The “thirteenth immigrant”: Researching the views of the Czech public on migration
In 2016, the European Union developed a quota system for accepting refugees, in which Czechia should have taken in 2,691 arrivals from Southern Europe. Instead, it accepted just 12, thus violated its legal obligations and the principle of solidarity. Among the Czech public, there was widespread anxiety about the issue of migration, and the situation has persisted. According to a poll conducted in May 2019 (Hanzlová 2019), 63% of the Czech population is completely against accepting refugees from war-affected countries, 31% is willing to accept them under the condition they will return to their country of origin after the conflict is over and only 2% is positive about accepting refugees. The poll also reveals a strong perception of refugees as a security threat; 72% of the population perceives refugees as a threat to security of the Czech Republic, 84% to Europe and 75% as a global threat.
What is behind the fears about the acceptance of the imaginary “thirteenth immigrant”? How does the Czech public perceive the phenomenon of migration? These are some of the key questions that we aim to address in a three-year-long qualitative research study, initiated in January 2020 at the Department of Sociology of the Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University in Brno. In a team of five cultural sociologists under the leadership of Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky, we study the classifications based on which Czechs draw symbolic boundaries in relation to people who come to live to Czechia from abroad. We are also interested in the cultural background of these classifications and study their connection to the deep structures of meaning shared in the Czech cultural environment. Our aim is to offer a detailed understanding of the attitudes of the Czech public toward migration and solve an analytical puzzle: in a country that has a relatively low immigration rate compared to the rest of Europe, why are public attitudes toward migrants so negative?
There exists considerable social scientific research on attitudes toward migration in developed countries, but it relies primarily on quantitative evidence to support theoretical assumptions. In our study, we depart from this body of work to explore how individuals make sense of migration flows, utilizing qualitative methods to explore their deep meaning-making processes. We rely on cultural sociological principles of “structural hermeneutics” (Alexander and Smith 2003), which involves in-depth interpretive analysis. In particular, we use the concept of “boundary work” to explore how people make sense of the divisions between “us” and “them” (Jaworsky 2016; Lamont 2000). Using the processes of boundary blurring, crossing, solidification or maintenance, individuals draw symbolic boundaries around different groups of people. The concept of boundary work allows us to study different outcomes of meaning-making processes through which people solidify the boundaries to make the difference between “us” and “them” look more real, maintain the boundaries to keep the status quo, blur the boundaries to make them more permeable or cross the boundaries to become part of “us” without necessarily changing their position in relation to other people.
We find in-depth interviewing a fitting methodology for exploring how people make meanings about migration. It allows individuals to express their beliefs and emotions without being confined to pre-determined answer choices. Employing a semi-structured design, we present the research purpose and the interview proceedings in such a way that none of the interviewees’ answers to our questions are right or wrong. The key to success is gaining diversity and rich narrative answers. The most important topics we will cover in the 60-90-minute interviews include: general perceptions of migration and how it relates to interviewees’ everyday life, opinions and feelings about different types of migration, awareness of and interest in the political discussions about migration in the Czech public space. We will also ask about interviewees’ media usage – how they gain information about migration.
We plan to collect approximately 80 interviews. We combine purposeful and snowball sampling, asking interviewees to recommend others for participation. In terms of demographic characteristics such as gender, education or age, we will work to keep the sample diverse. In selecting the locales for interviewing, we consider contextual variables that tend to influence attitudes toward migration, such as the size of the immigrant population, urban or rural context, the level of unemployment and support for right-wing political parties. We will also arrange 5-6 focus groups in different locales, selecting individuals to participate that demonstrate an interest in discussing migration and that reflect the diversity of the interviewee sample. Participants will be located, for example, through civic groups, (e.g., Red Cross volunteers, mothers’ support groups, neighborhood organizations).
Realizing the important role that media play in shaping people’s perceptions, we also conduct a qualitative content analysis of media coverage concerning migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to contextualize our findings and explore the relationship between media portrayals and public opinion. Hrabálek and Đorđević’s (2017) content analysis of newspaper articles, political documents and public statements reveals that in the time of the so-called European migration crisis, migration was a major political issue discussed by Czech politicians, while the public portrayal of migration in general, and quotas as a solution to the “refugee crisis,” was utterly negative, framed in terms of significant security risks to Czech and European society. Media coverage of migration overall highlights the security threat it ostensibly poses, stressing urgency, unprecedentedness, overload and insecurity (Tkaczyk 2017). Migrants and refugees are depicted almost exclusively in negative terms, associated with images of threat to security, culture, welfare and citizens. Human rights and humanitarian perspectives are marginalized or entirely missing. One of our research goals is thus to unpack the relationship between media usage and attitudes toward migration.
Studying attitudes and perceptions about migration is crucial in the contemporary context; levels of international migration (both forced and voluntary) increase considerably each year and the issue has become highly politicized. In the Czech context, an additional analytical puzzle emerges. Overall, levels of immigration are rather low yet public opinion about it is quite unfavorable. The purpose of this project is to unpack why this is so and to better understand the receiving context for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Czechia. We further explore the idea that there is an “anxious middle” among the Czech public (Katwala & Somerville 2016), which although not having an especially strong opinion on migration, is skeptical about its economic, social and cultural consequences.
Our research aims at contributing towards understanding this puzzle through an in-depth exploration and cultural sociological analysis that is so far missing in the Czech context. It contributes to scholarly conversations concerning public perceptions of migration and the role of media and politics in shaping them. It also enhances sociological theory on symbolic boundaries and boundary work in the context of immigration. Further, our work also offers potential knowledge useful for policymakers working in the field of immigration policy, especially regarding immigrant integration, by illuminating the receiving context. Finally, it also can help foster constructive dialogue within the public sphere.
Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky, Radka Klvaňová, Ivana Rapoš Božič, Alica Rétiová a Jan Krotký
(Contact Info: Bernardette Nadya Jaworsky, jaworsky(at)fss.muni.cz)
We are especially eager to hear from colleagues, practitioners and the public regarding this topic and any potential suggestions for our research.
Alexander, J. C. & P. Smith. “The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology: Elements of a Structural Hermeneutics.” In The Meanings of Social Life, Jeffrey C. Alexander, 11–26. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hanzlová, R. 2019. “Postoje české veřejnosti k přijímání uprchlíků - květen 2019.” Tisková zpráva Centra pro výzkum verejného mínění (CVVM), 26.6.2019. Available at https://cvvm.soc.cas.cz/media/com_form2content/documents/c2/a4966/f9/pm190626.pdf
Hrabálek, M. & V. Đorđević. 2017. “The ‘Heretic’ Debate on European Asylum Quotas in the Czech Republic: A Content Analysis.” KONTAKT 19(4): e296–e303.
Jaworsky, B.N. 2016. The Boundaries of Belonging: Online Work of Immigration-Related Social Movement Organizations. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Katwala, S. & W. Somerville. 2016. Engaging the Anxious Middle on Immigration Reform: Evidence from the UK Debate. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.
Lamont, M. 2000. The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. New York: Russell Sage.
Tkaczyk, M. 2017. “Between Politicization and Securitization: Coverage of the European Migration Crisis in Czech Online News Media.” Communication Today 8 (2): 90-111.