Post by Leanne Weber. Leanne is Associate Professor of Criminology and Australian Research Council Fellow in the School of Sciences at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. She researches border control using criminological and human rights frameworks. Her books include the Routledge Handbook on Criminology and Human Rights (with Fishwick abd Marmo, Routledge, 2017), Policing Non-Citizens (Routledge, 2013) and Globalisation and Borders: Death at the Global Frontier (with Pickering, Palgrave, 2011). This is the second 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. 

Taking a line for a walk

https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/taking-a-line-for-a-walk/cid/1438160

Artist Paul Klee famously described drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’. I see this concept as a metaphor for the type of exploratory social research I particularly value and to which I am intuitively attracted as a criminological researcher. In my chapter for ‘Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility’, I use an example of exploratory research that I formulated through a process of ‘taking the border for a walk’, to illustrate the key characteristics of this easily misunderstood research genre. I trace the development of a multi-faceted research program ‘Globalisation and the Policing of Internal Borders’ and report some of the challenges encountered in the early stages of that project.

I begin by contrasting the inductive approach that is typical of exploratory research with the deductive orientation more characteristic of hypothesis testing. Exploratory approaches typically begin with a broad and open-minded examination of a topic, where premature narrowing of the theoretical gaze is deliberately avoided. In this respect, exploratory research is closely aligned with grounded theory and flexible mixed-methods case study approaches to data collection are likely to be employed. While considerable rigour can be built into case study designs, it has been argued that exploratory research is driven more by the desire to produce original ideas than to demonstrate methodological perfection. Whereas social researchers engaged in deductive empirical research typically emphasise methodology beyond all else, exploratory researchers may give equal regard to their role as methodologists, writers and theorists – if anything, with a slight emphasis on the production of theory. Despite these fundamental differences, Stebbins sees inductive and deductive approaches as complementary and ultimately part of the same ‘scientific’ endeavour.

As I was embarking on my own exploration into the policing of internal borders, I became aware that my approach aligned quite closely with the ‘border as method’ methodology that has been articulated by Mezzadra and Neilson. ‘Border as method’ advocates treating the border as an ‘epistemic viewpoint’ from which to analyse practices of inclusion and exclusion. Equally, my intuitive process of ‘taking the border for a walk’ enabled me to conceptualise borders beyond their role of determining access to territory, and to see them more broadly as delineating boundaries of entitlement, belonging and citizenship. Both approaches envisage the border as a set of relations or a site of struggle where processes of differential inclusion and exclusion play out. Both support breadth rather than depth in data collection, in order to identify contrasts and continuities across differing border practices. And both approaches are intended to guide an exploratory inquiry aimed at uncovering linkages between what may appear on the surface to be unrelated bordering processes.

‘Globalisation and the policing of internal borders’ reflects this methodological approach. It is a wide-ranging study comprising three mixed methods case studies, each exploring a different internal bordering practice within Australia. Case study one examines how the internal border operates as a site of inclusion/exclusion through immigration checks at points of access to essential services.  The second case study explores how perceptions of belonging or not belonging can be produced and reinforced through interactions between young people from visible minorities and people in positions of authority, such as police. The final case study examines bordering practices that distinguish responsible from irresponsible citizens through the imposition of compulsory income management on certain social security recipients, notably Indigenous Australians. The chapter recounts some early fieldwork experiences, pointing out both the advantages (such as identifying convergences suggestive of deeper structural connections between the policy domains) and the pitfalls (such as ongoing challenges with conceptual complexity and scoping) of starting out on an extensive research journey with a deliberately unfinished roadmap.

In conclusion, while they may appear to be polar opposites, I agree with Stebbins that ‘scientific’ inquiry relies on creative insights to a greater degree than is often acknowledged, while the apparent flouting of established methodological principles in exploratory research belies the deeper logic and discipline that is needed to keep this potentially wayward methodology on track. An extract from a short story by Alice Munro that gives a fictional account of the real-life meeting of aspiring mathematician Sophia Kovalevskaya and her soon-to-be mentor Karl Weierstrass articulates this symbiosis beautifully.

All his life he had been waiting for such a student to come into his room. A student who would challenge him completely, who was not only capable of following the strivings of his own mind but perhaps of flying beyond them. He had to be careful about saying what he really believed – that there must be something like intuition in a first-rate mathematician’s mind, some lightening flare to uncover what has been there all along. Rigorous, meticulous, one must be, but so must the great poet. 

Combining the imagination and intuition of exploration with the structure and rigour more usually associated with scientific inquiry is an approach that is especially suited to an emerging field of inquiry such as the criminology of the border. My chapter in ‘Criminal Justice Research in an Age of Mass Mobility’ is an attempt to demystify that process.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Weber, L. (2019) Taking the Border for a Walk: A Reflection on the Agonies and Ecstasies of Exploratory Research. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/01/taking-border (Accessed [date])