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Digital Storytelling with Refugees: Analysis of Communication Setting from the Capability Approach Perspective

Simona Bonini Baldini


This research investigates the communication setting of the Digital Storytelling Workshop through the analysis of a case study carried out with a group of refugees and asylum seekers within the European project “IntegrArt”. By analysing this communicative process, we will reflect on the relationship between Media Studies and the concept of Human Development as theorised in Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s Capability Approach. In so doing, it will be possible to understand how communicative processes act in a performative way on the capacity that individuals have to imagine themselves and act as active and responsible subjects. What will emerge from this study is therefore the importance of deepening our understanding of the concept of Human Development within Media Studies dealing with migration.

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1The image of the connected migrant (Diminescu 2005, Leurs and Ponzanesi 2018) questions the media icons of the disembarkations, the masses, and the exiles in their condition of “double absence” (Sayad 1999). This leads to a reconsideration of the subject in our case the refugee and the asylum seeker—not to understand what s/he truly is, but rather to open up perspectives on what s/he is not, and what s/he could be, within an interaction made possible by technological mediation. Analysis of literature concerning the media representation of refugees reveals how the media not only spread a message, but act in a performative manner to create an image shaped by relations of social and cultural power (Chouliaraki and Zaborowski 2015). For this reason, the means of communication are closely related to the ways in which a society develops and the possibilities it has to do so. By building on this line of research, the present study aims at analysing the relationship between communication devises mediated by digital technologies and the idea of Human Development, starting from the analysis of the use of Digital Storytelling Workshop with a group of refugees and asylum seekers. The connection between these two elements derives from the observation that, for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in general, the means and possibilities of accessing digital technologies should not be viewed as a secondary asset, but a primary one, which can impede or facilitate the understanding of oneself, of others and of one’s position as an active agent in the receiving society.

2This debate will be held at a theoretical level, questioning the correlation between the use of digital technologies and Human Development. After analysing the “dispositif” of communication (Meunier 1999, Larroche 2019) put into action during the Digital Storytelling Workshop, we will then proceed to deepen our understanding of the concept of Human Development through the analysis of the Capability Approach theorised by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Differently from Development Economics, which identifies economic growth in terms of income as the main priority, the Capability Approach focuses on what people can be and do, with the purpose of identifying which are the opportunities really available for them. According to this approach, an economic system is considered “healthy” or “ethical” when it allows people to live a long and healthy life, to access good education, to get a satisfactory job, and to be able to participate in public debate. On the one hand, the choice of this approach positions itself within an ongoing debate on the use of the Capability Approach in Media Studies; on the other, it derives from the need to investigate the role of Digital Storytelling communication setting within a theoretical frame, which is able to keep social, economic, technological and political aspects together.

3The analysis of the experiences of the Digital Storytelling Workshop, realised with a group of refugees and asylum seekers within the European project “IntegrArt”, will take into consideration the technological and spatial aspects, as well as the power relations between the workshop participants and organisers. From a performative point of view, it will be shown how these elements prove fundamental for refugees in order to be perceived and perceive themselves as active subjects, who are able to contribute to the development of the receiving society.

4The analysis of the Digital Storytelling Workshop as a tool for research shows the importance of studying the media representation of asylum seekers and refugees, not only because it reveals the complexity of the process of building an identity, which mass media often represent as unambiguous, but also because it contemplates the importance and responsibility of mass media in contributing to the development of society.

5This paper is structured as follows. Firstly, it will analyse the DST employed within the European project “IntegrArt”. This analysis will be based on an empirical study: I conducted a participatory research by taking part in all the phases of a partner’s Digital Storytelling Workshop project. The workshop considered in this contribution falls under what Kelly McWilliam defines as “Specific Digital Storytelling”. This is inspired by the personal experiences of the narrator, who tells them in the first person, uses his/her own voice and chooses photographs that can represent his/her story—this includes family photographs that the author chooses to represent his/her story visually, both during the creative phase and the final sharing of the story. Born at the beginning of the 1990s thanks to Dana Atchley, Joe Lambert and Nina Mullen, who created the Center for Digital Storytelling, Digital Storytelling quickly spread all over Europe and today it has a vast worldwide network. (McWilliam 2009). An extensive body of scientific literature testifies to the diffusion of Digital Storytelling as a practice applied in numerous sectors, from education to medicine, to participatory projects in media advocacy (Lundby 2008, De Rossi and Petrucco 2013). This paper will contribute to broadening the analysis on this topic, by approaching the phenomenon through the lens of the Capability Approach.

6Secondly, the DST will be contextualised in an emerging debate focused on the application of the Capability Approach, theorized by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, in Communication and Media Studies, with the purpose of deepening our understanding of the concept of “development” and “well-being as flourishing” in communicative processes. The Capability Approach highlights the difference between means and ends, and between substantive freedom (capabilities) and outcomes (achieved functionings). This helps to focus the attention on which communicative strategies are able to favour the access to substantive freedoms, which means having substantive opportunities to do something.

7Thirdly, this study will question the digital story as a research methodology for sharing knowledge in the field of the representation of refugees in the media.

8In conclusion, I will reflect on how the medium of DST may balance attention for the needs and experiences of specifically-situated groups with shared aims that are beneficial to groups of refugees. From the perspective of the Capability Approach, I will conclude that it may be more productive to focus not on what new technologies allow, but to what extent these technologies support refugees in their freedom to choose the lives they wish to pursue.

