In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Private Security

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Introductory Texts
  • Activities and Function
  • Growth and Development
  • Occupational Culture
  • Perceptions of Private Security
  • Powers
  • Relations with Others
  • Researching Private Security
  • Theorizing Private Security

Criminology Private Security
Julie Berg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0329


There are many ways in which “private security” can, and has been, defined. Many concepts have been used to describe it directly, such as “commercial security,” “private security companies,” “the private security industry,” “corporate” and “in-house,” security and so forth. Similarly, many concepts have been deployed as umbrella terms within which “private security” can be included or incorporated, such as “nonstate policing,” “privatized policing,” “for-profit policing,” and the like. Allowing for flexibility in terms of the continuum of private security provision, this bibliography contains literature on a spectrum of engagement that includes what can be thought of as commercial or corporate entities (businesses) undertaking security and policing functions for a profit—these functions, as this review will show, can incorporate a very wide range of activities, operating on a variety of private, public, and hybrid spaces, both locally and transnationally, and in cyberspace, and which converge and diverge with public or state policing functions, community or vigilante activities, as well as activates that align with any “conventional” corporate or business entity. Furthermore, this review is predominantly focused on “everyday,” nonmilitary forms of security and policing provision as opposed to an explicit focus on private military companies operating in conflict settings. It must be noted that scholarly literature on militarized versus nonmilitarized forms of private security tends to be divided along disciplinary lines. Therefore, traditionally, international relations and global security scholars have focused on private military companies and activities, whereas criminologists and policing scholars have focused more on the everyday, nonmilitarized forms of private security. However, this divide has been shifting, as some scholars have challenged these disciplinary boundaries, focused on the continuities between military and nonmilitary forms of security privatization, and/or increasingly undertaken an interdisciplinary approach. Given these developments, therefore, this review does include literature that seeks to acknowledge and situate private security within this continuum of form and function: from the everyday, domestic, or “low” security provision to the transnational, specialized, “high” forms of policing. The geographical focus is on both Global North and South contexts, and incorporates several thematic areas; besides the inclusion of introductory texts and general overviews, these include its governance, activities and functions, growth and development, occupational culture, powers, relations with other entities, how it is perceived and perceives itself, undertaking research on private security, and, finally, how it is theorized.

General Overviews and Introductory Texts

Brodeur 2010, Button 2019, Joh 2004, Johnston 1992, Wakefield 2003, and Zedner 2009 provide overviews of private security, such as its historical roots, conceptualizations and theorizations of it, growth, activities and scope, powers, relations with the public sector, and/or governance/regulatory issues. Furthermore, Stenning 1994 provides a useful snapshot account of private security through debunking myths prevailing at the time, in this way providing the reader with a useful overview at the same time. Furthermore, some of the texts included provide introductions to private security in terms of how it is situated within broader policing and governance developments, such as Bayley and Shearing 2001, and, similarly, how private security is situated within broader conceptualizations—such as Button 2019 and Joh 2004, which position “private security” within broader considerations of “private policing,” thereby demonstrating the demarcations between private policing and “private security.” In addition, the handbook Abrahamsen and Leander 2016 demonstrates the ways in which “everyday” private security is on a continuum of activities with its militarized dimensions, thereby, again, situating it within broader conceptualizations. Finally, Higate and Utas 2017 is one of the few sources that provides a general overview of private security from a Global South perspective; considering that much of the literature is predominantly from a Global North and/or Western-centric perspective, it thus provides a complementary account to these literatures.

  • Abrahamsen, Rita, and Anna Leander, eds. 2016. Routledge handbook of private security studies. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    This handbook transcends the dichotomy between “everyday” localized private security and its transnational and/or militarized dimensions through engaging with both by means of twenty-six chapters covering a range of thematic areas in an interdisciplinary engagement. These themes include a focus on its historical roots, contemporary activities (ranging from migration control to cybersecurity), key theoretical questions and issues that it raises (such as the “global security assemblages” framing—see Abrahamsen and Williams 2011, cited under Theorizing Private Security), and its regulation.

