Vanessa Barker. Photo: L Zoubir/Stockholm University
Vanessa Barker. Photo: L Zoubir/Stockholm University

It was during the summer of 2009, the same time as the rise of the far-right parties and anti-immigrant sentiment, Vanessa Barker recalled when I spoke to her earlier this year.

“I had a NSF grant to compare Sweden to the UK and France but Sweden started to look different than expectations from ways that literature had framed and understood it, both in welfare state studies and criminal justice systems and these issues of migrations”, she said. “You could really see that remaking of society in Sweden in real time. It was hard to observe and interpret this from the US, let alone make comparisons.”

By bucking expectations, Vanessa Barker refers to her argument that the welfare state of Sweden rests on a cracked foundation. We talked about this argument in a previous interview about her latest book Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State. On the one hand there is humanism, which is an important part of both Sweden’s self-image and the image the country wants to communicate outwards. On the other hand, Sweden as a welfare state and a “people’s home” was built not only upon the idea of social security, but also on a built-in idea of nationalism. This goes against the perception of a country open to immigration.

Vanessa Barker also started spending more time in Sweden due to family ties – her husband who is also an academic, is Swedish and her two children had been born in Stockholm just a few years earlier. While researching  Sweden she came across a job ad for a lectureship at the Department of Sociology. She applied, got the job and decided to take it, without hesitation.

At the Department of Sociology, Vanessa Barker was promoted to Professor of Sociology in 2018. She has studied borders, inequality and the relationship between democracy and welfare states.

A choice between academia and policy

 “I always had this conflict of pursuing an academic route, and pursuing a more political route – policy, advocacy or activism,” Vanessa Barker said.

After graduation, she did an unpaid internship at the Women’s Legal Defense Fund in Washington DC. She said it was a good experience but also eye opening.

 “As a young person you couldn’t get involved in this policy or advocacy route as a new entry into the field. People who worked there had established themselves for a long time. I wasn’t going to have an influence unless I did this paper pushing work for many years,” she said. “When you work with policy it also becomes caught up in smaller scale things, minutia”. 

The big picture, questions about injustice and activism

She was always more interested in the big picture, the question why.

“I went into academia for this sense of freedom to pursue these kinds of questions. That was the strongest motivation factor, that you can pursue your own intellectual interests as they are connected to things that I think are socially significant, not just some esoteric subfield”, she said. 

The interest in injustice was sparked already when she was young. At university, Vanessa Barker got more involved in political activism: animal rights, environmental movement, protests against the first Iraq invasion and a feminist March called “Take back the night,” against sexual assault. 

“I wanted to know why things are unfair, unjust. These questions fit into academia”, she said. 

Her research interest in Sociology developed through the Women’s Studies that she did during her undergraduate studies in English literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her thesis was passed with honors, with the comment “this belongs in the Sociology department”.  

“I was interested in equality, justice, and law. So, I studied a lot of legal theory, gender dynamics, and the Sociology of law. These subjects were more naturally routed in Sociology as a theme.”

 “My dissertation in Sociology at NYU was about American democracy and punishment. After the dissertation I wanted to take what I had found in the American context and do a comparative study, and study Europe, France, Sweden, Britain – classic comparative cases”, she said. 

Public Sociology and bearing witness 

A defining moment for Vanessa Barker’s’ view of Sociology happened when she was a doctoral student at NYU and Michael Burawoy, a professor of Sociology at Berkeley, gave a talk about public Sociology. 

“It was confirmation about some of the things that I wanted to do – the responsibility of academia to engage with the public. It was about communicating research findings, where one level is about just trying to get the research out there”, she said. 

“Other levels are about what types of questions that get pursued. These are not neutral kinds of questions, they are located in specific social contexts about what counts as knowledge. As sociologists I think we see right through that.

There is so much that creates the discipline, what questions can be asked, who can ask them and who can be an academic – this is all shaped by our social relationships. I was moved by the talk”, Vanessa Barker said.   

It was a pivotal time – the beginning of the 2000’s – of somebody with this kind of status making these arguments for more public engagement, she recalls. 

Other disciplines like economists were still out there in the public sphere trying to shape policy and give explanations about how the world is, she states. Sociology on the other hand had kind of ceded that public space in the US after the war on poverty.

“I don’t necessarily view my scholarship as any kind of activism. I am more on that public Sociology side. It is about communicating the findings of important questions that have social significance, trying to explain how things are and why they are, and encouraging students to do the same.”

Recently, her research has focused on “crimmigration”, the growing merger of crime control and immigration control. Now, she is working on a new book on externalizing borders, post colonialism, and global inequalities.  

What is your vision or goal for your academic work?

“Part of my public engagement is this idea of bearing witness. In Nordic Nationalism I documented a series of repressive social practices, closing borders, policing migrants, and increasing insecurity for those on the outside of society. Some of these practices are invisible, and people might want to forget or even deny that they are going on or think they are neautral administrative decisions. Yet, they are filled with violence. I documented these practices and social conditions from which they emerged, in part for the historical record, and in part to understand and challenge it.”

Text: Leila Zoubir