ARCPR: NIGHTCLUB SECURITY AND SURVEILLANCE <endnotenumber>1</endnotenumber>

The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2004)

ISSN: 1710 6915


George S. Rigakos

George Rigakos is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Law at Carleton University, Ottawa. The summary is taken from his book, Policing the Nightclub: Surveillance, Consumption and Social Order in a Risk Market, forthcoming, McGill-Queen’s University Press. Dr. Rigarkos can be reached by e-mail at


The research reported here sought to uncover the processes and politics by which nightclub security and surveillance both succeeds and fails. Police researchers have long described the wide-ranging agencies and practices that can be considered part of the historical project of “police.” However, empirical analyses of non-core policing agencies and personnel have been rare. Bouncers are an extremely important policing entity in urban night-time economies, engaging in routine violence and overseeing thousands of revellers on a nightly basis. To date, there have been no criminological analyses of nightclub bouncers in Canada. This project focused on Halifax nightclubs and door-staff.

Theoretically, there are also a series of notions that have remained largely undeveloped because of our lack of examination of the nightclub setting. For example, consumption in various forms saturates the entire context of the nightclub. People consume alcohol, they consume the aesthetics of a club’s design and perhaps, most importantly, they consume each other as cultural objects. The clothing, accessories and other sub-cultural signs displayed by nightclub patrons, in their aggregate imbue nightclubs with a character of display and consumption. This is as culturally dense and significant as the music being played. In fact, the two are always inter-linked. Moreover, the nightclub is also a hyper-masculine and feminine, deeply gendered, racialized and class-based space. Only fleeting familiarity with nightclubs easily confirms this observation.

Risk and security provision are bound up with and, indeed, mediate the process of making a nightclub. Risk and security permeate almost all aspects of what makes nightclubs productive sites of consumption, bonding to axes of class, race and gender. That there is an inherent and integral relationship between capital and the broader Foucaultian notion of ‘policing’ has become an increasingly important area of investigation for a general understanding of economy and society. Nightclubs provide a splendid analytic example for such inquiries.


The research relied on multiple methods, including interviews, field observations or a general ethnography, and a workplace violence questionnaire. I estimated there were approximately 100 door staff working in the downtown Halifax area during peak times such as weekends, during the commencement of the university academic year in September, during tourist season in the summer, or when large naval vessels or conventions came to Halifax. We interviewed 26 security staff in total, of which six were supervisors or managers. Almost all of our respondents were males. Six downtown bars or nightclubs were selected for interviews based on the following two criteria:

  1. The research sites employed six or more door staff;
  2. The bar had been in operation for at least three years.

The project therefore focused on larger establishments. In one case, a bar owner refused access.

A survey questionnaire was administered to 55 downtown bouncers to supplement the interviews and the ethnography. The questionnaire consisted of a few demographic questions followed by a series of standardized scales including interpersonal conflict at work, job affective well being, job satisfaction, work locus of control, right-wing belief in a just world and alienation. Most importantly for this section of the project, the researchers administered identical scales to other occupational groups during the same data-collection period, including RCMP and Halifax police officers, for comparison purposes.

From the six sites participating in the interviews, three of the larger nightclubs were chosen as milieus in which to pursue ethnographic research. These three bars were different from one another, often catering to dissimilar clientele, and fashioning social atmospheres and music selections that made for interesting contrasts. The bouncers in each of the three clubs also maintained discrete approaches toward order maintenance in their establishments, which made for interesting comparisons. The ethnographic component of this study lasted over one calendar year at intermittent intervals from February 2001 to 2002, and included over 250 hours of observation, producing about 200 pages of typed reports from field notes.


