Post by Mary Bosworth, Director of the Centre for Criminology and Border Criminologies. Mary is on Twitter @MFBosworth.

This year we have been celebrating 5 years of Border Criminologies. On April 19 and 20, we celebrated with a two-day event hosted by the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford. Funded by a range of sources, including the Oxford Law Faculty, the Centre for Criminology, the Independent Social Research Foundation, Goldsmith Chambers and Garden Court Chambers, the Migration Policy Centre at the EUI, and Nordhost, this event was organised around the theme of ‘moving beyond critique’.

Photo by Steve Allen
In this post, I offer an overview of Border Criminologies upon its 5th birthday and discuss why I think the website and networks like this remain important. We are at a crossroads, with some changes ahead, however, our commitment to scholarship and collaborative work remains undimmed.

The Border Criminologies website and the network were founded in 2013, as part of my 5-year European Research Council grant, which concentrated on the changing nature of penal power under conditions of mass mobility. I developed it initially with the help of Ines Hasselberg and Sarah Turnbull, who were postdoctoral research fellows on that grant, and then, increasingly with the aid of Andriani Fili who has been the managing editor of the blog for the last three years and with a small group of colleagues from around the world.

It’s fair to say Border Criminologies is a women-led organisation: along with me, the core team includes: Ana Aliverti, Vanessa Barker, Andriani Fili, Ines Hasselberg, Rimple Mehta, Alpa Parmar, Gabriella Sanchez and Maartje van der Woude. This summer, when Ana and Ines will step down, we will be joined by Sanja Milivojevic and Juliet Stumpf. The network includes academics from across the world at all stages of their career, from students to professors, as well as an increasing number of practitioners, community organisers and NGOs. While there is a concentration of people from Europe, Australia and the US, we try hard to include colleagues from the global south. Many of us are particularly interested in issues of race and colonialism in our work.

Origins

In its first iteration, Border Criminologies was set up as a Wordpress site, which with some help from a web designer colleague of Ines we managed to get up and running reasonably easily. In the way of Oxford, everything was done by us, on a basis of trial and error – I still remember the satisfaction of learning how to insert a widget, whatever that is, for Twitter, on the home page. A few years ago, in order to ensure its longevity and in a bid to get some technical assistance, I took the decision to move Border Criminologies to the Law Faculty website where it currently lives.

Despite its Oxford branding and location, from the beginning, I wanted Border Criminologies to be more than just a place to showcase research we were doing here. Reflecting my slightly old-fashioned feminist politics, or maybe just that I am, at heart, a 1970s child, I wanted it to be a democratic collective. Due to its subject matter, it always made sense that it would be international.

In its online form, I hoped it could offer a means to share to work and ideas. In real life, I used my research grants to invite colleagues to Oxford, and also to send my students to events overseas. Where possible, we have recorded people’s talks, to bring them to wider audience, through our university iTunes account. We are also starting to create video content, which should start to appear soon.

From the beginning, the website was organised around a blog. This blog, which Andriani Fili manages, runs at least 2-3 posts a week, highlighting the richness of research and activism that is occurring around the world on the criminalisation of border control. It attracts a wide readership and is increasingly cited in publications. A few years ago, Ines initiated a book review component, which has had quite an impact.

In addition to the blog, we host an open access SSRN Criminal Justice, Borders and Citizenship research paper series that has been downloaded tens of thousands of times. We are also active on social media, particularly Twitter. Last year we created an annual Master’s dissertation prize, with the support of Routledge, who give the winner and runner-up free books.

In addition to the ERC grant, which was absolutely crucial not only in its scale but also in its duration, Border Criminologies was supported early on by an international network grant from the Leverhulme Trust. Although sadly the Trust has stopped this particular form of funding, it was a crucial grant that helped us to forge close intellectual ties with colleagues in Oslo and Australia, who were interested in similar issues. It also funded 4 years of the open access SSRN journal. In a series of linked seminars across three universities we discussed methodological challenges of working on border control. Papers have recently appeared in the book ‘Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility’ coedited by Andriani, Rebecca Powell and Synnove Jahnsen.

It is not easy to keep websites going. While grants increasingly want them as part of dissemination, when the money ends it is unclear what is meant to happen. The internet is littered with webpages that gradually stop being active.

So far, we have been able to avoid this fate, in part, because Border Criminologies is more than just a website. It is a collective, and it is filled with people who are both research active, but also who work in policy and practice and who see benefit in working together. 

