Valorised and Vilified: What Do 'Citizens' Do?

Published 28 April 2015 / By William Allen

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This blog was first posted in the seminar series "Citizenship and Migration", a joint series by COMPAS and Politics in Spires, on December 5. It has since been updated.

In my current work with the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS), I focus on the ways that British newspapers talk about migration issues and relate these narratives to public perceptions and migration policy changes. Using techniques from corpus and computational linguistics, which enables researchers to analyse large amounts of text, I look for (ir)regularities and significant patterns of words. These contextual patterns, called ‘collocations’, can provide insight into a concept: one of the major contributors to linguistics, John Firth, famously expressed this feature of language when he said ‘you shall know a word by the company it keeps’.

wordcloud_WAApplying Firth’s guiding principle to study of UK press portrayal of migrant groups reveals that, in the case of immigrants and asylum seekers, their company is relatively negative. Dr Scott Blinder and I showed that from 2010-2012, the British national press most often described ‘immigrants’ as ‘illegal’ while portraying ‘asylum seekers’ as ‘failed’. But what about citizens? It is clear that debates about ‘who’ citizens are (as well as normative claims about who they ‘should’ be) are important to understanding the politics of citizenship. However, another fundamental question occurred to me: what do citizens do, in the context of migration? Describing the kinds of actions and activities in which citizens reportedly engage—however we may define them—opens further discussion about the nature of citizenship itself.

I returned to our original corpus of 58,000 items mentioning immigrants, migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees from all UK national newspapers that had published continuously between 2010-2012 (more details and reflections on the dataset are available here). Using the Sketch Engine, a web-based piece of software that can look for collocations among nouns, verbs, and adjectives, I asked a key question: when the words ‘citizen’ or ‘citizens’ appear in this corpus of newspaper texts, what action is linked to them? As an exploratory way of initially getting to grips with the concept of a ‘citizen’, I think it reveals some interesting insights.

Table 1 shows the top ten verbs that are collocated with mentions of either ‘citizen’ or ‘citizens’ in national UK newspaper coverage of migration from 2010-2012. ‘Top Ten’ in this context refers to those verbs with the strongest statistical relationship to the target words, although the selection of ‘ten’ rather than five or 15 is admittedly arbitrary (more information about the precise statistical measure used is available here). The actual number of times each verb is collocated with ‘citizen(s)’ throughout the corpus appears in brackets as well. It’s also important to note that Table 1 refers to any citizens, not just ones from a particular nationality or country.

Table 1. Top Ten Verbs Collocated with ‘Citizen(s)’ as Subject and Object, MigObs News Corpus 2010-2012


What Do Citizens Do?

‘Citizen(s)’ as Subject of a Sentence

What Is Done to Citizens?

‘Citizen(s) as Object of a Sentence


struggle (8)

naturalise (31)


enjoy (11)

protect (53)


live (48)

become (214)


emigrate (7)

marry (35)


travel (8)

extradite (10)


suffer (8)

evacuate (10)


flee (7)

rescue (8)


vote (5)

advise (9)


seek (7)

expel (7)


deport (4)

detain (9)

In the left-hand column, we see that mentions of ‘citizens’ occur alongside verbs mentioning movement (EMIGRATE, TRAVEL, FLEE). The word DEPORT actually refers to citizens being deported, not citizens deporting other people. Examples from the corpus illustrate how some of these verbs actually appeared:

  • Britain, the US, Sweden and Japan upgraded warnings to citizens travelling in Europe. (The Express)
  • In 2008, for example, many more British citizens emigrated than returned to the UK, and many more EU, Commonwealth and other foreign nationals arrived than left. (Sunday Times)
  • Mr Cameron promises to "roll out the red carpet" for wealthy French citizens fleeing the punitive tax rates of François Hollande's administration. (Financial Times)

Meanwhile, closer inspection of the eight instances of STRUGGLE appearing with mentions of ‘citizens’ reveals that these are almost entirely about people who are facing economic difficulties, which has implications for the meaning of ‘successful’ citizens:

  • For too long now, Cameron and Osborne have run the country from a cosy little bubble of wealth and privilege, showing time and again they don't have the faintest idea what it's like to be an ordinary citizen struggling to pay the bills. (The People)
  • Irish citizens are struggling with shrunken incomes, emigration and depleted public services because the banks were saved. (Sunday Times)
  • He is obviously in denial about the kind of life this Government has imposed on the citizens struggling with austerity. (Sunday Mirror)

Focusing on the verb ENJOY also shows emphasis on the types of wealth, legal rights, or other resources that are conferred to citizens:

  • There is no working holiday visa programme of the type UK citizens enjoy in Australia and New Zealand. (The Guardian)
  • Of course prisoners have rights - to be reasonably fed, clothed, and housed - but they do not have all those that free British citizens enjoy. (The Daily Telegraph)
  • Dubai has reclaimed land from the Persian Gulf and constructed luxury housing on the reclaimed land, and the city of Chicago has filled in hundreds of acres of Lake Michigan to create parkland that is much enjoyed by its citizens. (Financial Times)

Turning attention to the right-hand column, we can see the kinds of actions that are done to citizens. NATURALISE and BECOME refer to a process of changing into a citizen, illustrated by the following examples:

  • The son of a former Pakistani air force general, Shahzad entered higher education in the US and became a naturalised citizen. (The Guardian)
  • French immigration minister Eric Besson said he was amending a Bill to strip naturalised French citizens of their nationality if they commit crimes punishable by five or more years in jail. (The Express)
  • Under Home Office proposals, non-payment of bills would also delay an immigrant's application to become a British citizen. (The Times)
  • The US has responded by diluting its third appeal: the ease with which holders of advanced science degrees can obtain visas and green cards - and ultimately become US citizens. (Financial Times)

Also interesting to observe are two different clusters of words implying services provided by a state to its own citizens (PROTECT, EVACUATE, RESCUE, ADVISE) in contrast to more punitive activities (EXTRADITE, EXPEL, DETAIN):

  • Iraq has sent several aircraft to evacuate its citizens from Damascus, though it sealed a major border crossing at al-Qaim, which the rebels captured on Thursday. (The Times)
  • Which party can best manage the climb out of recession - safeguarding public services and protecting the most vulnerable citizens? (The Observer)
  • If the U.S. wants to extradite a UK citizen it needs only to outline the alleged offence, the punishment specified statute and provide an accurate description of the suspect. (Daily Mail)
  • Eric Besson, the [French] immigration minister, said he wanted to broaden the criteria for expelling European Union citizens from France to include "aggressive-begging". (Financial Times)

Although this post did not set out to complete a full linguistic analysis of language around ‘citizens’ and citizenship, its initial descriptive findings do link with some of the debates and conversations already happening in both this series and wider scholarship. By turning attention to the activities associated with citizens—in this case, as reported by British newspapers in the context of media coverage about migration during a politically crucial time period—I believe we can gain additional insight not only into who counts as citizens, but also what kinds of citizens are valorised and vilified.

Further Reading