Post by Jize Jiang, Ph.D. candidate in Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).  His research highlights broader social structural contexts and dynamic social processes that undergird law, crime and punishment. His current projects focus on how (im)migration influences crime and punishment in the United States and China. This is the first post of Border Criminologies Book Discussion Week Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State’.

Review of Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State by Vanessa Barker (Routledge, 2018)

Outsiders ‘Inside’: Penal Surge in Contemporary Swedish Migration/Border Control

The past two decades have witnessed increasing criminalization and penalization of migration and expanding deployment of penal power in immigration enforcement and border control across Western democracies - albeit to varying degrees in different jurisdictions. Surprisingly, as a highly acclaimed country based on values of openness, equality and humanitarianism, Sweden has not withstood the trend of punitive and exclusionary treatment of migrants. Its punitive turn reached an apex in 2016, when the Swedish government abruptly closed its border with Denmark. This dramatic change in Sweden’s response to migrants has generated widespread controversy among the public and academia. Questions about the co-existence of widely accredited Nordic countries’ open, generous social policies and mild penal regime with Swedish border closure and restrictions against migrants are now a topic of conversation and concern.

In an attempt to decipher this puzzle in her new book, Vanessa Barker employs historical, institutional and sociological analyses to shed light on more fundamental causes of contemporary Sweden forsaking open and equal principles for migrants and foreign nationals, including asylum seekers and refugees. She argues, the remarkable policy change stems from the inherent nature of the Swedish welfare state system, which has been designed to preserve the national interests, identity, solidarity and security of ‘Swedish people (the demos),’ and thus provides little space for acceptance of outsiders or those perceived as ‘others.’ The dualities of the welfare state system and the consequences of ‘inward security and outward harm’ have powerfully shaped the current configuration of migration control and penal order in Sweden. Importantly, by challenging the conventional wisdom regarding the emergence of crimmigration, such as neoliberal global order and a populist backlash against global elites and globalization, she draws our attention to the internal logic and historical trajectory of the Swedish welfare state and its operative mechanism. It is an essential principle of the welfare state—a national project that serves national interests and maintains national membership—that drives the rapid deployment of penal power and quickly resorts to using the criminal justice system to respond to mass mobility, thus fortifying the nationally-based welfare regime. This process is what Vanessa Barker defines as ‘penal nationalism’ (Chapter 4; but also here).

It is impressive to observe the conceptual advances of Vanessa Barker’s fascinating development and application of the notion of ‘penal nationalism’ in the case of Sweden. In addition to tracing the punitive response to migrants and the exercise of penal power in migration/border control to the formation of the Swedish welfare state, Barker also discusses the form and function of penal nationalism—the disposition to use penal power and coercive tools to ‘uphold social security for members, and members only’ (p. 79). She contends that penal power, as a critical form of state power, is not utilized merely for crime reduction and control but, more importantly, for performing social functions. Penal power for migration/border control may operate to provide social security, shore up national sovereignty, reinforce national identity, protect national interests, and, in the Nordic case, preserve a nationalized welfare state (p. 80). Overall, the Swedish case suggests that penal power is mobilized to guarantee and sustain the security of the welfare state for nationalistic purposes.

Furthermore, she dissects penal nationalism into two dimensions associated with the state’s structure and function, namely, ‘(1) its structural capacity in producing and reproducing political authority, and (2) its communicative capacity to classify wrongdoing and demarcate membership’ (p. 80). According to Barker, the structural capacity of penal nationalism constitutes a part of state restructuring in the wake of global mobility. The massive influx of migrants and foreign nationals into Swedish society has triggered the problem of welfare state solvency. Confronting the social challenges posed by migration, the state has to deploy a certain form of power to maintain legitimacy. The use of penal power has been prioritized because it became an effective strategy to guard the welfare provision for its members (citizens) and a potent way to restore and reestablish political and social liaisons to the nation. In the meantime, following the Durkheimian logic of punishment, penal power functions to delineate and delimit social fault lines and communicates symbolic significance, a form of state power that delivers meaning, assign status, and confers legitimacy. It operates to signal who is worthy and deserving of social protection and who is not. Additionally, state penal power works to declare what constitutes wrongdoing and is subject to censure and sanction and what is not; thereby, backing up community norms and values, while simultaneously shoring up political authority. As such, exercising penal power to govern migration and control a country’s borders brings a structuring role into action by cementing and strengthening the political authority of the Swedish state, its territory, and the people within its boundary (illustrated by Figure 6.1, p. 135). In addition, it is an expression of Nordic national membership endorsed and upheld by the state - a sorting process that incorporates and protects certain people, while excluding and harming others, often along racial and ethnic axes.