Preliminary statistical results based on the survey data administered to police officers (N=189) and bouncers (N=52) reveal the following:

  1. Bouncers were statistically significantly more likely to experience both physical violence and over-all violence in the year up to the survey than police officers (area RCMP and Halifax Regional police);
  2. There is no statistically significant difference in non-physical violence between bouncers and police;
  3. Even when controlling for police not working in urban settings (rural RCMP and suburban Halifax), bouncers are still significantly more likely to experience physical violence, but not overall violence and non-physical violence;
  4. When comparing only urban Halifax police to bouncers, statistically significant differences in violence disappear;
  5. Statistically significant differences were found between police officers and bouncers with respect to job satisfaction and interpersonal violence, but not for job autonomy, right-wing authoritarianism, belief in a just world, or alienation;
  6. For bouncers, physical, non-physical and overall violence statistically significantly increased with years of service;
  7. For police officers, non-physical violence, overall violence, job affective well-being and alienation all statistically significantly decreased with years of service, while work locus of control, interpersonal conflict at work and right-wing authoritarianism statistically significantly increased with years of service.

Other findings and analysis will be available in subsequent publications.

It is difficult to summarize theoretical and qualitative analyses here, but the following points emerge from the ethnographic and interview data (N=26):

  • The first step in creating prosperous and cosmopolitan sites of consumption lies, as it has since the dawn of capitalism, in regulating flows of population and allaying the insecurities of potential consumers.
  • The first point of contact, indeed the first impression of a nightclub as a potential site of consumption comes from speaking to the bouncer. Risk identities are negotiated at the door.
  • Gaining access to a nightclub is a basic negotiation of risk identities when it comes to age, because underage patrons pose a serious risk to a nightclub’s legal liability and licensing terms. It is an institutional risk. But getting in is about far more than ID cards, the desire to be in a desirable site and a willingness to fake your age. The dramaturgical context is instant and spontaneous. Whatever economic or social capital can muster be mustered is quickly deployed to gain entry.
  • Race, intersected with gender and class mediate, through security, the potential for risk. Dangerous populations are kept out. They are vetted. Socially desirable populations gain entry immediately.
  • Bouncers are part of producing the site of consumption by creating demand and, in no uncertain terms, transforming patrons into symbolic products.
  • The nightclub is, at first glance, a chaotic space. But there is a concerted attempt at order.
  • Nightclubs in Halifax are now equipped with CCTV surveillance, so that the panoptic impulse is ever present. Panoptics connote the few watching the many, the one-way mirror, the always secret observer. This is not the primary way populations are ordered in nightclubs; the pattern is far more synoptic. The few watch the many but the many also watch the few.
  • I think this is particularly illustrative of what I term the general synoptic frenzy that constitutes the nightclub as a site of consumption. Even the bouncers are there to be seen, to stand out and get noticed.
  • There is routine violence in a nightclub. We witnessed this throughout the research. Bouncers are violent because this is their prescribed role. They have this to sell. They are experienced pugilists and are trained in talking down and taking down aggressive patrons.
  • At closing time, rivers of human beings flow onto the streets. The bouncers hand drunken revellers over to the public police and the scene changes from private spectacle to public nuisance. The night-time economy is regulated by a not-so-unproblematic chain of surveillance.

Conclusions and Implications

In Halifax, paddy wagons idle outside the larger nightclubs at closing time, marked police cruisers augment downtown patrols, and uniformed officers often take up station at the city’s infamous “pizza corner” as inebriated patrons spill out at closing time for late night sustenance. These are rather predictable patterns. They are part of the general night-time economy of the city and they are essential for the ordering of consumption. The nightclub, as a defined and enclosed space plays a vital role in night-time consumption patterns and in the mobilization of policing agencies in Halifax. But the bouncer is the crucial policing entity.

More research is needed on bouncers, the policing of consumption spectacles, and how seemingly transgressional and risky night-time activity is structured and policed. The nightclub reinforces and exaggerates social divisions based on race, class and gender. Given that bouncers engage in routine violence and are completely unregulated, they are the epitome of pugilistic justice and a glaring example of the state’s divestment of force in the management of the night-time economy. A good sign is recently proposed provincial legislation in Nova Scotia that would regulate bouncers together with other in-house and contract security agents and providers.


1. Research funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Grant No. 410-2000-0145)