About Myria Georgiou, Ph.D.: Myria Georgiou is Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Dr. Georgiou’s research brings together international fieldwork with analyses of mass and social media representations to explore the role of the media and communication in shaping the cultural meanings and lived experiences of citizenship, migration, and identity.
Dr. Georgiou has written or edited five books, most recently The Digital Border: Migration, Technology, and Power, co-authored with Lilie Chouliaraki, and published more than 60 journal articles in outlets including Journalism, Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies, Popular Communication, and International Journal of Cultural Studies. Dr. Georgiou’s research is politically and ethically driven. She has worked as a consultant for regional and international organizations, including the Council of Europe, which focuses on upholding human rights in Europe. Her current publicly engaged project is the Digital City of Refuge (www.digitalcityofrefuge.com), a visual archive of co-curated narratives of people, developed with migrants, activists, and other actors in the community, who live in cities like London, Berlin and Athens that host large populations of migrants.
Dr. Georgiou received her Ph.D. in Media and Communications from the London School of Economics, her M.Sc. in Journalism from Boston University, and her B.A. in Sociology from Panteion University in Athens, Greece. Before entering academia, Dr. Georgiou worked as a journalist for the BBC World Service, the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation, and a number of Athens dailies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in applying perspectives in media and technology studies and cultural studies to the study of migration, urban environments, and the politics of cultural identity and citizenship?
[Dr. Myria Georgiou] My story starts very personally as I think most academic stories do, especially those of people who are doing research at the juncture of media, communications, and cultural studies. My interest goes back to my own background and upbringing. I was born and raised in Cyprus, a country divided by war and interethnic conflict. I grew up thinking of ethnicity and identity as being both desired and problematic: making people who they are and who they want to be but also sometimes generating divisions and hate.
The place I grew up in was divided by a wall. I had no opportunity growing up to meet the people of the other ethnic group occupying the same country. I realized from a very early age how much I and all of us were dependent on the media to understand what is going on behind walls, to understand conflict, to understand race and ethnicity. What we know through the media informs the perceptions that we have about both ourselves and the other.
With this personal background, I developed an early interest around the ideas of ethnicity, race and, of course, migration. Migration has become a core element of thinking about ethnicity. Growing up in the Eastern Mediterranean, I saw how many people in the region were forced to migrate because of their ethnicity, because of the way that their ethnic identities had been constructed as threatening, or because of war. My research on migration, then, started with an interest in the way ethnicity is racialized and exploited in the context of conflict and how this consequently leads to many people’s migration. I had a very personal sensibility in addressing those questions, which I then tackled through my Ph.D.
During my graduate studies, I looked at the role of media in shaping ethnic identities of Cypriots in London. London has been the primary destination of Cypriots, like it has been for many people from former British colonies. Ironically, the British Empire, which for so long was implicated in fueling inter-ethnic conflict and war in colonized countries, then became a destination for those who had to flee. This created a situation where many migrants were needed for their labor but, at the same time, not wanted because they were seen as “different.”
My Ph.D. became an opportunity to investigate the racialization of ethnicity in the context of the global city and examine how, in this context, media and communications shape imaginaries of the Self and the Other. I was lucky enough to work with Roger Silverstone, one of the key figures in media and communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science, in developing my Ph.D. and then my postdoctoral research – a transnational cartography of diasporic and migrant media across Europe.
This was about 25 years ago, when questions of ethnicity and diaspora, at least in Europe, were very niche, especially in media and communications. From being a rather marginal area of study in our field, the mediation of migration, ethnicity and racialized identities has now become hugely important in media and communications. This is both the result of rising polarization in the public discourse on migration and of technological developments in communication, for example as smartphones became technologies of navigating and witnessing migration.
Such technological changes mean that the media environment of migration has transformed over the last 25 years. We’ve moved from a media ecology that is primarily dependent on mass media representations of the Self and the Other to a much more complex communication landscape, where different actors speak with different voices across a range of platforms and develop diverse, sometimes cacophonous, but powerful narratives on ethnicity and race, on migration and diaspora.