This book is the fruit of Vanessa Barker’s long-term, cumulative dedication to studying the relationship between migration control, the welfare state, and punishment (see her work here, here and here). Fusing diverse fields of research, including border criminology, the sociology of punishment, political sociology and the state theory, socio-legal studies and social theory, this book is a testament of how to conduct research and advance knowledge by brilliantly consolidating conceptual frameworks, theoretical perspectives and empirical and historical data. While the book is a case study that examines the transformation in Swedish migration control, it has broad significance for helping the reader understand critical contemporary issues related to social change, social order, and social relations. In what follows, I discuss some lessons learned from, and important implications of, the book for future studies of migration control, punishment and welfare in a globally connected world.

Context Matters

First, context matters. Power structures and political mobilizations, social relations, historical traditions, and cultural meanings of contexts in which punishment operates shape penal order and the nature of penal power. One of the established and taken-for-granted arguments in the sociology of punishment is that societies with more generous welfare states tend to restrain themselves from exercising and/or expanding penal power to address social problems, thus achieving penal moderation. Nonetheless, one of this book’s significant findings is that this relationship does not hold in the Swedish context (p. 133-134). As Vanessa Barker suggests, this relationship is conditioned by national membership and mediated by the internal logic of the Swedish welfare state. While it is a fundamental principle of the sociology of punishment that penal dynamics are not wholly determined by the crime problem itself, this book advances knowledge of a distinctive function of punishment in society by revealing punishment’s role in preserving nationalistic welfare states and providing social security only for members in Nordic countries.

In addition, there is a consistent finding that membership (e.g., race, ethnicity, class, gender, immigration status, citizenship) matters in punishment, including activation of the penal system and penal practices (see here and here). However, I argue that context matters because it also illuminates how certain membership operates to affect punishment; in other words, the operative mechanism or the theoretical logic linking membership and punishment might vary across contexts and thus ought to be contextually disentangled, defined and interpreted. For instance, Vanessa Barker finds the recent exercise of penal power against migrants in Sweden is prompted by the need to preserve the nationalistic welfare state and uphold Swedish national identity and interests. My own research with Kai Kuang on punishment and migration control in the wake of China’s internal migration suggests the penalty effect of being rural-to-urban migrants in sentencing is produced and constituted by the entrenched Hukou system in Chinese society that stratifies migrants and urban residents and disadvantages rural migrants.

Taken together, Barker uses the Swedish case to refine our understanding of the relationship between punishment and welfare, a classic but less developed research topic in the sociology of punishment (Garland, 2017). Her findings may provoke researchers to re-think the nature, function and meaning of the welfare state and penal power; the underlying causal dynamics that relate punishment and welfare; how the two important dimensions of the state’s social governance strategies constitute each other, and how they form a part of broader social ordering process in various contexts.

State and Society

Second, there is a need to attend to the state-and-society relationship in the understanding of migration control, punishment and welfare. By answering Skocpoal’s call in 1985 — ‘bringing the state back in,’ Vanessa Barker provides explanatory accounts for the Swedish punitive turn in migration/border control by focusing on deep state structures, its institutional arrangements, and the internal logic of the welfare state (p. 135-136). It is through this intellectual undertaking that Barker unveils the hidden, but less understood, side of Swedish penal power; and shows the injection of penal power into migration/border power as a process for realigning the Swedish state and nation (Barker, 2017a). The nature of the state combined with the logics of welfare and punishment have become apparent and taken up new significance in the wake of globalization and mass mobility, and the state-and-society relationship has become re-shaped through migration control (see here).

