Should I stay or should I go?

Over the last couple of decades - and intensifying recently with the waves of Middle Eastern peoples fleeing their homes in the face of civil war and international proxy-wars - a culturally defined story has become widely accepted by mass populations and social elites alike - something of a rarity in today’s fragmenting cultures.

The story is about migrants (economic or otherwise), refugees and immigration. The story is that 'foreigners' arrive in a country of destination and stay forever more – because that is what immigrants do. The implication of this received wisdom is that this is a problem.

These assumptions are based on values - and the implications are generated by those values systems.

But is it true that migrants and refugees are also immigrants?

This is a framing issue and is being used to frame a crisis of vast proportions (over 230 million displaced people in the world today) into a 'wedge' issue to be used by absolutists of all political persuasions to further agendas deeply rooted in human psychology.

The loose use of language, in particular classifying people as ‘immigrants’ or ‘refugees’, is a problem.

Immigrants – voluntarily leaving their country of origin for a better future somewhere else – probably do intend to stay forever more.

Refugees – to a large extent involuntarily leaving their place of origin – are likely to want to return to their place of origin but under different conditions.

As long as the story as given is widely believed, it retains its power to influence. But if viable alternative narratives are developed the story may lose its power.

A recent article in the New York Times presented an alternative narrative to the story.

A Channel 4 News television report in the UK further developed the alternative narrative a few days later.

The new story – and new frame - illustrates a multi-cultural reverse exodus, of people voluntarily leaving 'refugee safe havens' in Europe to go back to the communities they left, even as the wars that drove them out continue.

The returnees had a variety of reasons for going back - none of them political or ideological, but very real nonetheless. Their reasons may have been stated in physical terms – weather, food – but just as often the reasons were deeply values-related in terms of their self-image and self-expectation being stymied in their new environment. Just being safe and secure was not enough.

The CDSM model of individual and social change predicts this behaviour, encapsulated in the short statement, "A need satisfied is no longer a need".

Research over three decades has shown that once the Settler needs of individuals and societies are met Prospector needs begin to emerge. During this time of transition confusion about motives and behaviours can be rife. Language often fails to clarify issues – especially at the values level.

Values Modes analysis is a good way of clarifying some of the confusion and the misunderstandings that arise from it.

In the language of values it seems clear that many of the sources of discontent in refugees - mostly involuntary displaced people who have had their previously satisfactory lives disrupted by war - is a result of their shattered dreams of a 'better life' (Prospector level needs).

Many left their countries because conditions threatened not only their basic physical safety but also their basic self-identities as efficacious human beings capable of providing better lives for themselves and their families.

It is true that, at the most basic level, their physiological needs – food, water, a safe place to sleep, protection from the elements – were threatened. Satisfying these needs is, of course, at the root of Settler values systems. Survival on a day-to-day basis is success.

That said, Golden Dreamer Prospectors can revert to a Settler-driven 'locus of control' if their efforts to satisfy their needs are thwarted. This is a well-recognized dynamic in individual values change.

When thwarted Golden Dreamers and Settlers both have similar needs but have different dynamics of change, cultural experts, media and politicians can develop stories that have little or nothing to do with the real issues.

The NYT article quotes some of the refugees and potential immigrants complaining about the food, cold weather and expensive cigarettes as a good reason to return their war torn countries. The Channel 4 report also reported food and weather as reasons for whole families returning home and leaving the 'promised land' behind.

Under these circumstances, a fundamental principle of values change is at work.

Settlers have a need to be ‘normal’ - to have today be just like the past. Simply put, when today is colder than normal and the food is different they do not perceive themselves as normal and become unhappy or dissatisfied.

A Prospector, who wants to be different, may be stimulated at first by the new environment – different weather, different food – and use it to create a different identity. But if the changes do not facilitate that Prospector being able to develop his or her idealized self-image – as a financially and socially successful individual – the Prospector will also become unhappy or dissatisfied.

Two values systems – both unhappy – but motivated by different reasons. A recipe for confusion.

Not enough is written about this, as for most of history the immigrant/refugee who left a native culture - often for 'economic reasons' - was unable to return to their native land because of geographical distances and transportation difficulties. Think of the great exodus of Europeans to the New World over the last 400 years. The world was much, much larger then than it is now.

