Collaborative Research Practices: Law and the lived experiences of state power

An interview with Malene H. Jacobsen, a feminist political geographer focusing on space, power, and displacement.
Malene Jacobsen


Jacobsen speaks about research as a socio-political practice where activism, politics, and sciences are inseparable. A few weeks ago, the Danish government voted on a position “on excessive activism in certain research environments” - "Om overdreven aktivisme i visse forskningsmiljøer," Folketinget, 2021. (Politiken, 2021; ATGENDER, 2021; Pedersen, 2021).

A: Your recent work has focused on juridical border work and the ways in which states seek to control and police migration through law and legal regimes. As part of this work, you have written about “feminist legal collaboration” (see Jacobsen, 2020) as a research methodology, where knowledge is created through collaboration and interactions between the researcher, migrants, and activists. You see that understanding law is impossible by only reading the script of the law. More specifically you write that:

“feminist legal collaboration can be used in relation to different legal issues, grounded in the local empirical context(s) and attending to the needs and injustices on the ground” (ibid.).

Your work has focused on how people struggle with legal restrictions and find ways to use legal avenues already available to them. As a researcher who is engaged in activism and works through collaborative methods, how do you make sense of the recent proposal to police so-called “excessive activism” in research? 

M: For me, this proposal needs to be understood as part of the Danish state’s attempt to police, control, and eliminate the existence of refugees and other unwanted migrants in the country. It is an attempt to shut down and silence scholars who have been critical towards the state’s asylum, immigration, and integration policies, as scholars have found that these policies reproduce racialized structures, cause great harm, and literally truncate migrants’ lives. 

It seems to me that Danish politicians are trying to silence researchers who are critical of the state and are directly engaged with addressing social justice issues on the ground. Yet, for me as a researcher our job is to always be critical of those who hold power and make visible the ways in which structures of power operate and are upheld - such as colonialism, racism, sexism, etc. 

For example, international organizations and researchers have critiqued the Danish government for their recent institution of the so-called “paradigm shift” within Denmark’s approach to refugee protection (UNHCR, 2021; Tan, 2020). Briefly described, the paradigm shift is an attempt to make refugee protection a temporary solution to displacement, rather than a path towards permanent residency and citizenship. Mobilizing a somewhat conventional understanding of war and its temporality, the government and other politicians have argued that refugees are supposed to return to their country of origin once the war or violent conflict is over. 

I think it is important that we as scholars and activists call attention to the fact that the government seems to have a very limited and narrow understanding of war, home, and belonging, which is tied to the long tradition of nationalism, racism, and colonialism. For instance, as scholars have long argued, home is more than a geographical place or location. 

As people move across borders they make home in new ways and with their surrounding community in order to make life and futures. Many of the Syrians who are currently having their status revoked by the Danish state have established new lives in Denmark. Their homes are here, despite the fact that the Danish state has always been hostile towards them. Through my research and activism, I have seen how people’s sense of worth, belonging, and well-being are shaken by the threat of having their protection status revoked and losing their home in Denmark.  

I do not believe that anyone should be forced to return to the country that they once fled from because forced removal is very often traumatic both to the individual and their community. 

Through my work, I have come to understand forced removal or return as a form of displacement. The Danish state is revoking Syrians’ temporary protection status because it has deemed Damascus and its surroundings (Rif Dimashq) “safe”. Yet, Denmark has not opened its embassy in Damascus and does not collaborate with the regime. What does it mean to send people back to a place where the regime that committed well-documented war crimes against its population is still in power? 

This raises several questions about the meaning of refuge and the connection between war and refugee protection as we know it. While Denmark is still signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the institution of asylum is being slowly eroded through law and bureaucratic practices. 

A: Losing home or becoming homeless is anxiety that is mundane to people who have experienced war, whether it is a “war with guns and rifles”, or a war “for existence” as one your informants put it (Jacobsen, 2021). Research done through activism is more likely to make visible the injustices and violence of laws. In a recent talk, you foreground the term “ḥarb nafsīa”, which we can translate to “psychological war” even though it does not fully capture the Arabic term. You define it as a war on and against the soul, the mind, the existence of a person:

“a war that remains unseen, unknown, and unfelt by most residents of Denmark, yet appears so evident to Syrians. [...] a war that Syrians repeatedly referred to as ḥarb nafsīa” (ibid.).

Several participants in my fieldwork (undocumented exiles dealing with difficulties of securing protection and settlement in Finland) also used this term to refer to experiencing the state laws on the psychic and emotional register. One of these called it a “war to break the morale [or spirit].” But what caught my attention in your writings and my own research is how the people we have worked with use the Arabic term nafsi (i.e. that of “self”, “soul”, “spirit”, “mind”, “psyche”, and “human being”) to make visible how (state) law works in intimate ways in the life of migrants. How did the idea of the intimacy of war come into your research? 

