ABSTRACT. The work of post-structuralist political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1998, 2005) has had a major influence on the study of immigration detention in Europe and elsewhere. In particular, his concepts homo sacer (“bare life”) and “zones of exemption” depict the growth of immigration detention regimes as an expression of sovereign power through inclusive exclusion. In other words, states demonstrate their power to confer rights upon their citizens by denying those rights to others. This paper argues that post-structuralist approaches to the study of immigration detention present a number of theoretical and conceptual problems. Post-structuralist analyses focusing on discourses divorced from actors present teleological problems in terms of theory. Additionally, post-structural accounts of detention centers using concepts such as homo sacer and Banoptican (see Bigo 2007) tend to conflate human rights and citizenship rights, which does not hold up empirically because many asylum seekers and irregular migrants still have access to legal redress. In contrast to post-structural accounts, the notion of “bureaucratic capitalism” developed by sociologist Gideon Sjoberg (1999) provides an analytical framework that is both critical and non-deterministic in explaining the motives of many actors involved in detention regimes. Specifically, immigration detention can be explained by employing conceptual tools useful for understanding complex organizations that focus on the corporate-state nexus; human agency; rationalization processes like specialization and division of labor; hierarchy, responsibility, and blameability; and secrecy systems. This paper reviews the literature on the post-structuralist debate of immigration detention and provides primary and secondary data on the growth of detention in the US and Europe, the financial resources employed, and the role of social actors and their relations organized according to Sjoberg’s conceptual framework. It concludes by arguing that this alternative meso-level theory provides critical insights into detention regimes as well as the role of private- and public-sector interests seeking rents. Moreover, seeing immigration detention as a complex organization helps reveal the causes of human rights violations as well as their possible redress. pp. 70–97

Keywords: bureaucratic capitalism; immigration detention; complex organization

How to cite: Flynn, Matthew B. (2016), “From Bare Life to Bureaucratic Capitalism: Analyzing the Growth of the Immigration Detention Industry as a Complex Organization,” Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice 8(1): 70–97.

Received 18 August 2015 • Received in revised form 16 September 2015
Accepted 16 September 2015 • Available online 1 October 2015


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Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
Georgia Southern University, United States

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