- The media hinders a sense of belonging to Norway
Many Norwegian-Iranians are highly educated, have jobs, and are formally well integrated. Yet Norwegian media hinders their sense of belonging to Norway. Sharam Alghasi demonstrates this in Culcom’s first doctoral dissertation. "There is surprisingly little focus on what kind of consequences the media coverage of immigrants has on the immigrants themselves," says the sociologist.
Sharam Alghasi submitted Culcom’s first doctoral dissertation. Photograph: Khazaleh
"We got very irritated because of all the immigrant-hostile attitudes in the newspaper. It had very bad effects on our temper. Our children have grown up with newspapers and started to read them early. We noticed that those they could identify with, colour or background, they were all criminals. That’s why we stopped."
For many years, the married couple, Ashgar and Bahar, were faithful subscribers to Aftenposten, but the way the newspaper covered “immigrant issues” – and especially the connection between immigration and criminality – upset them. Thus, they decided one day to unsubscribe to the paper.
Ashgar and Bahar’s narrative is a part of Sharam Alghasi’s doctoral dissertation titled “Iranians in Norway – Media Consumption and Identity Making.” Here, the sociologist demonstrates that the media’s often stereotypical coverage of immigrant issues leaves an impression on immigrants. The Culcom scholar has achieved something that few others have. He has not only analyzed how Norwegian media represents “the other.” He has also examined how the media’s representation of “the other” affects “the other.”
Before the dissertation defense: Sharam Alghasi and Dissertation Chair Anne Lise Ellingsæter.
After the dissertation
Alghasi shows how the media, in reproducing the distinction between “us” (Norwegians) and “them” (immigrants), hinders a sense of belonging among Norwegian-Iranians in Norway. The informants related that the mostly negative coverage of Iran, Iranians, and immigrants in general in the media led to them feeling even more excluded from Norwegian society.
- The way they focus on Iran, on negative things, sadness, sorrows, and the misery in the country doesn’t create pleasant feelings. Those of us living here, suffer from these programmes with such focus. The way they talk about us, the way they treat us, indicate that they look down to on us. They say “this is them [Iranians] with a life full of misery”. In fact I got goose bumps when I watched the film. I was sweating, says Hassan (45)
-The media looks down on us
With the aid of a questionnaire, the sociologist started out by mapping the media habits of 181 Norwegian-Iranians. What media do they use, and how do they use them? What can this tell us about their relationships to Norway, Iran, and the world? Subsequently, he conducted in-depth interviews with 20 chosen informants. He supplemented the data by carrying out participant observation in their homes.
The other half of the dissertation consists of an analysis of a film that TV channel TV2 showed during the World Cup in 2006, prior to the match between Iran and Mexico. This is the film that caused Hassan to get goosebumps.
The film, which was supposed to introduce the two countries, upset many Norwegian-Iranians. Iran’s participation in the World Cup was actually an opportunity to exhale. For once, Iran was associated with something other than terror, war, and misery. Iranians could, during that time, practice an “imaginary pride.” Instead, the film reproduced the dominant representations of Iran within Bush’s “axis of evil.” It showed boys who play football between the remains of a house that was ruined by an earthquake. This representation exists in stark contrast to the film about Mexico, which is not a wealthier country than Iran. That film presented a happy upper-class family.
The sociologist viewed the film together with a selection of 20 Norwegian-Iranians. Many of them emotionally reacted to the representation. They pointed out that the film reminded them of prevailing conceptions about Iran in the Norwegian media and in society in general. This also corroborates an analysis found in the media archive A-tekst. In Norwegian media, what is perceived to be “Iranian” is often represented as “different” and “inferior” in relation to what is considered to be “Norwegian.”
War, hijab and Osama bin Laden: What children associate with Iran: From Oslo Science Fair 2008
"East Europeans Rob Us Of Everything": The often stereotypical coverage of immigrant issues leaves an impression on immigrants.
“Why do Iranians dance salsa?”
- In Norway, they never want to say things in our favour. They always want to show our weaknesses. But my country has invented lots of things; they don't show it. If they send a journalist to Iran, they go and collect only negative things. They don't go to see the good things. They don't go to (wealthy) Northern Tehran, they go to (poor) Southern Tehran, says Bahram.
The media’s version of what is “Iranian” has concrete consequences on the daily lives of the informants. The media images haunt them in many situations, even when they are out dancing salsa. Kaveh says:
- I feel I am a citizen of Oslo, that Oslo is my city. But I feel that society doesn't give me this sense of belonging. I have been dancing Salsa for ten years and I am very good at it. But each time new people talk to me, they ask why I dance Salsa since I am Iranian. Even there I can't escape being Iranian! In these situations you must have some answers like "Why don't you dance traditional Norwegian, since you are Norwegian?"
