Beyond Critique

Reimagining Penal Power at the Border

Professor Mary Bosworth
University of Oxford


This proposal sets out to create a video series, accompanying blog posts and two joint-authored articles on alternatives to current practice in border control.  This project will provide the empirical and conceptual basis for a future funding application by the two co-applicants. The videos and blogs will be hosted on the Border Criminologies website ( to offer a unique intervention, outreach and resource for students, academics and policy makers.  The articles will be submitted to a criminology and a sociology journal.

By filming short, structured conversations with leading international academics, this project seeks to break free from the impasse that characterises policy and academic debates over border control.  The conversations will be initiated by the co-applicants Profs. Bosworth and Barker who are both leading scholars in the nascent field of ‘border criminology’ that has done much to draw attention to the growing intersections between criminal justice and immigration and their implications for penal power, citizenship and social justice. Both are well placed to successfully carry out this project. These videos, research output in their own right, which will be accessible to a wide range of people, will provide the basis for at least two scholarly articles. The project will be supported by a research assistant, Ms Fili, who will coordinate and organise the video series, edit and ensure their dissemination on the project website.

Under ‘border criminology’ the co-applicants have generated new empirical evidence and theoretical concepts to illuminate and critique current practice.  Based on that foundation, we seek to generate creative ideas that challenge coercive practices and suggest ways to rebuild migration policies and citizenship for the 21st century. This grant will allow us the opportunity to work together in ways that are closely aligned with ISRF’s goals to facilitate conversation across disciplines and develop new modes of inquiry.

The Research Idea

This project seeks to challenge the zero sum logic of immigration politics and the growing criminalization and penalization of migration control. We want to set in motion new ways of thinking about citizenship and mobility to build a stronger foundation for real change. In conversations with a range of international scholars and practitioners we hope to inspire new ideas that we will disseminate in academic publications and online to move thinking beyond critique.

Drawing on our empirical and theoretical expertise, we will discuss big questions with our participants. These include: Can democracies do border control humanely? How can we break the apparently unquestioned reliance on the criminalization and penalization of migrants? What are some viable alternatives to current practice? How would a focus on dignity move us closer or farther away from humane practices? How would an emphasis on human security facilitate or dampen reform? Can we reconfigure citizenship for the 21st century? How can we retain the meaning and force of citizenship without excluding or imposing harm on others? Do we need a new vocabulary to convey the magnitude of the tasks at hand?

In addressing these questions in structured conversations with a range of global experts this project hopes to suggest new ways of thinking about seemingly intractable problems. Presenting them as short videos, as well as in academic journal articles, will make complex ideas accessible, so directly responding to calls to broaden the impact and reach of the academy.


Given widespread global difficulties in responding to the refugee crisis and the growing backlash against immigrants, it is imperative academics work together to find a way out of current frameworks of thought. In designing this project, we take inspiration from, and build on, the work of others, including Leanne Weber (2015)’s “preferred futures” methodology, the Howard League for Penal Reform’s (Dockley et al. 2016) recent collection of essays rethinking the concept of justice and Alessandro di Giorgi (2015)’s stinging critique of proposals for serious reform of US crime policies. Yet, we depart in significant ways in terms of substance and products. Not only have we drawn a narrower focus on our project, by focusing on penal power at the border, but, unlike these collections, which focus primarily on academic audiences, by creating videos and blog posts as well as journal articles, we hope to reach a wider public.

We think crisp and creative visual material can showcase big ideas and nuanced arguments in effective ways and is an under-utilized tool in the social sciences. The visual material will include headshots of participants making key arguments and explaining central concepts. Videos may also be edited to include graphics of key concepts, empirical patterns, and location shots. We aim to produce a series of 5 – 10 minute clips for easy circulation. These will sit alongside blog posts and will form the basis of our academic publications.

The Focus

Through conversations with experts around the world, we seek to move beyond critique. While we will not dictate the content of the conversations, we will provide a set of questions and themes to help structure them to generate new and creative solutions to the seemingly entrenched problems of migration control.

We have carefully selected a range of participants to ensure a wide representation of geographical, methodological and epistemological focus. Together they represent a core set of disciplines in which scholarship on border control is burgeoning: criminology and criminal justice; sociology; and law. Deliberately interdisciplinary and international, the group will build together on their empirical and conceptual work in law, sociology, criminology and political science to look for novel ways of thinking and acting. Additional partners can be added as the project proceeds.

Conversations will be structured around three main questions:  Can democracies conduct border control humanely? What are some viable alternatives to current practice? How can we reimagine citizenship under globalization? Participants will be drawn from three different areas: practitioners, social sciences including law, and the arts.  Cross cutting themes will address race/colonialism, human security and dignity.

Theoretical Novelty

Just as governments around the world struggle to integrate increasing numbers of migrants and refugees seeking opportunities and sanctuary on their shores, so, too, much academic research seems to be trapped in pre-existing theoretical and conceptual frameworks.  As Nancy Fraser and other public intellectuals have argued, there appears to be a particular crisis of critical thought, in which many disciplines remain attached to ideas developed in the previous century. For example, calls for economic nationalism from the left or right in response to globalization and its attendant inequalities do nothing to resolve the excessive use of force of border controls or provide a formula for large scale economic or social integration.  A social justice based exclusively on economics or identity politics are not up to the realities of the world in which we currently live, that is shaped by enduring conflict in large parts of the globe, surging nationalism, a decline in mass employment, and mass migration, as well as growing community-based efforts to challenge such matters from no-Borders campaigns to Black Lives Matter.