Working as a collective is fundamental to Border Criminologies. This commitment is evident not just in the ever-widening group who help run it, but also in the way we operate the blog, where we support early career scholars by careful editing, sometimes multiple times. We also invite guests to run our Twitter feed and to set up themed weeks on their research. 

Sometimes it is hard, logistically, to work across time zones and geography. The interdisciplinary aspect of Border Criminologies is not without its challenges.

At the same time, however, some of these aspects of Border Criminologies are what I am most excited by. I also think, more importantly, that these qualities are all, also potentially sites and mechanisms of moving beyond critique. Only by working together, even if sometimes that will cause some discomfort, can we hope to bring about change.

Academic work, whatever our neoliberal managers may wish to tell us, is always collaborative, on some level. As the 2018 UCU strike action demonstrated across the United Kingdom, when academics and students come together, fantastic things can happen. Above all, we remember that we are engaged in a shared endeavour of critical thought, scholarship, teaching and action.

It somehow seems easy to forget, when under pressure to demonstrate impact or research excellence, but we are never truly working alone, because we are always drawing on the work of others. When I started my own research inside immigration detention centres in 2009, for instance, I may have been the only academic allowed to enter these sites in Britain, but I benefited enormously from the scholarship of others, who had gone in before me, like Alexandra Hall, or who wrote about different aspects of border control like Juliet Stumpf, Katja Franko, and Vanessa Barker.

Photo by Steve Allen
Border Criminologies is more than a collective of scholars however. From the start, we have worked alongside practitioners, in community organisations, NGOs, government departments and the law. Criminologists have often been accused of being handmaidens of the state; our dependence on governments and the private sector to let us conduct research is legion. This fact cannot only compromise us personally but can limit our conceptual apparatus, as we are always working with the definitions of the government. In partnering with non-state actors, community organisers and with people in other disciplines, Border Criminologists, try to move beyond some of these constraints. Social scientists and legal scholars are not the only ones with important things to say about border control. So, too, written words are not the only way to understand, resist and hold governments to account. For that, also, is, what Border Criminologies has always aspired to do.

Impact

While Border Criminologies has been successful academically, generating the name for a new sub field of criminology, and supporting a host of early career and more senior academics, it is much harder to bring about change, or in the current academic parlance of Britain to ‘have impact’ in a hostile environment towards foreigners. 

Yet, we might be careful about chasing impact, in any case, for the effect of academic scholarship is not always intended. A few years ago, colleagues in Australia, for instance, were alarmed when their Border Observatory data set on deaths at sea was used by the government to justify its push-backs of boats and harsh immigration policies. The data set, politicians argued, revealed fewer deaths occurred under this harsh regime than when they had let the boats come.

More prosaically, academic scholarship on border control struggles to change government policy, because there is so little appetite at the political level for change. The problem, in other words, is not necessarily one of evidence, but of a desire to change.

This is precisely the point where our work and our interdisciplinary and professional collaborations remain vital. For, in large part, the failure to imagine that things could be done differently springs from a reluctance to have complex discussions about difficult issues.

Too often, most obviously from the right, but also sometimes from the left, matters are oversimplified. Migration control is not alone in this, but it has been particularly potent, as we saw most obviously in the EU referendum on Brexit. In this simple narrative, foreigners are cast as heroes or villains, are written out of our history, are blamed for the present.

The work of the far right is particularly egregious and dangerous in this regard. The burgeoning racism that has become legitimate in political discourse as well as online and in public debates is infecting all sorts of aspects of democracy and community. Sadly, the left is neither immune from oversimplification, nor from anti-immigrant sentiment.

Conclusion

A commitment to understanding complexity, is where I think the intellectual and collaborative approach of Border Criminologies remains crucial. We know far more than we used to about the intersections between criminal justice and migration control, but governments and their partners continue to innovate in this area. We can use our evidence to advocate and generate complex discussions.

These kinds of discussions flourish when they are collaborative. Working together can offer emotional support. This is a tough field, with few wins. Coming together either online or in person can help us acknowledge and recharge to keep going. They take new and exciting forms when they are interdisciplinary, and when they extend beyond the academy.

So, happy birthday to us, and let’s keep going!

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bosworth, M (2018) When Border Criminologies Turned 5: Looking back and thinking ahead. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/07/when-border (Accessed [date]).