Reification and the Refugee: Using a Counterposing Dialogical Analysis to Unlock a Frozen Category


  • Kesi Mahendran
  • Nicola Magnusson
  • Caroline Howarth
  • Sarah Scuzzarello


Thousands of individuals each year seek refugee status and the question of who can be accepted requires politicians within democracies to seek a public mandate. Unlike other socio-political categories individuals cannot self-identify as refugee; the category must be bureaucratically conferred. Therefore sustained humanitarian public concern is vital to the acceptance of refugees. This article sets parameters on this public concern. It examines how public narratives reify the refugee category. Showing how this reification constrains the citizenship, integration and opportunities of individuals, now safe, yet continually categorized in everyday public discourse as refugee. Interviews, focus groups (Study 1) and ethnography (Study 2) were conducted in Sweden and the United Kingdom (N = 57). The article introduces a counterposing dialogical analysis where public positioning of refugees is counterposed against dialogue by “refugees” anticipating their positioning. The analysis uncovers an hegemonic social representation of humanitarianism indexing “the refugee” as the passive recipient of help framed by a public narrative diachronically frozen in the initial act of flight. Three objectifying reification processes stabilize the category. “Refugees” in turn employ counter-positional tactics of distancing, compensation and future-orientation. The limited success of these tactics suggest the need to scale up such tactics to collective-level communication strategies. Success of communication strategies requires questioning the underlying function humanitarian-talk serves in creating a sense of European identity. Together these strategies could re-work the temporal features of the refugee category facilitating a repositioning and enabling the emergence of post-refugee narratives.