I became increasingly interested in understanding what this changing media ecology means for understanding identity and technology in the context of migration. Why do we so often talk about migration as a “crisis” now? Who shapes the discourse of migration as a problem, and how do different actors of migration use communication technologies, not only to negotiate the experience of migration, but also to imagine societies that some groups of people desire and some groups of people fear?
A lot of the work that I have been doing recently is trying to understand these precise complexities — how the current politics of migration have been shaped through media and communications, as well as across different spaces. Within nation-states and across them, digital communications are used to shape [dominant] discourses of migration but also contest them. They are used to surveil migrants but also to channel their voices. My research aims to examine both sides of this dynamic.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your current research draws from fieldwork you have conducted in Germany, Greece, and the United Kingdom during the so-called “migration crisis,” and more recently in Poland and Ukraine. Could you discuss how you became engaged with conducting fieldwork in these settings and briefly describe your experience doing this research?
[Dr. Myria Georgiou] Europe is the geographical territory that I know best, though I have always tried to develop research with insights that extend beyond Europe’s particularity, especially through projects in the United States and small-scale research in the Caribbean and Asia. But I’ve grown up and lived in different parts of this geographical and cultural space that is called Europe, and, given its history and its trajectories of colonial and cultural power, I think this is an important symbolic and territorial space to study politics of migration, race, and identity.
I am myself a migrant in Western Europe, even if I am a privileged one. I have experienced different forms of discrimination, especially in the context of different European crises that reminded me that I am myself an Other, even if an Other “from within.” My own positionality has forced me to be more invested and interested in the ways that migration has been constructed as one of the major crises of our times.
The so-called “migration crisis” of 2015 made this interest and awareness more acute. Europe, and the West more generally, started looking at questions of migration in relation to the significant uprooting of people, especially of Syrian people in the context of the Syrian war. As a critical media and communications scholar researching identity and migration, I could not be indifferent to how 2015 became an iconic or “fearful” moment in the way that we understand migration in Europe and in the West more generally.
The “migration crisis” has been constructed as a media event. The crisis was not people’s uprooting, because this uprooting had been going on since before 2015 and continued after 2015. Refugee uprooting takes place around the world, and there are innumerable cases where people have experienced the suffering that we saw on our screens in 2015. The “migration crisis” became a “crisis” through its discursive construction as a media event. We can see, for example, how the “migration crisis” of 2015 was constructed as a very different moment compared to Ukrainian refugees’ uprooting at present. Thinking about the ways that media shapes whether we think of migration as a crisis and whether we think of migrants as “people like us” or as “distant Others” has been fundamental in my research.
As in 2015, when I conducted research at Europe’s Southeastern border, in 2022 I conducted research at another of Europe’s borders — the Eastern border connecting and dividing Poland and Ukraine — in the midst of another war. Through this comparative lens, I recorded not only how mainstream media representations construct migrants but also how migrants themselves tell stories and navigate migration through their own media, often the smartphone as their personal, pocket-sized archive of migration.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How do you approach synthesizing insights from your fieldwork with, for example, media analyses of mainstream news coverage or user generated content on social media platforms? What does combining these levels of analysis help uncover about the politics of migration?
[Dr. Myria Georgiou] It has been very important for me throughout my research to think about communication from an ecological perspective – not as distinct moments of connection and disconnection or as fragmented representations and misrepresentations, but as systems of culture or, following British Cultural Studies’ inspiring model, as a “circuit of culture.” Thus, I always strive to think through the circuit of culture in my own research – to try to understand how Western media representations cannot be fully understood as separate from those representations produced by migrants and the other way around.
Even more so, I want to understand how audiences and users make sense of the different representations of migration within digital infrastructures and their political economy, which regulate who speaks, with what kind of a voice, and who listens. Of course, it is not possible to research all sides of the circuit every time, but I try to cross-fertilize knowledge I gain from different projects and to think about what we can learn if we approach media relationally.
