Seeing double? How the EU miscounts migrants arriving at its borders

Postcards from ...

Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

Frontex, the border agency charged with European external border management, has released data claiming 710,000 migrants entered the EU between January and September this year.

According to the agency, this represents an “unprecedented inflow of people”, offering as a comparison data from last year, when 282,000 entries were recorded in total.

I found out about the data release via Twitter. Alarms bells immediately rang.


The numbers thrown out by Frontex are not only a noticeable increase on 2014 figures. They are also significantly higher than data published recently by the UN and the International Organization for Migration on the number of people entering the EU irregularly by the sea. These showed 590,000 estimated arrivals.

These figures are immensely important. They have a profound impact on the public debate about the refugee and migration crisis. They are quickly picked up by the…

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One crisis, three photos: how Europe started caring for refugees


Jan Blommaert 

Bayern München, one of Europe’s greatest and most distinguished football clubs, today announced that it will donate one million Euro to initiatives assisting refugees with shelter and support.

The news hardly makes headlines, in spite of the fact that it is actually quite spectacular. Organizations such as Bayern München are not normally known for generosity towards people other than their players, VIPs and sponsors; the fact that they now jump the bandwagon of grassroots support for (mostly) Syrian refugees tells us that it is, indeed, quite a bandwagon. And that bandwagon races ahead at an amazing speed and carries a rapidly increasing volume of cargo, in spite of European governments’ overwhelmingly discouraging response to calls for increased support and empathy towards those who seek refuge within the safe boundaries of the Union.


Undoubtedly, historians will later write about the summer of 2015 as a moment in which the EU all but completely lost control over its own public image. The summer started with the brutal suppression of whatever attempt towards regaining sovereignty and democracy was made by the Syriza government of Greece. The results of a referendum were brushed aside without much ado, and barking “austerity!!” became the default mode of communication of the European institutions towards anyone raising even mildly critical questions about it. The EU emerged from the Greek budget conflicts bruised and scarred but with a stiff upper lip; large segments of the European population, in the meantime, had turned their backs on the EU, and probably forever.

Greece was equally the scenery for the second wave of extraordinarily damaging events for the EU when hundreds of small and unstable boats, packed with refugees from the crisis areas in the Middle East, started arriving on the shores of the Greek Islands in the Aegean, often in dramatic conditions. I should be more precise, though. The damage to the EU, and to individual member states’ governments, was done when images of such arrivals were splashed on the front pages of almost any medium in the world.

The “refugee crisis” (as it is now dubbed) started in April 2015. Sure, there were boat refugees prior to that date (Lampedusa, recall), but when hundreds of dead bodies (including those of women and children) were discovered by patrolling ships in the Mediterranean in mid-April, Pandora’s Box was opened. The EU’s “Mare Nostrum” policy was instantly blamed for this tragedy – a repressive policy of “keeping immigrants out” as part of what is now dubbed “Fort Europe”. The outcry was tremendous, and the EU leadership rapidly changed tactics, sending navy vessels on search-and-rescue missions and bringing, thus, thousands of refugees safely ashore. The “refugee crisis” started as soon as the ideological angle of debates on immigration shifted from the immigrants themselves to the political institutions refusing assistance or support to them. Until then, and for a couple of decades already, the political consensus (and its propaganda, of course) had defined immigrants in negative terms, as “adventurers” and “fortune seekers” who have no good cause to seek asylum in the EU and were basically here to take advantage of the wealth accumulated by hard-working EU citizens. Since good numbers of immigrants were Muslims, suggestions of terrorist “fifth column” threats were whispered, and the heavy metal of moralizing condemnation of such “irresponsible” people by European politicians blasted through every TV and radio speaker. A very large chorus of journalists, opinion makers and citizens on social media joined in.

From mid-April 2015, the tone changed entirely. And the cause of that change was visual. The bandwagon started rolling as soon as extraordinarily sad and painful pictures appeared from refugees who did not look like the “adventurers” of European anti-immigrant propaganda. They looked like innocent victims, and the visual confrontation with such “real” refugees was what caused an opinion shift in favor of supporting refugees, and increasingly critical of governments’ stubborn refusal to do so. The burden of “guilt” for what happened thus shifted from the shoulders of the immigrants towards those of governments who had been busy designing repressive anti-immigration policies and had, while doing so, also neglected the administrative and material infrastructures required for offering support to those who applied for it under the terms of international conventions. The real “crisis”, in that sense, became less a crisis of huge numbers of people entering the Union, than a crisis of the perplexing inadequacy of the systems necessary to cope with such numbers. The crisis became political.


Before taking this argument further, a general point is in order. We live in a media-saturated society in which the supply of graphic images is virtually unlimited, certainly in an information market in which traditional mass media are complemented by vast volumes of social media broadcasting, in which citizen journalism, crowd-sourced information and virality are rapidly changing the rules of classical mass media propaganda. When Herman and Chomsky wrote their “Manufacturing Consent” (1988), they described a world in which the Murdoch empire could make or break governments as long as one applied the rules of propaganda. This propaganda model is in need of drastic revision at present: sure, Mr. Murdoch can still make or break governments, but he must keep track of a broad range of unpredictable (and uncontrollable) forces – true “mass (social) media” not within his control. The “light” communities of the social media age are still not taken too seriously by analysts of power and social structure; that is to their own peril, because we are seeing with increasing frequency and intensity how such “light” communities start behaving very much like the “thick” communities of classical social and political analysis. They abandon the quick-and-easy “clicktivism” often ascribed to them, move offline, get organized and start citizen movements and action groups, engage in new forms of economic transaction, and win elections.

