Several years ago I got into a discussion with David Graeber, then one of my anthropology lecturers, who was expounding on narrative and power. He had a theory: those we tell stories about, the star players to whom things happen in our most common narratives, are also those who occupy positions of greater power. The hat trick of narrative representation is to fade other elements of stories into the background so as to make an unremarkable mise-en- scène out of the social relations against which heroes’ stories play out. When we focus on the travails of central characters, the playing field by which their deeds are framed is already pre-determined, leading us to take the context of their story for granted.
This is merely one strand of a more complex argument (developed in Graeber’s monograph on Madagascar) but it was one that stuck with me at the time. I wanted to know why, if power accrues to those who are merely the objects of narratives, we assign such importance to the power of telling one’s own story. “Well,” came the response, “because in that case the voiceless are making themselves the centre of the story rather than being relegated to background scenery.”
This is perhaps more of a theoretical aphorism than it is a fully-fledged formula – in popular academic parlance, it is “good to think with” – and I was reminded of it recently when thinking about migrants and migrant stories. As we all know, migrants are hardly missing from British media and political narratives, where they are primarily represented as an issue requiring a solution.
A recent report by Ipsos MORI which synthesised a number of studies and opinion polls found that while most British people’s attitudes toward migration are more nuanced than simply pro- or anti-, the majority do view immigration as a problem. The study also found that people tend to vastly overestimate the scale of net migration, creating a feedback loop where increased anxiety inflates the imagined figures. However, the report also points out that people are more likely to see immigration as a problem ‘for the nation’ than in their local area or on a strictly personal level.
Many migrant rights activists have seen this as proof that national media play a significant role in perpetrating harmful images of migrants, as well as a call for more personal stories of migration which could be used to counter impersonal statistics. For those who are committed to more nuanced and balanced representation, the status of migrants-as-a-problem has become so entrenched that it is difficult enough to find any opportunities for telling alternative stories.
I am particularly interested in what happens next. When such opportunities do emerge, what kinds of stories should we be championing to counter dominant narratives about migrants and migration? Is telling positive stories enough to shift public attitudes toward the much maligned strangers in our midst? What would such ‘positive stories’ look like?
Representation matters in particular ways. The current political landscape in Britain is marked by all-party jostling around migration, which many voters view as the single most important issue facing the country. While ‘the migrant’ has a starring role in this discourse, the story is not really about migrants at all, but about the politicians who stand to gain or lose in the electoral game. This has not gone unnoticed by the public, which, polls show, is largely suspicious of any government’s actual stance on migration. It is perhaps no wonder that Nigel Farage, who suceeded in making the disgruntled everyman into the protagonist of his rhetoric, saw such rapid gains.
Despite people’s individual stances towards government policies however, one of the consequences of this narrative is that migrants have faded into the background of the story. They are essential for its internal logic to function and for such political battles to take place, but largely irrelevant in their own right. Conveniently, this also means that issues crucial to the public debate, such as welfare cuts, privatisation of services, and lack of social mobility, come secondary to the spectre of migration.
What would it mean to make migrants into protagonists, alongside politicians and ‘the British public’? Giving more opportunity to migrants to write their own stories is a first and important step – but such stories need to be given the space to be more than token representations of the migrant experience in order to change the playing field. A more nuanced narrative on migration might mean finding ways to talk about contemporary Britain which allow people who have moved here to be critical of things that go wrong, and to be involved actively in imagining the kind of society they would like to live in.
This would mean changing the creaky model of push-pull factors which still implicitly haunts the migration discourse: people are rarely ever only economic migrants, tipped over an invisible line by just the right, mathematically exact combination of deprivation and opportunity. People are rarely ever only students, with no other motivations for coming to a particular place. The process of migration, which is itself incomplete – many people move more than once, or return, or plan to return, but never do – involves so much chance and circumstance that the idea of migrants travelling from a ‘worse’ place to a ‘better’ place can never be more than clumsy caricature.
I understand why the stories we tell to counter negative stereotypes so often hinge on the image of the worthy migrant. There is something politically virtuous about a person who has been a victim of circumstance and is grateful for any improvement in their lives. But there is also something profoundly alienating about the way in which such simplified narratives relegate migrants to a wholly different realm of experience from non-migrants, for multiple reasons.
For one, perhaps counter intuitively, such narratives make migrants harder to identify with. If the act of migration becomes a person’s defining aspect, it is all too easy for non-migrants to imagine that this could never be me. Assuming that people always move from dreary homelands only adds to this otherness and sense of ungraspability, and silences important elements of individuals’ complex histories.
It further ignores the experiences of more relatable migrants, often not viewed as migrants at all: say, British pensioners in Alicante, or professional ex-pats in Beijing.
Finally, this narrative removes migrants from the sphere of multiple possibilities, of building a liveable future together. If migrants are only ever intelligible with regard to their act of migration, and always emerge from a dismal past seeking a better future, then they become fixed in this imagined future without recourse to critiquing its exigencies. In other words, they are stuck with being grateful for what they have now, rather than having the luxury, as non-migrants do, of imagining alternative lives.
As a rhetorical device, this further excludes migrants from the national conversation – admittedly a conversation frequently fragmented, precarious, or all but inaudible – about the kind of future that Britain is constructing, and about those very political issues which migration-as-problem pushes into the background.
Recent struggles by outsourced SOAS cleaners, mostly migrant workers, to win basic employment rights illustrates that ‘migrant issues’ are often more relatable than not, and that they can animate a broader political solidarity. We read few such stories which give migrants the chance to be at the centre of the narrative, to the detriment of everyone. The one-dimensional grateful migrant narrative keeps not only the migrant fixed and static in the public imagination, but also the spaces in which migrants find themselves: the imagined Britain which in the public narrative provides only the scenery for the political struggle around migration, rather than itself being placed under the microscope.
Insofar as ‘migrant’ has become a catch-all term for a largely undesirable throng of mobile foreigners, migrants have been relegated to the background of our own story. And as long as migrants continue to be portrayed as an indistinguishable cipher, even when represented with relentlessly positive adjectives – the grateful, the uncomplaining, the hardworking, the best – we will fail to become characters in our own right, individuals with relatable struggles and human experiences.
Given the sheer glut of public narratives which are hostile to migrants, redressing the balance by launching positive stories has an important part to play, and I support any platform which aims to shift the tone. But ‘positive stories’ may not, by themselves, be enough. Even if we suceeded in changing public representations so that they painted migrants as a benign rather than malignant mass, this would do little to address the problem of migrants cast as a political issue, the wallpaper against which a seemingly separate British future is discussed, rather than an incredibly diverse group of people building their lives alongside other migrants and non-migrants alike.
In this, I have no doubt that power really does lie with those who at least occasionally become the heroes of stories – the trifling but crucial power to claim their lives as legitimate and intelligible, rather than the detritus of other people’s plots.
This article is part of NLP's Immigration series
Špela Drnovšek Zorko is a PhD student at the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies at SOAS, University of London, and a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher in the network ‘Diasporic Constructions of Home and Belonging’ (CoHaB). Her doctoral research centres on intergenerational family stories among migrants from the former Yugoslavia in Britain. She occasionally volunteers at Migrant Voice, a non-profit organisation working to transform the British public debate on migration.