In the research that I have done since 2015, I try to combine the different sides of the complex media ecology of migration by looking at mainstream media representations and narratives around migration alongside the way migrants themselves use media not only to produce content but also to navigate living under conditions of digital surveillance, for example during treacherous journeys or when they have to learn a new city.
It has been important for me to always keep an eye on these different sides of the media ecology for two different reasons. Epistemologically, I think it’s very crucial to recognize that the media environment that we occupy is diverse and used by a range of actors to imagine themselves and Others differently and to find ways to connect or withdraw from others. There is an epistemic significance, I think, in looking at both mainstream media and social media, both professional media actors and nonprofessional media actors, and how they develop their own storytelling within the highly regulated and surveilled environments where migration takes place.
There is an ethical drive in this approach too. Research ethics is hugely important, especially when we’re engaged with topics that touch upon enormous inequalities, the marginalization of many people, stereotyping, and, of course, the violence that specific groups experience. When we think about the politics and particularly the mediated politics of migration, it is essential to understand the hegemonic or dominant frames through which migration and migrants are constructed, and to create spaces where the voices and stories of the marginalized actors are also heard. Both are equally important.
There’s a problem with developing research claims that only focus on media representations, but there is also a problem in research that only looks at user generated content and idealizes this type of content. We need to study these as particular types of media and also examine their interconnections, which is what I have been trying to do individually and collectively in collaborative projects.
For example, one large project that we did in the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE involved a number of colleagues and students. It focused on the media representations of the “migration crisis” in media across eight European countries and in the English-language Arab press. [Learn more about this project here: https://www.lse.ac.uk/media-and-communications/research/research-projects/migration-and-the-media)]
Another example includes the research I’ve conducted with my colleague, Dr. Lilie Chouliaraki, which informs our recent book The Digital Border: Migration, Technology, Power. I have also worked on collaborative and interdisciplinary projects with colleagues such as the sociologist Suzanne M. Hall and the international development and communication scholar Deena Dajani. In our project, Resilient Communities, Resilient Cities? Digital Makings of the City of Refuge, we aimed to engage with and co-produce knowledge with migrants and activists. We are especially interested in their use of digital technologies as a medium of storytelling. [Explore this project in more detail here: www.lse.ac.uk/media-and-communications/research/research-projects/resilient-communities-resilient-cities]
[MastersinCommunications.com] One common theme across your work is your attention to the question of what it means for migrants and members of diaspora communities to attain a “voice” in digital contexts. In one recent article, you document how smartphones function as a “personal archival” technology that can help forced migrants resist media narratives that marginalize and silence them. Could you discuss the significance of “voice” in your research and discuss how “archival technologies” like smartphones form a productive counterpoint to the erasure of migrant voices that you document elsewhere?
[Dr. Myria Georgiou] One of the interesting complexities and contradictions of the media ecology when it comes to constructions of migration relates to the ambivalence of voice. Who speaks with what voice across different media spaces matters but not in a straightforward way.
In the collaborative research I mentioned before, which involved a number of colleagues and students in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, including Dr. Lilie Chouliaraki and Dr. Rafal Zaborowski, we studied media representations of the “migration crisis” across eight European countries. We found clear patterns where the voices of migrants were minimized and the voices of Western authorities were privileged by the way European mainstream media constructed and invited Western audiences to understand the supposed “migrant crisis.”
Especially on occasions of crisis, we see the voice of the subaltern or marginalized groups silenced in representations of media events. At the same time, we have also seen mainstream media begin to shift their practices because they recognize that, in the environment of social media and user-generated content, they have to represent different kinds of voices in their reporting.
However, while the number of voices seen might vary, the quality of the conversation does not necessarily shift. We often see a tendency for the media to reproduce hierarchical systems of voice. Often the subaltern, or the marginalized groups, appear to speak with very specific kinds of voices, something that I interpret in my work as the so-called “performative refugeeness.” For example, when it comes to the “migration crisis,” we often see that on both mainstream and social media, including well-intended progressive media and humanitarian projects, migrants seem to only speak with very specific voices.