Politics, in that sense, has become considerably less predictable, for the rules of public opinion formation have been pluralized and dispersed over vastly more voices and actors, many of whom cannot be brought under control that easily. What happens to the EU now, consequently, came as a surprise to many of its leading politicians – the summer months are traditionally a period of political insignificance, in which the media and their publics get upset about trivial things. In 2015, if politicians switched off their monitoring tools in June and switched them back on in September, they found themselves in an almost unrecognizable world.


I must get back to the images that triggered that change. The refugee crisis of mid-2915 was documented by means of millions of pictures, several of which caused considerable impact. There were shocking pictures, of course, of the drowned victims floating in the Mediterranean; of refugees trying to enter the Channel Tunnel in Calais; of refugees storming trains in Macedonia and Hungary; of seventy-odd dead bodies of refugees in a truck somewhere in Austria; of police brutalities committed against refugees; of makeshift or formal “concentration” camps for refugees, and of barbed-wire fences being raised along the borders of countries so as to keep the immigrants out.

Of these millions of images, however, three specific ones have made a massive impact – they went viral, were shared millions of times on social media platforms, and triggered avalanches of angry and committed commentary both in mass and social media. There is little intrinsically exceptional to the pictures themselves – those who have followed reporting over the summer have seen better and worse ones, to be sure. Semiotically, the sequence of three photos represents an escalation from bad to worse, but that is all. So the question as to why these specific pictures were “chosen”, so to speak, to become the emblematic ones punctuating the rhythm of mass grassroots mobilization among EU citizens cannot be answered by merely looking at them or by dissecting the semiotic structures they represent. There is a greater randomness to the actual image than to its context – if we wish to understand the impact of these pictures, it is the context that should concern us, and it is the context that I shall try to address in a moment. Let us first consider the three iconic images of the “refugee crisis” of the summer of 2015.

The first picture started circulating towards the end of April 2015. We see a confused scene on a Greek island in the Aegean in which a woman is dragged out of the sea onto the cliffs by a man. The man is a Greek citizen, and the woman an Eritrean refugee, whose boat had crashed into the cliffs just minutes earlier. The woman was pregnant and gave birth shortly afterwards.


This image was widely shared and intensely commented and discussed; the protagonists were interviewed and became modest celebrities for a short while. The supposed “danger” of immigration was here represented by a pregnant woman from Africa – not someone who corresponds to the propaganda stereotype of the young masculine fortune seeker, but a person embodying extreme vulnerability. The woman is a victim, not a perpetrator, and her face tells a terrifying story. Saving someone in that situation from an almost certain death is morally unchallengeable: it is something good, something we all have a duty to. Discussions on social media fora, consequently, quickly struck an outspokenly moral tone: the refugee crisis had become a question of good versus evil, and if governments remained hesitant or reluctant to welcome such people, the governments were a rotten bunch.

The impact of this picture was considerable for a while, until the headlines gradually started focusing on the Greek Syriza-Trojka drama which occupied most of public opinion in June and July. But then the second photo started circulating.

The second picture appeared in August; the scene and setting are almost identical to the first one. We again get a “landing” scene, of refugees on the rough shores of a Greek island, at dawn. An adult man, crying, holds a child in his arms and hugs another, while victims and rescue workers fill the background.

foto 2

This picture suggests a parent-child frame: a father in deep distress holding that radically vulnerable type of human in his arms – his children. Again, these are victims, and it is impossible to read anything else into this image. It is equally impossible not to imagine, and sympathize with, the misery experienced by the man, or his emotion at the moment he knows that his children are safe and alive. As a footnote we can add here that, semiotically, children connect the three photos – from a pregnant woman to a father with his kids, and soon towards the lone child: there is a line. But this is a footnote.

This picture went viral; memes were developed on the basis of this image, and it circulated with angry captions directed at the insensitivity and incompetence of governments turning such innocent people away from their borders. The picture revived the theme of refugees after some weeks of relative quiet, and it circulated in an expanded range of audiences. Its mobilizing force was obvious, and citizen movements started forming in several places in the EU.

In the first days of September, the third picture was released and hit the public like a nuclear bomb. That radically vulnerable type of human being, a child, was still alive and with his father in the second photo. In the third one it is dead and abandoned, lying as if asleep on a beach near Bodrum in Turkey, fully dressed and very, very small. If ever there was an image of an innocent victim, this is it.

ScreenHunter_409 Sep. 04 16.53

Not much more needs to be said about this photo because whatever can be said is utterly distressing. But the picture went viral in a global community, it instantly gave rise to memes and caricature replicas (see the image on top of this essay and the postscript below), it provoked hundreds of opinion and editorial articles in the mass media, and forced politicians to speak out. Even David Cameron, adamant until then about the UK’s refusal to accept more than a token number of new refugees, sounded mellow when he announced his willingness to accept a significantly higher number of refugees. The photo of Aylan (the boy’s name) had become a public opinion B-52..


The publication of this third photo generated a mass of active solidarity across Europe; it is this photo that persuaded Bayern München to donate one million Euro for such purposes. In The Netherlands, over one hundred celebrities published an announcement in newspapers stating their willingness to personally host refugees, given their government’s extreme reluctance to take appropriate action in this direction. Similar actions were noted in France and Belgium. In Finland, the Prime Minister (not someone known for left-wing sympathies) announced that he would host asylum seekers in his private residence. In Belgium, an entirely spontaneous movement had formed, started by one individual on Facebook, collecting clothes, foods and other crucial items for the benefit of the thousands of refugees camping out in an informal settlement in Calais. In a couple of weeks, the movement grew spectacularly and acquired an amazing level of organization and effectiveness. The massive public impact of the third picture made today’s convoy of this movement to Calais suddenly headline news.


