Impossible Terrain: An Ethnography Of Policing In Atlantic City, New Jersey

Thumbnail Image
Degree type
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Graduate group
Atlantic City
Racial Capitalism
Racial Geographies
State Violence
Urban Ethnography
African American Studies
Social and Cultural Anthropology
Grant number
Copyright date
Related resources
Young, Joseph Lee

In this dissertation, Impossible Terrain: An Ethnography of Policing in Atlantic City, New Jersey, I develop a novel conceptualization of the “productivity of policing” in Racial Capitalism. My analysis is in part structured by a problematization of the common tendency within Police Studies scholarship to pose social fragmentation and differentiation as somehow antithetical to the police mandate, that they are encountered by police as a problem, rather than generated by policing as one of its very products. To develop this critique, a deploy a “historically attuned ethnography” of the historical-material facticity of racialization to show how the durable racial geographies of Atlantic City have in large measure been generated through police practice. I then mobilize the analytic of Racial Capitalism to demonstrate how processes of spatio-racial differentiation have been, and remain, essential to the development of the resort economy since its emergence in the late 19th century. I conclude by arguing for a theorization of policing as a flexible principle of racialization underwritten by sovereign violence that is intrinsic, rather than incidental, to the processes of capital value creation and accumulation under racial capitalism. This work draws on over 18 months of intensive ethnographic fieldwork with the Atlantic City Police Department, including hundreds of hours of ride-alongs with patrol officers. I also draw on various archival and media resources to situate my analysis. A timely contribution to the bourgeoning Anthropology of Policing, this work engages several diverse bodies of scholarship, including Police Studies and Critical Criminology, Critical and Black Geography, Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, Urban Ethnography and the Anthropology of the State. The work also makes important contributions to critical genealogies of policing and liberal governance, as well interventions into ongoing debates within Marxian scholarship on theories of value and the bourgeois state.

Adriana Petryna
Deborah A. Thomas
Date of degree
Date Range for Data Collection (Start Date)
Date Range for Data Collection (End Date)
Digital Object Identifier
Series name and number
Volume number
Issue number
Publisher DOI
Journal Issue
Recommended citation