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ECPR Journals Virtual Special Issue

Police Files – Inside a Ugandan Bureaucracy

International Relations
Political Sociology
Comparative Perspective
Sarah Biecker
Universität Bremen
Sarah Biecker
Universität Bremen

Everything that only even touches bureaucratic issues is based on something written. Many of these written artifacts are files, still often in paper form, sometimes in electronic versions. Files are products of bureaucracies, or in other words, files are materialized bureaucracy. My paper will immerse into this realm of bureaucracy by focusing on police files in Uganda, the main written artifacts in police work. Files play not only a major role in daily policing, but also on a more abstract level since all cases collected by files are the basis for every crime statistic in the country, which is, on another level, basis for international (police) cooperation.
With reference to Annelise Riles, I understand documents as ethnographic objects, analytical categories and methodological orientations (Riles 2006: 7). To understand files as one of my main ethnographic objects evolved from my long-term participant observation in and with the Ugandan police. My approach discloses a form of reality bureaucracies themselves produce, namely paperwork. Against his background my analysis will include two main angles of police files in Uganda: translation and power.
First, all files are based on acts of translations. An orally told story is transformed into a case, which is translated into a file as soon as words are written down and bundled in a set of paper. The counter plays a major role here because it is the place where clients and police officers meet and where the chains of translation start. By its bureaucratic journey from one desk to the other, files develop “infrastructuring practices” (Blok/Nakazora/Winthereik 2016: 2) and officers and clients fill file with reports, signatures, and orders. By tracing the files’ journeys from the counter to the offices, the paper discusses different roles of files.
Secondly, I argue that files develop “data producing power” (Popitz 1992: 32). My paper will demonstrate how files mediate and structure interactions and relationships between different policing and non-policing actors. Files are more than bureaucratic instruments, but “constitutive of bureaucratic rules, ideologies, knowledge, practices, subjectivities, objects, outcomes” (Hull 2012: 251). My paper shows that paperwork provides much more freedom for negotiations than commonly assumed. Police files are not only a strict bureaucratic artifact, but are used as strong power instruments, both from police officers as well as police clients.
The planned paper immerses into the very heart of a bureaucracy and analyses its material and practical life, which can be understood as exemplary for other bureaucratic operations and organizations outside the police.
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