Can the European Union develop a common vision on migration policy? How can it safeguard the “European Way of Life”, act in the interests of citizens and put its values and principles into action?
These were some of the questions addressed at the EU Watch Policy Conference “Migration and integration: Does the EU live up to its values” organised in Brussels last 11 October, which included an impressive line up of speakers such Member of the European Court of Auditors Leo Brincat, famour author Sir Paul Collier, Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri and many more.
In the occasion I had the pleasure to present some of the latest work available on migration narratives such as “Immigration narratives in the Euro-Mediterranean region: what people believe and why” and “What policy communication works for migration? Using values to depolarise“, both authored by James Dennison, Head of the Observatory for Public Attitudes to Migration (OPAM)
In my experience in Europe, when discussing migration narratives either in a specialized or non-specialized environment, it seems quite automatic to associate the word “migration” with the big three topics that overwhelmingly occupy media attention:
- Irregular immigration
- Asylum seekers
It seems increasingly harder, even 6 years after the notorious 2015 migration crisis, to address the overall phenomenon of migration as a whole rather than within its most difficult manifestations. The sentiments generated by the migration debate in the old continent are still very polarized and this is why it is fundamental, for analysts, policy makers and communicators to resort to academia and decompose all the elements that build narratives.
Narratives are increasingly cited by international organisations, NGOs and governments as one of the most important topics in migration policymaking today. Narratives are assumed to strongly affect public opinion and behaviour. The concept of narratives is typically underspecified, with relatively little known about why some narratives become popular and what narratives people actually believe.
Narratives can be defined as selective depictions of reality across at least two points in time that include a causal claim. Furthermore, narratives are:
- Necessary for humans to make sense of and give meaning to complex reality;v
- Generalisable and applicable to multiple situations, unlike specific stories
- Distinct from related concepts such as frames and discourses
- Implicitly or explicitly normative, in terms of efficacy or justice
- Essentially limitless but only a small number gain popularity.
How can we then apply our knowledge on narratives to our knowledge on the power of values. Throughout the twentieth century, psychologists made numerous attempts to classify human ‘values. While the importance of values as predictors of human attitudes and activity was noted at least as early as 1961, the use of values in communication is highly debated, but it remains a poorly or understudied field of expertise.
Perhaps the most eminent and broadly utilized of these values schema is Schwartz’s theory of basic personal values Schwartz, one of the most important social psychologist, cross-cultural researcher of our times defines values as:
“Cognitive representations of broad motivational goals, rather than attitudes towards particular situations, and as stable metrics of the guiding principles in individuals’ lives”. (Schwartz, 1992)
Schwartz shows that there are ten essential values and within each of these are multiple ‘motivational goals’ with accompanying evolutionary causal mechanisms. These values are shown to be consistent across cultures. Values come from numerous psycological and societal factors, from family upbringing to education, from religious attachment to the history of a person’s territory.
As you can see in the table below they are associated with basic motivational goals and specific goal examples.
Schwartz shows that these values can be arranged in relation to each other on two dimensions (on one axis self-transcendence vs. self-enhancement and, second, conservation vs. openness to change). This arrangement shows how some values share commonalties with others, and are thus placed side-by-side, whereas others are highly dissimilar and thus placed in direct opposition to each other.
The two values of ‘universalism’ and ‘benevolence’ increase positivity to immigration, whereas the three values of ‘security’, ‘conformity’ and ‘tradition’—together making up the ‘conservation’ higher order value—decrease positivity to immigration.
Strongly anti-immigration Europeans tend to value conformity, security, tradition and power above the European average. Conversely, they are far less likely to value universalism, benevolence, self-direction, stimulation or hedonism.
Europeans strongly pro-immigration tend to have the opposite value orientation, but far more magnified. They have the most skewed value orientation of any group and, above all, value universalism highly and undervalue security and conformity.
Having defined values and demonstrated their relationship with attitudes to immigration, we now turn to considering how to use this information to persuasively communicate on immigration using values.
Overall, based on the report, we can deduce that messaging is most likely to elicit sympathy when the values it contains are concordant with those of recipient. In other words: Recipients will be sympathetic to a message when its values align with their own and they will be antipathetic to a message when its values diverge from their own.
Narratives are an inescapable part of humanity’s attempts to understand their own reality. As such, policymakers and communicators must prioritize the effective use of narratives in their work to be both understood and believed.
As demand for understanding an issue increases, multiple, competing narratives may simultaneously become popular. As such, the popularity of narratives must be used as a gauge of public opinion with extreme caution.