The State at the Street:
From European Refugee Crisis to the Front-Lines of the Welfare State
A Political-Organizational Inquiry



The State at the Street (TSS) investigates contemporary asylum politics from the state-level to the street-level, focusing on the advanced welfare states of Sweden and Denmark. It utilizes extended field studies to investigate how organizational arrangements and practices form the realities of asylum on the ground in the context of a fraught and highly-contested migration politics. The project is designed to contribute, broadly, to the study of welfare state politics and street-level organizations. It also is designed, more specifically, to contribute to understanding the political and practical challenges of addressing mass migration and human rights. The collaborative project is co-located at the University of Chicago, Aalborg University, and University of Gothenburg.


In recent years, migration and asylum have become, in a sense, the third rail of western democratic politics. From Europe to the US, nations facing episodes of mass migration have struggled to simultaneously address human rights, welfare, security, and social integration concerns. At the same time, they face growing political mobilization against established immigration and human rights provisions and practices.

This project, TSS, investigates the fraught politics of asylum, taking analysis from the level of the state – where formal policies are made — to the level of the street — where administrative arrangements and informal organizational practices shape the realities of asylum and human rights on the ground. It takes up the case of the European refugee crisis, which emerged as violence escalated in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and other conflict zones in 2014-15 precipitating the flight to Europe of waves of refugees seeking safety and a better life. Hundreds of thousands made their way to northern Europe, drawn in part by the reputation of Nordic countries for responding to humanitarian and social welfare needs.

TSS undertakes a close, comparative inquiry into the responses of two neighboring states. It follows the political and practical struggles the crisis gave rise to in the Sweden, which took in more asylum-seekers per capita than any other European country, and Denmark, which ranked fifth in Europe. Despite their well-developed capacity to respond to social welfare needs, both countries have struggled to respond to the refugee crisis and its aftermath.

The view from the ground over time provides insights into the daunting practical challenges that arise in accommodating and incorporating thousands of newcomers, as well as the political challenges of responding to domestic divisions that the crisis sharpened and intensified. These challenges are, in some respects, unique to these countries, but in other ways, quite similar to challenges facing western democracies throughout Europe and North America. From a historical perspective, these are hardly new or unique problems given earlier periods of mass migration and disrupted politics that have occurred across Europe and North America. If history is any guide, one can expect that episodes of crisis will reoccur, albeit never in precisely the same way. In this project, we ask what lessons can be drawn from a close examination of these experiences?

TSS brings the perspectives of political-institutional and street-level organization (SLO) theory to bear in order to understand how responses to a migration crisis take shape over time from the level of the state to the level of the street. The project uses in-depth field studies to trace the evolution, experience, and consequences of asylum practices on the ground. This innovative approach illuminates the organizational realities of asylum and the lived experience of asylum-seekers in specific settings, extending analysis beyond contemporary narratives about asylum, human rights, integration, and national identity. It examines, in effect, how asylum is “made” in everyday organizational life.

The TSS project is comprised of two, related studies.

  • Making Asylum at the Street-Level: A Comparative Political-Organizational Analysis (MASL) This study brings the perspective of street-level research and theory to the study of asylum and human rights, documenting and analyzing on-the-ground organizational responses to the refugee crisis in Denmark and Sweden. It adopts a “politics-in-time” approach, using field studies to follow changing organizational arrangements and practices, beginning at the height of the crisis in 2016 and extending to the current period. How do street-level organizations adapt to a crisis and what pathways do they adopt over time to navigate the conflicted politics and practical realities of asylum in different national settings? How do these practices give expression to asylum law and human rights on the ground?
  • Making Asylum: Life in a Suspended State (LISS). This study examines the perspective of asylum-seekers, investigating their lived experiences in different types of reception settings. Analytically, the study regards the reception period as potentially formative and recognizes the reality that, for many, it continues, not only for months, but for years. During this period asylum-seekers live, in effect, in a suspended state, not yet part of the state to which they hope to belong, but also not part of the home state they fled. How does the lived experience of reception inform socio-cultural understanding, identification, and eventual integration (or return) pathways for asylum-seekers?

The objectives of the TSS project are both theoretical and practical. The theoretical objective is to contribute to social science knowledge about comparative welfare state politics and street-level organizations. As a practical matter, the project is designed to inform policy debates about asylum, human rights, social incorporation, and the treatment of refugees and to draw lessons relevant to the provision of human services for refugees and asylum-seekers.


The project is supported by the Danish Independent Research Fund (DFF)  and the  Neubauer Collegium, University of Chicago. It received seed funding from the Moses Distinguished Professorship Research Fund, Hunter College, City University of New York.

Photo credit: © Evelyn Brodkin

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