At the start of September 2015, in response to the migrant and refugee crisis, the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven, declared: “We need to decide right now what kind of Europe we are going to be. My Europe takes in refugees. My Europe doesn’t build walls”. In November of the same year, just a few short months later, Sweden’s Prime Minister gave another speech, one that was greatly at odds with the hopeful and positive message of his previous speech.  This time, Löfven expressed concern that the rising numbers of migrants posed a threat to national security and public order, and that subsequently, migration must be curbed.  The result of this concern was the closure of Sweden’s border with Denmark – something that had not been done since World War II – as well as setting goals for deportation of migrants.  Why did this happen?  What were the conditions that lead to such a dramatic turnaround in Sweden’s response to the migrant crisis?  These are some of the questions that Vanessa Barker addresses in her book and All Souls presentation.

The All Souls Criminology seminar series continued into 2018 and was kick-started by Vanessa Barker, Docent and Associate Professor of Sociology at Stockholm University. Barker is also Visiting Professor at the University of Oslo as well as Associate Director of Border Criminologies here at Oxford.  The official government explanation for closing the border and taking a firmer stance on migration centred on ‘system overload’. This ‘system overload’ was tied up with issues surrounding lack of coordination between services that were managing this influx of migrants, insecurity, as well as too much stress on social institutions.  Professor Barker found this technical explanation unsatisfactory.  Similarly, Barker was unconvinced by some propositions that hostility towards migrants was the result of the neoliberal turn; nor that this was motivated by an unwillingness to receive people from the global South.  Though she agreed that the huge increase in inward migration had a real and dramatic impact on the people and institutions of Sweden, Barker was interested in exploring the sociological explanations behind this shift, believing that there was more to this change than the aforementioned explanations were able to cover.  Vanessa Barker is not alone in examining Nordic exceptionalism and nationalism, however what makes her approach to this area of inquiry unique and particularly compelling are the methodologies she adopts.  Her analysis relies on a historical, long-term study of Sweden’s welfare state and use of penal power. Looking to the foundations of the welfare state, Barker was able to take stock of patterns of action that have been generated across time, something that is impossible when limiting the scope of inquiry to an immediate political snapshot or even a decade of history. Moreover, rather than examining the welfare state, immigration, and penal institutions as discrete systems, Barker favours an approach that is interested in the interactions of these institutions. In doing so, the favoured view of Nordic countries being exemplars of penal moderation is challenged – penal power may indeed be used in moderation amongst members of the welfare state, however in order to protect the solvency of the welfare state, penal power is used as a tool to manage ‘outsiders’ that threaten it.  Barker reasons that penal and welfare institutions operate hand in hand with the goal of maintaining social security for citizens of the strong welfare state at times when stress is applied onto it from external sources.  The external threat must be sizeable, however, to legitimate outward hostility, since historically, Sweden has been welcoming to outsiders – numbers permitting!  Professor Barker refers to the cooperation between these two institutions as ‘penal nationalism’ – whereby the use of criminal justice powers is carried out for nationalistic purposes, to protect the welfare state.  This term was first used by Lynn Haney with reference to Eastern European countries, however Barker develops this term further and suggests that it can be drawn out to examine other jurisdictions aside from Sweden (in another presentation, for example, Barker uses the concept of penal nationalism to talk about the USA’s penal system).  For Sweden, penal nationalism is a tool that allows the members of the state to enjoy a sustained level of affluence, access to services and relatively high quality of life that the welfare state affords them.  Any outward hostility and use of penal power is thus legitimated in the name of their security, despite the fact that the responses to threats are coercive, violent and highly exclusionary – as was evidenced in 2015 with the closure of the Sweden-Denmark border and subsequent deportation drive.

As a first year DPhil student, I have been thinking a lot about what theoretical framework to use for my project.  Conversations with colleagues, postdoctoral researchers and professors has instilled in me a certain fear that this search for an appropriate and meaningful theoretical framework may be an ongoing and long battle. Vanessa Barker’s presentation has been incredibly helpful and inspiring – drawing on literature and theoretical approaches from a range of disciplines, she was able to not only develop an intricate and nuanced methodology for her inquiry but also pushed towards developing new theoretical approaches of understanding penal power in a globalised world.  As well as being informative and highly persuasive, Professor Barker’s presentation raised some important questions about the role of penal nationalism in a broader global context. What, for example, does the closure of the border mean for Denmark? How is the increased use of punishment of migrants in a democratic welfare state lauded for its penal moderation and openness to asylum seekers to be interpreted by other, historically more punitive and exclusionary jurisdictions?  Can penal nationalism in Sweden have knock-on effects on the way that other states respond to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants?  I look forward to reading Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State with these questions in mind and suggest that anyone interested in penal power, border criminology or simply a more adventurous approach to research also gives it a read!


Elizabeth Kullmann is a first year DPhil student with the Centre for Criminology