Guest post by Dorina Damsa and Thomas Ugelvik. Dorina is a doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo. Her research explores the perspectives and experiences of irregular migrant women as they navigate the terrain of in/hospitable policies and practices in Nordic welfare states. Thomas is professor of criminology at the University of Oslo. He is the co-editor of the Palgrave studies in Prisons and Penology book series, and the head of the Penology and Criminal Law Research Group at the Faculty of Law in Oslo. He is currently working on a project about post-release reintegration and desistance in Norway. This is the ninth 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. 

Researching migration comes with multiple methodological challenges. In our chapter, ‘One of us or one of them? Researcher positionality, language, and belonging in all-foreign prison’, in Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility, we consider our field research in a multilingual site, and the specific language related issues that come with it. Drawing on fieldwork at Kongsvinger prison, Norway’s only prison holding exclusively foreign nationals, we discuss the opportunities and limitations to our research in relation to our different linguistic skills.

Photo: Thomas Ugelvik

https://www.jus.uio.no/ikrs/english/research/news-and-events/research-news/2016/ugelvik-damsa-prison.html

During our research projects at Kongsvinger prison, we both sought to understand how foreign nationals experienced life there. At Kongsvinger, much like in other prisons holding foreign nationals, communication represented an issue for foreign nationals and officers alike, and language barriers colored all aspects of prison life. Prisoners felt helpless, uncertain, and isolated. Within such a setting, the researcher’s linguistic skills significantly affect their position in the field. While our position may have been impacted by the intersection of other categories such as age, gender, (relative) freedom, and ‘foreign-ness’ (also mediated by citizenship and language), we focus here specifically on language, since we perceived it to be the most salient aspect.

Our linguistic skills were of significance during the data collection process, specifically related to impression management, establishing rapport, and (meaningful) communication. For instance, Thomas, a native Norwegian speaker, effortlessly established positive relationships with the officers. Building rapport with prisoners proved to be more onerous, given the language barrier between himself and the prisoners. As a result, certain conversations were laborious and sometimes frustrating for all those involved. With some prisoners, he could not communicate at all, even if they wished to speak to him. Dorina, not fluent in Norwegian, with distinct language skills from the officer, and knowledge of Romanian and Italian, quickly bonded with the prisoners. A shared language may have created a sense of camaraderie, belonging, and common ground. Understanding the language is often taken to mean understanding cultural codes. Holding language as a key, Dorina became an honorary member of the prisoner ‘tribe’ almost instantly. Thomas, however, had to overcome a greater distance from the prisoners, as he communicated in Norwegian or English. He was often put in an ambiguous position, seen to be possibly aligned with the prison or the government. In light of our linguistic skills, and the foreign-ness associated (or not) with that, we occupied different positions in the field.

As a result, Dorina was given an opportunity to construct a more textured account of the prisoners’ experiences. In addition, she was often told that her conversations with prisoners offered them respite from the daily frustrations of prison life. However, her limited access to certain spaces within the prison, given her superficial relation to the officers in charge, prevented her from experiencing different environments, and getting more varied insights. Thomas, for his part, experiencing communication breakdowns first hand, gathered significant data on the practical communication difficulties experienced by prisoners and officers. Yet, he might have unwillingly also contributed to the language-based pains of imprisonment experienced by foreign nationals.

Speaking a language constitutes a performance of the self and of one’s position in the social world. Because language is associated with identity and group membership, in the field, the language that researchers use, often positions them in relation to the participants. Language played an important role in the field site in relation to the construction of our identities and determined our belonging to existing groups. As such, our language capabilities significantly impacted the data collection process: how we were positioned in the field, who we talked to and who talked to us, and the perspectives we were exposed to. While we both experienced particular challenges and opportunities, as a result of our distinct linguistic abilities, we suggest that language related issues should not necessarily be seen as a problematic feature of the research process, but, with reflexive examination, they may become important sources of data collection and analysis in their own right.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Damsa, D. and Ugelvik, T. (2019) One of Us or One of Them? Researcher Positionality, Language, And Belonging in All-Foreign Prison. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/01/one-us-or-one (Accessed [date])