Three photos, thus, shifted the balance of public opinion on refugees in a matter of months. They became emblematic, not just as images of the crisis but also as pointers to the moral positions people can assume in relation to it. And morally, the debate is polarized: inactive or hesitant government personnel, PEGIDA and other racist actors are now the target of moral stigmatization, while support for and empathy with refugees is morally qualified as a self-evident instance of “good”. This moral polarization shows us, perhaps, one of the engines pushing the “light” communities of social media offline and into the realm of social and political action traditionally reserved for “thick” communities. Moral causes have become the fuel for a new type of formal-informal voluntarist politics.

There are historical precedents to this, of course. Many of us remember this picture of a girl dreadfully burned by a US napalm attack in Vietnam:


There, too, the focus of moral outrage was a child, terribly hurt by military actions officially targeting an “enemy”. And the picture had a seismic effect on US public opinion on the Vietnam War. This phenomenon was, however, quite exceptional. Given the tremendous affordances of the new media environment in which we now live, much more of this is to be expected. There is no predicting whether any instance of it (let alone which instances) will have the mobilizing effects of the three photos discussed here. But what may be predictable is that governments can, and will, be confronted with mass grassroots moral opposition whenever it happens; and that they have very little control over what will cause such trouble, and when.

They will leave such conflicts badly injured if they fail to appreciate that such forms of moral opposition have a more “absolute” character, and are therefore far more “popular”, more compelling and less liable to compromise, than the good old ideological conflicts and disagreements that structured the field of politics for so long. Some will call it populism, no doubt. But it is a grassroots populism – like it or not – that is rapidly changing the rules of politics.

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POSTSCRIPT: “Aylan” as a viral motif

Within 24 hours after the publication of the third picture, the internet was ablaze with hundreds of popular-cultural uptakes of Aylan. Here is a small sample of them. See also

Artists Around The World Respond To Tragic Death Of 3-Year-Old Syrian Refugee


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Touchés par la photo d'Aylan Kurdi, ce petit garçon syrien de 3 ans gisant sans vie sur une plage turque après le naufrage de son embarcation, des dessinateurs ont pris leur crayon. Ici,
Touchés par la photo d’Aylan Kurdi, ce petit garçon syrien de 3 ans gisant sans vie sur une plage turque après le naufrage de son embarcation, des dessinateurs ont pris leur crayon. Ici, “L’Europe est morte”, pour Elchicotriste, auteur de ce dessin partagé sur

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Chronotopic identities


Jan Blommaert 

In their seminal study on the unequally accessible cultural capital of French university students, Bourdieu and Passeron made the following remark:

“Sans doute, les étudiants vivent et entendent vivre dans un temps et un espace originaux” [“Undoubtedly, students live and expect to live in an original time and space”] (Bourdieu & Passeron 1964: 48)

The specific time they live in is measured by the academic year, with its semesters, lecturing times and exam sessions. And the way they live it is relaxed, slightly anarchic and down to themselves when it comes to organizing their days, weeks and months – “le temps flottant de la vie universitaire” [“the fluid time of university life”] (id: 51). The specific spaces include, of course, the university campus, its buildings, lecture halls and staff offices; but also “des quartiers, des cafés, des chambres ‘d’étudiants’” [“’student’ neighborhoods, cafés and rooms”], cinemas, dance halls, libraries, theaters and so forth; the Parisian Quartier Latin, of course, serves as a textbook example here (id.: 51). It is no miracle, then, that a walk through the Quartier Latin during the academic year would reveal a specific demographic pattern –a dense concentration of young people who would be students and middle-aged men who would be senior academics – different from, say, people shopping along the fashion stores on the Champs Elysées or taking the commuter trains out of Paris at 5PM.

According to Bourdieu and Passeron, due these specific timespace givens, students acquire a sense of shared experience which, invariably, becomes an important part of their autobiographies later in life – “in my student days”, “we met when we were students…” The specific timespace of student life involves specific activities, discourses and interaction patterns, role relationships and identity formation modes, particular ways of conduct and consumption, of taste development and so forth, most of which are new, demand procedures of discovery and learning, and involve the mobilization of existing cultural and social capital in the (differential) process of acquiring new capital. References to similar timespace elements (a charismatic or dramatically incompetent lecturer, a particular café or a then-popular movie or piece of music) create a shared sense of cohort belonging with others, which co-exists with pre-existing belongings to social groups and which enters into posterior forms of belonging. In that sense, our student days do not compensate for or replace pre-existing class memberships (which the book documents at length), and neither is it the sole bedrock for posterior identity formation – it is, in Bourdieu & Passeron’s view, a relatively superficial phenomenon, “[p]lus proche de l’agrégat sans consistence que du groupe professional” [“closer to an aggregate without consistency than to a professional group”] (56), let alone “un groupe social homogène, indépendant et intégré” [a homogenous, autonomous and integrated social group”] (49), which reproduces underlying (class) differences while constructing one new layer of shared biographical experience. Thus, while students share almost identical experiences and develop particular, and similar, identities during their days at the university, the meanings and effects of these shared experiences will differ according to the more fundamental social and cultural identity profiles they “brought along” to university life.


