S. E. Merry “Spatial Governmentality and the New Urban Social Order: Controlling Gender Violence through Law”

panhandleMany cities define spatial areas that are off limits to certain social groups in order to control types of undesirable behavior. These forms of control are not always obvious. Obvious regulatory methods include surveillance technologies and zoning laws, such as drug free zones, gun free zones, and panhandler free zones, which are developed to regulate certain behaviors from occurring. Other, less obvious methods of social control were implemented in specific areas of cities to regulate the space in which the behaviors happen. Examples of spacial regulation include deterring socially unacceptable behaviors in certain areas but allowing them and others, such as prostitution and gambling, and gated communities preventing entrance of “undesirables” to specific areas.

The regulation of public space governs the whole population, and actually serves as an anticipatory mechanism developed to prevent behavior that may happen instead of punishing offenders after they have acted. Merry considers this form of social control “governance through risk management” rather than “preventing transgressions”. As governments shift more to risk management practices, the operation of police forces have also shifted. Law enforcement subsequently attempts to secure spaces by keeping out criminals altogether, rather than preventing and/or punishing criminal activity in those spaces.

jails_webMerry provides three distinct forms of governance: punishment, in which offenders are punished; discipline, focuses on reforming offenders using training in therapy; and security, where the goal is to prevent the offenders from sharing space with potential victims through spatial segregation. The author describes how each is used in approaches to prevent gender-based violence. The first form of government, punishment, was the preferred form of action for offenders from about 1970 to 1990. Punishment for gender violence included mandatory arrest, no drop prosecution and mandatory incarceration. In the 1990s, the preferred method for governing batterers was disciplinary action, which were levied against the person, rather than the offense. This method incorporates therapy and group support systems. The third form of governance, security, involves securing the general population form potential threats from offenders. These methods attempt to mitigate dangers by predicting who may engage in gender violence and then preventing the offense from happening. An example of this is restraining orders that prevent offenders from engaging with their victims.

The examples of governance described above will have negative effects for some sections of society but the author argues that they have proven beneficial for poor women and encourages governments to reconfigure practices that are more conducive to a postmodern, globalized world.


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