The New Keywords Project: A timely intervention in the debate around migration?

First published on Migrants’ Rights Network, 2 April 2016

The New Keywords Collective Project was launched in 2015 as a series of collaborative essays on key words or topic areas related to the current debate about migration and refugees. These include “crisis”, “European values” and the statistics themselves.

Founder Nicholas de Genova, Reader in Urban Geography at King’s College London, says that ‘What we are really seeking to do,’ he says, ‘is to “highjack” the dominant discourse around these topics and themes, appropriating some of the pervasive buzzwords of the dominant rhetoric and re-purposing them as keywords for critical reflection.’


It’s a commendable goal and the website has already attracted a lot of attention. Translations of the New Keywords into Italian and Spanish are underway and there is interest in translating the text into Dutch, German and Turkish.

The authors, all lecturers, researchers or PhD candidates in the field of migration studies, make a remarkable number of pertinent and often neglected points. The essays are rigorously researched and painstakingly crafted and should be required reading for any journalist or politician.

Crisis, what crisis?

Migrants and refugees travelling to Europe across Mediterranean in a dinghy

In an essay by Charles Heller and others interrogating the word “crisis”, the authors argue that this word is overused, often employed in the description of an event that does not meet the requirements of the word’s meaning. A “crisis”, they say, is ‘a moment of deep change that challenges our capacity to judge and make sense of it’. Yet it is too often used to describe either prolonged states, such as conflict in the Middle East and illegal migration to Europe, or far less critical ‘moments’ than the word signifies, such as the presence last summer of a few hundred migrants and refugees on the coast of France.

They take this argument further, showing how the use of the word “crisis” can serve political purposes. Its use disguises the normality and complexity of violence or migration flows, implying that these things are “exceptional” and require an “exceptional” response.

Deplorable pillage

Another essay challenges the phrase “European values” in a similar way. The authors argue powerfully that the very assertion that values such as human dignity, liberty, democracy and equality ‘could be depicted as “European” (or “Western”) is itself a deplorable act of pillage.’

The great strength of this project is its interrogation not only of the words it addresses but also the prejudicial attitudes that these words reflect and perpetuate.

Clunky navigation

How can this project can reach the broader public beyond the academic world? The website is very basic, navigation is clunky and there is little aesthetic appeal. The essays are long with dense paragraphs and no sub-headings to guide the reader. The text is clearly written with an academic audience in mind. I’m a PhD student and I still struggled to follow some of the arguments, which are themselves not overly complicated, but are made so by the language used.

A more fundamental problem is posed by the task the authors have set themselves. Their interrogation of the key terms forces them to use quotation marks every time they crop up. Even the website’s full title, ‘New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”’, is subject to this and becomes confusing and unsettling as a result. We need these terms and our accepted understanding of them to be challenged, but we quickly start wondering what, if any, meaning we can continue to ascribe to them and what words we could possibly use instead.

This website has great potential and I hope to see it realised. De Genova is spot on in his recognition of the importance of interrogating language and the deep-seated beliefs in which it is rooted. ‘The stakes,’ he says, ‘are ultimately a radical emancipation of our political imaginations in the hope of committing ourselves to envisioning and struggling to realise an altogether different world.’

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