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Investigating at a Distance: Abstractness in Detective Work

New book chapter by Helene O.I. Gundhus, Niri Talberg & Christin Thea Wathne funded partially by the AGOPOL project

The chapter is published in the new edited volume, The Abstract Police: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Change in Police Organisations, eds. Jan Terpstra, Renze Salet & Nicholas R. Fyfe, 2022.

Book Abstract

Over the past ten to fifteen years the police in many Western European countries have undergone a series of profound organisational changes. The police now appear to operate at a greater distance from citizens, they are more impersonal and decontextualized and have become more dependent on digitalised data systems. These changes are captured through the concept of the ‘abstract police’ and in this international collection of essays, leading policing scholars use this concept to make sense of contemporary changes to police organisations. Drawing on empirical evidence from a wide range of policing contexts, the individual chapters address major questions about current developments in policing: 1) How are police organisations being shaped by the social, cultural, technological and political contexts in which they operate? 2) How does the concept of the abstract police help understanding of the complex interplay between change and continuity in policing? 3) Is the emergence of an abstract police the unintended outcome of processes of rationalization or a deliberate response to the new complexities of late modernity?

Investigating at a Distance: Abstractness in Detective Work

Helene O.I. Gundhus, Niri Talberg & Christin Thea Wathne


Standardisation, centralisation and digitalisation are official goals for the police forces of several European countries (Fyfe et al., 2013). In Norway the police have been centralised and rationalised for a long time – since the beginning of the 1990s. In 2001 a structure- and capacity-oriented police reform was introduced, and police districts were merged (Christensen et al., 2018). The objective was to make the police service more cost-effective, by focusing on core tasks, quantifying police practice and targeting performance. After the terror attack of 22 July 2011, the 2015 reform introduced even more top-down management of the police, to enhance the command structure and strengthen control over police culture, so as to be better prepared for crises (Gundhus, 2017). These changes introduced a new institutional logic, which, we will argue, had the unintended consequence of making the police a more abstract and distant organisation, as was demonstrated by Terpstra et al. (2019). Official statements about the purpose of the police have undergone a substantial shift, with an emphasis on measurable crime-fighting tasks. This should be seen in connection with the fact that New Public Management (NPM) reforms have meant that police accountability has become a matter of accountancy: auditing has replaced traditional understandings of how the police should be accountable (Reiner, 2013). There has, however, been little empirical research on how this impacts police investigation. This chapter therefore empirically explores the usefulness of the concept of abstractness when considering changes in police investigation (Terpstra et al., 2019). The concept draws on the consequences of the process of late modernisation described by Giddens (1991). For the authors, abstractness denotes less emphasis on personal relations and direct contact with colleagues and the public in favour of policing from a distance. We argue that these results of the measures introduced have unintended and paradoxical consequences for the ability of the police to achieve its goals, as pointed out by Terpstra et al. (2019: 16):

With the abstract police new opportunities have been created for dealing with a more complex, globalised world, but similar to other abstract systems this has also resulted in deskilling, alienation, fragmentation and the loss of local control.

In this chapter we explore degree to which police reform in Norway, marked by centralisation into larger units, specialisation, digitalisation and standardisation, increases abstractness, leading to unintended consequences for investigation, the social identity of the detective and the detective’s relations with the public. Using the notion of the abstract police as a sensitising concept derived from the research participants’ perspective (Weick, 1995; Weick et al., 2005), we look at how these changes in policing impact the practice of police investigation, both internally and in their external relations with the public. We scrutinise how the structural reforms affect the social identities of officers and how they perceive fairness and participation in decision-making. Since officers express perceptions of unfairness, we theorise the effects of abstractness in terms of organisational justice theory, which is outlined in what follows.

To read more, please purchase the book, or ask your library for a copy:


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