Vernacular immigration debate: How citizens in the Scandinavian countries discussed the 2015 refugee crisis online
There is a general impression that the three Scandinavian countries – in spite of all their similarities and close ties – have had strikingly different public discourses on the issue of immigration. The 2015 refugee crisis brought the immigration issue to the forefront of the political agenda in all three countries. Much have been said and written about the public discourse on the refugee crisis, but still a lot of actual research on these debates remains to be done – especially overlooked is the everyday communication between “regular citizens”, what Gerard Hauser calls the vernacular rhetoric.
This project studies how the refugee crisis was debated amongst regular citizens in the three Scandinavian countries. It examines the comments section debates on two widely spread and discussed photos: the photo of Alan Kurdi and the photo showing a Danish man spitting on refugees walking on the high road in Denmark. Through rhetorical analysis of the online debates in three news paper’s comments sections, and on their Facebook pages, in each country, I look at how these photos were discussed and identify what norms that are active in these debates.
The comments sections are without a doubt an arena for vernacular debate; here regular citizens can debate issues of public interest. The comments sections allow for a wide variety of types of communication; from emotional outburst to practical reasoning. The utterances can take the form of simple aesthetics, like the emojis, or they can take the form of well-grounded arguments. Often not only the issue itself is discussed, but also the debate norms. According to Hauser (1998) the norms that are acted upon in the debates, are in themselves a relevant source for understanding public meaning. What norms are active in different situations can tell us something about how the issues discussed are understood and evaluated. It can also tell us something more general about what is considered by the public understanding of what good or legitimate debate is.
In order to understand what really happens in the encounter between text and audience, it is however not sufficient to study only the texts, it is also necessary to give attention to empirical studies of the actual audience. Only by doing so, it becomes possible to gain insights about how the texts were understood and interpreted by the audience. This project therefore combines the text analysis with interviews with a selection of the debates’ participating audiences. This combination makes it possible to provide a deeper understanding of how these photos are received and discussed. The interviews will provide information about the active participants’ own understanding of the photos, how they evaluate the debates, what norms they act upon and what ideal and real potential they consider these online debates to have. Thus, this study aims to use rhetorical theory to study how the refugee crisis is debated in the Scandinavian countries, and the participating audiences own understanding of these debates.