From the Field: Observing Detention Centers and Migrant Escorting – Dealing with Empirical Ambiguity



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Post by Samuel Singler. Samuel is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. His PhD research critically interrogates the role of novel surveillance technologies in the global criminalization of migration. Alongside his PhD, he has worked on two projects pertaining to migration control in the UK: one examines the quality of life in immigration detention, while the other focuses on the UK migrant escorting and deportation apparatus. He is on Twitter @SamuelSingler. This is the fourth installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on how research changes over time, organised by Mary Bosworth.  

A number of scholars researching borders, migration, and security have recently highlighted the value of moving closer to the objects of research by engaging in participant observation and other forms of ethnographic research. Although I ultimately agree with Heather L. Johnson, who argues that ground-level engagement can reveal ‘new opportunities for understanding how the global is constituted through and by the local,’ I have nonetheless been startled by how—in addition to being rich and stimulating—this kind of research can sometimes be profoundly difficult as well.

Over the past few months I have visited a number of fieldwork sites pertaining to the UK immigration detention and escorting apparatus, and in this blog post I offer my thoughts on the difficulties of dealing with one aspect of ground-level empirical research in particular: its ambiguity. This post is merely a first step towards slowly working through this methodological issue, and for this reason it may very well raise more questions than it answers. That said, I hope to make some sense of the issues at hand by drawing on Simone De Beauvoir’s discussion of ambiguity.

IRC Dungavel, Scotland

From elites to everyday practices

Having obtained my previous degrees in International Relations (IR), I recently moved to the Centre for Criminology at Oxford to embark on PhD studies. My substantive research topic has to a large extent remained unchanged, yet this leap between disciplines has also been characterized by some changes in empirical and theoretical focus, particularly in the research I have been working on at the Centre alongside my PhD.

Although there exists fruitful IR scholarship focusing on the importance of ground-level practices, lived experiences, and the mundane details of everyday life—particularly work falling under the heading of International Political Sociology—much IR scholarship still focuses on systemic analyses and grand theorizing. Even my master’s thesis, in which I consciously sought to depart from systemic analyses and focus instead on the significance of individual technologies and actors, still remained confined to an analysis of elite-driven processes of policy formation. My master’s thesis fieldwork consisted of elite interviews in Brussels, far away from the sites in which the technologies I was researching would ultimately be deployed.

Embarking on fieldwork in detention centers and migrant escorting sites in the UK has thus been an entirely new experience for me. It also immediately already raised some difficult questions regarding the relationship between theory and empirics.

Empirical complexity in the field

Going into the field, I was armed with many general concepts and theories relating to migration and border control, with which I have become familiar during my previous studies. Some extremely useful and insightful empirical accounts also exist, such as Mary Bosworth’s work on immigration detention in the UK. This existing scholarship has certainly been invaluable in making sense of the fieldwork sites. To an extent, detention centers and sites of migrant escorting are what I expected: places simultaneously characterized by extremity and mundanity. Despair, anger, and hopelessness are often juxtaposed with boredom, waiting, and confusion.

However, at the risk of stating the obvious, I was also struck by the raw materiality of it all. No longer was I in the realm of the academic, the theoretical, and the abstract. In the field, I was faced with the physical realities behind the concepts and accounts which have become so familiar to me, suddenly unmediated by the pages of a book or my laptop screen.

These realities have been striking not only due to their physical proximity, but also their complexity. Almost every event, individual, practice, and object I observe in the field—no matter how extreme or mundane—seems relevant to a plethora of competing theoretical framings. How exactly should I begin to approach the everyday practice of migrant escorting, for instance? The socioeconomic structures underpinning migration and its control? The politics of citizenship? The public-private nexus within global networks of capital accumulation? Moral responsibility within bureaucratic apparatuses? The significance of everyday practices to processes of securitization?

All these perspectives and more have emerged in the field as potentially fruitful theoretical paths to tread. Fieldwork sites do not present themselves, in true Cartesian fashion, as sites where the subjective researcher meets objective realities in order to then determine which theory possesses most explanatory leverage. Rather, the ‘facts on the ground’ raise the questions of how to choose between competing theories, many of which seem potentially valid and fruitful, and, perhaps even more importantly, what exactly is at stake when making such decisions.

The ethics and politics of ambiguity

Reminiscent to Robert Frost’s classic poem, at times I have felt the sensation of being at a crossroads between multiple interesting and important theoretical avenues, feeling ‘sorry I could not travel’ them all, and indeed feeling convinced that the choice between them will, in the end, turn out to have ‘made all the difference.’ At times this anxiousness regarding the road not taken has felt overwhelming indeed. The impossibility of pinning down the ‘best’ theoretical framework by examining empirical realities by themselves highlights the extent to which the choice between them is conditioned by the normative and political aims of the researcher. It is for this reason that these choices have sometimes felt so difficult for me; it is not simply a question of what theory best fits my findings, but also of my ethical and political responsibilities in choosing one theory over another when faced with fundamentally ambiguous fieldwork sites.

Of course, each researcher must personally wrestle with how to make these choices as they begin to try and make sense of their research sites. For me, however, the work of Simone De Beauvoir on the ‘ethics of ambiguity’ has proved inspiring when attempting to deal with this issue. De Beauvoir argued that ambiguity is not a failure, and that perhaps we should not aim to achieve certainty at all. For her, the failure to acknowledge ambiguity as central to human existence—instead striving towards a supposedly realizable objectivity—is in fact what ‘produces failures of ethical responsibility and of compassion,’ in the words of Claudia Card.

De Beauvoir’s writings highlight how the ambiguity of fieldwork, rather than undermining the possibility of producing politically and ethically relevant scholarship, in fact creates those very possibilities. Towards the beginning of my fieldwork visits I felt disheartened by the complexity and openness of it all, yet lately I have come to agree with those who argue that the added value of ground-level research resides in this very ambiguity, or as Evelyn Brodkin puts it: ‘they allow one to see different things and see things differently.’ Ambiguity, then, is not only an inescapable fact of ground-level empirical research, but also the source of its value.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Singler, S. (2019) From the Field: Observing Detention Centers and Migrant Escorting – Dealing with Empirical Ambiguity. Available at: (Accessed [date])

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From the Field
Detention centres; immigration detention; border control
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