Post by Vanessa Barker, Associate Professor of Sociology at Stockholm University. Vanessa´s research focuses on questions of democracy and penal order, the welfare state and border control, the criminalization and penalization of migrants, and the role of civil society in penal reform. This is the final post of Border Criminologies Book Discussion Week Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State

First, I would like to thank Ines Hasselberg, Andriani Fili and Border Criminologies for initiating and organizing the Book Discussion Week around Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order. I am honored by the network’s serious engagement with my work. Second, as a writer, it is deeply satisfying to hear back from your imagined readers in their own voices, loud and clear. I sincerely appreciate the reviewers—Jize Jiang, Katja Franko, Magnus Hörnqvist, and Alessandro De Giorgi-- taking the time to closely read the text, hold the books’ main arguments up for scrutiny and debate, place the study in the broader field, and wrap their criticism in praise about the book, all of which I will carry with me as I begin my next book project.

How to proceed? Rather than respond to each reviewer individually, I will address broader themes and topics raised by the commentary, highlighting where I agree and disagree with the critics. Some of our disagreements are resolvable while others are less so. Some may even continue to animate the field in years to come. I focus my response on the following concerns: penal nationalism; proximate versus structural causes; tensions between the particular and the general; and the national versus global dynamics.

It is noteworthy that all of the commentators accepted penal nationalism, the central concept of the book, as an effective way to understand and explain how penal power is used to regulate, control, and punish unwanted mobility for specifically nationalistic purposes. Jize Jiang’s review does an especially nice job unpacking the theoretical underpinnings and empirical implications of this concept. While the reviewers acknowledge and appreciate this main contribution, they quickly raise a number of questions about its underlying causal dynamics, applicability, and particularly. Does penal nationalism only apply to Sweden and its robust welfare state? How would a comparative perspective strengthen or limit the main findings? What about more commonly shared factors such as racial inequalities, anti-immigrant sentiments, or partisan politics, as Alessandro De Giorgi asks? Or as Katja Franko probes, how has Sweden been driven by global power dynamics and to what extent are the Nordic countries implicated in reproducing these global inequalities?

Penal nationalism is a particular concept that emerged from a critical case study but it aims to be a more general explanatory device. Its particularity and social meaning emerge in a specific context—social life is highly contextualized. In the Swedish context, what drives the nationalistic interest and purpose is upholding the welfare state, keeping it solvent for members. In other contexts, national identity, national sovereignty, or national resources may be more salient but should be understood as part of the same process by which the material and symbolic violence of the criminal justice system are mobilized to reaffirm and renationalize state authority and group membership. Jiang’s discussion of migration control in China is illustrative of this variation. In Sweden, the border closing was an acute manifestation of this nationalistic dynamic, and made it more visible. Yet penal nationalism is not reducible to border closings but rather is part of a wide array of coercive measures as Franko and Hörnqvist attest, so we can see penal nationalism emerge in contexts for similar reasons that did not resort to this extreme response.

But what about alternative causal paths that are not exclusive to the welfare state? What about the role of partisan politics or electoral concerns? Wasn’t the border closing a matter of political expediency, a way to defuse the rise of the anti-immigrant party, as De Giorgi notes? Although the Sweden Democrats gained support during this time, the emergence of penal nationalism and the border closing are still better understood as a mainstream project. Penal nationalism preceded the rise of this far-right party and coercive and exclusionary mechanisms have long historical roots in Sweden, as Hörnqvist confirms, that have been supported rather than minimized by the welfare state. Moreover, the government’s response to restore order was a widely shared concern across the political spectrum and included concerns about insecurity at refugee reception centers.Trygghet, a sense of social wellbeing and social security, is a central organizing principle of the welfare state. De Giorgi suggests that my account places too much weight on official rationalizations. But the point is to investigate the social conditions and social structures that make these claims legitimate and meaningful to the people involved. The book’s social diagnosis exposes the strains and fissures that at the core of the society rather than at its periphery.

I offer a similar rejoinder to Franko’s critique that the analysis is limited because of its nationalist perspective. The objective was to explain what happened in Sweden and understand the social dynamics from inside rather than impose pre-existing theories or assume the border closing was the result of global dynamics. In addition, it is precisely how border control is being used to reaffirm or renationalize state authority and membership under globalization that is of interest. The international legal and political order often upholds the nation-state form and its interests. That said, I agree with Franko that of course Sweden is operating within and contributing to unequal global power dynamics. In my next project, I take up her challenge to further examine and explain transnational legal ordering in which the Nordic welfare states produce both internal and external walls. And by doing so, I explore how these processes are remaking states and societies in less democratic ways.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Barker, V. (2018) Book Discussion Week: Author’s Response. Available at: (Accessed [date]).