Guest post by Alessandro De Giorgi, Associate Professor at San Jose State University, USA. Alessandro’s research interests include theories of punishment and social control, urban ethnography, political economy, and social justice. Currently, he is conducting an ethnographic research on the socioeconomic consequences of concentrated incarceration and prisoner reentry in a disadvantaged neighborhood of Oakland, CA. This is the third post of Border Criminologies Book Discussion Week Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State

Vanessa Barker’s Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order is an insightful and timely contribution to the contemporary literature on punishment and society. Building on the historical-institutionalist foundations she had already laid down in her previous work The Politics of Imprisonment (2009), in this book Barker offers once again an original perspective on the complex relationships between democratic membership, state formation, and penal politics. Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order joins a recent stream of critical scholarship that has attempted to distance the sociology of punishment from earlier “globalist” narratives of penal power, in favor of comparative and situated analyses aimed at revealing variations, peculiarities, and discontinuities in the penal field (Lacey 2008; Lynch, 2009; Goodman, Page and Phelps, 2017). A significant portion of this comparatively oriented scholarship has been devoted to illustrate the exceptional nature of the US punitive turn, and to argue that the theoretical tools forged by criminologists to make sense of mass incarceration in the United States could not be easily transferred to different national contexts. In this direction, a recurrent theme in this literature has been the issue of ‘Nordic exceptionalism,’ that is, the striking exception to the purported global drift towards law & order represented by Scandinavian countries, with their consistently low rates of imprisonment and high levels of welfare provision (Pratt and Eriksson, 2013; Ugelvik and Dullum, 2012).

In her book, however, Barker follows a radically different trajectory. Adopting Sweden as a case study, her objective in this work is indeed to complicate our simplistic understanding of Nordic societies as heavens of penal tolerance, multiethnic integration, and universal welfare, and to debunk the scholarly myth of Nordic exceptionalism. Barker scrutinizes a moment of acute crisis in Sweden’s recent political history, that is, the Swedish government’s sudden decision in the Fall of 2015—after a few months during which it had received refugees and migrants at the highest rate in Europe—to seal its border, in a dramatic reversal of the country’s traditionally inclusive approach towards immigration and asylum. Despite its focus on a particular case study, Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order does not shrink from advancing broader theorizations and insights. In fact, through her work Barker forges an important theoretical tool that is likely to become increasingly popular in the punishment and society literature, and particularly among scholars who are working within the field of the criminology of mobility: the concept of ‘penal nationalism.’ Situating her analysis at the intersection of border studies, welfare scholarship, and punishment and society literature, Barker effectively illustrates how in response to the 2015 refugee crisis, the state mobilized its penal powers to reinforce the national border as a literal and symbolic threshold between inclusion and exclusion, membership and alienage, welfare and punishment. At this critical conjuncture, the country’s penal system converged with its immigration control regime to preside over the integrity—or ‘sustainability’, in the language of Swedish authorities—of a social compact that had historically been framed around the inclusive narrative of a universal welfare system, but which in reality, Barker shows, had always been imagined as a ‘national’ entity—that is, for members only.

Connecting historical sociology and institutional analysis, Barker comes to the significant conclusion that the touted leniency of Nordic penal systems is in a sense as partial and selective as are those societies’ welfare systems. Although it is true that the Swedish incarceration rates are significantly lower than those of most Western societies (and incommensurably so, if compared the United States), nonetheless the country’s penal powers tend to be selectively mobilized against those who don’t belong—as attested, among other things, by the dramatic overrepresentation of foreigners in the country’s prisons. Similarly, the popular image of inclusiveness projected by Nordic welfare systems across the Western world begins to fade when observed from the point of view of the undocumented migrants and refugees arriving at the borders of Sweden. In this context, Barker’s work highlights a crucial issue: penal selectivity is a powerful indicator of penal severity. In other words, even if a country’s overall imprisonment rates are comparatively low, the degree of overrepresentation of vulnerable (i.e., racialized, marginalized, stigmatized) social groups among its prison populations should be considered as an indicator of penal excess (see also De Giorgi 2010). Along similar lines, as Barker convincingly argues in her book, welfare nationalism—that is, the circumstance that even a generous and inclusive social security system can be geared primarily (if not exclusively) toward specific ‘deserving’ social groups (e.g., citizens, regular migrants, whites, etc.)—should be considered as an indicator of institutional discrimination and systemic racism. Throughout her dense journey through the historical and contemporary ambivalences of the Swedish case, Barker problematizes the conventional assumption among punishment and society scholars that welfare and punishment are somehow mutually incompatible tools for governing the social—i.e., more welfare = less punishment, and vice versa (Beckett and Western 2001; Wacquant 2009). Indeed, in Sweden a strong welfare state has long coexisted with, and to some extent depended on, a selectively punitive criminal justice system, which now operates in symbiosis with restrictive immigration policies and border enforcement precisely to ensure the “sustainability” (or rather, nationalism) of such welfare system.