Probably without being aware of it, Bourdieu and Passeron provided us with one of the most precise empirical descriptions of what Bakhtin called a “chronotope” (Bakhtin 1981: 84-258). Bakhtin coined this term to point towards the inseparability of time and space in human social action and the effects of this inseparability on social action; in his work he identified the “literary artistic chronotope” where “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole”, such that the chronotope could be seen as “a formally constitutive category of literature” (1981: 84). By means of chronotopes Bakhtin could address the co-occurrence of events from different times and places in novels, the fact that shifts between chronotopes involved shifts of an entire range of features and generated specific effects. He saw the interplay of different chronotopes as an important aspect of the novel’s heteroglossia, part of the different “verbal-ideological belief systems” that were in dialogue in a novel, because every chronotope referred to socially shared, and differential, complexes of value attributed to specific forms of identity, as expressed (in a novel for example) in the description of the looks, behavior, actions and speech of certain characters, enacted in specific timespace frames. Bakhtin, importantly, assumed that chronotopes involve specific forms of agency, identity: specific patterns of social behavior “belong”, so to speak, to particular timespace configurations; and when they “fit” they respond to existing frames of recognizable identity, while when they don’t they are “out of place”, “out of order” or transgressive (see Blommaert 2015 for a discussion).

In a more contemporary and applied vocabulary, we would say that chronotopes invoke orders of indexicality valid in a specific timespace frame (cf. Blommaert 2005: 73). Specific timespace configurations enable, allow and sanction specific modes of behavior as positive, desired or compulsory (and disqualify deviations from that order in negative terms), and this happens through the deployment and appraisal of chronotopically relevant indexicals (i.e. indexicals that acquire a specific recognizable value in a specific timespace configuration). Thus, one can read Goffman’s Behavior in Public Spaces as a study of the orders of indexicality operating in public spaces and not elsewhere, while his description of poker players in Encounters can be read as a study of the orders of indexicality valid in places such as the poker rooms of Atlantic City or Las Vegas (Goffman 1963, 1961). Obviously, Howard Becker’s (1963) Outsiders also operate the way they do in clearly demarcated timespace configurations such as the nighttime jazz club, as much as studies of doctor-patient interaction typically are set in the timespace configuration of medical centers and consultation times therein (Cicourel 2002).

In such timespace configurations, Goffman situated specific actors enacting specific roles (poker players can never have met each other elsewhere, and they gather just to play poker and do that competently), enacting specific, relatively strict “rules of engagement” and normative assumptions (focus on the game, play the game by its rules), as well as identity judgments (a “superb” poker player). Goffman, like Bourdieu & Passeron, Becker and others, described the indexical organization of specific chronotopes: the ways in which specific socially ratified behavior depends on timespace configurations, or more broadly, the ways in which specific forms of identity enactment are conditioned by the timespace configurations in which they occur. The “gatherings” described in Behavior in Public Places are such timespace configurations, and the specific modes of behavior Goffman describes and analyzes are the ones that “fit” this specific configuration. The careful description of such nonrandom chronotopic connections, by the way, bears a well-known academic label: ethnography.[1]


This is the central idea that I wish to elaborate in what follows: we can see and describe much of what we observe as contemporary identity work as being chronotopically organized; it is organized in, or at least with reference to, specific timespace configurations which are nonrandom and compelling as “contexts”, and “chronotope” enables us to avoid an analytical separation of behavior and context which is not matched by the experiences of people engaged in such activities. In its most simple formulation, the idea I’m attempting to develop here is that the actual practices performed in our identity work often demand specific timespace conditions; a change in timespace arrangements triggers a complex and massive change in roles, discourses, modes of interaction, dress, codes of conduct and criteria for judgment of appropriate versus inappropriate behavior, and so forth.

Take a pretty simple example: a group of colleagues who share their 9-5 daytime in the same office; all of them have mutually known names and roles, often hierarchically layered, and specific shared codes of conduct govern their interactions (the shortcut term for such codes is often “professionalism”). Men are dressed in suits and neckties, ladies wear similar formal-professional dress. The group, however, has developed a weekly tradition of “happy hour”. Every Thursday after work, they jointly leave the office and walk to a nearby pub for a drink or two. The moment they leave their office building, men take off their neckties, and the tone, topics and genres of talk they engage in with each other change dramatically. “Professional” and job-focused talk may be exchanged for banter, small talk about family life, joke-cracking or flirting. And the roles and relationships change as well: the office “boss” may no longer be the “coolest” person, and a very competent worker may turn into a very incompetent drinker or joke-teller. We see the same people engaging in entirely different social practices and relationships, embodying entirely different roles and identities – due to a change in the timespace configuration in which they move. “Happy hour” behavior is intolerable during office hours, and office behavior is intolerable in the pub (“no job talk!!”) – timespace reordering involves a complete reordering of the normative codes of conduct.

after work drink HK

Such phenomena, once we start looking for them, occur constantly. In fact, one may be hard pressed to come up with modes of social conduct that are not conditioned by nonrandom timespace arrangements. My suggestion here is to take this kind of “context” seriously – that is, let us address it in a systematic and meticulous way and see what purchase it has. Doing so may increase the accuracy of our analyses of the dynamic and changing nature of social life and of the groups that organize it. And as to these groups, identifying chronotopically organized identity work might contribute to a clearer understanding of the “light” communities we witness in so much contemporary work (see Blommaert & Varis 2015). Let me now try to outline some aspects of this issue.


At the most basic level, it is good to point out that the chronotopic nature of specific forms of identity is already entrenched in our everyday vocabularies. Thus, when we speak of “youth culture”, we obviously speak (be it with perplexing vagueness even in published work) about a complex of recognizable cultural phenomena attributed to a specific period in human lives – “youth” – which is often also specific to a place or a region. Talcott Parsons’ (1964: 155-182) discussion of American youth culture, thus, differs from that of French youth offered at the same time by Bourdieu and Passeron. “Youth culture”, therefore, is always a chronotopically conditioned object of study.

