Senior Research Fellow & BRIDGES Scientific Coordinator
Interpretations are what determine responses much more than raw facts. A paradigmatic example of the importance of narratives on migration is the arrival of thousands of refugees at the Polish borders in the fall of 2021. As dominant narratives focus on the instrumentalization of migration by the Belarus regime, portraying “migrants” as “weapons” and their arrival as a major “threat to security”, it’s no surprise that responses are framed in terms of “war”: sending the army, building more fences, and limiting access to humanitarian organisations. Had narratives focused on other issues, such as the scale of the humanitarian crisis and refugees’ personal stories, or the need to guarantee fundamental rights, the responses would have been radically different.
To understand how facts turn into narratives and narratives into (policy) responses, it is fundamental to understand the causes and consequences of migration narratives. This is precisely the main goal of the BRIDGES project. As for the causes, it focuses on narrative production, thus under what conditions particular narratives become more successful, compelling or enduring than others. As for the consequences, it analyses narrative impact, meaning how narratives shape individual attitudes and policy decisions and outputs. But neither individuals nor policymakers are simple receivers of narratives: they also contribute to the narrative-making through their actions and behaviours. Therefore, BRIDGES also considers how the processes behind narrative production and impact interact with each other.
BRIDGES defines narratives as those attempts by actors to develop and convey plausible accounts and interpretations of a phenomenon, event or series of events, person or a group of persons. Narratives are not only simple descriptions. By definition, narratives are characterised by a certain degree of stability and consistency over time and/or across space. They include assumptions about causality, good and bad, responsibility and consequences. Though narratives must fit with available facts (thus meet certain basic conditions of consistency and plausibility) and need to be understandable and compelling, they can be representationally inaccurate (and recognizably so) and include a contradictory set of beliefs. In fact, their very semantic and/or moral ambiguity may provide appeal to various actors.
To explain the causes and consequences of migration narratives, BRIDGES examines: how media and social media foster some narratives over others; to what extent and how narratives promoted by civil society actors may or may not have the capacity to challenge hegemonic accounts; how individuals receive and process different (and often contradictory) narratives; in which way potential migrants react to different narratives when deciding whether and where to move; and how narratives turn into policy responses.
Studies coming from different disciplines – including media studies, political science, sociology, social psychology and history – explain narratives’ influential capacity depending on both the content (what is said) and the context in which narratives develop and circulate (by whom, where and when). In terms of content, BRIDGES assesses the weight of factors such as cognitive plausibility, emotive appeal, dramatization, shared cultural preoccupations and political and economic interests. In terms of context, it evaluates the extent to which narrative producers, venues and time frames play a role in explaining narrative success.
This interdisciplinary and holistic perspective is reflected in the two first BRIDGES Working Papers. The first one is a ‘Historical analysis of the migration and integration narratives’ that focuses on the evolution of migration narratives in France and the UK in the period ranging from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. This historical perspective is complemented with a state of the art on ‘The emergence, uses and impacts of narratives on migration’ that traces the emergence of the concept in a range of social sciences, including Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science, Social Psychology and Media Studies. These two publications together set the conceptual and methodological basis that will guide BRIDGES analysis on the causes and consequences of migration narratives in a context of increasing polarisation and politicisation around these issues, as the crisis at the EU external borders with Belarus has just proved.