Beyond Agamben: Sovereignty, policing and ‘permissive space’ in South Africa, and beyond

Sarah Jane Cooper Knock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The work of Giorgio Agamben has been widely used by criminologists and others to explore policing and sovereignty across the globe. In this article, I explore Agamben’s conceptual framework, focusing on the commonly deployed ideas of ‘state of exception’ and ‘homo sacer’. I highlight the limitations of Agamben’s legalistic theories, and argue that they leave us with an impoverished understanding of how sovereignty is negotiated in everyday life. As I demonstrate, scholars who have attempted to adapt Agamben’s ideas have failed to overcome these limitations in his analysis. I conclude that we must look for new ways forward and introduce the concept of ‘permissive space’ as an alternative to Agamben’s theoretical framework: an idea that allows a more nuanced and comprehensive analysis. Drawing on 10 months of fieldwork in Durban, South Africa, I illustrate the utility of this terminology for our analysis of policing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-41
Number of pages20
JournalTheoretical Criminology
Issue number1
Early online date5 Jan 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2018


  • Agamben
  • everyday life
  • police and policing
  • South Africa
  • sovereignty


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