Let us take this commonsense observation as our point of departure. Identifying something as “youth culture” in terms of its chronotopic conditions involves and explains certain things. I shall first look at what it involves.

It involves generalizability. If specific forms of cultural practice mark specific periods of life, all such periods must have their own forms of cultural practices. In other words, a chronotopic qualification such as “youth culture” could (and perhaps must) be extended to any other form of cultural practices describable as tied to and conditioned by specific timespace configurations. In fact, there is nothing more special to “youth culture” than to, say, the culture of young parents, mature professionals or retired senior citizens. In each case we shall see specific forms of practice and identity construction conditioned by the specific stage of life of the ones who enact them, and usually also involving trajectories through specific places (think of schools for teenagers, banks for young people taking their first mortgage, kindergarten for young parents). And just as youth cultures typically set themselves apart by specific forms of jargon and slang (now both in spoken and written forms), other age groups similarly display such discursive and sociolinguistic characteristics.

Generalizability, in turn, implies fractality. There is no reason why chronotopic cultural practices would be confined to the “big” stages of life only, because even within narrower timespans we can see nonrandom co-occurrences of timespace configurations and forms of cultural practice and identity enactment. Think of the timeframe of a week, for instance, in which specific days would be reserved for “work” (involving specific trajectories through time and space) and others for, say, religious services, family meetings, shopping and leisure activities. The timeframe of a single day in such a week, in turn, can be broken down into smaller chronotopic units, with activities such as “breakfast”, “dropping kids off at school”, “going to work”, “being at work”, “returning from work” and eventually “watching TV in bed” all marked by nonrandom collocations of time, space and behavioral modes. The rules of macroscopic conduct also apply to microscopic behavior.

And if we take this second implication through to analytical strategy, we can see that in actual analysis, different chronotopes interact. The macroscopic chronotopes intersect and co-occur together with the microscopic ones, and the different chronotopes need to be constantly balanced against each other. To be more precise, the chronotope of youth culture, when looked at in practice, is composed of a large quantity of more specific chronotopic arrangements. Students, for instance, can perform much of their student practices from Monday till Friday in a university town, but perform their practices of friendship, family life, love relationships, entertainment and local community involvement during the weekend in their home town. And this is dynamic as well: the freshman student will organize his/her life differently from the senior and more experienced student, just as the junior professional will act differently from the “old hands” (and note that the transition from newcomer to old hand can happen very quickly – the literature on the experiences of frontline soldiers in the Great War is replete with stories of “aging” overnight during their first battle).

Different chronotopes interact also in ways that may shed light on contemporary forms of cultural globalization in which local and global resources are blended in complex packages of indexically super-rich stuff. Hip Hop is a prime example, of course (Pennycook 2007, Westinen 2014), where the global AAVE templates of Hip Hop are blended with deep sociolinguistic locality – often strictly local dialects – and lyrics that bespeak the (chronotopic) condition of local youth-in-the-margins. Chronotopes, thus, also involve scalar distinctions, and such scalar distinctions can be seen as the features that enable relatively unproblematic co-occurrences rather than conflictual ones.


The chronotopic nature of cultural practices explains a number of things as well. It explains generations, anachronisms and obsolete cultural practices, for instance.

Except for census sociology, generations are notoriously fuzzy and puzzling units of sociocultural analysis. As Bourdieu and Passeron pointed out, the joint experience, several years long, of being a student in the same university and program does not cancel the power of reproduction of inequalities across “generations”. Thus upper-class and working-class people may have attended the same schools, the same lectures and movie or theater performances, and spent time in the same cafés and neighborhoods – none of that would reshuffle the transgenerational cards of social class difference, for the same experiences have different meanings and effects depending on this slower process of transmission and social dynamics. The “generation” of social class, therefore, is a slower and longer one than that of, say, “intellectuals”, “engineers” or “jazz lovers”.

I would suggest that we can get a more precise grip on “generations” when we consider what was said above: that at any point in time, we organize our lives within interacting macroscopic and microscopic chronotopes. This means that at any point, our cultural repertoires might contain obsolete elements that no longer “fit” into the social order we now incorporate. Middle-aged people typically still have (and upon request, can perform) a vocabulary of slang obscenities developed during adolescence and hugely functional at that stage of life as symbolic capital for “cool” or “streetwise” peer group identities, but for the deployment of which very little occasion can be found in life at present. Similarly, many people still know small bits of mathematics jargon, of Latin and Ancient Greek, learned in high school but never used again since the last day of school. Such resources remain in the repertoire and can, perhaps, be invoked on nostalgic storytelling occasions, but would have very little other function or value. As we move through “generations”, the cultural stuff that defined the chronotopic arrangements of earlier stages remains in our repertoire, but becomes obsolete.

Such forms of obsoleteness, I would propose, might be of interest if we wish to get a precise understanding of sociocultural change. Entirely new phenomena are often tackled by means of very old and obsolete cultural resources – they are often tackled by means of anachronisms, in other words. Thus, the key social identifier on Facebook – something entirely new, see further – is “friends” – one of the oldest notions in the vocabulary of social relations anywhere. The entirely new social community configuration of Facebook “friends” is thus anachronistically addressed and molded in the terms of an entirely different social community configuration. The example can be infinitely multiplied: new events, processes and phenomena can be normal for a younger generation and simultaneously abnormal for an older one, while it is the older one that holds, in many social domains, the power to define, regulate and judge these new things, and will typically do this by taking refuge in old, obsolete concepts or discourses. Such anachronisms are often the stuff of public debate and social conflict, as when the “Baby Boomers” are blamed for the creation of economic bubbles and overspending, the “Woodstock generation” is getting crucified for their tolerance of soft drugs, or the soixante-huitards (those who were students in May 1968) are coming under attack for a lofty leftism or the “decay” of the moral order.

