Accepted Papers:

"We are people; we are parents; we have values": law, ethics, and an undercover police surveillance team  


Gregory Feldman (Simon Fraser University)

Paper Short Abstract:

This paper examines how an undercover surveillance team in a southern EU member state makes measured ethical decisions when violating the law to obtain evidence against suspected human traffickers. Agamben’s “state of exception” and Arendt’s “space of appearance” explain this odd situation.

Paper long abstract:

When investigating cases of human trafficking, border police teams must gather evidence against suspected criminals. However, the legal means of obtaining that evidence are often restrictive. This places a police team in an ethical quandary. It must decide if and how to break the law in order to uphold it for the sake of trafficking victims. The stakes are high. A decision to do so has them forgo the legal constraints designed to protect a suspect's rights. A decision to stay within the law has them neglect a victim of trafficking who has little, if any, protection in the country. Based on ethnographic research among an undercover police surveillance team in a southern EU member state, this paper examines the conditions encouraging this team to act illegally in order to act ethically for the victim. These conditions include their highly egalitarian organization, their deep familiarity with each other, their position in their larger home bureaucracy, and their capacity to see similarities between themselves and the people they investigate. To make theoretical sense of this situation, I blend Agamben's familiar notion of the "state of exception" with Arendt's notion, less familiar to anthropologists, of the "space of appearance". These theorists can help explain how people operating in the absence of objective legal constraints can still refrain from acting with self-indulgence, brutality, or neglect.

Panel P001
Bodies of evidence, experts, and intimacy in the anthropology of security (EASA Anthropology of Security Network)