These specific voices tend to be either the voice of the victim — the abject victim, people who have lost everything, who have nothing apart from their trauma and sorrow — or the voice of the entrepreneurial and resilient migrant refugee — the person who, against all odds, becomes an exceptional case, who succeeds and makes it, no matter the conditions around them. These are two very narrow frames through which we see migration repeatedly represented. There are exceptions of course, but there is a clear pattern where migrants only speak either as the exceptional entrepreneurial figure or as the abject victim who only talks about tragedy, sorrow, and uprooting.
Against this background, we can see how the smartphone becomes a personal archive, with migrants using the communication technologies they have at hand to manage the enormous pressures that mainstream narratives about who they are or who they should be put on their lives. I’ve found in my research that people are very aware that they can only speak, or are only heard, if they speak in specific voices. We have a very hierarchical system that supposedly uses non-hierarchical, user-generated content to diversify and enrich Western media narratives of migration, but actually does this in a very narrow way. In contrast, we have migrants’ own media and migrants’ own representations that are complex and diverse. There, we can see how people might speak and might want to speak in different voices, like everybody else does.
That’s how I developed this interest in research on smartphones. Part of my recent work includes the paper you mentioned in your question with Koen Leurs, who has been doing a lot of work on migrant storytelling as well. What we have tried to do with our research on smartphones, which we look at as pocket-sized, migrant archives, is reveal the diversity of voices, experiences, and identities that migrants have and record in their own media. Against hegemonic systems of representations that often deny migrants recognition and representation, smartphones reveal complex humanities.
In these pocket-sized archives we see not only stories of uprooting, risk, and trauma, but also stories of people who want to be young, who want to be professionals, to be women, to be LGBTQ, to have all the different identities that they are so often denied precisely because they are categorized as “migrants” in the media and in the societies where they settle.
In this kind of research, both our own and similar work by others, I think there is a real attempt to problematize the idea that that voice, in and of itself, has value. Voice can be frequently appropriated within commodified media environments, for example. What is ethically valuable though is opening communicative spaces for voice that recognizes the diversity, agency, and experience of migrants. We must engage with the complex identities of people who relate to being migrants, but also relate to them for being human and who, like the rest of us, have different experiences and voices.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your most recent book is The Digital Border: Migration, Technology, Power, coauthored with Lilie Chouliaraki. Could you unpack the concept of the digital border for our readers and discuss what it helps you capture about the politics of migration? How does this concept reflect or extend ideas about the relationship between urban and digital environments, as you have explored them throughout your career?
[Dr. Myria Georgiou] We just published The Digital Border with NYU [New York University] Press. This is a project that is really exciting for me and brings together seven years of research in different temporal and spatial contexts where migration is digitally constructed and governed.
The concept of the digital border tries to capture two distinct but interconnected axes through which we understand the role of media and communications in shaping the politics of migration: the territorial and the symbolic border, both of which are increasingly digitally constituted. In the book we show how different technological assemblages are mobilized to govern migration and its meanings.
In the first part of the book, we focus on the territorial border, showing how communication technologies such as databases and AI technologies are now used to expand the border perpetually, controlling migrant lives indefinitely. The territorial border, we argue, is not only a line on the map anymore, but it now expands everywhere where migrants are: from the external national boundaries to the cities where they settle and where data is constantly collected, subjecting migrants forever to opaque systems of digital governance and data profiles which, at any moment, might be used to expel them.
The symbolic border, we show in the second part of the book, frames the politics of the ever-expanding territorial border: the symbolic border unravels in the media narratives — social media and mainstream media — through which migration is constructed as a crisis and the migrant as an Other. Through media representations that stereotype migrants and divide citizens from migrant noncitizens, the border between Us and Them is reinforced and a politics of suspicion and fear against the Other is normalized.
