American violence is schizophrenic. On the one hand, many Americans support the creation of a powerful bureaucracy of coercion made up of police and military forces in order to provide public security. At the same time, many of those citizens also demand the private right to protect their own families, home, and property. This book diagnoses this schizophrenia as a product of a distinctive institutional history, in which private forms of violence – vigilantes, private detectives, mercenary gunfighters – emerged in concert with the creation of new public and state forms of violence such as police departments or the National Guard. This dual public and private face of American violence resulted from the upending of a tradition of republican governance, in which public security had been indistinguishable from private effort, by the nineteenth century social transformations of the Civil War and the Market Revolution.
Guns are more important than ever before, but how might we rethink their role in society? Drawing on a range of disciplinary commitments and methodologies, the contributors to this volume explore how guns themselves shape and interact with our social, political, and private lives. Together the contributors – including historians, political theorists, sociologists, criminologists, and ethnographers -- consider the gun not merely as a tool but also, potentially, as an actor, an object with the potential to affect our choices, our interactions, our emotions, and our bodies in often surprising ways.
Articles and Chapters
Keeping Vigil: The Emergence of Vigilance Committees in Pre-Civil War America (with Eleonora Mattiacci). Perspectives on Politics, forthcoming
What explains the emergence of organized private enforcement in the United States? We study the formation of vigilance committees — that is, coercive groups organized in a manner not officially sanctioned by state law and with the purpose of establishing legal and moral claims. We argue that these committees were primarily intended to help create civic political identities in contexts of social ambiguity and institutional instability, what we call social frontiers. Relying on quantitative and qualitative analysis, we find that these committees were more likely to form in contexts where levels of ethno-nationalist heterogeneity were high and where political institutions had recently changed. Contrary to common wisdom, vigilance committees were much more than functionalist alterna- tives to an absent state, or local orders established by bargaining, or responses to social or economic conflict. They constituted flexible instruments to counteract environments characterized by social and political uncertainty.
Drawing inspiration from Lewis Mumford’s classic analysis of the “technics” of political organization, this article explores ways in which anti-government militias and like-minded groups frame the civic role of dissent in technological terms. For militia activists, guns are tangible artifacts that uniquely align existing social practices with an important historical tradition, enhance agency, and provide interpretive finality, while militias serve to help embed that protection and defense with participation in an organic, empowering community. To members, these participatory technics provide a seemingly democratic counter to the authoritarian logic of the federal government.
The coevolution of private detective agencies and municipal police bureaucracies in mid-nineteenth-century Chicago arose from the breakdown of an older system in which the provision of law enforcement was delegated to local communities. The growth of anonymity and the presence of strangers in a city undergoing massive changes in transportation undermined this delegative system and created the perception of new public security threats. These threats were compounded by the mobilization of ethnicity in partisan politics. To address these new concerns, political and e conomic elites did not innovate, but turned to traditional practices like special deputization. The use of deputization allowed some law officers to sell their services as entrepreneurs to private firms, while also paving the way for a new bureaucratic police department. Networks of security providers locked in this transformation and made public and private policing alike a permanent feature of the city's institutional landscape.
This article argues that, rather than being characterized by pervasive failure and weakness, as most scholars argue, federal policing in the late Nineteenth Century U.S. was instead fragmented – located in multiple institutional sites and distributed unevenly across geographical regions. Though partisan resistance to the new Department of Justice’s role in voting enforcement meant that the agency failed to consolidate control over federal policing during Reconstruction, as many proponents had hoped, the availability of two mechanisms rooted in the common law – citizen’s arrest and deputation – allowed investigators housed in other departments to participate in arrests, while also providing a way for U.S. Marshals to cooperate with local law enforcement in the territorial West. As a result, the fragmented policing system of the late Nineteenth century was ad hoc and flexible, leading to both collaborative relationships among law officers in different agencies as well as the effective prosecution of federal criminals
How are new forms of violence expertise organized and exploited? Most scholars view this as primarily a question of state-building; that is, violence experts use their skills in an attempt to regulate economic transactions or to extract and redistribute resources via protection rents either for themselves or at the behest of political elites. In an alternative view, this article demonstrates that historical gunfighters active in the late 19th-century American Southwest were actually market actors—the possessors of valuable skills cultivated through participation in the Civil War and diffused through gunfighting and reputation building in key market entrepôts. Neither solely state-builders nor state-resisters, as they have traditionally been interpreted, gunfighters composed a professional class that emerged in the 1870s and 1880s and who moved frequently between wage-paying jobs, seizing economic opportunities on both sides of the law and often serving at the behest of powerful economic, rather than political, actors. I establish this claim by examining a dataset of over 250 individuals active in the “gunfighting system” of the post-bellum West, demonstrating that the social connections forged through fighting, and diffused through social networks, helped generate a form of organized violence that helped bring “law and order” to the frontier but as a byproduct of market formation rather than as state-building.
Conflict Displacement and Dual Inclusion in the Construction of Germany (with John Padgett). In The Emergence of Organizations and Markets, John F. Padgett and Walter Powell, eds. (Princeton University Press, 2013)
This chapter analyzes the development of the nineteenth-century German state under Bismarck as an iterated application of dual inclusion, conflict displacement and hieratic authority. Dual inclusion is a federalist architecture through which contradictory principles of democracy and autocracy can be sustained in co-existence. Conflict displacement is the triadic tactic of attacking demonized others, fragmenting bystanders, and absorbing fragments. Hieratic authority is a mode of cultural domination in which subordinates identify with status superiors in order to purify themselves. Bismarck, the authors argue, repeatedly used these mechanisms to build new political institutions and collective actors, which connected a hodge-podge of principalities into the nation-state of Germany. Structured feedback between contradictory principles imparted an evolutionary dynamic to nineteenth-century German state-formation that lasted beyond Bismarck.