Fearful, forceful agents of the law: Ideologies about language and gender in police officers’ narratives about the use of physical force

Bonnie McElhinny

Abstract

Sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists have been far more likely to use ideology to understand the social relations of nation, racialized ethnicity and class than to understand the social relations of gender. This chapter investigates language ideologies and gender by examining narratives told by male and female, Black and White police officers in Pittsburgh about moments when they found it necessary to use physical force. Many of the workers in this traditionally working-class, masculine job describe themselves as “acting crazy” to instill fear and respect in those with whom they interact. “Acting crazy” is an ideology of interaction of personhood which describes and prescribes a way of acting like and unlike people “on the street” as well as a way of claiming and denying responsibility for action. A detailed analysis of reason adverbs and adverbials and agentive and non-agentive semantic roles shows that police officers construe themselves not as particularly powerful agents but instead as hapless victims, and as adopting a mask of anger, rather than being intrinsically angry people. The analysis of these narratives has implications for understanding whether and how the integration of women into a traditionally masculine occupation like policing leads to the reinscription or transformation of certain ideologies about how interaction should proceed. Such analysis also suggests that to understand how ideology works we need to consider not only how different genres make meaning but how they make meaning stick, and that more careful analysis of how narratives work and how structures of feeling are experienced and inscribed will be crucial for this project.

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