"I'm just thinking out loud here": Making United States homeland security at the local level

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Robert A. Rubinstein


Local level, Homeland security

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Public Administration | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology


U.S. homeland security consists not only in policies and grand cultural shifts, but also in the daily lives of responders and planners. At every level of government, people's activities, their assumptions, confusions, worries, relationships, frustrations, and decisions influence the shape of policy. At the local level, people's practice creates the shape of security policy with which most of the public interacts. It provides an opportunity to examine one area of security, how it is constructed, maintained, and potentially transformed. After the attacks in the fall of 2001, the pace of development and elaboration increased. While the country tried to sort out its ideas about defense and security within its national borders and while the federal government debated how involved it should be and what guidance to give, local people had to make it up as they went along.

This dissertation shows U.S. homeland security as practice, as something that is not monolithic, but constructed, not impenetrable, but accessible to ethnography. It contributes to the trend of "studying up," supports practice as an organizing concept for anthropological studies, and describes the ethnographic challenges faced by those studying security-related topics. It also describes the methodological challenges associated with research in non-spatially based communities and reliance on participant observation as a technique of choice.

The work examines both the daily tasks of homeland security and the more conceptual work of determining what it would mean to make Boston secure. The analysis supports an argument that homeland security in the greater Boston area was practiced through a policy community, a community formed by the direct or indirect influences of policy. It also provides evidence of the roles of innovators, unofficial channels, personal relationships, tacit knowledge, and temporary task-based organization as ways of getting homeland security work done while resisting institutionalization of new structures and relationships. The analysis is based on interpretation of data gathered during two years of fieldwork spanning 9/11/2001 among the planners and responders involved in developing homeland security for the Boston area.


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