Post by Mary Bosworth, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford

Recently, I found a paragraph I’d written five years ago while completing a book on US prisons:

I have just been reading about detention in the web of war prisons that have been set up in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. When these accounts became too bleak, I switched to other light reading on immigration detention in the US, the treatment of prisoners during and after Hurricane Katrina, and reports on the use of unmuzzled dogs to remove unwilling prisoners from their cells in American state prisons. As periodically happens, I found myself wondering why I had not pursued that major in English literature, or even in history. Criminology is, at times, unbearable.

Witnessing the expansion of penal practices into new arenas, alongside the indifference to enduring injustices and familiar forms of social control, was simultaneously depressing and infuriating. Analysing it and subjecting it to academic critique felt similarly problematic. I remember feeling ashamed, angry, and impotent.

These kinds of emotions imbue criminological scholarship. For the most part, however, other than in discussions of the emotional toll of fieldwork, the fear of crime and punishment, they are rarely discussed, leaving unasked and unanswered questions about the impact and nature of working in a discipline which every day and always addresses suffering and power. While assisting with the Twitter feed to this website, I am particularly conscious of this emotional backdrop; often it seems that all we are doing is sharing bad news, stories of suffering, accounts of injustice.

What are the implications of this kind of work I wonder? Some critics have charged migration scholars with engaging in a dubious form of titillation, feeding off the misery of others. These same critics have also drawn attention to the racialised nature of much of the academic field of inquiry, in which many of those of us who write about border control are white, middle-class and, by and large, exempt from its controlling aspects.

Migrant children detained in Texas, US (Source: Daily Mail)
The mass detention in the US of unaccompanied children from Central America typifies the kinds of issues at play. Stories and then photographs of young children sleeping on the floor, held behind bars, offered a heartbreaking vision of desperation. Earlier this week, the Australian media reported that adults had called for help from a boat carrying sick children that had travelled for two weeks in search of sanctuary. The Australian government, initially, refused to authenticate the account before then admitting that it had handed back at least one boatload of asylum seekers already to the Sri Lankans after an 'expedited' process conducted at sea. Closer to home, in our research projects, conversations with detainees reveal everyday indignities, profound sorrows, and despair.

What does the circulation of sorrow do? What are some of its effects? Are we moved to act? If so, what can we do? If we do not act, are we, as critics have suggested, engaging in some kind of 'pornography of poverty,' turned on by the despair of others?

Border control, like punishment, is simultaneously intimate and detached; personal and diffuse. It is meted out by the state, although in the UK, at least, tends to be administered by the private sector. As we have noted on this blog many times, despite the level of activism and scholarly research, considerable barriers remain to prevent people other than those subject to control to witness its execution.

Colnbrook IRC (Photo: S. Turnbull)
Border control reaches into all parts of people’s lives over time and across space. Those who are administratively removed or deported aren’t just prevented from seeing through their aspirations, but also their pasts are denied, from their periods of residence to their relationships and original motivations and plans. It’s no wonder it hurts.

If we are to understand it, we must bear witness to this pain. As such, we must talk about it, look at it, listen to it. The challenges remaining, however, are manifold. For those of us who conduct fieldwork, there are considerable risks of secondary trauma. How can, or should, we build that into our accounts? How can we make room for it in the research process?

Finally, we must also be mindful of risks of appropriation. For the most part, these are not our own stories. They belong to those whom we interview, or to those appearing in the policy and media accounts. The stakes for those crossing borders, languishing in detention centres, living and dying at sea, are very high. Our own emotional discomfort self-evidently pales into insignificance relative to theirs.

In one of the detention centres I visited, a senior member of staff dismissed detainee accounts as a 'auction of misery.' Those with the worst stories, she scoffed, won. While such cynicism doesn’t sit well with her duty of care, her denial of those surrounding her illustrates the attendant risks in setting out their stories. Sorrow and suffering may humanise or dehumanise. All too often staff appear to be oblivious. Those who recognise at least some of their sadness around them cannot shoulder it all.

Criminological accounts of emotions, for the most part, have concentrated on crime, punishment and, to a lesser extent, on the strains of conducting applied research. In these bodies of work scholars have examined the generative and restraining effects of feelings. Fear stops women walking alone, revenge underpins popular demand for harsh punishment, fieldwork is often confusing, researchers do not always feel confident about what to do.

In accounts of border control, emotions may be darker and the situation more bleak, but connections with these other fields are apparent. What remains missing, however, on both counts, is whether such feelings can generate a more critical and just approach to the matters in question, or whether they are merely the cost of working on social problems and inequality.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Bosworth M (2014) Shame, Despair and Criminology: Trying to Make Sense of Suffering and Injustice. Available at: (Accessed [date]).