European society and digital media
Borders define the boundaries of Europe. But there are no borders on the internet. In the project entitled ‘Digital Crossings in Europe: Gender, Diaspora and Belonging,’ awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant in 2015, Professor Sandra Ponzanesi is investigating the use of digital media by migrants in Europe and the influence on our society. Does the use of digital media assist emancipation and enhance European integration? Does it contribute to the transformation into a postcolonial multicultural society? With this research Ponzanesi integrates the digital world into Humanities.
Sandra Ponzanesi, professor of Gender and Postcolonial Studies at the Department of Media and Cultural Studies and Head of Humanities at University College Utrecht, is not limited by boundaries. Originally a specialist in comparative literary studies, Ponzanesi now also conducts research on film and digital media, and combines this with expertise on European migration patterns. A 2014 World Press Photo features on the front page of her ERC proposal: refugees on a darkened beach, lit up by the screens of their mobile phones.
Increasing numbers of people in the world have access to digital media and are in contact with each other. Migrants use digital media to make contact with people in Europe before travelling. Facebook, Instagram and Skype are used extensively. During their travel migrants use GPS on their smartphones. Afterwards, they often use digital media to stay in touch with their home countries or to build networks in their new ones. Ponzanesi: "The use of digital media changes our sense of belonging. The place where you live no longer is a decisive factor."
"In the coming years, we’ll study three groups of migrants,” Ponzanesi explains energetically: “Turks, Romanians and Somalis, who live in Amsterdam, Rome and London. In this way, we’ll cover three reasons for migration: as guest workers (labour migration), because of political transition (postsocialist) and as war refugees from former colonies (postcolonial). We’ll use literature research to outline the context of their migration and the historical and political phases of European integration. The question then is whether these migrants had an idea or imagination of countries in Europe before they emigrated. Which sites did they visit? Did they get information from compatriots in Europe?" The research team uses digital tools, virtual ethnography and photo-elicitation techniques. "Once they get here, the question is whether the expectations they had are in line with the reality they encounter. And which ideas, stories and images of Europe do they disseminate in turn?" The use of digital media can contribute to the integration of people from different cultures. "Do migrants in Europe mostly visit websites of compatriots, or is the world opening up to them through the use of digital media?”
Empirical and qualitative
Ponzanesi is particularly interested in women. “Women are an under-researched group. They sometimes have their own reasons for fleeing. In Somalia, for example, there is a lot of violence that lead Somali women often to emigrate independently. It’s very different for the Turkish women who came to Europe as partners, years ago. Has using digital media contributed to their emancipation?” There remains much to discover, and Ponzanesi can't wait to get started. “Nowadays we can use special software to analyse and visualise internet usage, which provides us with new information. In addition, we’ll interview people from these three groups of migrants, spread across Europe. The postdoc and a number of researchers will then travel to Istanbul, Mogadishu and Bucharest to interview the people in the land of origin with whom the migrants have stayed in touch.” Thus, the research will combine empirical and qualitative methods. “On their own, figures don't tell us enough. Qualitative information can help us to interpret empirical data.”
The research has its challenges. “Of course; for example, it will be essential to find expert researchers with an interdisciplinary background, who are able to speak English and one of the languages involved.” Another problem relates to the operating principle of search engines. “Browsing habits influence the search results on Google, which means that the behaviour of migrants on the internet also is biased. What’s more, it isn’t clear which digital media will still be playing a major role in the coming years.”
A new field of research is opening up: the Postcolonial Digital Humanities. “Old Europe, with its geographical borders, is an outmoded concept. Today, everyone’s in touch with everyone else; we’re increasingly becoming cosmopolitan citizens.”
Text: Youetta Visser