Yet, in our conception of the digital border, we also wanted to discuss the possibility of resistance. We want to emphasize that the border, both territorial and symbolic, is never completely sealed. It is neither a fully controlled system of discourse nor a fully controlling system of migrant lives. This is because we have agents of migration, including migrants and activists in cities who resist those politics of perpetual control and surveillance and develop their own voices and systems of counter-surveillance.
There is also the alternative media that is developed by activists and migrants themselves, which challenges the symbolic border from within. The digital border thus is a system of power. It’s an assemblage of technologies of control but, as such, it also meets resistance.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Another place where urban and digital environments come into conversation in your work is your recent project Digital City of Refuge, which our readers can learn more about here: www.digitalcityofrefuge.com. Could you provide us some background on this project, which serves as a visual archive of narratives from “cities of refuge” – places like Athens, Berlin, and London, which receive people undergoing forced migration? What are some of the ways we see the intersecting relationship between the digital and the urban play out within these cities?
[Dr. Myria Georgiou] This is a project I am very proud of. The online archive we call The Digital City of Refuge is a co-creative project produced in collaboration with academics, artists, and, of course, the different actors of “the cities of refuge” — those arriving and those receiving them in Athens, Berlin, and London.
It was very important for us to co-create the key outputs of our research project with the actors of the cities of refuge, because we often, as academics, speak on behalf of the people who participate in our research. We wanted to make this a co-owned project of voice, where the different actors of the City of Refuge could speak in their own voices, choose the narratives that made sense for them, select all the photos that were used to represent them, and co-create and co-own the outcome. It is still not an ideal project, and issues of inequality and power remain, of course, but The Digital City of Refuge nevertheless represents a committed and systematic attempt to try to share this power, to narrate stories of migration, and give people the chance to speak in voices that they felt they owned.
The other important point about this digital archive was that we deliberately developed it around the City of Refuge as a space where the politics of migration is shaped, rather than specifically around the lives of migrants, as something separate from the cities where they arrive and settle. We wanted to move away from research conceptions that approach “the migrant” as a distinct category outside the spaces and cultures within which they exist. We wanted to move away from creating this “space of the Other.” Instead, we wanted to focus on the city as that space where different actors come together. It is a story of the city as a space of identity, communication, and hope, rather than the story of the Other.
Hopefully, The Digital City of Refuge is a reminder of the need to challenge conceptions of migrants as Others, either seen positively or negatively as such. Migrants are diverse constituencies, who differentially experience particular forms of inequality and marginalization but who, like other groups who experience marginalization and extreme inequalities, have complex agencies, which are situated in specific spaces and histories. That was the idea of the City of Refuge. Look at the city as a space of voice: a space of struggle, but also a space of hope and collaboration.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would like to give to students who are interested in digital media, the study of space and place, or the politics of identity and citizenship, who might be considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Myria Georgiou] I hope it is apparent to my readers that, for me, research is an intellectual project driven by an ethics of care and the desire to use our intellectual skills and power to unravel inequalities and support the democratization of communication. My advice for people who are considering doing work in media and communication is to think of the kind of ethical compass that drives their research. What, for yourself or others, do you want your research to do? What kinds of voices and experiences do you want to record, and what kinds of issues do you want to help understand and tackle?
Thus, I think, theoretically and methodologically, it’s very important for prospective or new graduate students to think about their intellectual and ethical compass and what kinds of implications their research has in relation to the world we occupy. This means thinking long and hard about what approaches to adopt. It means examining what we take for granted in our field and how we can use our research to go beyond the obvious or what is being taken for granted.
It means giving space for the voices of scholars and groups of people that are not often heard or shared, and, finally, it means helping academic audiences and hopefully public audiences understand a bit more about why media and communications matter, not only in reproducing systems of power but also perhaps in challenging them and questioning them.
Thank you, Dr. Myria Georgiou, for your insightful discussion of digital and symbolic borders in today’s technology-focused era, and for your commitment to advocating for migrant and migrant activist voices!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.