers in the reproduction or transformation of culture, their failure to situate police culture within the political and social context of policing, and their silence about the scope and possibility for cultural change' (p. 12). Chapter 4 offers an alternative conceptualization, amalgamating Bourdieu's 'field' and 'habitus' concepts (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992) with Sackmann's four dimensions of cultural knowledge (Sackmann, 1991). These may be significant moves analytically but first we ought to have this word for our sponsors. Chan claims that her formulation means there is no point in arguing whether it is more effective to pursue reform by tightening rules or changing culture because 'the relationship between structural conditions and cultural knowledge, and between cultural knowledge and actual practice, are neither deterministic nor uni- directional' (p. 12). If Chan is right researchers should not seek support on the basis of practical relevance.

But is she right about the conceptualization? Chan's is a particular way of capturing the gadfly relation of structure and actions that has dogged organizational analysis. It is particularly pessimistic to conclude that because there is a dialectical, dynamic, instantiated relation between the two, directionality cannot be determined at all. It may be futile to guess whether rule-tightening or changing culture will be effective at the level of individual racism, but patterns are discernible in aggregate. Promisingly, Chan maintains that the Bourdieu/Sackmann formulation 'allow(s) for the possibility of change as well as resistance to change' (p. 67). The problem comes from Chan tying her conception of culture to ethnomethodology. This does alert us to the way that people actively use culture to construct rationales and accounts. But ethnomethodology is an obstacle to theorizing change. Its concern to document how people 'do social life' endlessly takes outcomes as given. Its methodological stance precludes any satisfactory account of motives. We do not know 'why' cultural actors do things, only 'how' they do things. Neither chapter 5, a case study of police/minority conflict in NSW, chapter 6, a history of organizational changes, or chapters 7 and 8, about outside reforms, actually draw much on the new conceptualization. While Chan explicitly sets out to connect field, habitus and Sackmann to the case of police racism, the connections made are neither strong nor sustained. In fact the strongest evidence on the causes of Australian police racism comes in the structure-oriented historical material which is accomplished without reference to Bourdieu. The discussion of practical implications of the conceptualization (p. 92) seems strained and insubstantial. At one point 'culture' even seems to turn into 'structure' ('social, economic, legal and political sites').

Chan herself provides some evidence that structural change does have an impact, in chapter 8. Chapter 9, assessing the NSW reforms, emphasises divisions in the force. This is not only a universal of policing but of organizations generally. Outside the Hitler Youth, organizations are always divided. This does not mean that, thanks to Bourdieu, or Chan, we now know we cannot identify the conditions for successful reform, just that we know how difficult those conditions are to achieve. Chan's conceptualization is less novel than claimed but nonetheless welcome for attempting to bring theorization of policing into touch with contemporary theory. But it does not entirely warrant the pessimism about reform.

Nigel G. Fielding
Institute of Social Research
University of Surrey


BOURDIEU, P. and WACQUANT, L. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity.

SACKMANN, S. (1991) Cultural Knowledge in Organizations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997