Guest post by Will Allen, Research Officer at the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) and The Migration Observatory. You can follow him and his work on Twitter

"In some strange way, the more precise you become about an experience, the more universal—weirdly—it actually becomes." (Andrew Haigh, film director)

Recently, I’ve been conscious of the feelings and emotions that accompany going through border security. Procedures, queues, signs indicating various rules and warnings: these physical elements communicate more than direction or order. Rather, they also stir up different senses of anticipation, frustration, even foreboding—the specific proportions of which depend on the backgrounds of border-crossers as well as their purpose for moving. A student entering the UK will approach the formal ‘crossing’ carrying different expectations than an asylum-seeker. Seasoned travellers knowing what to expect and how to answer border guards’ questions will perceive ‘the border’ differently than a first-time tourist.

At a theoretical level, these affective elements of border security regimes are beginning to be recognised as important components of border studies in their own right. Yet, two problems emerge: (1) precisely how do these feelings and perceptions contribute to the different ways that border life actually plays out, and (2) how can these potentially fleeting and temporary occurrences be captured? Within my own research examining meanings of East African borders, I explore how the idea of ‘border security’ carries different meanings for people at different times. Through lived experience, people build up enduring patterns of norms and expectations of what borders can and should do. These ‘conventions’ can sometimes conflict with ‘official’ policy on a range of issues—from encouraging freer cross-border trade to ‘cracking down’ on smuggling and trafficking. They can also be reshaped by one-off events, such as acts of terrorism, that heighten security concerns. But capturing how such instances shape border practices can be difficult because they are fast-moving, short-lived, or so mundane they are overlooked.

Long-haul truckers, traders and residents approach the border crossing from the Kenyan side. Credit: Will Allen
Perhaps it is helpful to think about border security as a set of smaller border ‘moments’. These moments are contingent and time-specific interactions which unfold in some order. They may be regular, such as the steps taken to get a passport stamped. Others, like my experience with nervous border guards at the Kenya-Uganda border after the 2010 Kampala bombings, may be unique. Importantly, when these moments are strung together, they create conventions that are held in the minds of border-crossers and enacted in their practices which solidify, melt, and unfold in ways that couldn't necessarily be predicted in advance.

Methodologically, accounting for border moments would require a very precise look at the workings of life at borders. This may take the form of ethnographic research like that undertaken by my colleagues at COMPAS. Yet, the larger challenge involves showing how these moments contribute to broader conventions of border security—as well as how they fit into on-going processes of social and economic change occurring at a given border. This opens exciting possibilities for interdisciplinary work that brings in historians, geographers, political scientists, economists, and sociologists.

My overarching point is that being sensitive to these moments offers the chance to see how they fit within larger structural and temporal possibilities. In fact, intentionally highlighting border experiences in all their context-specific, contradictory, and colourful natures may reveal how they speak to something more universal than we would initially think.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style): Allen, W (2013) Border Moments, Border Conventions. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/border-moments (accessed [date]).