From the Field: Still in Detention, Ten Years On



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6 Minutes

Post by Mary Bosworth, co-Director of Border Criminologies and Director of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford. Mary tweets @MFBosworth. This is the sixth installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on how research changes over time, organised by Mary Bosworth.  

In this penultimate blog post of the series I thought I’d share a few reflections on some of my experiences of conducting long-term research on immigration detention in the UK.  When I first began my detention research in British immigration removal centres in 2009, I had two small children, and a partner who was employed nearby.  As someone still in the first five years of my appointment at the University of Oxford, my teaching and administrative responsibilities were still manageable.  I came to the field after a fairly long period away from applied research; in the US where I had been working previously, I had never succeeded in obtaining permission to conduct face to face interviews in any site of incarceration — instead my research had been via mail or in the library.  Back then I thought of myself as a prisons researcher in any case.  Before I went to Campsfield House, I knew very little about the nature or effects of immigration detention.

I remember that period of research vividly, how shocking I found much of it.  How tiring and all-encompassing it was.  How guilty I felt about returning in the evening to my happy family; how I had bad dreams and thought about detention all the time. After a while, I obtained research grants which enabled me to hire a research officer. Blerina Kellezi played a big role in that first study and helped me to manage the workload and the emotional impact of it.

Today things are quite different. Obviously, I know a lot more about the system, and, due in large part to my contributions to the Shaw Reviews, the system knows more about me.  I’ve published a number of different kinds of pieces about detainees and staff in the UK and have conducted research in similar sites elsewhere.

Many of these developments are positive.  I feel slightly less confused by these institutions, and slightly better able to understand why I’m there and what my research can do. At the same time, familiarity is not a wholly unalloyed good.  Nor are the visits to detention sites elsewhere.  However much I try to hold onto Gramsci’s maxim, sometimes I simply feel pessimistic on all counts.

External matters don’t always help. On the one hand, the detention estate has significantly reduced in the UK since I began. There is a lot more research here and elsewhere, an active civil society and serious discussions about reform and change. On the other hand, of course, in the UK we don’t only have the confusion of Brexit, but as elsewhere, we are witnessing a deepening of xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment.

Professionally, ten years down the track my university work and responsibilities have ballooned. Not only do I have many more research students, but my administrative duties are unrecognisable. Even though Oxford is largely protected from the rise and rise of the neoliberal university, we are not totally immune from it. The Centre for Criminology is a small department with all the same committee requirements as any other; in practical terms this means staff all carry multiple administrative roles. On top of that, I edit Theoretical Criminology and run Border Criminologies. I wasn’t doing either of those things when I went to Campsfield House for the first time.

Ten years later means my kids are teenagers, facing the British educational obsession with school exams, alongside the everyday challenges of their age.  My partner now works elsewhere. I do a lot of single parenting. 

All of these changes mean I’m extremely busy and preoccupied. It’s hard to keep anything in mind for long, as most issues are replaced by the next urgent email request. Like every academic I know with children I struggle to stay on top of my work without sacrificing time with at home.  Like every mother I know, outside work and kids, I do very little for myself.

Obviously, I’m extremely fortunate. This is not a complaint; nor, is meant to be an embarrassing diary entry; (if it were that I’d veer into the joys of peri-menapausal carceral research and unexpected periods, but truly that would be TMI).  Rather, I am interested in how research changes and develops over time. In most of the methodology papers I have read, studies appear as one-off moments in time. And yet, researchers have long careers.  Even if the focus and the location of our work shifts, we remain the common link.  

Ten years on, I’m not (able to be) quite as focused when I’m conducting fieldwork as I was in 2009. I really am quite distracted a lot of the time. It’s simply not possible to keep everyone and everything in mind. 

A corridor at IRC Campsfield House, now closed (Photo: Border Criminologies Immigration Detention Archive)

In practical terms, such matters can make it difficult to remember what people tell me. Quite a lot of my research method requires focused but informal conversations. These usually can’t be recorded. Typically, I scratch down some of what is said while we are speaking, or at least key words, and fill in the detail later. Recently I’ve noticed that I’m finding this second stage harder to do. There is not always time after a day in detention to write up notes; instead I’m replying to emails, or supporting teenage exam revision (cajoling, bribing, yelling). Details from the field jostle with worries about some deadline or tasks outside the research site, making them harder to remember.  

The passage of time has also had an impact on the embodied nature of my research, which, in turn, has affected both my view of these institutions and the responses of those within them to me. Simply put, I’m a middle-aged woman. From my current vantage point, gender – particularly masculinity -- seems increasingly alien and, therefore, noticeable and important. In part, I think my newfound and slightly delayed interest, stems from the fact that I notice much more clearly now, how people respond to me in a gendered fashion, only now that I’m older. I also respond to them differently.

Recently, I have noticed, for example, that my age sets those who are detained at their ease; always unclear about who exactly I am (“Are you immigration officer?”, “are you solicitor?”, “don’t talk to her, she works for the Home Office”, “ Ahhh, the University of Oxford! How do I get in there?”), my age now at least accords me some kind of reliability, even as people remain disbelieving of my professional status (“You? A professor?!”).

Younger male staff, however, I think, may find it slightly harder to talk to me openly than before.  In recent fieldwork, for instance, there was much earnest discussion of mortgages and family responsibilities, for example, but rather little about sport or socializing, even though in the more informal interactions with one another which I had observed, that had been the focus of their discussions with one another. And to be fair, had they tried to discuss such matters with me, I wouldn’t have been able to converse sensibly about them as I know nothing at all about football.

As I age, so, too, some of the personal impact of what I witness in detention changes. Certain factors bother me more, others rather less.  Recently, for example, I was in a small, locked, room with a group of male officers. After the detainees were sent back to their units, these officers used the gym. One of them fully undressed while I was in the room, both before he visited the gym and after. Upon return he applied a liberal amount of what I can only imagine was Lynx deodorant. Had I been younger, this enactment of hyper masculinity would have felt intimidating. However, as a woman old enough to be his mother, I joked with the other men in the room about his actions, and they told him off. I laughed.

As Alison Liebling observed some years ago now, in qualitative research, the researcher is the instrument. As we change, whether through aging or due to alterations in our personal circumstances, the field will shift subtly too, as those within it respond differently to us and we do to them.  For long-term projects, what this means, is that no matter how familiar places and practices seem, there are always new issues to study. The challenge is to remain open to insights and to be able to respond to shifting dynamics. In the meantime, if anyone would like to explain to me what exactly the Premier League is, that might be helpful…

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bosworth, M. (2019) From the Field: Still in Detention, Ten Years On. Available at: (Accessed [date])

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From the Field
Detention centres; immigration detention; border control
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