As a commentator, it is somewhat of a challenge to elaborate a meaningful critique of a book when one broadly agrees with its theoretical background, methodological approach, and political message. Therefore, inspired by Barker’s provocative book, I will simply share what I see as some possible issues and questions for debate.

First, if one situates the Swedish case within the broader European picture, it appears that—contrary to what has happened in several EU nations—penal severity, at least as measured by incarceration rates, has not intensified in Sweden over the past few years. Of course, as Barker illustrates, low incarceration rates coexist with a significant overrepresentation of foreigners in the country’s prison population (30.9% according to World Prison Brief data from 2015). At the same time, however, consistently high levels of immigrant overrepresentation can be observed inside the prison populations of most European nations, and particularly so among Southern European countries with much less developed welfare systems than the Nordic ones (e.g., Greece, 54%; Italy, 34%; Spain, 28%). On the other hand, Germany—which arguably features one of the strongest welfare systems in Europe—exhibits equally high rates of immigrant overrepresentation in its prisons (31.3%), but it has kept its borders open during the 2015 crisis, despite having received the second highest number of per capita refugees in the European Union. To what extent, then, does the case study analyzed in Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order pertain specifically to the problematic relation between welfare and punishment? Could it be that the developments charted by Barker in her book also have to do with a broader wave of xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiment, and nationalist populism that has swept Europe with varying degrees of intensity since the early 1990s?

Second, and along similar lines, given the constellation of tragic events surrounding the 2015 border closure in Sweden—namely, the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, and the security threats to the Swedish parliament mentioned by Barker in her book—could the sudden border closure have been also a part of an emerging moral panic about immigration and terrorism? After all, opinion polls concerning the Swedish general elections of 2018 show that electoral support for the xenophobic party Sweden Democrats (SD) reached a peak during the fall and winter of 2015. If this is the case, then perhaps the political narrative regarding the dreaded unsustainability of the Swedish welfare system under the weight of a large influx of refugees was a rhetorical move by government officials to frame the crisis in ways that could resonate with the country’s hegemonic self-perception (not unlike the official rhetoric about “freedom” or the “American values” predictably dispensed by US media and political elites under comparable circumstances). In a sense, Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order may tend to privilege the Swedish government’s official definition of the crisis (i.e., as an issue of welfare overload), whereas the exclusionary path initiated with the sudden border closure might also be related to structural issues at least relatively independent from Sweden’s welfare system, problems that presumably Sweden shares with most other Western societies—such as racial inequalities, anti-immigrant sentiments, resurgent nationalisms, etc.

These questions are meant to point to some potentially additional lenses through which Barker’s enlightening concept of penal nationalism might be observed. In this sense, I would perhaps be more inclined to interpret this notion not so much in relation to the walling of a specific welfare system against those who don’t belong, but more as a set of coercive technologies—including penal powers, immigration control regimes, neo-protectionist economic policies, nationalist welfare reforms, etc.—through which societies in the Global North attempt to reestablish, often through authoritarian means, a faltering state sovereignty.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

De Giorgi, A. (2018) The Border of Punishment: Notes on Vanessa Barker's Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State. Available at: (Accessed [date]).