The Processing Citizenship Final Conference: A Report

Conference Report by the PC Team

Whispering time’s grasp,
Borders crumble, knowledge blooms,
Fragility’s art.

Fleeting temporal,
Boundaries fade, wisdom roams,
Fragile dance of truth.

Whispers of the clock,
Borders vanish, knowledge soars,
Fragility’s muse.

(Can ChatGPT do good haiku? Well… see for yourself! These are three ChatGPT haiku based on panel descriptions from the conference!)


The Final Conference of the Processing Citizenship project was held on 26th and 27th June 2023 at the “Sala Rossa” of the Department of Philosophy and Communication Studies, University of Bologna. This event marked the culmination of over six years of dedicated research and writing, undertaken by a team that has included twelve team members in various capacities and time periods over the years. The central aim of the conference was to provide a platform for sharing ideas, exchanging concepts, generating knowledge, and offering fresh perspectives, while also reuniting friends, partners, and colleagues across diverse fields who have been associated with the Project throughout its duration. We wanted to create an environment for presentations, debate, and dialogue that not only showcased the project’s outcomes but also enabled us to engage with novel insights and perspectives from our colleagues.

Throughout the project’s journey, the complex but omnipresent concept of “crisis” served as an underlying theme. The origins of Processing Citizenship can be traced back to the aftermath of what was termed the “European migration crisis,” a response to the events that unfolded during the summer of migration in 2015. However, the project navigated through multiple crises, including the financial crisis, the upheaval brought on by the global pandemic, war, and geopolitical shifts with far-reaching consequences on continental mobility. Our discussions made it clear to us how crises have shaped and reoriented the research trajectories of the project, its investigation of migration management, digital registration practices, border regimes, and even state-building processes. And, as one of the conference panels suggested, European migration control and border regimes are not only shaped but seem to exist within a perpetual state of crisis.

Crises can, furthermore, propel the adoption of emerging technologies, as exemplified by the rapid proliferation of biometrics in the context of migration and border control in the aftermath of critical incidents. In moments of crisis, authorities may look for innovative technological solutions, and enterprises specializing in migration and border control technologies may find themselves strategically positioned to capitalize on these opportunities. In the aftermath, those transformative shifts may even reverberate across the identity management landscape, spanning transnational, supranational, and commercial spheres. This theme was explored in depth in Panel 2, where participants demonstrated how such shifts ultimately can have long-term effects on states’ identification of people on the move. Through diverse viewpoints, the panel fostered a nuanced comprehension of such evolutionary trajectories of identity software, its historical underpinnings of technologies and that used to train them, the politics surrounding identity data, and the pragmatic realities that states and companies deal with in the use of migration and border control technologies.

In order to allow researchers, practitioners and members of non-state organizations to share their insights, PC team divided talks into three panels and a final roundtable, to delve deeper into research outputs and develop further questions. During the first panel, titled “The Production of Crisis and Fragility”, speakers moved from the idea that Border regimes are assemblages of humans and things, policies and institutions subjected to breakdowns, fragility and moments of perceived crisis. Our speakers, involving Bernd Kasparek, Mariia Shaidrova, Rocco Bellanova, Lorenzo Olivieri, and Sally Wyatt as discussant, addressed the issue of fragility by considering it not only as a substantial feature or property of situations but also as a condition emerging from the constantly changing web of relations defining those situations. We then built our discussions around the following questions: when do borders become more fragile? What are the factors and actors that make them fragile? Fragility for whom? To give few examples, how did the pandemic – a situation of global ‘crisis’ – affected people trying to enter Europe? How is the European border regime dealing with the war in Ukraine?

In the second panel, titled “Management of identities in transnational, supranational, and commercial reconfigurations”, we welcomed talks by Matthias Leese, Nina Dewi Toft Djanegara, Roelof Troost and Wouter Van Rossem, and Lucy Suchman and Stefan Kuhlmann as discussants. During the discussion, our speakers focused on how transnational, supranational, and commercial contexts reconfigure knowledge production and the management of identity data of people on the move. The panel adopted an overtly material perspective, and in particular stemmed from the materiality debate in critical security studies, Science and Technology Studies, and beyond, and inquired as to whether or not the practices and infrastructures of identification in international contexts also constitute the meanings of (in)security.

The third panel, titled “Data circulations: Rethinking Sovereignty, Territory, and Citizenship”, opened the discussion starting from one of the main relevant theoretical elaborations from Processing Citizenship research, namely the idea that in order to make individuals legible and process them as “alterity”, data are deeply entangled with the oppressive and violent conditions at borders but also provide the grounds for acts of empowerment and citizenship. The speakers, including Nina Amelung, Huub Dijstelbloem, Silvia Masiero, Chiara Loschi, Annalisa Pelizza, and Paul Trauttmansdorff, whose presentations have been discussed by Aristotle Tympas and Paul N. Edwards, stimulated and contribute to the debate around the idea on how our traditional understanding of sovereignty, territory, or citizenship is transformed and foregrounds the multiple rationales, infrastructures and technologies, values, ideologies, and visions of data production and circulation in border regimes.

One of the core goals of Processing Citizenship has been to unpack the assumption that people on the move and polities are co-constituted. The co-constitution of individuals and polities is revealed clearly in the sociotechnical management of mobile populations. For the final roundtable, the PI selected three types of findings from the whole Project that illustrate as many cases in which the enactment of people on the move through data infrastructures and practices simultaneously revealed some shifts in the European order. She named these cases 1) epistemic priority; 2) competing chains of data and metadata; 3) informational division of labor. The roundtable used this evidence to ask where power asymmetry lies in the co-constitution of individuals and polities. It is undeniable that border relationships – not only between people on the move and authorities but among a wide variety of actors –  are characterized by power asymmetries. And yet it is less clear whether power asymmetries are the transient outcome of situated encounters, or they are stabilized beyond contingency. Drawing on their own research in diverse fields, participants to the roundtable Noortje Marres, Lucy Suchman, Aristotle Tympas, and Sally Wyatt were asked to reflect on whether asymmetries pre-exist the asymmetrical encounter – and therefore how we can value the situated production of power, or whether they are enacted each time anew – and therefore how we can account for the existence of actors who systematically exert power over other actors.

Thanks to all participants for these two days of generous exchange, and thanks to those following the works online. Despite all the above-mentioned crises, over the years the Processing Citizenship Project has gathered a generous and insightful community of colleagues, practitioners, students, people on the move, social workers, lawyers, officers, and developers. Not all of those who supported us over the years could attend the final conference, and it would be impossible to count them all. In particular, thanks to the people who shared their knowledge, expectations, distress and hope with us. We – Annalisa, Chiara, Lorenzo, Paul and Wouter – hope we can honor their living experience with the stories we told and will continue to tell in our writings, and also with the connections we will continue to nurture.

Picture credits © Chiara Dazi

« of 2 »