In today's world the fleeing person can sell their belongings for a one-way ticket to the promised - or at least 'safe' - land even if they have to pay people smugglers to get there. But if they don't like it there it is much easier to return. This results in people, who traditionally would have become immigrants, instead exploring this option to their culturally-defined 'migrant' or 'refugee' identity - and even their own self-image.

If there is no perceived possibility of return then it is something 'you get used to' and it becomes part of the 'referential self'. But if return is an option then ‘not getting used to’ is an option that earlier generations did not have. If this be so then many experts may be wrong about the implications of the culturally-defined story.

Different values sets react differently to the new conditions.

Broadly, Settlers expect to be disappointed by life and just want to fit in - to be normal. Part of this 'fitting in' is to come together in enclaves of people similar to themselves - the classic immigrant communities that don't integrate in the first generation of migration. Within their communities they share a common language, history, music - and food! They assimilate into the dominant culture into which they have migrated at a pace that suits their values. They believe they cannot go back - but they also believe they can save what they've got, a very Settler version of happiness.

Prospectors, throughout history, with a 'no going home' perception will think and behave very differently. Rather than try to hang on to the past they will look for opportunity in the future. They are the ones with the dreams, not just of surviving but of becoming 'a different person' - a success to be esteemed by others. They are more than happy to change their last names to more nearly fit the dominant culture, to change their personal histories (some call it lying, some call it 'street smart'), to change their language and styles of self- presentation so as to make a success in the new culture.

These two values sets and dynamics have defined much of the last 400 years of European and American history. Indigenous populations have argued for centuries about what immigrants add or subtract from their destination countries – often in terms still heard today, for example :

  • they stay in their own little groups,
  • they never learn the language,
  • they are lazy and should go back to where they came from or
  • they come over here, take all the jobs, take over the corner shops, and think they are better than us.


These different frames are values-based judgements and lead to very different solutions acceptable to the local population and electorate.

For much of the past there were no government or NGO refuges/safe havens for the young men who now have gyms to work out in, or free places to sit around smoking cigarettes, while 'someone' sorted out a job for them or provided them with a method of 'getting you a girlfriend or wife'. This type of expectation, exhibited by some modern economic migrants, is new.

In the past, most temporary refugees or more long term immigrants didn’t have access to or an expectation of destination country organizations providing food and shelter, or international aid facilities providing care. They were left to their own devices to survive and thrive – often within communities of displaced Settlers.

New demographics, produce new dynamics and new understandings.

CDSM research has shown that most economically developing countries will tend to have high numbers of younger people, and that they will more likely be Prospector while their parents are Settler. This fact alone indicates that the type of response seen in the NYT article is more likely to occur today than it has been at any time in the past.

Among the younger Prospectors and especially the Golden Dreamers it is very likely they came to Europe to make their dream come true - but like all Golden Dreamers, they are not too sure how to make that happen. When their dreams fail to materialize, they are likely to revert to their locus of control, to' fitting in'. They may return to the 'devil they know' as a way of dampening their cognitive dissonance.

A return to their homeland, with no financial resources, but to a place (possibly devastated by war) they 'know', will enable them to feel more normal. Here at least are the basics – food, weather, culture - that make them feel normal and provide them with a platform to 'rebuild their dream'.

Golden Dreamer refugees who decide to stay will be the go-getting, get-ahead type immigrants who create vibrant and expansive subcultures in the first generation and solid dream-driven cultures among their children. Today’s and tomorrow’s immigrant communities are likely to be much shorter lived and have very different social histories than in the past when most migrants would have been Settlers. Their energy and willingness to change can change older societies for the better.

But older European societies must also expect many of the most professional and qualified among the refugees (more likely to be Prospector than Settler) to return to their country of origin once some form of settlement between warring faction is achieved and a new normality can begin. Involuntary refugees are not the same as voluntary immigrants.

The implications, opportunities and threats are enormous, and with the tides of immigration expected to increase in the coming years a very different dynamic should be expected. It is likely that 'moral panic' driven policies adopted by many destination counties will be out of synch with the values of many migrants.

We must expect the confusion generated by ill-defined 'labelling' of migrant, refugee and immigrant to continue to be bandied about by politicians and pundits in the media - and less than optimal solutions to be generated through these fundamental flaws of definition.

The future is unlikely to resemble a past in which many social injustices were visited upon newcomers by established populations. In today’s smaller world the real question will be posed by the newcomers, "Should I stay or should I go?" (H/T The Clash)