It is this layered (heteroglossic) co-presence of chronotopically organized practices, in a sometimes unbalanced and anachronistic way, that may lead us towards the finer grain of social order and social conflict. What exactly is contested across generations? And how exactly does this contestation operate? Those are questions we might begin to explore now.


Similarly, an awareness of the layered co-presence of such practices may enable us to get a more precise understanding of the complex balance between “thick” and “light” communities and forms of membership therein. In earlier work, we pointed towards the – in our view growing – importance of “light” communities on social media (Blommaert & Varis 2015), where people gather and jointly act while focusing on lifestyle objects, meanings and practices. Such “light” groups were never really privileged by sociology: the Durkheimian and Parsonian tradition had a marked preference, precisely, for the mechanisms of cohesion and integration that brought multiple disparate “light” communities together into a “thick” community (the nation, the tribe, the region, the family, the religious community etc.). And we have seen above how Bourdieu and Passeron disqualified students as an “aggregate without consistency” which could surely not qualify as a “real” social group.

Bourdieu and Passeron argued that in decent sociological study of students, due to the ephemeral character of this community, should not address the student community in isolation, for it could never be seen as entirely autonomous with respect to the larger, deeper forces of social class distinction (Bourdieu & Passeron 1964: 56). Thus, while students could be studied as a group, they could not be studied as a group in itself; the “groupness” of students must, rather, be constantly checked as to its features and characteristics against the “thick” community structures upon which it was grafted. I suggest that we can considerably refine Bourdieu and Passeron’s relatively rough base-superstructure model by paying attention to the specific chronotopic organization of behavior judged to be characteristic of specific groups. It would enable us, perhaps, to see that the “thick” structures, while perhaps determining, are not necessarily dominant in explaining the social valuation of cultural practices typical of “light” communities – the precise mode of valuation will be an effect of the specific chronotopic arrangements we address.


The largest social space on earth these days is the virtual space. And it is entirely new as a sociological and anthropological fact. I already mentioned how entirely new social environments such as social media are often approached from within anachronistic modes of social imagination; and the world of social analysis does not differ too much from that of lay practices in this respect.

I can only point towards the possibility of an extraordinarily interesting line of research in the vein sketched here. There are specific timespace challenges raised by online culture: contrary to the social imagination of classical sociology and anthropology, the social practices developed online involve no physical copresence but a copresence in a shared “virtual” space of unknown scale-dimensions, involve often an unknown number of participants (also often of unknown identity), combined with a stretchable timeframe in which temporal copresence is not absent but complemented by an almost unlimited archivability of online communicative material.

Thus, determining the specific chronotopic nature of cultural practices in a virtual cultural sphere promises to be a stimulating and thought-provoking exercise. Issues of scale – the internet is an immense social space – will call for ethnographic precision in analysis, so as to avoid rapid but unfounded generalizations of the kind “Facebook is a family of 2 billion people”. Using a far more refined research tool, directed with great precision at the specific context-situatedness of any form of social practice, must help us ditch such sociological (as well as political) illusions and replace them with a more complex, but also far more accurate, image of what really goes on in that colossal social space, what exactly contributes to modes of social organization there, and how patterns of organization change over time.


Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination (ed. M. Holquist). Austin: University of Texas Press

Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. Glencoe: Free Press

Blommaert, J. (2005) Discourse: A critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2015) Chronotopes, scale and complexity in the study of language in society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44 (in press).

Blommaert, J. & P. Varis (2015) Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identities. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 139.

Bourdieu, P. & J-C. Passeron (1964 [1985]) Les Héritiers: Les Etudiants et la Culture. Paris: Minuit.

Cicourel, A. (2002) Le Raisonnement Médical (eds. P. Bourdieu & Y. Winkin). Paris: Seuil.

Durkheim, E. (1985 [2010]) Les Règles de la Méthode Sociologique. Paris: Flammarion.

Goffman, E. (1961) Encounters: Two studies in the sociology of interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill

Goffman, E. (1963) Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the organization of gatherings. New York: Free Press.

Lukes, S. (1973) Emile Durkheim: His life and Work – A historical and critical study. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Parsons, T. (1964 [1970]) Social Structure and Personality. New York: Free Press.

Pennycook, A. (2007) Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows. London: Routledge

Westinen, E. (2014) The Discursive Construction of Authenticity: Resources, scales and polycentricity in Finnish Hip Hop culture. PhD Dissertation, Tilburg University & University of Jyväskylä.

[1] Or ethnomethodology and related disciplinary labels. In a similar vein, one can see the structuralist attempts at generalization and universalization as dechronotopicalizing attempts trying to transcend the levels of chronotopic situatedness inherent in all social behavior. Durkheim’s definition of “social fact” is an obvious and extremely influential case in point (Durkheim 1895: 99-113; see also Lukes 1973: 8-15). Saussure’s concept of “Langue” is a domain-specific application of Durkheim’s “social fact”.

The scope of the Greek defeat


Jan Blommaert

(translation: Adelei van der Velden)

The chronicle of bad decisions in Brussels and Athens has produced a small interim decision. After 17 hours of discussions by a group of weary, impatient, irrational and biased people, there is an “agreement” signed with Greece (see link below). Juncker calls this “agreement” a “win-win” situation “without winners or losers”, which according to Michel even has “hope” and “optimism” to offer. For whom, is the question.

