Guest post by Nicolay B. Johansen, Associate professor at OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University. This is the fifth instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series, which includes short posts based on chapters from the book 'Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility', edited by Andriani Fili, Synnøve Jahnsen and Rebecca Powell. 

IOOI (Insiders outside/outsiders inside) was the acronym for a tale of a shipwrecked research project. But apart from its material product, it contains what might be a lesson about the importance of framing research.

‘Framing’ tends to be kept in the shadows of research presentations. I argue that this is a missed opportunity, and especially so when the topic of research is as controversial as in the case of migration. At this moment in time, European politics is in turmoil over border control and the politics of migration. The foundation of European cooperation is threatened by large shifts in political attitudes, in which immigration is the core issue and liberal ideals are compromised. Migration research however has taken a distanced stance toward these developments, concentrating on the migrants, their rights and experiences. This stance is blind to the interests of the nation states and the EU (whether imagined or not).  

As a corollary, migration research rarely addresses dilemmas facing governmental organizations. Expanding on Garland’s diagnosis of the predicament of the sovereign state, we may say that nation states today face an objective dilemma: their inability to control their borders undermines their justification of power. Instead of assisting in finding ways to handle these dilemmas, migration research to a large extent ends up pumping it up, by taking a moral high ground. Research is, sometimes correctly, interpreted as a contribution to political debate tied to certain conclusions and views that treat ‘the predicament of the permeable sovereign state’ as morally inferior.

At this point I probably need to clarify my own position and offer an example. In 2011, Weber and Pickering took on a laborious task to address the lack of counting dead bodies and missing persons on the borders of Australia. Their extraordinary book resulting from these efforts, stands today as a milestone in migration studies. On the other hand, the book is framed as ‘honoring lives’, the lost lives of the deceased that was not recognized by Australian authorities. Whereas I share this sentiment, it also creates a gulf between research and the policies chosen by the government. The political dilemmas are made unjust, and this way research ends its communication with the political sphere.

My chapter in 'Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility', “Framing an ‘irreal space’”, is based on a story of my research project ‘IOOI’. The title, Insiders outside/outsiders inside, was inspired by a phrase in Stumpf’s seminal work on ‘Crimmigration’. My research application juxtaposed irregular migrants and street level drug users. The groups were chosen to illuminate the differences in politics regarding marginal groups with a view to their citizen status. Irregular migrants reside within the territory but outside the ‘people’ (seen from the state’s point of view). Drug users are part of the population, as the state sees it, but outside the ordinary and ‘normal’ circles of society.

The story of my research project can be told as tragedy. The main planned site for research, the so-called ‘waiting camps’ erected to house irregular migrants, were torched by its inmates and never rebuilt. The entire institutional set up was altered and the idea of separate organizations for irregular migrants was abandoned. In this sense, data gathering became incredibly difficult. The project capsized, to stick with another naval metaphor. In the end, the most important contribution of this research project proved not to be the information from my empirical endeavors. The project started out looking for differences between policies regarding marginal groups according to citizenship status. It ended up emphasizing similarities between policies regarding the chosen groups.

Moving from emphasizing differences to similarities was a demanding process that involved reframing the entire research design. I did find differences between the policies regarding these groups, but seen in light of penal policies, there were also striking similarities in their developments. In both areas, I found that penal measures have been replaced by a fragmented approach, vaguely concerted efforts by independent institutions and organizations that were not expressly tied together. These contributions were not completely aligned, but seemingly governed by a common rationality: to make life conditions worse than what would be the conditions if they conformed to political goals.

Irregular migrants in Norway see that their resources are systematically reduced and denied to them. A similar pattern emerged in policies regarding drug users. And furthermore, Roma people experience the same set of deprivations. In the absence of a better term I used ‘funnel politics.’ Funnel politics illuminate and pose questions to traditional understandings of penal policies, but this claim requires much more elaboration about its dynamics and implications. The ambition in my chapter was to highlight the methodological side of the process leading up to the establishment of the concept funnel politics.

I have also used the term ‘framing’ to describe the most relevant aspects of the formative stages of research within IOOI. Framing is a word rarely used in chapters on method. But as a phenomenon, it is ubiquitous. The most explicit author is probably Everett Hughes. But the most famous performance of framing may be found in Goffmans’ ‘Asylums.’ There, Goffman assembles a number of 24-hour institutions under one umbrella; ‘total institutions.’ He successfully portrayed similar characteristics in monasteries, ships, concentration camps, prisons, the army and of course the 'mad house.' And, despite that the study relies on Goffman’s fieldwork in a mental hospital, the argument rests on a wide and seemingly unsystematic collection of secondary sources. Becker claims that Goffman’s methodology is on another level; his contribution relies on the way he conceptualized his topic and compared different institutions. The concept of total institutions brought the various institutions under the same bracket and put them on a scale. In this way, institutions one would normally talk about with moral disgust were put on par with morally more insignificant institutions, allowing for analytical distanced hypotheses possible ‘verify’.

My own experiences led me to reflect on the role of framing in the research process and its implications. In my book chapter, I address the formative stages of conducting research. Most discussions of methodological matters in social research concentrate on data gathering and analysis. Writing up the research is in Richard Swedberg’s view a ‘phase of justification’, and gives emphasis to the solidity of the empirical sources and how they are analysed, and express what has become the standard of how to legitimize findings and conclusions. Swedberg’s focus is the ‘phase of discovery’. In these stages the topic of research is opening up to the researcher. Swedberg highlights the importance of theory and theory formation in these early stages. But this phase is more complex and undetermined than being a question of mere theory. It is not just a matter of choosing theory and analytical framework, even though this is also a part of the formative stages. This process is, and perhaps should be, partly unconscious and hard to recall. Still, attending to the phase of discovery may be a way to re-connect with contemporary real political dilemmas.

The benefit of highlighting framing, is that researchers become more alert to the underlying premises for their research. In addition, the research process become more transparent, and hopefully, users of research from political circles may feel less alienated by the content. So, the main argument of my chapter is to make the phase of discovery more transparent. This phase is mostly underplayed in chapters and paragraphs on method. Distinct from the phase of justification, the discovery phase includes the decisions of how to conceptualize the elements to be scrutinized, the choice of method and every aspect of the research process leading up to the analysis. Swedberg uses the term ‘theorization’ and choice of theory is an important part of this phase, as well the choice of topic. But theory is more than a choice of analytical tools and what literature is used in discussing data. Theory is an inbuilt element in choice of words to describe the phenomena to be studied, as well as the choice of context to understand the same phenomenon. The tale of IOOI was a tragedy, but as most tragedies it was also a reminder.

A lot more needs to be said on the importance of framing, but a final remark on the implications for politics is required. Theoretical transparency alerts both researchers and users of research to the underlying premises of research. Thus, it could be a step to bridge the gulf dividing the two parties.

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) 

Johansen, N. B. (2019) Framing: The Unexpected Lessons from a Shipwrecked Research Project. Available at: (Accessed [date])