This project seeks to move along critical scholarship in three main ways: engaging with empirical material and public policy; including questions of race and colonialism and in championing a comparative, collaborative, reflexive debate. We ask our participants to rethink current frameworks, pointing out advantages and disadvantages, and push them to develop new terms or reconfigure existing ones. How can we rethink citizenship to redress current global inequalities, especially as they manifest in punitive border controls?


This project sets out a novel web-based methodology to generate new ideas on borders. We initiate conversations with a range of international participants to create a series of short videos that will be edited with additional software such as iMovie by the Research Assistant.

This methodology is interdisciplinary, international, collaborative and reflexive. We provide a template for conversations but do not dictate the terms. Instead, in pairing people we provide the opportunity for new ideas to emerge. This media approach could be a breakthrough for the social sciences and has much potential to drive new ideas and inquiry. We live in a media dominated society in which short video clips, for better or worse, can drive conversation, public debate and public policy. We want Border Criminologies to be at the forefront. Already the website has a large international following, with over 10,000 unique visitors per month. Mary Bosworth’s research on immigration detention has been profiled in videos produced by the University of Oxford and Oxford University Press.  She contributed empirical content to the short artistic film by Prof. Carroll ‘Artist in Residence’ that can be viewed on the Border Criminologies website.  Rather than dismissing social media as irrelevant to academic pursuits, we seek to work with this medium and harness it for our own purposes. Why be left out of the global conversation? By bringing together a range of disciplinary perspectives and different approaches to borders, we aim to widen our potential audience beyond our usual confines and comfort zones.

Work Plan

The PIs will jointly manage the project over the award project, designing and taking responsibility for the intellectual content and outputs. The RA will provide vital technical and administrative assistance in video editing and uploading on the Border Criminologies website, without which the project will not be possible.  She will be responsible for generating and editing related blog activity throughout the period of the grant. The grant will cover her time and travel funds for the co-applicants to work together. Additional travel costs will facilitate conversations.


February 2018: preparation, Co-PIs and RA face-to-face

March-June 2018: video conversations and related blog activity

April – July 2018: RA video editing

October 2018: RA to finalize editing and uploading

November 2018: Co-PIs meeting

November 2018 – end December 2018: writing academic articles

January 2019:  journals submission

Five priority conversations are planned with additional themes and participants in the queue:

  1. Mary Bosworth, University of Oxford and Dr Hindpal Bhui, HM Inspectorate of Prisons – to explore human rights based monitors in bringing about meaningful change.
  2. Vanessa Barker, Stockholm University and Jelena Mijanovic, Co-Design Architecture, to think through the role of architecture in designing spaces for human security
  3. Juliet Stumpf, Lewis & Clark, and to explore the impact of legal practitioners in bringing about change
  4. Claudia Muñoz and Michael P Young, University of Texas, to discuss the efficacy of social movements in terms of migration policies
  5. Allegra McLeod, Georgetown Law and Shahram Khosravi, Stockholm University to discuss abolition.


A series of brief video conversations among experts on alternatives to current practices and thinking about the growing reliance on criminal justice practises in managing migration: penal power at the border. These will be hosted on the Border Criminologies website and will provide an enduring resource for scholars, students and practitioners.

A series of themed weeks on the Border Criminologies blog series, organised and edited by the RA, Ms Andriani Fili, on the topics of the videos to accompany the visual material. These will focus on the methodological and policy implications of the project.

At least two jointly authored article by the two PIs. One, entitled, ‘Beyond Critique: reimagining penal power at the border’ will set out the lessons learned from the research. The other will have a methodological focus on the techniques used in this project. The second paper, entitled ‘Visualising Change’ will be co-authored by all three participants in the project, reflecting the work by Ms Fili in managing the video content and assisting in her career development.

We will use the results of this project to apply for future funding to bring together a larger group to discuss innovations, specific areas to develop and identify new directions.


Aas, K.F. and Bosworth, M. (Eds.). (2013). The Borders of Punishment: Migration, Citizenship and Social Exclusion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barker, V. (2017, In Press). Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bosworth, M. (2014). Inside Immigration Detention. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Farrall, S., Goldson, B., Loader, I., and Dockley, A. (2016). Justice and Penal Reform: Re-shaping the penal landscape. Routledge.

Fraser, N. (2008). Scales of Justice: reimagining political space in a globalizing world. Cambridge: Polity.

De Giorgi, A. (ed) (2015). Beyond Mass Incarceration: Crisis and critique in North American penal systemsSocial Justice 42 (2).

Loader, I. and Sparks, R. (2010). Public Criminology? Abingdon: Routledge.

McLeod, A. (2015). ‘Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice,’ 62 UCLA L. Rev. 1156-1239.

Weber, L. (Ed.). (2015). Rethinking Border Control for a Globalizing World: A Preferred Future. Abingdon: Routledge.