What We Study When We Study Police Reform

While power relations shape foreign assistance in post-conflict police reform, unintended empowerment of the weaker part can result from the projection of power.

Article by: Dr. Shai A. Divon

This post is based on a peer-reviewed article published in the European Journal of Policing Studies.

Why are we repeatedly observing a gap between what we set out to achieve in our post-conflict reconstruction efforts and the results of these efforts? Which social mechanisms underline the formation of these gaps? These are some of the central questions we intend to answer through the ICT4COP project.

The disparity between well-intentioned ideas and the results of efforts to implement them is evident

The gap between intentions and outcomes of implementation is not unknown in post-conflict reconstruction and development efforts. For many of us engaged in foreign assistance work and research, the disparity between well-intentioned ideas and the results of efforts to implement them is evident. This gap, which we can define as the conceptual-contextual gap, is formed through a process where institutions clash. The clash of institutions is not seen as a source of conflict between states, but rather as a result of mechanisms that govern interactions; the reason why well-intentioned prescriptions for change produce unintended and unanticipated outcomes and impacts.

Institutions, as defined by Professor Arild Vatn of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, are conventions, norms, and previously sanctioned rules. In other words, institutions are instruments that enable people to navigate and make sense of situations they encounter on a daily basis.

Institutions are complex and adaptive social constructions formed through historical and contemporary processes between humans in a variety of contextual realities. As such, these constructions are expressions of culture, tradition, religion, and experience, phrased through structure and agency, moulded and remoulded to adapt to shifting social and environmental realities in a variety of contexts.

Police reform interventions in post-conflict societies are usually articulated through international efforts to assist states emerging from war. These interventions are pronounced through various mantras usually shaped as ‘exporting best practices’ or similar statements. The intention is to apply a set of experiences from one context onto another. As such, police reform interventions can be conceptualised as sets of institutions transposed on a context where another set of institutions persist. In this set-up, the potential for a clash of institutions is plainly apparent.

The clash of institutions is not simply a juncture where institutions meet and disagree; such depictions are better described as Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’. The clash of institutions is a reference to a space where a variety of interests and clear hierarchies are at play.

There are clear power relations and hierarchies between the ‘donor’ and the ‘recipient’ in foreign assistance.

Simply put we can describe the clash of institutions occurring through foreign assistance interventions as the result of the encounters between a powerful (donor) and a weaker counterpart (recipient).  I avoid the use of the word ‘inferior’, though it is, in many cases, an appropriate word to describe the hierarchy created through the dynamics shaped by the powerful in this juncture. The powerful is as such because of its authority as intervenor, and its ability to command resources as well as the decisions on how to allocate them.

The weaker is as such for a multitude of reasons, but clearly because it possesses the need and motivation to access resources offered by the powerful. Consequently, there are clear power relations and hierarchies between the ‘donor’ and the ‘recipient’ in foreign assistance.

What is the role of power in bringing about the clash of institutions? Power, as expressed by a range of scholars, is a central ingredient of social interactions. Therefore, understanding what power is in different situations, how it is expressed, manipulated, and manipulates social interactions is key to the interpretation of behaviours, relationships and outcomes.

Using the optics of power may help us determine how the conceptual-contextual gap is formed in a given situation. But what is power? How can we define it, observe it, and understand the complex pathways through which it affects society? Power, as noted by Steven Lukes, is a contested concept. To be more precise, power can be conceptualised in various ways. As such, power and its application can be attached to different sets of values and assumptions. When we wear different sets of values and assumptions as optics we observe specific pathways of power that reveal different aspects of the same reality.

The focus of our research is police reform in post-conflict societies. How, then, can we use power to understand elements of police reform as assistance interventions in post-conflict reconstruction?

Power governs both the hierarchy and the formation of hierarchy, leading to the clash of institutions.

To observe and understand the clash of institutions we can frame power in several ways, each offering a particular insight to the formation and operationalisation of hierarchy between donor and recipient. Power governs both the hierarchy and the formation of hierarchy, leading to the clash of institutions. The clash induces reactive and adaptive strategies of both donors and recipients which often modify and undermine the objectives of the donor thus contributing to the formation of a gap between the concept of the donor, and the outcome in the context in which it is applied.

Firstly, power can be conceptualised through the work of Michel Foucault. A Foucauldian analysis exposes the power/knowledge mechanisms that underline the formation and preservation of institutions in a society. When applied to notion of police and policing that are transferred through police reform interventions, a Foucauldian analysis allows us to identify what structure ideas about good and efficient institutions and practices as opposed to dysfunctional and inefficient. This allows us to view the tensions between the donor and recipient, linked to the perception of the self and of the other in relation to the self, or in brief, the formation of perceived hierarchy. In this analysis the basic ingredients for the clash of institutions are constituted.

Secondly, power can be conceptualised through the work of Steven Lukes. Lukes describes basic strategies for the projection of power, or, in other words, how a powerful secure compliance of those he/she dominates. Lukes describes three basic faces of power that can be summarised as coercion, controlling the range of options available, and shaping basic believes.

Through police reform interventions we can identify all three strategies employed by a donor to reconstruct the security sector of post-conflict societies. Through these strategies, established hierarchies are operationalised. By extension, the basic ideas of the self and of the other in relation to the self collide, thus operationalising the clash of institutions.

From the perspective of the powerful, this can be described as unintended empowerment.

Thirdly, power can be envisioned through the work of James C. Scott, especially his depiction of how the ‘weak’ adapt to power projected upon them. Scott’s work argues that the weak find a variety of ways to resist and counteract the powerful in the attempt to preserve various institutions threatened by the projection of power by the powerful. As such, this can be seen as a sort of resistance to power. But beyond resistance, this can be established and described as empowerment. In many cases we can even assert that this ability of the weak to form strategies that preserve and even enhance their own institutional framework in face of power projection to modify them, exists only because power was projected upon  them in the first place. We may even conclude, in some cases, that the weak locate ways to convert the power projected upon them by a powerful to pursue their own independent courses of action.

From the perspective of the powerful, this can be described as unintended empowerment. Viewing power and the consequences of power projections as such, allows us to observe and explain the formation of a gap between the concept, and the actual outcome in contexts.

Put together these three ways of observing power form a conceptual framework that describes and explain the conceptual-contextual gap formed through assistance interventions, and in our case, police reform in post conflict societies.


Top image: Photo via Visual hunt


To read more about the framework and how it is used in our study read the full peer-reviewed article here (it’s open access):


Shai A. Divon is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

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