Understanding the Images of Alan Kurdi With “Small Data”: A Qualitative, Comparative Analysis of Tweets About Refugees in Turkey and Flanders (Belgium)

Cigdem Bozdag, Kevin Smets


One of the peak moments of the debate on the European refugee crisis was caused by the circulation of images of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Aegean Sea on September 2, 2015. The images triggered worldwide reactions from politicians, nongovernmental organizations, and citizens. This article analyzes these reactions through a qualitative study of 961 tweets from Turkey and Flanders (Belgium), contextualizing them into the framing and representation of refugees before and after the images were released. Our study finds that, despite their iconic qualities and potential to mobilize Twitter users around refugee issues, the images did not cause a major shift in common discourses and representations. Instead, references to Kurdi were incorporated into preexisting discourses on and representations of refugees, thus offering different actors in the public debate on refugees with new symbols and motifs to construct meaning.


Twitter, social media, refugees, Alan Kurdi, qualitative content analysis, Turkey, Belgium, Flanders

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