M: It took me a while to fully understand this idea of ḥarb nafsīa. Through focus group discussions, I asked participants to draw their journeys and explore the idea of journeys for safety and refuge as non-linear journeys. Through a “trajectory approach” (see Schapendonk and Steel, 2014), I sought to trace Syrians’ experiences of migration and becomings, including ruptures, returns, slow-downs, mobility, frictions, strategies, and (dis)connections therein. Through these mapping activities, Syrians began to discuss the boundaries between war and refuge. Where does war start? Where does war end? Where does refuge start and where does it end? And as participants’ began to reflect on their intimate experiences of war and refuge the boundaries between the two started to blur. They left the war in Syria but it “came” with them to Denmark, in the sense that it influenced their everyday life in Denmark as they continued to follow the news and communicate with family members still in Syria. Yet at the same time, Syrians also began to describe a different kind of war. They began to theorize the state violence that they experienced in Denmark as a form of war. It is a war that works on and through an intimate register as it affects a person’s  body and mind. It is a war that might make people unwilling to continue life in Denmark. For me, this idea of ḥarb nafsīa is important because it contributes to scholars’ efforts of decolonizing war and it allows us to think more carefully about what war is, where war is, and who gets to define war.

A: When did your interest in migration research start? Can you track it back to some mark points?

I have always been interested in Danish literature and art that addresses power relations and issues of social injustice. During my years as a university student, I began to think more systematically and theoretically about structures of power, including patriarchy, state violence, white supremacy, and colonization. In order to ground some of these ideas, I became curious about Denmark and its treatment of displaced people. In 1983, the Danish government introduced the Danish Aliens Act, which became widely celebrated and known as the world’s best immigration law. Yet, only three years later, the government began to introduce a range of restrictions to the act, among others were the Danish Clause, which was quickly adopted by other European countries. The Danish Clause is what we today know as the Dublin Regulation. Since then Denmark has continued to be a “trend setter” in introducing restrictive asylum and migration policies. As I learn more about this history, I wanted to understand how this little nation has maintained this role and how controlling and policing migration has been and still is part of reproducing the white nation state, while at the same time seeming unwilling to reckon with its colonial history and deep-rooted racism. 

Through my research, I have continued to reflect on my own education in Denmark and why we did not learn much about Denmark’s colonial history and empire. Why did we learn so much about the Vikings and the Second World War but so little about Denmark’s role in the slave trade and colonization of Greenland? How has it been possible to avoid having a real conversation about racism, and why are many people resistant to it?

A: How do you see that resistance in the Danish context?

M: I think you can see it in different places and spheres. Recently, I have begun to think about the language we have for speaking about racism and racialized structures. I find myself more comfortable using the English terms available than the Danish term. For example, the concept of white supremacy is in Danish “hvidt overherredømme”. It is not a word used very much in everyday Danish language. And I think this is part of the problem. I think the average Dane feels uncomfortable by this term; there is discomfort with this term particularly if we are thinking about whiteness as a problem of identity or personhood, rather than a structure. That said, I also see a change in the sense that a lot of particularly younger people are starting to address this issue in Denmark by speaking about racism and explaining terms through which we can better understand how racialized structures work. 

Here it is important to keep reminding people that we need to think about whiteness as a structure, which produces privilege for certain people.

A good example of this is the way in which governmental statistics categorize foreigners in Denmark into two groups: Western immigrants and non-Western immigrants. This is also the case for second and third generation migrants. Non-Western simply refers to people of color of course. These statistics are used as a basis for policy-making, including the so-called Ghetto Law, which enables the government to evict racialized people and their families and demolish public housing. Whether a neighborhood needs to be demolished is in part depending on the number of people from so-called Non-Western countries (Zhang, 2020).

A: How does feminism help you to think through state violence?

M: I think 

the concept of heteronormativity does good work. It allows us to think through state violence and power across gender, race and class. For example, we can see how the white nation state is reproduced through the heteronormative family, which is a middle- and upper-class family, through which indigenous people, queer people, and people of color are excluded and dispossessed. 



ATGENDER, 2021. ‘In Solidarity with Danish Researchers’, ATGENDER 4. Jun. 2021, Retrieved: 1.Jul. 2021, from:

Folketinget, 2021, Om overdreven aktivisme i visse forskningsmiljøer. Samling 2020-21 forespørgsler. Retrieved: 1. Jul. 2021, from:

Jacobsen, MH. 2021, The Intimate Entanglements of War and Refuge. May 28th. University of Helsinki, Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and European Narratives, Helsinki (Virtual).

Jacobsen, MH. Practical engagements in legal geography: Collaborative feminist approaches to immigration advocacy in Denmark. Area. 2020; 00: 1– 8.

Pedersen, LG. The Academic Culture War Comes to Denmark, Jacobin, 12. Jun. 2021, Retrieved: 1.Jul. 2021, from:

Politiken, 2021. ‘Læs opråbet fra de 262 forskere: Vi bliver intimideret og chikaneret i en sådan grad, at flere er blevet sygemeldt’, Politiken, 6. jun. 2021, Retrieved: 1.Jul. 2021, from:

Schapendonk, J. & Steel, G. 2014, Following Migrant Trajectories: The Im/Mobility of Sub-Saharan Africans en Route to the European Union, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104:2, 262-270, DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2013.862135

Tan, NF. ‘Forsker ved Institut for Menneskerettigheder: Mattias Tesfaye spaker til FN’s vaklende kvotesystem’, Politiken 9, Aug 2020,

UNHCR, 2021, UNHCR recommendations to Denmark on strengthening refugee protection in Denmark, Europe and globally, Retrieved: 1.Jul. 2021, from:

Zhang, C. 2020, ‘The Epistemic Production of ‘Non-Western Immigrants’ in Denmark’, The Disorder of Things, Retrieved: 1.Jul. 2021, from:


Text: Ali Ali (University of Helsinki) and Malene H. Jacobsen (Maynooth University)