  • Bayley, David, and Clifford Shearing. 2001. The new structure of policing: Description, conceptualization, and research agenda. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

    The authors consider the changing shape of policing through differentiating those who authorize it (“auspices”) and those who deliver it (“providers”), describing these auspices (for instance, communities or the state) and providers (such as private security) as well as the “mentalities” or ways of thinking about and “doing” policing, and the reasons underpinning these developments. In doing so, they provide an overview of policing developments while situating private security’s place within it.

  • Brodeur, Jean-Paul. 2010. Private security. In The policing web. By Jean-Paul Brodeur, 255–308. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199740598.003.0009

    The author provides an extensive account of private security: how it is defined; a critical review of the research identifying the challenges in undertaking research and gaps in knowledge about private security; a global review of available data on its size, growth, and composition, as well as a case study of technology-use; an overview of private high policing; concluding with a discussion of theoretical issues (such as powers and governance).

  • Button, Mark. 2019. Private policing. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781351240772

    A holistic account of “private policing,” reviewing the ways in which it has been conceptualized, categorized, and theorized, including the impacts that privatization has had on public policing, the various hybridizations of policing (such as nonpolice state entities, specialist police organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and voluntary policing), the private security industry (and the role of security officers), corporate security, private investigation, and plural policing, concluding with a focus on regulation.

  • Higate, Paul, and Mats Utas, eds. 2017. Private security in Africa: From the global assemblage to the everyday. London: Zed Books.

    The book extends the “global security assemblage” framing (see Abrahamsen and Williams 2011, cited under Theorizing Private Security) by providing an ethnographic account of nonmilitarized forms of private security within a number of African contexts, thereby providing a comprehensive account of the contextual issues of the privatization of policing from a Global South perspective while acknowledging the blurring of entities within security assemblages, extending the notion of “private security,” and engaging with the simultaneity of the local and global.

  • Joh, Elizabeth E. 2004. The paradox of private policing. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 95.1: 49–131.

    DOI: 10.2307/3491382

    An extensive account of “private policing” (including private security) drawing from empirical studies, case law, policy (from a US context), and scholarly engagement. The author questions what “private policing” entails, reflecting on its conceptualization and relation to public policing, its activities and scope, powers (particularly legal powers and divergences with the public police), policing partnerships, the various ways in which it is regulated, and the challenges posed to legal frameworks.

  • Johnston, Les. 1992. The rebirth of private policing. London: Routledge.

    A comprehensive account of private security where the author challenges prevailing state-centric and dichotomous accounts of policing by situating the rise of private security (and its “rebirth”) within a historical perspective, engaging critically with theoretical debates on the provision of public goods, and reviewing the forms of privatization, the nature of private security (in the UK and elsewhere), and the various types of private provision of policing (from hybrid to “autonomous citizenship”).

  • Stenning, Philip. 1994. Private policing—Some recent myths, developments and trends. In Private sector and community involvement in the criminal justice system. Edited by David Biles and Julia Vernon, 145–153. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

    Through reflecting on “myths,” misconceptions, or gaps in knowledge on private policing (related to its size, activities, accountabilities, and power for instance), the author both draws on the state of research at the time while also outlining some of the key themes within research on the issue, thereby providing an overview of research, developments, and trends in private security as well as prospects for research.

  • Wakefield, Alison. 2003. Selling security: The private policing of public space. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

    The author presents an extensive account of how private security is delivered in “quasi-public” spaces (see Button 2003, cited under Powers) or on “mass private property” (see Shearing and Stenning 1981, under Growth and Development). The book reviews theories and conceptualizations on private policing (with a focus on space and networks of engagement) and private security in terms of the perspectives of “client,” “company,” and “officer,” presenting three ethnographic case studies in the UK, and drawing out these perspectives as well as public-private networks of engagement.

  • Zedner, Lucia. 2009. Security as industry. In Security. By Lucia Zedner, 89–115. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203871133

    The author discusses the implications of the rise in private security, outlining the drivers for its growth, the rise in consumer demand, the size of private security globally and the scope of services provided (such as transnational activities), the commodities it supplies (symbolic or material), and its aims/interests compared to the public sector. Furthermore, the author reflects on security and the public good and the implications for regulation.

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