Tsipras takes a series of demands back to Athens only to find their match in the requirements imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. The most urgent requirements are well known (tax reform, pension reform, etc.) and note that all these things are expressed in the most vague terminology (“broadening the tax base” for example, or “Modernizing Governance”, or constant references to “best practices” in the OECD or even “Internationally” – more vague is unfeasible), so there is plenty of room for manipulation in interpretation of actions and results.

Note also that the Greek vision included a number of important points (a) it  revolved around a tax shift from poor to rich. On this the document says virtually nothing, except for the aforementioned super vague “broadening the tax base”. Those measures, as we shall see later, are fully subject to the approval of the Troika. (b) Strengthening of the government, rather than a reduction of it, and (c) the entire Greek democratic control over the economic recovery plans, while international partners kept a say in the financial recovery plan. In addition, certain items were rejected a priori, while other proposals (the primary surplus, for instance) were stressed.

Note that these issues were also preserved in the “final proposals” of Tsipras to the Euro zone, as I explained in an earlier piece. That explains why these proposals were not a “capitulation”: they followed up on the approach already started in the proposals brought forth by Varoufakis in February this year. That this can not be seen as a submission to Europe was also apparent, needless to say, from the fact that it took 17 hours before the EU was able to define a position, and that this position is completely different from the Greek proposals, issued from February until last week. Only the current agreement is a defeat, and a defeat of enormous proportions.

Let us see what remains of the former Greek points, and what the Greeks now have to swallow.

  1. In the urgent demands there are the two points that were expressly rejected in February by Varoufakis as measures that would only deepen the recession: using VAT as an instrument, and reducing or delaying pensions. These expressly rejected items now need to be implemented. Also the privatizations, of which Varoufakis said they should be considered on a case by case basis, have been torn from the hands of the Greeks – not officially (Tsipras will explain that it is the Greek government that will do so) but effectively they are, because the EU is supervising the privatization and assesses their ‘implementation’ in a binding way.
  2. There is no longer a reduction of the primary surplus – another core requirement of Varoufakis in February. The structure of this surplus through an absurd 4.5% of GDP determines the rhythm of the budgets, and thus the austerity. Varoufakis proposed to reduce it to 1.5%. The document gives no figures, but “ambitious targets” which, if not met, should lead to “quasi-automatic spending cuts”. Moreover, this must be cast in a law by Wednesday. Needless to say that the Greeks are not the only ones who have a say in this: everything is under strict supervision.

“• full implementation of the relevant provisions of the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, in particular by making the Fiscal Council operational before finalizing the MoU and introducing quasi-automatic spending cuts in case of deviations from ambitious primary surplus targets after seeking advice from the Fiscal Council and subject to prior approval of the Institutions;”

  1. Furthermore theFebruarysectiononthelabor market has disappeared, in which the Greekswanted to followthe recommendations of theInternational Labor Organization. Whatwehavenowis this:

“• on labour markets, undertake rigorous reviews and modernisation of collective bargaining, industrial action and, in line with the relevant EU directive and best practice, collective dismissals, along the timetable and the approach agreed with the Institutions. On the basis of these reviews, labour market policies should be aligned with international and European best practices, and should not involve a return to past policy settings which are not compatible with the goals of promoting sustainable and inclusive growth;”

In plain language: collective labour agreements and the right to strike should submit to the chains. In a country where wages have fallen enormously, this is disastrous. And organized civil society also ceases to exist as a force in labour relations.

  1. Here we seeimmediatelyhow wide theEU conceives “economic policy”. EVERYTHINGfallsunder this label. While oneofthe fundamental elements ofthe Februarytext by Varoufakiswas thathe made adistinctionbetweena “financial” problem (in which others mayhavetheirsay) and”economic” problems(in which theGreek governmentis the onlyresponsibleactor).Thisdistinctionisreplaced here bytheclassicalelastic concept that”economic” is defined so broadly that it covers allpossible policies.
  2. That isthe next point.WhileSYRIZAexplicitlyrejected theinfluenceofthe Troika, a rejection to which itowed itsvictory, the Troikais back andstronger than ever.The Greekshave toswallowanunprecedentedmeasure, as you can read below.

“• to fully normalize working methods with the Institutions [= the Trojka] (…) The government needs to consult and agree with the Institutions on all draft legislation in relevant areas with adequate time before submitting it for public consultation or to Parliament.”

First, who decides what is ‘relevant’? Probably not Tsipras. Secondly, it is un-be-lie-va-ble that a political EU meeting imposes on a Member State to switch off its parliament and reduce it to a formalism. Legislative work is defined here as something that begins with the government, then goes to the Troika, and then finally to parliament (where amendments may again have to pass through the Troika). While we thought the parliament was the “legislator” in a democracy. The Troika checks here both the government and the parliament. It is indescribable that the EU imposes such a way to operate. And this is called NORMALIZATION of the methods of cooperation with the Troika. So this is “normal.”

  1. Moreover,andeven more mind-boggling: the Greekshave to roll back laws that were voted democratically:

“With the exception of the humanitarian crisis bill, the Greek government will reexamine with a view to amending legislations that were introduced counter to the February 20 agreement by backtracking on previous programme commitments or identify clear compensatory equivalents for the vested rights that were subsequently created.”

So, the Greek rule of law ceases to exist. A law that has been approved in a sovereign country can now be canceled by unelected external forces voted. Never demonstrated before in the EU.

  1. Tsiprassays this all is compensated by two things: an aid packageandadebt restructuring. As forthe aid program:watch how conditionally this has been formulated: thesummit”takes note” of a “possible” aid program, it asksthe Troikato examinehowthe aid packagecan be reduced(!!)through measures which further erode theroleof the GreekGovernment, and points tothe fact thatmoreneoliberalism allows for less support.

