Beyond the migrant/refugee dichotomy: Denominations of people on the move in media discourse in Belgium

Research output: ThesisPhD Thesis

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Following the war in Syria, numerous debates regarding displaced people have placed immigration in the political and media spotlight. A wide range of factors have contributed to creating these discursive events in the media as well as the representations that circulate in society about migration. Words defining people on the move (e.g. refugee, migrant, immigrant, asylum-seeker, illegal, displaced person, etc.) are not fixed in time, their meaning and reference evolve according to events and social representations, contributing to constructing both the public issue and the image of the social actors involved.
The aim of this research was to document, through a lexical discourse analysis (implemented through a combination of Discursive Semantics with Corpus Linguistics), the lexical repertoire of denominations used to name people on the move and the evolution of the meaning of these terms in the Belgian national media in French and Dutch. The main research question was the following: How does the repertoire of denominations to name people on the move unfold in the Belgian media during the 2015-2017 migratory crisis?
To answer this research question, an exhaustive corpus composed of press articles and evening news items was collected in Belgium’s French- and Dutch-speaking communities. For each community and each type of medium (press and TV), the media of record and the popular one with the largest audience were analysed. The corpus contains 13,391 articles and 3490 news broadcasts representing 7,637,986 words in total. The corpus spans from March 2015 to July 2017.
This research concludes with four main results. First, there is great lexical creativity as more than 260 denominations were found in both the Francophone and Flemish corpus, from those most fixed in language to those less fixed and temporary. This lexical productivity can be explained by the need of politicians and journalists to describe new categories or specific cases. It also shows the permeability of media discourse to political discourse, to the point that many denominations, which are not owned by journalists, circulate nevertheless in media discourse through reported speech.
Second, the terms referring to migration focus on different aspects, such as the origin, destination or movement itself. Many denominations found in media discourse are accompanied by a qualifier that modify the meaning of the word, even if some of them are legal categories that are supposedly stable and semantically accurate.
Third, denominations are often used to classify people on the move according to their deservingness, dividing people between those who deserve to be welcome (the archetypal political refugees) and those who need to be expelled (economic migrants). Nonetheless, this research not only focusses on a few terms but analyses the whole paradigm of denominations linked to migration. While the analysis of the textual context reveals the current usage and meaning of the terms, the analysis of the whole paradigm proves that the meaning varies in connection to the paradigm and in opposition to other terms. As a result, denominations used to name people on the move are plastic and semantically variable.
Finally, this study shows how the social memory of an event is built differently in the two main linguistic communities of Belgium. The societal interest of these observations is to shed light on the mechanisms underlying news-making routines, which could explain the different discursive and linguistic processing made by French- and Dutch-language media. Moreover, grasping these mechanisms helps to understand the construction of national (or regional) memory and to what extent words shape public issues and the representation of actors.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Media and Communication Studies
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Université libre de Bruxelles
  • Calabrese, Laura, Supervisor, External person
  • De Cleen, Benjamin, Supervisor
Award date27 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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