Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Reflexivity and Theorizing: Conceptualizing the Police’s Role in Migration Control



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Post by Helene O. I. Gundhus. Helene is Professor of Criminology at the University of Oslo, and Professor II at the Norwegian Police University College. She has published widely on issues to do with police methods and professionalism and transnational policing. Her books include Moral issues in intelligence-led policing (co-edited with N. Fyfe and K.V. Rønn; Routledge, 2018). This is the sixth 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. 

In order to understand how control and security work, participant observation of those with power to define security agendas provides an important vantage point. By using participatory observation together with interviews in a project on migration control in Norway, a research team, headed by Katja Franko, sought to reveal police practices and occupational cultures, norms, values and professional ethoses. To do so required access to study the field, negotiations of trust, and willingness from the actors in the field to be researched. Based on this research, in my chapter ‘Reflexivity and theorizing: Conceptualizing the police role in migration control’, I reflect on doing practice-based research on migration police, and look at how positionality might generate new analytical insights.

Policing migration has been a priority in Norway over the last five years, particularly since the perceived refugee crisis during the summer of 2015, which put it at the top of the political, public and police agendas. Two of the sites studied, the Norwegian Police Directorate and the Police Immigration Service, have for the last five years sought to normalize the use of immigration law as a crime control tool, and to facilitate more effective identity checks of foreigners within the Norwegian border. Their aim has been both to improve the effectiveness of special agencies within the police districts, and their collaboration with agencies such as tax, labour and welfare administration and Directorate of Immigration. The objective has been to link their practices to core crime-fighting police activities (see Aas; Gundhus and Franko; Gundhus).

The research design was developed to give more voice to police officers’ experiences of policing in the age of mass mobility, in order to unveil the connections between the police practitioners’ worldview and the operation of migration policing in practice. The research was therefore designed to capture nuances in the respondent’s everyday world. We sought to trace meaning across different sites, and the research was therefore designed to capture multiplicity of meanings and nuances in the respondent’s everyday world. Like other studies of culture and practice fields, it sought to explore actors’ logic, rationalizations, characterized by ambiguity, contradictions, doubts and conflicts, including ambivalence and doubt in reaction to the policies that they were implementing. 

Positionality as an analytical concept

With a qualitative research design, empirical findings can reveal various tensions that the police working with migration control experience. The aim of my chapter was to discuss what the tensions and dynamics produced between the researcher, the researched and the topic explored might tell about the field, and how negotiations of proximity may open up for new analytical insights. In my chapter, I discuss how these tensions affected the theorizing of the data. Analyzing different antagonisms and dynamics as objects to study, rather than objects of assessment, provided sensitizing concepts which helped to orient my interests by guiding the data collection and the writing process. One central concept that emerged in the interaction with the field, was ‘professionalization.’ The managers in the field expected that my role as an educator at the Norwegian Police University College would support the professionalization of the migration tasks within the police. For instance, the management of the police immigration service were concerned about the staff's in police districts lack of training and education to conduct identity checks, and accomplish the merging of immigration and criminal cases in practice. Professionalisation as a strategy was therefore something to dig deeper into as a researcher. Another concept that arose was the dominant discourse of humanitarianism and fundamental rights voiced by the Norwegian guest officers working in joint Frontex operations at the external border.  Their motivations and sense making of their role, were in stark contrast to the state security discourse of the risk averse and intelligence-led policing activities orchestrated by the Frontex head quarter.

The level of access to the field and its impact on the production of knowledge, in this light becomes secondary to questions about how to use the approach as a productive point of departure for analysis. The tensions that these dynamics caused, led to a perception of the research as being caught up in the cross-fire of competing moral and political agendas. However, rather than retreat, a productive way to approach the dilemmas might be to ask: how can one make use of these struggles to theorize?  

Dealing with discomfort/complicity

The tensions experienced during the research triggered reflection about how to deal with experiences of discomfort and competing moral and political agendas by looking into moving and navigating between different research sites and concepts. To look for a common space between the researcher and the world inhabited by the researched may be an important step towards understanding the field, especially when studying the meaning produced in the field. However, it is also important to create a distance with the empirical field. Therefore, navigating between the field of practice and the academic ‘worlds’, might produce the necessary dissonance between the academic world and the world of fieldwork. More importantly, making these tensions arising from the navigations into an object of study, does in itself promote distance.

My discussion of proximity relations between the researched and the researcher has revealed how theorizing provides pivotal sensitizing concepts for research to achieve the necessary distance. This also helps to go beyond a top down and thesis driven analysis. Analyzing various antagonisms and dynamics as objects to study, provides sensitizing concepts which help to orient the interest by guiding data collection and the writing process. The ontological and basic assumptions about how the world is, and methodological choices about how to study things so that a particular ontology materializes, work together. These processes are also impossible to distinguish from each other. This approach raises questions like: Which problems do we want to reconstruct in using which sensitizing concepts? Which links do we want to strengthen towards whom or what? How do we move and translate and thereby produce realities?

As the research discussed in the chapter shows, it is possible to do critical police research without being banned, excluded and neutralized as an arrogant academic or a research activist. In this research project such outcomes were prevented by recognizing the actors’ subjectivity in the field of practice. The argument in my chapter is that critical research may flourish if research reformulates the traditional duality between on one hand translating the actor’s point of view and on the other hand unveiling an objective reality, unrecognized by the actors. Involving actors’ reflexivity also renders the logic in the field more understandable and intelligible. Taking the actors’ situation seriously by doing practice-based research might also strengthen the practice field’s reception for criticism. This was at least the experience from this research project.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Gundhus, H. O. I. (2019) Reflexivity and Theorizing: Conceptualizing the Police’s Role in Migration Control. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/01/reflexivity-and (Accessed [date])

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