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Inter-Relativity of Language and Social & Political Change


Language is a powerful medium for expressing ideas, interchanging thoughts and communicating. Language is also a powerful medium for driving social and political change. When politicians and media use language to express and analyse the political and social events that are important within their society, they are capable of creating a big impact on the minds of the people and the society. It can be said that the journalistic interactions with the public leads to the development of identities and actions (Johnson and Ensslin 5). Politicians too use language to the effect of how far such statements will personalise or polarise the issues and how far these statements will gain media coverage and resonate with the public (Hjarvard 8). This can also be applied to the politics and language that is used to describe or convey ideas about refugees from war torn nations like Syria.


In a speech by British Prime Minister David Cameroon, he described the Syrians as ‘swarms of migrants’ trying to break in to Britain from Calais. Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party described these words as ‘dehumanising’. Indeed, when David Cameroon chose to describe Syrians as ‘swarms of migrants’, his choice of words was criticised by other politicians, leaders and activists. Even Nigel Farage, who is the leader of the anti-immigration UKIP Party, thought the choice of words was poor, and he would not seek to use “language like that” (Taylor). Clearly, there are negative and pejorative connotations in the language used to describe Syrian refugees.

This essay discusses and analyses the impact of language on the perceptions of public in context of refugees and migrants. The essay uses a survey to test the possible impact of negative wordings, such as that used by David Cameroon and how far does it influence the public into accepting refugees and migrants into the state.


The use of language in describing migrants and refugees and use of collocates such as ‘thousand’, ‘millions’ is “plentiful in today’s media-rich environment, whether encountered accidentally or deliberately” and has a powerful role on how the members of the public perceive or respond to refugees and migrants (The Migration Observatory 4). David Cameroon’s use of the word ‘swarms’, is equivalent to the terms ‘Flood’, ‘Influx’, or ‘Wave’, which are c-collocates, or words that are consistently used within five words of the use of the word refugee over a three year period (The Migration Observatory).


One study, which used different print media across newspapers in the UK and Australia found that interpretative repertoires were used for constructing accounts of refugees and asylum seekers, with the principal repertoire being that of the “unwanted invader”, who need to be removed from the country (Parker).

A point of interest in the language used for refugees, is the interchanging of the words ‘refugee’, ‘illegal immigrant’, and ‘asylum-seeker’, all of which actually mean different things. However, the interchangeable, synonym like use of these terms, leads to implications for how refugees are perceived by the public. One commentator says that the interchangeable use of these terms betrays the anti-immigration agenda of the press as well as the politicians, who are against all forms of immigration, and creates an impression in the public conscious that refugees like illegal immigrants, are mere interlopers (Greenslade 5). When David Cameroon uses the language, “swarms of migrants”, he is using the term ‘migrant’ to the person who in actuality is a ‘refugee’, that is, a person fleeing his country out of fear for the safety of his life. This does not mean the same as a migrant, who may be in the UK for economic or some other reasons. Therefore, by describing refugees as migrants, David Cameroon is creating a negative perception of the refugees, which may impact their acceptance in the British society.

Another theme that is witnessed in the media and political discourse (also seen in Parliamentary debates), is that of ‘loss of control’ with respect to the incoming refugees and migrants into Britain. For example, with respect to Kosovo refugees earlier, and now Syrian refugees, the perception that is created in the public discourse is that there are ‘waves’ of migrants who are entering into the UK and the state is helpless due to international law and EU law to prevent such ‘waves’ and the economic and political overwhelming of the state due to the incoming of such refugees (Cap 6). This is the language of fear and provokes similar reactions from the public, which may be impactful enough to create negative impressions of refugees and lead to a decreased acceptance of refugees (Cap). With respect to David Cameroon’s use of the word ‘swarms’, James Hathaway, says that these words are "clearly meant to instill fear" (Taylor).

There is a definite labelling of refugees in the public discourse as ‘boat people’, for example, which has important implications, to the point of the legal and social status of refugees in the host nation (Taylor). If a person is a refugee but is called an illegal immigrant instead, that affects his legal status, which may be the denial of recognition as a refugee, causing implications in international law rights of such a person. At the very least, such a person may have lower social acceptability in the host nation.

The review of the literature on this area shows that there is a strong relationship between public perceptions about refugees and the language used to describe them in the political and public discourse.


The hypothesis formulated for the essay is that public perceptions are impacted by language of politics in their acceptance or rejection of refugees and migrants. The use of the word ‘migrants’ for refugees, is likely to confuse people into thinking that the terms are synomous with the result that the perceptions attached towards migrants and immigrants would find their way into perceptions about refugees. The use of a word similar to c-collocates, that is ‘swarms’, is likely to show through the survey that this has an impact on the perception of the public towards refugees.


The methodology used for the assignment is the survey method, which is an effective method for collecting data for quantitative and qualitative analysis of public perceptions (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill). This is an experimental research, therefore, it allows the researcher to look for or confirm the hypothesis (Srinagesh). As the hypothesis is already selected in the beginning of the research, the survey questions will help the researcher to determine the strength of the hypothesis.

The research is structured around the public perceptions to the refugees of the Syrian war. As such, the war in Syria has attained global interest and is an important topic for debate at this time. Therefore, the survey will interest people and encourage them to participate in the survey.

