From theory to practice: the E-MINDFUL co-creation process
Mr. Antonio Dante Santangelo is professor of Semiotics and Semiotics of Digital Cultures at the University of Turin. As a member of the Italian National Multidisciplinary Creative Group for the E-MINDFUL project, he conducted research on the narratives about migration in the Italian context.
To investigate the complex factors influencing attitudes towards migrants, the E-MINDFUL project intends to design information campaign prototypes about migration and test them. In doing so, the impact assessment will focus on the reactions of the so-called “moveable middle,” that segment of the audience who seems to oscillate between positive and negative attitudes. The intention is to promote migration narratives that go beyond the polarization that the topic often catalyzes, overcoming simplistic messages of us versus them or stereotyping associations such as “migrants-threats-terrorism-invasion”. As the project intends to develop messages and assess their impact at the transnational level, the method adopted in the co-creation process seeks to highlight the similarities and the differences in the way migration and migrants are framed in different contexts and cultures. The idea is that there may be something universal in the condition of those who migrate, which allows anyone to understand the meaning of their choices and their existential situation. Yet, in each country, the representation of such universal conditions can take on different nuances. Therefore, in order to build narratives that can convey the universality of the migrants’ condition and that can resonate in Italy, Serbia, in Germany or Bulgaria, E-MINDFUL tries to design stories that appear similar but different. Similar, because they are grounded on the same common substratum. Different, because they focus on themes and figures that change, depending on the national context.
Although complex, it is possible to guide a creative process that leads to the conception of such narratives. Adopting what in semiotics is called the ‘generative method for the construction and analysis of narrative texts’ (Greimas, 1983; Floch, 1990; Marsciani and Zinna, 1991) ensures that stories take on a comparable meaning in the eyes and ears of their respective audiences without losing their specificity and grip in different cultural contexts. According to this approach, the meaning of each story is constructed through concentric circles. From a very simple semantic core, known as the ‘deep level’, in which wide and ‘universal’ values are counter posed, the stories move to more complex levels. In taking on particular appearances and operating in well-defined places and situations, characters embody those universal values, something that enriches and contextualizes them, bringing to focus the narratives they give birth to.
According to this model of the “signification of narrative texts”, stories that are apparently different because they are set in different times and places, they focus on the specific events of particular characters, share the same structural functioning and the same “profound” knot. While keeping their own meaning, these stories share a common significance, as if they were referring to a profound vibration that moves every individual beyond the specificities of contexts.
Let us take an example. We can imagine a story about the value of freedom. At its deepest level, the story can be articulated around the opposition between freedom and some form of coercion. According to this deep structure, there will be characters who wish to be free, who help someone to be free or who oppose freedom because they believe, precisely, in the opposite value. There may also be additional characters who do not act, but merely preach the goodness of different ways of seeing things.
Such characters will determine the will, the duty, the power and the lack of power of others, according to the following pattern: (D1 JOINED WITH V1) (O1 S1 CANNOT BE JOINED WITH V2) but (D2 JOINED WITH V2) (A2 S1 COULD BE JOINED WITH V2). In practice, it means that one individual (D1), who believes in certain values (V1) and embodies them in the story will trigger the actions of another character taking on the role of the opponent (O1) of another individual (S1), preventing the latter from realizing his/her own values (V2). However, another character (D2), who believes in those same values and has already realized them for him/herself, influences the actions of some helper (A2) of S1, so that the latter can also set free and live according to those values.
This “deep” structure can be associated with many stories about freedom. Yet, in order for these narratives to make sense, having a common structure is not enough. Freedom itself is a generic theme that needs to be specified: freedom of speech, for example, or freedom from a patriarchal culture, freedom from an oppressive regime, or freedom of opinion, freedom of movement, freedom to choose one’s sexual orientation, and so on. In addition, it is necessary to establish where the events take place, in what era, what physiognomy, including aesthetic, places and characters should have, and so on. The whole of these elements contributes to “generating” the value of such narratives, which can acquire meanings that are in some ways similar, but also very different.
In the E-MINDFUL perspective, this is interesting, because – staying with the example above – it is clear that each cultural context has its own way of thematizing stories about freedom, while they share the same “deep” functioning. For example, in the account often given in Western countries of the current women’s situation in Iran, D1 is the role played by the ayatollah and the state at the same time, while O1 is the moral police. These characters, animated by their religious values, prevent S1, the women, from joining with their own value of freedom represented symbolically by the struggle against the veil. In Iran itself and abroad, however, there are people who play the role of D2, those who live according to the values that Iranian women want to realize and, through their example and contribution, are able to motivate A2 (those in Iran and abroad who support women’s protest) to act to support S1. Now, the fact that S1 are women in Iran, that A2 are their husbands, siblings and parents, that D1 are men currently in power who ask guardians (O1) to maintain the public order, are essential features to determine the meaning of this story.
The reason why this story resonates in Western countries is because, according to the narrative that gravitates around the Me Too movement and other similar movements, “our” women, too, have long been engaged in similar struggles, which have the same deep narrative structure but vary on other “levels” of the generative model we are talking about in this article. Although covering one’s head with a veil is imposed only in some places, in the whole world women still suffer because of a patriarchal culture that is rooted in religious and traditional values that prevent them from enjoying equal opportunities. They, therefore, also demand help from men to realize their own values of equality and freedom.
From this perspective, there are so many examples that can be brought: in every place in the world, the struggle for freedom takes on different connotations.
What matters is that perhaps now it is apparent how E-MINDFUL intends to guide the process of co-creating prototypes of information campaigns: through identifying deep narrative structures that underlie most migration stories, so that they can resonate “universally”, helping to look at migrants with different eyes, beyond the fiction of narratives artificially constructed to demonize or victimize them. A “deep core” that, in line with the generative model, will be contextualized in the cultures of the different countries participating in the project. In this way, the intention is to give rise to narratives that are both universal and particular, capable of reaching out to the audiences they address, without losing sight of their specific viewpoints and local problems.