Researching Norms and Values: The Emic and Etic Approach

In this blog post, Elzbieta Goździak , Izabella Main, and Iza Kujawa reflect on the methodological approaches they have deployed in their field research in Poland, Hungary, Lebanon, Turkey, and Thailand to differentiate between the insiders’ points of view and the researchers’ interpretation of the collected data.

Elzbieta M. Goździak, Izabella Main, and Izabela Kujawa, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań


Empirical research on norms and values constitutes a big part of the NoVaMigra project. We want to understand what role different values play in the refugees and immigrants’ integration into the European host societies. The readers of this blog have already gotten a glimpse at the research our colleagues are doing in Germany. In a blog post published in November, Franziska Bohm wrote about her attempts to explore transmission of European and national values in mandatory integration courses all immigrants in Germany must take.

Today, we want to reflect on our own research, both in terms of the subject matter we are studying and in relation to the methodological approaches we have deployed.

We have been conducting empirical research in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Lebanon, and Thailand. Our task is to understand the norms and values that underpin assistance efforts aimed at integrating refugees and immigrants in different countries in the European Union. We have also been asked to explore the ways ‘European values’ are communicated to newcomers settling in Europe by ‘value agents.’ Many policy-makers assume that refugees and immigrants need to embrace ‘European values’ in order to show that they deserve to enter what Bridget Anderson calls ‘community of values.’

The NoVaMigra team is interdisciplinary. Today, dear reader, you are going to get a taste of how three seasoned anthropologists have engaged with this research. Let’s start….


What are ‘European values’?


There are multiple interpretations of ‘European values.’ The expression is often subject to different uses and misuses, by individuals and institutions. The European Union and its member states refer to the EU Treaties, with the clearest expression of values in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU). Article 2 states: ‘The EU is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.’ These quintessentially democratic values are shared by other democracies outside the European Union, and outside the European continent—countries like New Zealand, and Canada come immediately to mind—therefore calling them ‘European values’ seems a little presumptuous, doesn’t it?

‘European values’ have been invoked both to support refugees and migrants and to attack them. Demagogues such as Viktor Orbán have positioned themselves as defenders of a Christian Europe and enacted anti-migrant policies to protect Europe from being overrun by Muslims. On the other hand, humanitarians often appeal to a vision of Europe ‘As a community of nations that has overcome war and fought totalitarianism.’ In his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the EU in 2012, José Manuel Barroso (2012), President of the European Commission, assured his audience that the European community ‘will always stand by those who are in pursuit of peace and human dignity.’

It seems that both visions of Europe are wrong. Orbán’s rendition omits the fact that Europe is a diverse continent, in which Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and secular traditions have been present for centuries. Orbán’s vision also claims that refugees and asylum seekers present a threat to ‘European’ traditions of tolerance, freedom, and democracy.  Barroso idealizes the European community. History reminds us that the principles of tolerance, democracy, and freedom have been fought for and won, usually against the violent resistance of European elites. Ironically, many of the refugees seeking safe haven in Europe have struggled for the same values and rights in their home countries.


Is there evidence that focusing primarily on shared values facilitates integration?


Considering the strong focus on shared ‘European values’ promulgated by many European countries, we wonder if these values are as essential to immigrant integration as policy-makers in Brussels or Budapest believe. As mentioned above, the term ‘European values’ has been contested. Even before the expansion of the European Union (EU) into Central and Eastern Europe in 2004, scholars have deliberated who and what counts as ‘European.’ A familiar binary – the making of the ‘European’ Self and the casting out of a ‘non-European’ Other is at the heart of such identity formation. With increased migration, these debates have intensified.

Presenting shared ‘European values’ as rosy ideals and failing to acknowledge violations of values in the host society makes the value transmission efforts disingenuous. As pointed out by our colleagues in the paper on the European value landscape, values may be considered as local values connected to a particular community, cultural or religious group, a certain tradition, or group solidarity. Additionally, in many countries the values presented as ‘national values’ are in fact liberal democratic values. Care needs to be taken not to conflate the two; otherwise the value transmission programs are nothing else but a top-down imposition of ‘elite’ values biased towards social and cultural norms of the majority. The challenge European policy-makers face is how to define values in non-ethnic and inclusive ways to signal to refugees and immigrants from day one that they are part of ‘us’ and an important element in ensuring social cohesion. Values based on ethno-cultural practices do not lead to positive integration outcomes in diverse societies. There is a need to engage newcomers in a thoughtful dialogue to identify what values they find important themselves and want to impart on their children as the second generation grows up in Europe. We might be pleasantly surprised how much we all have in common.