-Despite the fact that they hold their own on paper with regard to their levels of education and employment, the informants do not feel at home either in Iran or Norway, the sociologist says.
No room for Norwegian-Iranian cosmopolitanism
Alghasi asserts that many Norwegian-Iranians live with “double unpleasantness.” They are for the most part highly educated, secular, and politically aware. Most of them are critical toward nationalism, like Iranian television broadcasts, and advocate cosmopolitan ideals instead. For example, one mother relates that she has consciously raised her daughter without a special ethnic or national identity. Many fled from Iran as members of the opposition. Still, their complex identity has no place in either Norway or Iran. They live outside of both the Norwegian and Iranian “we”. They are caught between two stools.
We find this “double unpleasantness” in their media usage. The informants spend a lot of time on the news – not just Iranian news, but also Norwegian and international news. For many informants, the day begins with the news and ends with the news. When everyone has left for the day, Kaveh (46) remains at work for two to three extra hours in order to read Iran-related news on the internet. In addition to the standard Iranian websites, he goes to Google News where he types “Iran” in the search box. "It is a sort of madness," Kaveh says.
The hunt for news, stresses the sociologist, is not just about the news itself. It also has to do with the search for oneself, one’s identity. The sociologist talks about a “surveillance system” that the informants use to see how they were reported on and represented – not just as Iranians and immigrants, but also as “Muslims.” This is because they are often associated with Islam and terrorism. They also end up in dilemmas. When they attempt to add nuance to the media’s images of Iran, they end up in situations where, in a way, they must defend the regime they fled from and cannot identify with.
Important to reflect on the media’s role
Sharam Alghasi believes it is important to reflect on the media’s role to achieve unity in a society:
-Many people are focused on creating a national “We” under which everyone belongs, has access to the same resources, and are loyal to the same society. This is also a relevant topic when we discuss the future of the welfare state in a society where an increasing number of people have backgrounds in other countries. In reproducing stereotypes about “the other”, the media hinders their sense of belonging to Norway. These images are a result of power relations and international politics that the media fails to challenge.
-Why are you so focused on this topic?
-I have been focused on the media since doing my undergraduate thesis.
-Because I was upset about the representations I saw on the debate programs on television. They were inaccurate, banalizing, and cheap. The debate programs irritated me to no end. So I wrote an undergraduate thesis where I analyzed a debate program on TV Norge. I demonstrated that it hinders social coexistence between different peoples. My Master’s thesis had to do with how the two TV channels TV2 and NRK discuss immigration in debate programs. I hoped that I would get the chance to witness how the dynamic between the media messages and what these messages were about develops.
Maz Jobrani: Is an alternative media coverage of Iran possible?
-Why do so many people without Norwegian backgrounds write about “their own”?
- I would ask instead, “Why not?” These people have a special competency that the other researchers in our society lack. They see the nuances, cultural codes, and symbols.
-What surprised you the most while you were working on this?
-Three things: (1) How anti-religious Norwegian-Iranians were: I had some assumptions but was surprised anyway; (2) How strong the surveillance system they have is for figuring out the way in which the media is writing about them; (3) The massive focus on news. They are real information junkies.
-You concluded the dissertation with a stand-up comedian?
-Yes, the American-Iranian stand-up comedian Maz Jobrani talks about a dream. Jobrani portrays a hypothetical BBC report in which a smiling a cookie-baker would say: “Hello, my name is Mohammad and I am baking cookies”, and the reporter would simply turn to the camera and say that “that was the report from Tehran, back to you Bob” without all negative associations surrounding Iran and Iranianess.
-This is a relaxed representation of Iran that is not associated with war, terror and fundamentalism. It is a dream, because it never happens, Alghasi concludes.
- Download the thesis (pdf)
English translation by Amanda Dominguez. See original in Norwegian: - Mediene hemmer tilhørighet til Norge
Revealing Media Habits Among Norwegian-Iranians - In studying media habits among Norwegian-Iranian people, sociologist Sharam Alghasi wants to comment on the relationship between Norwegians and Iranians (Culcom, 11.6.06)
Is Media a Resource for Invisible Minorities? - Cameroonians in Norway consciously use the media to acquire knowledge of Norwegian society. At the same time they feel like the Norwegian media excludes them, says Henry Nsaidzeka Mainsah (Culcom, 24.4.07)