PDRA Research Project

Collective alienation and police-community encounters


Dr Leda Blackwood SIPR Postdoctoral Fellow, University of St Andrews

Dr Anja Eller, Dr Jeffrey Murer and Prof Steve Reicher University of St Andrews

Dr Nick Hopkins University of Dundee


Additional Publications:

Muslim encounters at airports: the production of disengagement (SIPR Annual Report, 2011)


Our research is concerned with the impact of encounters between the police and the public upon police relations with the community. Are there times when these encounters lead people to lose trust in the police and to become estranged from them? If so, what is it about these encounters which have this effect? And are such problems particularly acute in encounters between the police and members of specific communities such as Muslim and working class youth?

The issue

In recent years, the public policy agenda has become increasingly concerned with how we can create community cohesion. There has been a particular focus on groups within the community which are marked by disadvantage and division - groups such as Muslim youth and working-class youth. There have been growing fears that members of these groups are becoming alienated and disengaged from society, and that their behaviour is becoming increasingly anti-social. This in turn has led to increasing levels of surveillance and increasing interventions by the authorities, especially the police.

We are interested in the effect of these interventions. How do Muslim and working class youth experience their encounters with the police? What are the consequences for increased (or decreased) trust in and cooperation with authorities. That is, can we identify specific features of encounters between members of these communities and authorities which are likely to worsen or else improve the police-community relationship?

Research on public order gives some general pointers in this regard. That is, if the police respond to a threat from certain members within a group by treating all members of the group as potentially dangerous - that is by failing to distinguish between different members of the group and focussing on how to constrain them rather than how to help them achieve their intentions - then this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even those members of the group who were initially well disposed to the police can become hostile to them and can come under the sway of more radical elements in the group. (Reicher, Stott, Cronin & Adang, 2004).

We want to examine whether similar processes apply to more mundane day to day encounters between the police and members of communities. We are interested in the ways that the individuals involved are affected by these encounters but also how their experiences become stories that circulate within the community and can achieve an impact at the collective level. In order to get an in-depth picture of these experiences and understandings we are employing a variety of methods including ethnography, interviews, focus groups. To date we have carried out - or are in the process of carrying out, - the following studies:

Although all this work is still at a very early stage we are already identifying recurrent areas of concern for the groups that we are studying:

In our ongoing studies we plan to follow up these initial insights:

Research Update, 2010: (Entered January 2011)

This project is concerned with how police and other authorities' routine encounters with communities can encourage (or discourage) trust in and cooperation with those authorities. In 2010 we have used preliminary findings from our research conducted with Muslims and working class youth, to focus our research in areas which these groups themselves identify as problematic.

Analysis of our interviews conducted with Muslims in 2009 identified airports as a particular site of concern. In early 2010 we conducted additional interviews and focus group discussions focussed primarily on airports, with members of Glasgow and Edinburgh's Muslim communities. In our interviews people described an experience of humiliation: of having their sense of self-worth as members of the community and their expectations of being treated fairly and with dignity violated. Although all those we interviewed expressed a deep commitment to Britain and to its security, even those who reported relatively benign experiences at airports held doubts about the safety of interacting with authorities-particularly in high security contexts.

There are several dimensions to people's accounts of experiencing humiliation which we think are important, and which are the focus of our current analysis and future reporting. The very public way in which people are often pulled aside and questioned in front of other passengers is often referred to as a particular source of distress. Also, the sense of powerlessness in the face of petty discourtesies such as not being given information about the process, being kept waiting for prolonged periods of time; and thoughtlessness about waiting family. Finally, the questions themselves are perceived as ill-conceived for identifying security threats, as well as being ill-informed and disrespectful of Islam. These are just some of the themes which we will continue to explore over the next year. We are also interested in working with airport authorities to look at possible measures to improve community relations around airport security practice.

In relation to young people, preliminary analysis of interviews conducted in 2009 identified the policing of drinking in public places and the perception that police were less concerned about violence towards young people as particular sources of grievance. Research developed with Tayside police, which allows us to examine actual encounters between youth and police in Dundee city, is currently in the field. This research involves accompanying police on patrols in Dundee city, interviewing parties to encounters observed, and conducting follow-up interviews and focus group discussions. Findings from this research will be reported in 2011.


Muslim encounters at airports: the production of disengagement (SIPR Annual Report, 2011)

(Updated 05/04/12)


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