The migrants and refugees as well as the service providers assisting them we interviewed in this and other projects emphasize that immigrant integration is affected by many factors. Traditional immigration countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States have always emphasized the importance of economic self-sufficiency. Therefore, providing refugees and immigrants with equitable access to the labor market even before they learned English had always been a number one goal of integration efforts in countries of immigrants. Ideally, newcomers would also receive a thorough orientation to the social mores, laws, and legal systems of their new country but understanding these traditions is not a substitute for decent employment, vocational training, and opportunities for upward mobility.

Economically, opportunities for upward mobility represent a crucial incentive for newcomers to integrate themselves. Investment and professional advancement beyond ethnic businesses not only promote linkages with the host society but also help newcomers build foundations for their children. And finally, labor force participation not only provides migrants with sustainable livelihoods but also prevents social isolation.


Who needs to be educated about values?


Focus on the host society’s values takes away from the grass-root discussions many refugees and immigrants have in local communities. One Chechen woman living in Poland we interviewed spoke at length about the necessity to teach young men and boys respect for women. “My sons don’t have good role models,” she said, “my husband was tortured and died and he cannot teach them how to treat women.” Her friend wanted us to know how much she values interfaith dialogue and spoke about the necessity to promote Muslim-Christian understanding.

While rights-based immigration and integration policies at the European and national levels are important, action at the community level where the web of local relationships determines the immigrant experience is equally if not more valuable. Participation in local governance and integration programs in Warsaw, Gdańsk, and Poznań shapes immigrants’ attitudes toward their new country and the cohesiveness of the neighborhoods, towns, and cities they adopt as their new homes. In many different communities, local actors, including the newcomers themselves, have found novel ways to assume this responsibility and foster incorporation of newly arrived immigrants into broader society.

There is a need to increase participation of refugees and migrants, and ethnic community organizations in the decision-making processes in Brussels, in the capital cities, and in local municipalities. Local organizations need the support of national governments but they also need the opportunity for self-determination. The populist tendencies to present refugees and immigrants as a threat to ‘European values’ and traditions of tolerance, freedom, and democracy are misplaced. There is a need to change misperceptions that members of the host society and newcomers have of each other. Bridging the gaps that separate different groups would strengthen communities, mitigate divisive social tensions, and, of course, position immigrants to participate more effectively in the wider society.

There is also a need, especially in relatively homogenous European countries, to educate the general public about diversity, tolerance, equality, and respect for all. School curricula ought to include historical teachings about how discrimination, anti-Semitism, and other anti-values led to wars and genocide. We have to focus both on the present and the past.


What is the best methodology to research these issues?


In this project we use the term ‘value agents’ to describe the people—NGO activists, bureaucrats, teachers, scout leaders, sports coaches—tasked with teaching or role-modeling European norms and values. This terminology is not widely accepted on the ground, especially among refugees and migrants who often have negative connotations associated with the word ‘agent.’ The ‘value agents’ themselves do not always subscribe to this terminology either. Moreover, they often do not describe their activities in terms of values and value promotion, but rather in terms of motivations that underline their actions and facilitate their involvement in integration programs. UN actors such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) use the less-loaded term ‘cultural orientation’ when referring to value transmission.

As anthropologists, we aim to elicit the emic or insider’s point of view and uncover folk taxonomies because these depict the ways refugees and those serving them conceptualize values and norms applicable to their lives and work. Following both the theoretical and methodological precepts of  ethnoscience, we juxtapose the emic perspective with the etic or outsider’s viewpoint. This way the reader always knows what and how refugees and service providers conceptualize the debates of norms and values—or motivations, passions, driving forces—and how we, the researchers, analyze them and what labels we use. We do not build a priori conceptual maps or frameworks to guide our interviews. Rather, we follow the story line the interviewees put forth.


Elżbieta M. Goździak is a fellow at the Center for Social Justice at Georgetown University, Washington, DC and a visiting professor at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, where she teaches in cultural anthropology and migration studies. She can be contacted at

Izabella Main is an Assistant Professor in cultural and historical anthropology at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań. She can be contacted at

Izabela Kujawa is a PhD Candidate in cultural and historical anthropology at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań. She can be contcted


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