Making Sense of Society: Caoimhe Ryan

For the last two years the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has held a writing competition to encourage and recognize the writing skills of ESRC-funded students. Winners for the 2016 round were honored March 21 at a ceremony in London. Social Science Space will publish the winning essays, runners-up and eight shortlisted pieces in the next few weeks; here we present the shortlisted essay, “Fostering inclusion in the face of division,” from Caoimhe Ryan of the University of St Andrews.

For more on the competition, click here.

Fostering inclusion in the face of division

Anti-deportation demonstrator
(Photo: BY-SA 2,0)
Caoimhe Ryan
Caoimhe Ryan

By Caoimhe Ryan
It has been a confounding year. In 2016, polls and pundits alike failed to predict the outcome of the UK’s EU membership referendum or the US presidential election. As the year draws to a close, as the results sink in and consequences begin to play out, many of us – as social scientists and as private citizens – find ourselves working to make sense of what has happened, what it says about our current reality, and what it means for the future.

Public anxieties about migration featured conspicuously in both winning campaigns. We should therefore expect much of this sense-making to centre on those anxieties, and on the mobilisation of the electorate in part on the basis of those anxieties.

The events of 2016 aside, when it comes to international migration it is negative public attitudes and political rhetoric that stand out most vividly, colouring our perception of the whole social context. On the face of it, it is a context that appears to be defined by opposition to immigration and the rejection of migrants on the part of national majorities.

It is my contention, however, and a jumping off point for my work that such an impression of the social context of immigration is incomplete. Approaching immigration only in terms of majority antipathy obscures the long history of everyday solidarity, support, and amity that has existed and continues to exist between migrants and non-migrants. It side-lines the agency of migrants and countless positive experiences of immigration.

As we work to make sense of how the rejection of migrants is mobilised, we should also strive also to understand how support and solidarity for migrants have been and can be mobilised.

Since the late 1970s, anti-deportation campaigns have been an important feature of the context of immigration in the UK. These grassroots movements aim to generate public support and protection for migrants (individuals and families) who are at immediate risk of deportation. In my research, I examine the ways in which anti-deportation campaigns have worked to mobilise that support.
In the face of much antipathy towards migrants, how do campaigners persuade the public to offer support and solidarity to people facing deportation?

Rather a simple answer is that the public were not mobilised in support of ‘migrants’. Across anti-deportation campaigns, those in need of help are typically represented not as migrants, but in ways that challenge negative beliefs about migrants. In ways that, at the same time, make their plight relevant to those from whom help is sought.

For instance, those at the centre of campaigns are often presented as members of a local community, embedded in local life. Depending on the time and place of the campaign, they are sometimes presented as allies in struggle against adverse social and political forces. In social psychological terms, they are presented as ‘ingroup’ members. As ingroup members, their plight becomes an ingroup concern. Equally, as ingroup members they are not ‘different’, threatening, or unwanted; they are ‘us’.

The people at the centre of campaigns are often presented as families under threat or as members of vulnerable groups. Such representations argue for the legitimacy of their struggle and humanise them in the face of the largely dehumanising rhetoric surrounding migration. Campaign support becomes a matter of defending humanitarian or political values.

Anti-deportation campaigns make the case that the fate of those they are helping is bound up with the fate of those from whom help is sought. What happens to them is a reflection of who ‘we’ are and who ‘we’ strive to be as a society.

The mobilisation arguments used by anti-deportation campaigners answer many prevalent discourses around immigration, offering alternate ways of seeing people who might otherwise be seen only as ‘immigrants’ or ‘asylum seekers’, ways that foster identification, evoke our better nature, and quell concerns about threat.

Anti-deportation campaigns work to actively generate help and solidarity whilst simultaneously navigating social and political processes that inhibit positive responses to migrants. Looking outward, similar demands are likely to affect any prosocial cause supporting members of disadvantaged or marginalised social groups.

In the wake of this year’s divisive political campaigns, as we work to make sense of the electoral success of those advocating further division, it is vital that we not lose sight of important examples of inclusion and support. As much as we need to understand the power and consequences of calls for rejection and exclusion, we also need to examine the tools and methods used to resist those calls and to instead bring people together.


“Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual” |Wilhelmiina Toivo, University of Glasgow

“Living and looking for lavatories” | Lauren White, University of Sheffield


“Marginal money, mainstream economy”| Max Gallien, London School of Economics and Political Science

“Biotechnology and the world of tomorrow” | Elo Luik, University of Oxford


“Better healthcare with deep data” | Alison Harper, University of Exeter

“Child labour: making childhood work” |Sophie Hedges, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

“What future while living in uncertainty?” | Vanessa Hughes, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Ensuring a sweeter future” | Siobhan Maderson, Aberystwyth University

Understanding the forgotten decade” | David Pollard, University of Birmingham

“Schools, funding and donor power” | Ruth Puttick, Newcastle University

“Fostering inclusion in the face of division” | Caoimhe Ryan, University of St Andrews

“Listen to the local” | Ruben Schneider, University of Aberdeen

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