Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility: A Brief Introduction



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Mary Bosworth, Katja Franko and Sharon Pickering. This is the first 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. 

By turning their gaze to migration and border control, criminologists and criminal justice scholars have, in the past decades, sought to test the ways criminological insights could be applied to widespread criminalisation and exclusion of foreign nationals (see Pickering and Ham; Aas). In so doing, they found some theoretical approaches to be redundant, while others have been adapted and blended. This new field of scholarship, known variously as border criminology, the criminology of mobility and ‘crimmigration law’ has identified new sites and subjects as well as the enduring nature of more familiar problems and practices. Paying close attention to the intersections of inclusion, exclusion, coercive and administrative processes used to sort the desirable from the undesirable, scholars have highlighted the impact of national, racial and gendered borders.

In conducting research, border scholars face a series of methodological and ethical challenges, many of which spring from the politically contentious nature of migration, borders and security and from the vulnerability of those subject to border controls. While criminologists are used to navigating hard to access places and populations, the polarised nature of the political debates over migration and the competing objectives of the different stakeholders make this field of study particularly demanding. Those subject to border control are often particularly vulnerable. Border control can be hard to understand or endure. It wrenches families apart, and prevents individuals from living out their aspirations. Witnessing that and writing about it, hurts. At the same time, not all of those subject to immigration controls generate sympathy. Maintaining emotional distance towards them can also be challenging. Gaining trust from the increasingly watchful and restrictive state authorities while maintaining independent academic standards is particularly difficult. Producing work that has some meaningful impact on policy makers is more challenging still.

There has been in recent years a proliferation of edited collections, journal articles and special issues dedicated to issues of methodology, and more specifically, for example, to prison ethnography. However, although relevant, few of them address the specific challenges and risks, which may be unique, or at least more present, in the field of studies of border control.

Under these conditions, the collection of essays in ‘Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility’ offers a timely account of the nature and purpose of academic research in this field of study. Together, the chapters focus on the challenges of doing research on the intersections between criminal justice and immigration control, explaining how scholars choose and change methodologies while juggling the disciplinary and interdisciplinary requirements of their work’s audience. In their accounts, authors provide an intimate view of the experience of being a researcher in a highly politicized environment in an interdisciplinary field that is rapidly evolving.

This book incorporates research experiences and methods applied from criminology, law, sociology, police studies and psychology. It also spans a number of physical and geographical border sites and locations. Geographical borders include the Thai-Lao border, India-Nepal border, Greece as a European border frontier, Norway as a border site affected by the European migrant crisis, Australia as a destination country for irregular migration from the South East Asia and the Middle East. Physical border locations include immigration detention centres in the UK, Greece, Norway, Australia and Jamaica as a country of return.

While the importance of being reflexive is acknowledged within social science research, the difficulties, practicalities and methods of doing it are rarely addressed (although see Armstrong et al; Bosworth and Kellezi). Indeed, while there is recognition that reflexivity is important in thinking about a research project, in practice few researchers give reflexive accounts or discuss how reflexivity can be operationalised. As a result, the implications of current theoretical and philosophical discussions about reflexivity, epistemology and the construction of knowledge for empirical sociological research practice, remain underdeveloped. This book seeks to fill that gap, by drawing together epistemological discussions and the nitty-gritty of research practice. As such, this is a book that seeks to shake off the phantom of undisturbed research settings by bringing to the fore the researchers' involvement in the research process and its products.

In drawing back the veil on the often-messy process of research, the essays in this collection demonstrate powerfully how the interpersonal and institutional contexts of research, as well as ontological and epistemological assumptions embedded within data analysis methods can deeply influence research processes and outcomes. As the authors make clear, the ‘choices’ we make in our research are not solely motived by intellectual concerns. The adoption of particular research methods also reflects our personal and academic biographies. The interpersonal, political and institutional contexts in which researchers are embedded play a key role in shaping these ‘decisions’.

Sadly, the dilemmas raised by this edited collection are increasingly hard, if not impossible to resolve. ‘What is the proper role of research? Can we make a difference? Should we make a difference?’ These are questions that most migration scholars are struggling with on a daily basis, as we face a world in which border control seems to be further entrenched by growing nationalism and xenophobia around the world, and the role of expertise under attack. This book has bravely and honestly opened the conversation about these dilemmas, which are likely to continue for many years to come.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bosworth, M., Franko, K. and Pickering, S. (2019) Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility: A Brief Introduction. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/01/criminal-justice (Accessed [date])

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