Furthermore, this book contributes to scholarship by unraveling the state-and-society relationship in the studies of migration control, punishment and welfare. When examining patterns, trends, and changes of migration control, punishment and welfare, researchers tend to focus on specific institutions, agencies, policies, and practices that are involved in crime control, social protection and social governance. However, I contend that they can be conceptualized as modes of control and governance in which the state and society are jointly involved. As such, what is a more fundamental issue underpinning this set of actions and dynamics is the changing relationship between the state and the society. Admittedly, structures, ideologies, institutional arrangements, and historical trajectories of states themselves affect their dispositions, strategies, tools, and policy choices for responding to social challenges and addressing social problems; however, the state does not operate in vacuum. More importantly, researchers should pay attention to, and seek to identify and specify, the interactive, dynamic relationships between states and societies that fashion contours of migration control, punishment and welfare. In doing so, the state may be conceptualized as a situated social actor, which facilitates the ability of researchers to discern and define what relationships the state has with other social actors; how the state acts in various social and historical contexts; what challenges and opportunities the state faces, and what are causal processes and mechanisms through which the state and the society interacts to produce penal and/or welfare outcomes.

It should also be noted that, when seeking to investigate the state-and-society relationship, a new framework may be required, one that incorporates the role of the market in the discussion. The state, market, and society triad—including their positions and relationships to each other - may contribute to theoretical understanding of migration control, punishment and welfare. As Garland suggests, ‘a more fundamental form of governing the poor—and everyone else—operates at the level of political economy and political decisions that shape labor markets, property laws, tax codes, redistributive policies, and collective rights of workers and corporations.’ Although institutions and practices of migration control, punishment, and welfare are constitutive of various political decisions and administrative choices, the larger processes that shape them are embedded in broader arrangements structuring the state, the market, and the society.

Historical Institutionalism

Third, historical analysis is fascinating, but the comparative perspective is illuminating. Employing a historical institutionalism approach, Vanessa Barker demonstrates how past characteristics of the state and core principles of the welfare state have affected the contemporary penal upsurge and penal order in Sweden. The current punitive turn in Swedish migration/border control cannot be understood without the efforts to trace the historical trajectory of Swedish welfare state and link its development to changing social and political conditions. Indeed, the historical account is fascinating because it uncovers the temporal logic of the relationships between migration control, punishment, and welfare - and how those relationships unfold and take different forms in Swedish society.

Nevertheless, with no intention to downplay the value of historical analysis, I argue that we might reap more insights into the relationship by conducting comparative research in several selected jurisdictions. Comparative scholarship is useful to elucidate why the state exercises a certain form of power and adopts a certain control mechanism as it does. The state has a spectrum of strategies and wide-ranging forms of power to govern, including exclusive and inclusive, hard and soft, and material and symbolic. Migration control does not necessarily take the mere mode of harsh, punitive and exclusive practices; in other words, the pathway to deploy and exercise penal power in migration control is not a given outcome, but subject to a process of contestation, struggle, domination and subordination (see here). Migration control is understood as institutionalized fields of contest over the rules of social life associated with migration and the changing racial and ethnic order (see here). For example, since the 1990s, American immigrant governance has reconfigured and become increasingly localized (see here). Some states and localities have aggressively pursued restrictive and punitive immigration policies that expand the crimmigration apparatus (e.g. Arizona), while others have enacted pro-immigration policies and provided protective, beneficial services to undocumented immigrants (e.g. Illinois). Thus, comparative research may help explain why jurisdictions have adopted divergent approaches to migration control in face of challenges and risks posed by globalization and mass mobility, which are restrictive/punitive/anti-immigration and protective/beneficial/pro-immigration, respectively.

In a period of time when globalization has continuingly posed challenges and immigration is highly politicized in myriad countries around the world, mobility controls are critical research questions that entail innovative conceptual, theoretical and methodological approaches and tools. Vanessa Barker’s new book has taken the research challenge and offered great insights into the recent penal upsurge in Swedish migration/border control. Despite the focus on Swedish jurisdiction, the book inspires and stimulates researchers to contemplate the association between migration control, punishment, and welfare in a globalizing world, which includes the underlying state-and-society relationship that shapes their configuration in history and across other jurisdictions besides Sweden. This book is a must read for those who are deeply concerned about issues of migration control, punishment, and the welfare state as well as their connections with globalization and mass mobility.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Jiang, J. (2018) Book Review: Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State. Available at: (Accessed [date]).