The experiment survey questionnaire begins with the gathering of personal information about the respondents, such as: age, gender, education, residence. Interestingly, information about the interest or orientation in politics is also asked for from the respondent. This allows the analysis of the survey responses based also on the background information of the respondents. The Experiment 1 deals with two conditions and there is a significant difference between the two conditions. The first condition relates to the perceptions or beliefs about acceptability of allowing Syrian ‘migrants’ into Britain. The second condition relates to the perceptions or beliefs of acceptability of Syrian ‘refugees’ into Britain. Both the conditions are exactly the same save the use of word ‘migrant’ in the first, and the use of the word ‘refugee’ in the second. Although, the difference may seem negligible at first glance, it is in fact considerable because the meaning of migrant and refugee is completely different from each other. However, the use of ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ interchangeably by politicians as well as media may lead to public perceptions that these words are synonymous. The other important factor here is that the answer to be given by the respondent is not ‘yes’ or ‘no’, rather the respondent can ‘agree’, ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly agree’ or ‘strongly disagree’. This provides an opportunity to understand the degree of perception with respect to acceptability of Syrian refugees in Britain. The hypothesis of the study, that is, impact is created by the use of negative language regarding refugees, can be tested using these two questions and analysing the answers to these questions. If the respondents’ answers do not vary significantly for the two conditions, it would mean that the politics of language has succeeded in creating a negative impression of refugees and therefore there is less acceptability of refugees in the UK.

Immediately after Experiment 1, Experiment 2 asks the question ‘In your opinion, what percentage of the total UK population were born in another country? You can answer any number between 0 to 100.’. This question is aimed at testing the belief or perception of the public. As such, the answer given by the respondents is not factual or evidence based, but belief based, because it asks the ‘opinion’ of the respondents and allows the respondents to give any number between 0 to 100. This is significant because it allows the researcher to create a contrast between the first and second question and allows the respondent to answer the questions in an independent manner, where the answer to the first and second need not be interrelated and therefore allows more objective analysis of the answers given by the respondents. In other words, the questions allow the researcher to formulate a survey with least amount of manipulation as between the two questions.


Ethical considerations in research requires the following of certain rules by the researcher. These rules include giving appropriate information to the participants before they undertake the survey. This information relates to the process that would be followed so that the respondents are clear about the nature and objectives of the study, as well as the procedure for completing the survey. This procedure is to be followed in this survey as well. Ethical considerations also require that the identity of the participants is kept anonymous and that the assurance regarding this is given to the participants at the beginning of the study and the assurance is respected by the researcher after the completion of the research. The research should also be carried out without any pressure on people to participate in it.


The survey consisted of two experiments. Experiment 1 asked two questions regarding the allowing of Syrian ‘migrants’ into the UK (Condition 1) and the allowing of Syrian ‘refugees’ in to the UK (Condition 2). The purpose of the two questions was to test the hypothesis formulated at the beginning of the research. The hypothesis was related to the impact of the language on the perceptions of people towards Syrian refugees. Interestingly, the numbers indicate that people who agreed and strongly agreed with allowing ‘migrants’ to come and live in the UK is 585 whereas the number of people who disagreed and strongly disagreed is 359. For Condition 2, relating to ‘refugees’, from Syria to come and live in the UK, the numbers indicate that 652 people agreed and strongly agreed with the statement, whereas 330 people disagreed and strongly disagreed with the statement. Considering the results as mentioned above, it is seen that the hypothesis is disproved and the perception of the public in allowing Syrian refugees to live in the UK is not negatively impacted by the use of strong negative language by politicians and leaders.


Language is a powerful medium of conveying important social and political messages and driving change. However, when it comes to humanitarian feelings of people, even negative language used by politicians may fail to change the perceptions of people. This is evident in the survey results, which show that the participants were not negatively influenced by the interchangeable use of ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ in the public discourse for Syrian refugees. Therefore, they are guided by their innate humanitarian intentions and not political statements.

Works Cited

    1. Cap, Piotr. The Language of Fear: Communicating Threat in Public Discourse. London: Springer, 2016.
    2. Greenslade, Roy. Seeking Scapegoats: The Coverage of Asylum in the UK Press. London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 2005.
    3. Hjarvard, Stig Prof. The Mediatization of Culture and Society . Oxon: Routlegde, 2013.
    4. Johnson, S and A Ensslin. "Language in the Media: Theory and Practice." Language in the Media: Representations, Identities, Ideologies . Ed. Sally Johnson and Astrid Ensslin. New York: A&C Black, 2007.
    5. Parker, Samuel. "‘Unwanted invaders’: The representation of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and Australian print media." Myth and Nation 23 (2015).
    6. Taylor, Adam. " Why the language we use to talk about refugees matters so much." 30 July 2015. www.washingtonpost.com. 3 January 2016.
    7. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/07/30/why-the-language-we-use-to-talk-about-refugees-matters-so-much/?utm_term=.27f42179e86c.
    8. The Migration Observatory. Migration in the News: Portrayals of Immigrants, Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees in National British Newspapers, 2010-2012. Oxford: University of Oxford , 2013.
    9. Saunders, Mark, Philip Lewis and Adrian Thornhill. Research Methods for Business Students. London: Pearson, 2012.
    10. Srinagesh, K. The Principles of Experimental Research. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinneman, 2011.

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