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Everyday narratives of European Border Security and Insecurity

*** PUBLISHED JUNE 2021***


Reviews of Vernacular Border Security:

"Vaughan-Williams poses the important question, why has the recent frenzy of border fortification—especially but not only in the EU—intensified rather than reduced popular anxieties about borders and migrants? To answer, it Vaughan-Williams listens closely to the people churned by such anxieties. This essential, original, and extraordinarily well-researched contribution to border and migration studies arrives at conclusions that should stop both policy makers and critical theorists in their tracks." - Wendy Brown, Class of 1936 First Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

"In foregrounding the vernacular, Nick Vaughan-Williams makes a powerful and highly significant interference in contemporary understandings of the politics of security, borders, and migration. Vernacular Border Security takes the extensive literature on the importance of language for securitization and desecuritization in a new direction by foregrounding conversations rather than speech acts, claims, or discourses. In doing so, Vaughan-Williams has given us a rich resource for critically engaging contemporary framings of security, borders, and migration through a democratic analytics that values the reflective and critical engagement of ordinary people in the politics of insecurity." - Jef Huysmans, Professor of International Politics, Queen Mary University of London

"Vernacular Border Security is a must-read for all political geographers concerned with questions of borderings, wallings, and the contemporary political imaginations of migrations in Europe. Beautifully written and conceptually innovative, this book brilliantly connects the grand narratives of border security promoted by institutions at the most diverse scales with a set of vernacular perspectives on the experience of border security in specific European settings. The rich and original empirical material matched by the sophisticated theoretical analysis proposed here by Nick Vaughan-Williams makes this book a path-breaking intervention in the fields of border and migration studies." - Claudio Minca, Professor, Department of History and Cultures, University of Bologna

"Coming from cultural studies and gender studies, I found Nick Vaughan-Williams' vernacular approach to be an illustrative perspective on security. Besides deconstructing the 'migration crisis' narrative, Vaughan-Williams explains theories of populism and ontological (in)security in a reader-friendly manner. I particularly enjoyed the author's take on affect and processes of gendering and racializing the figure of 'the migrant'. Reading this eloquent and important book gave me tools to analyze critically the perpetual debate about migration, borders, and securitization." - Tuija Saresma, Senior Researcher, University of Jyväskylä, Finland

"European governments adopted inhuman, unlawful, and ineffective border security measures in the name of citizens allegedly frightened by migrants. Yet the empirical evidence offered by Nick Vaughan-Williams suggests that anti-migrant narratives originated at the top rather than at the bottom of societal ladders, aggravating anxieties among European citizens. The book points to counter-narratives embracing cultures of hospitality, rebuffing fantasies of walls and wired borders. These findings are not likely to deter populist politicians, but they should offer food for thought to moderate ones and to mass-media gurus eager to talk on behalf of 'ordinary people' without engaging in genuine conversation with them. I strongly recommend this book to all concerned citizens." - Jan Zielonka, Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford and the University of Venice, Ca Foscari



Bayernkaserne reception facility, Munich, Germany. Photo taken by Georg Lofflmann and Nick Vaughan-Williams, 26 November 2016

Project summary

It is estimated by the UNHCR that in 2015 1,007,716 migrants and refugees arrived 'irregularly' by boats in southern Europe. The testimonies of 'irregular' arrivals have become an important focus for research in order to disaggregate what has been retroactively packaged as the 'Mediterranean crisis'. Yet if meanings of migration and border security are produced intersubjectively and contested politically then the perceptions and experiences of 'regular' citizens -- as well as elites and 'irregular' populations -- are significant in shaping fields of knowledge, policy, and practice in which responses are made possible.


An encounter between the English Defence League (EDL) and United Against Racism, Coventry, UK, 26 May, 2016. Photo taken by Nick Vaughan-Williams.

Little is known about perceptions and experiences of migration and border security among diverse publics across Europe in view of the 'crisis'. Long-standing opinion poll surveys suggest that European citizens are largely negative or at best indifferent towards non-EU populations seeking entry to Europe. Since 2015 the hardening of attitudes has been associated with the rise of the far right with groups such as PEGIDA and AfD in Germany, the EDL in England, and the Swedish Democrats Party in Sweden. At the same time, the widespread sense of public shock and anger in response to the circulation of the images of the drowned Syrian boy Alan Kurdi and Germany's Willkommenskultur (culture of welcoming) suggest a more complex and multi-layered picture.

Illegal'Kein Mensch ist Illegal' (no-one is illegal) pro-immigration slogan seen at a music festival in Germany in July 2016. Photo taken by Georg Löfflmann.

Project aims and methodology

The aim of the 'Border Narratives' project is to investigate how diverse publics perceive, understand, and experience 'the crisis'; how they narrate their own identities and those of their communities and nations in relation to perceptions of 'irregular' migration and border security; and how these narratives compare across different geographical sites and converge/diverge with media and policy representations shaping cultures of hospitality, hostility, and (in)security across Europe.

The programme of research employs a range of qualitative and participatory research methods, including three phases of focus group discussions in cities in Germany, Greece, Hungary, Spain and the UK throughout 2016 and 2017. In-depth discussions with local communities will generate rich insights into how diverse publics narrate the crisis and their own relationship to it, the kinds of stories they tell about how migration and border security affects their own lives, and the impact of media and policy representations at the level of the everyday.

The first phase (November and December 2016) included 8 pilot group interviews involving 61 EU citizens (31 male, 30 female) in Munich, Thessaloniki, Miskolc, and Nottingham. Participants were varied according to gender, age, education, and attitudes towards immigration. Each discussion lasted for 90 minutes on average.

The second phase (September 2017) included 12 group interviews involving 88 EU citizens (46 male, 42 female) in Berlin, Cologne, Budapest, Coventry, and London; and the third phase (November 2017) included 4 further groups involving 31 EU citizens (16 male, 15 female) in Barcelona and Cadiz .

Overall, the project will listen to the views and experiences of 179 EU citizens (93 male, 86 female) across 11 cities generating 2,200 minutes of discussion and an archive consisting of more than 300,000 words of original transcript materials.

No border


The 'Border Narratives' project is funded by a £100,000.00 Philip Leverhulme Prize (2016-2019) in Politics and International Studies awarded to Principal Investigator Professor Nick Vaughan-Williams (PLP-2015-081).



Research team


Media links

Policy documents