“The Euro Summit takes note of the possible programme financing needs of between EUR 82 and 86bn, as assessed by the Institutions. It invites the Institutions to explore possibilities to reduce the financing envelope, through an alternative fiscal path or higher privatisation proceeds. Restoring market access, which is an objective of any financial assistance programme, lowers the need to draw on the total financing envelope.”

  1. With regard to debt restructuring, this is also just a “rain check”. The Eurogroup is “ready to examine” whether there are “possible” and “necessary” “complementary measures” to be taken regarding the debt. BUT: (a) what is possible is just delay or spreading of the debt payments; (b) completely depending on the “full execution” from the rest of the agreement, and (c) with exception of real debt cancellation.

“Against this background, in the context of a possible future ESM programme, and in line with the spirit of the Eurogroup statement of November 2012, the Eurogroup stands ready to consider, if necessary, possible additional measures (possible longer grace and payment periods) aiming at ensuring that gross financing needs remain at a sustainable level. These measures will be conditional upon full implementation of the measures to be agreed in a possible new programme and will be considered after the first positive completion of a review. The Euro Summit stresses that nominal haircuts on the debt cannot be undertaken.”

Conclusion: there is simply nothing left anymore of the views of SYRIZA before and during the elections, of their Government Declaration, and even of  the plan by Varoufakis of February, which in itself was a major break with what went before.

The role of the Troika is even more extended, and Greece as legal construction is now fully in the position of a protectorate. Its executive power is controlled by the Troika, which takes all legislative work from the hands of the parliament. End of the democratic institutions as we know them.

The content of the agreement does not contain a single core element anymore of the plan Varoufakis submitted to the Euro zone in February. Every fundamental issue has been removed and replaced by perfectly orthodox neoliberal positions. It asks Syriza to destroy trade unions, to make the labor market entirely flexible, to sell off public assets, reduce or delay pensions. Of a more efficient Greek government remains nothing: the government is now back in Brussels and Washington, not in Athens.

And en route this informal club of State and Government leaders has on top of this abolished the sovereignty of an EU Member State, cancelled its rule of law, and rejected the cornerstone of Western democracy – the separation of powers. Surely something that creates “hope and optimism”. Until the day the same is applied to their own country.



Bye bye Montesquieu? How the EU redefines the “trias politica”


Jan Blommaert 

In the “agreement” concluded between the informal EU-summit and Greece on 13-07-2015, a remarkable statement was made, one that formally puts an end to two centuries of democracy-as-we-know-it. Here it is.

The government needs to consult and agree with the Institutions on all draft legislation in relevant areas with adequate time before submitting it for public consultation or to Parliament.”

“The Institutions” is shorthand here for what is more widely known as “the Troika”, the technocratic body composed of members of the IMF, the European Commission and the ECB and deployed in debt-ridden countries such as Greece. This body has no formal status and has, needless to say, no democratic statute. That means, concretely, that it is in no way publicly accountable for its decisions and actions, and that it cannot be in any way sanctioned by those affected by its decisions and actions. But this is unremarkable: the so-called “EU-summit” that acts as author of this clause is in itself an informal construction: it is not the EU Council, nor the Commission, let alone the Parliament acting here, but an ad-hoc “upgrade” of this other informal EU-construction, the so-called “Eurogroup”. Meetings of such bodies are in camera and not minuted. Formal control and democratic response are, thus, excluded.

Observe that the presence of the Troika as the all-powerful agent in determining the course of austerity policies in Greece – and the lack of democratic sovereignty following from that – was one of the key themes that propelled Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza party to a landslide electoral victory in January 2015. The acceptance of the Troika as an even more powerful actor is probably Tsirpas’s greatest defeat in the negotiations with the Eurogroup.

So let us return to the main point here. In the clause quoted above, the EU summit defines legislative work: it starts from the government, passes on to the Troika, and then ends in Parliament for “public consultation”.

Since Montesquieu defined the “trias politica” as the cornerstone of the modern democratic institutional architecture, the government is the “executive” branch, the elected parliament the “legislative” (the third, “judicial” branch is less relevant here). Put simply: laws are made in and by Parliament and then handed to the government for implementation. What the exhausted, frustrated and impatient political leaders present at the EU-summit (who in their own country undoubtedly would see the separation of powers through the “trias” as a sacrosanct item) have now written down, black on white, is the exact reversal: laws are drafted by the government, which thus becomes the “legislative” power as well as the “executive” one, while the elected Parliament is now openly reduced to “public consultation”, not decision. For in between both, now, stands a third party: the unelected (and, in effect, foreign) technocrats of the Troika, accountable to exactly no one, who act as ursurpers of both the executive and legislative powers in – what we still encouraged to call – a “democratic EU member state”. Observe that the possibility of legislative initiatives emerging from the parliamentary floor is not even entertained in the text of the agreement.

In a crisp but perplexing phrase, then, all of this is presented as the way “to fully normalize working methods with the Institutions“. This, in the eyes of its eminent authors, is normal “democratic” (or whatever) procedure. While it would be a violation of the Constitution in every EU member state, and remains the criterion defining the difference between a “parliamentary democracy” and, say, a dictatorship or a totalitarian system..

Not some obscure bunch of antipolitical technocrats has come up with this termination of the “trias”; but democratically elected political leaders meeting in an informal, but consequential, setting. These elected leaders will now have to defend this in their respective national parliaments. It would be good if democratic parliamentarians would raise this redefinition of the fundamental democratic institutional architecture, and ask them explicitly whether they really mean what they wrote down. I am sure that some strange responses will be forthcoming.