Recent dramatic events in France put under scrutiny the role of the police. Police officers have been perceived ambiguously by the public for a long time. On the one hand police officers have been fantasized in countless books, series and movies where they are staged as heroes. French people cheered them after their work and behavior during the last terrorist attacks. On the other hand, only a few months after these events, police officers have become targets of violent acts during the many social demonstrations that shook France in the past months. In some occasions, they underwent extremely violent physical life-threatening attacks. In addition to this ambiguous relationship between the police force and different segments of the public, the police institution itself has undergone several reforms and changes within the last decades. These changes have impacted the nature of the work of police officers and hence changed deeply their occupational identity. Because the professional and the personal spheres are closely intertwined in the daily life of police officers, the “identity work” that is triggered addresses similarly the questions “who am I?” and “what am I doing?” Identity work is the process through which people engage “in forming, repairing, maintaining, strengthening or revising the constructions [of the self] that are productive of a sense of coherence and distinctiveness”. The police investigators we followed during a one-year ethnographic study showed a strong attachment to the work in the street and the study revealed an essential link between their preferred identity and the physical dimension of the work. These two elements are today threatened by evolving institutional demands.
Most studies on “identity work” have overlooked the corporeal quality of occupational life. Despite calls to attempt such engagement, little is known about the role of the body in occupations for which corporeal elements are central in the affirmation of identity. Focusing on four bodily practices, we demonstrate how fitness, intimidation, cleanliness, and toughness are central elements to the police officers’ construction of self :
The persons observed were involved in cases of felony, including homicides, armed robberies, car-jacking, etc. These persons have committed violent acts and are potentially armed. Thus police investigators have developed skills and mechanisms to deal with the hostile environment they may face. Our results show the importance of being fit, resisting to hardship, and controlling suspects as essential components of their preferred identity. In addition, cleaning rituals are also part of the construction of police officers’ identity. Being a cop means being physically ‘clean’. Appropriate handling of private spaces of intervention includes a vision of professionalism of which cleansing habits constitute a large part: ‘Washing hands, clothes, taking showers, wearing clean shirts… all that is very important to me’ (Officer # 21). Police investigators we observed attended meticulously to their surroundings and personal hygiene. Such attention to cleanliness positions the officers to be aware of occupational conditions that could potentially create some anxiety. For instance, ‘When you arrive at a murder scene, you don’t know what you are going to find. It’s very creepy’ (Officer #21). One explanation for these cleansing habits is that officers attribute specific corporeal elements to the ‘bad guys’ and the places they inhabit which they consider degrading.
Having a clean body protects officers from being seen as ‘dirty workers’ as some scholars categorized them since they deal with moral, social, and physical taint. Consequently they construct an identity of clean professionals to detach themselves from the dirtiness of the objects, contexts and individuals that they have to deal with.
We there by highlight the notion of physical selfhood as a way to understand the body/identity nexus among police officers and their capacity to resist new work requirements. We view bodies through a lens of resistance, rather than docility and compliance as much previous research has done. Our research contributes to deepen knowledge on identity work by portraying the of bodies as a powerful component, thereby helping professionals to deflect some important institutional pressures affecting their work.
The contribution is two fold. First, empirically we show that police officers create a tight relationship between their bodies and their identities, thus producing a physical self based on the display of a sustained corporeal efficiency. In particular, police officers develop specific bodily practices through which they convey the need for strong, fit, and healthy bodies. We provide analysis of how this physical self serves as an instrument of power in the everyday micro interactions between officers and suspects. Second, we theorize bodies as political objects. This permits us to show that “identity work” through and with the body doubles as a form of everyday resistance to those changes in the workplace that affect preferred identities. Our study contributes to the understanding of current occupational dynamics in changing workplaces. It offers an analysis of specific processes through which occupations can still influence working situations and oppose management in its repeated attempts to standardize skills and working procedures.