Digital storytelling workshop with refugees

9The foundations of every narration are the act of telling and the act of listening. According to some political theories, however, in the political doctrine of democracy, more emphasis has been given to the act of saying and to the sharing of stories than to the dimension of listening, and to the motivations and responsibilities this act entails (Bickford 1996, Robinson 2011). Freedom of speech, as an essential act of the policies that respect the point of view of the individual, examines the ability not only to narrate oneself, but also to learn how to listen to another’s story. Why do you ask someone to tell his/her story? What are the expectations and responsibilities of this kind of listening? In the environment of the reception of refugees and asylum seekers, telling one’s story is, on one hand, an act that is required for receiving international protection (McNamara 2015), and, on the other, the first tool on which social relations are based. Considering the point of view of the other, placed in time and space, with his/her potential, limits and vulnerabilities, leads us to pay attention to the space between narrator and listener, and therefore to the context of the dialogue mediated by digital technologies.

  • 1 The choice of this particular project derives from the participatory research that I conducted duri (...)

10The spaces created between storytellers and story-listeners and the context in which this relationship develops are analysed in the light of a case study based on the use of Digital Storytelling with a group of refugees and asylum seekers within the European project “IntegrArt”, Mapping and Presenting the Relationship of the Person and Society Concerning Asylum Seekers and Refugees Using Artistic Tools1.

11The “dispositive” of Digital Storytelling comprises different levels: the construction-representation of the reality mediated by digital technologies, the relational system between space and story content, the power relation between workshop participants and organisers. The concept of “dispositive” is useful as it highlights the complexity of the medial text of the digital storytelling. As Frank Kessler argued, “The concept of dispositif should be seen, above all, as a heuristic tool offering ways to account for the complexities of media(texts) in situational contexts offering, or aiming at producing specific spectatorial positions” (Kessler 2007). The creation of a digital tale is based on the power relations between storytellers and story-listeners. Identifying the tools that allow to analyse it is crucial to lay the theoretical and practical foundations so as for the capabilities (substantive freedoms) and the functionings (outcomes) of the subjects involved in the creation and spreading of this specific medial text to emerge.

Characteristics of the digital storytelling workshop

12A number of authors have produced various definitions of digital storytelling (DST) that embed DST in both emancipatory strands of new media applications, and the Community Media Movement (Lambert 2009, Lundby 2008, Carpentier 2009). The main aim of the workshops is “to empower the workshop participants, who are mainly socially marginalised people whose situation should be improved” (McWilliam 2009; 60). The stories produced are small-scale, centring on the narrator’s own personal life and experiences and are usually told in his/her own voice. This type of Digital Storytelling is characterised by the initial activation of an approach known as Storycircle, where the group sharing of life moments allows the story to emerge. Then, a process in which the narrator participates in all the phases of the creation of a digital story, from the telling of the story to the storyboard and the final editing, follows. During the process of creating the story, the value of the narrator’s voice draws a great amount of attention to the central aspect of listening: a facilitator allows the story to emerge from a group of 8-10 people, where everyone is asked not only to tell their own story, but also to listen to those of the others actively.

13The act of telling a story within the Digital Storytelling context relies not only on the ability of participants to build an effective story. Rather, both the creative and construction process depend much on the social, technological and spatial context in which the workshop is held. As written above, the central part of the workshop started with the Story circle, a phase of oral tales in which, through game activities, the facilitator leads the participants into creating their own stories. In order to share the story, though, digital technologies too, such as the use of computer to record the story, the textual elaboration of the tale and the editing of the final video, play a major role in the building and representation of the story. The possibility of giving shape to one’s own tale that might be significant for a possible audience depends on both the capacity of the narrator to chose which part of their experience might be interesting to share with the other, and the choice of the aesthetics of the final product. In his kind of workshop, the rules for the creation of videos are followed so as to produce aesthetically homogenous products. What changes is the story content, which depends much on the space in which the workshop is realised and the relationship between participants and facilitators. The stories produced in the Digital Storytelling Workshop in the period 2013-2014 by the five European partners of the IntegrArt project generates a different image of the refugee, far from the dialectical figure of criminal/victim. The main, integral themes of the 21 stories gathered refer to past moments with the family, new meetings in the receiving countries, the creation of a new family, the discovery of new places and cities, and personal passions such as studying, music, and art2. The story, understood as a space for possibilities, calls for the narrator to draw on personal experiences made of social relations and points of view on the world.

Story Content, Spaces, Power Relations between Workshops Participants and Facilitators

14The value of the embodied uniqueness of the story that develops from the workshop is closely related to the spatial conditions chosen by the organisations and the facilitator leading the laboratory: the place dedicated to both narration and listening are decisive factors for the content of the stories. The narrator’s feeling of being in a space where s/he can feel safe, where his/her story can be listened to with respect, depends not only on the “physical” space, but also on the training the facilitator has received.

15As for the space where the workshop is held, the more it is separated from the places where individual depositions are given for judicial purposes, the more effective it will be in facilitating a creative process which is able to connect individual stories to the historical-social context.

16The DST Workshop in Hungary took place in Bicske refugee camp. The space where it was held highlighted the condition of inequality between trainers and participants: “The actual physical circumstances always effect on the process of the DST training, and it’s also very special in a closed camp, where only the trainer is free to leave the camp any time he/she wants to. ” (IntegrArt project -report 2014:18).

17Instead, the English partner Global Link chose to organise its workshop in collaboration with Aftab from Blackburn YMCA and two members of the Asylum Refugee Community, Mukhtar and Keri, based at the Wesley Methodist Church Hall in Blackburn. The centre organises various courses, such as dancing, music for families, and English, and hosts activities for asylum requesters and refugees that provide orientation and support in both language and legal matters. The choice to organise the workshop outside the reception centres, in a space that is visited daily by migrants, the citizens of Blackburn and asylum requesters, affected the relationship between trainers and participants (IntegrArt project -report 2014: 27).

18The Italian partner, L’officina della memoria, decided to organise its workshop in the Immigrant Centre of Perugia, including it in the programme that teaches Italian to adults. The use of storytelling in the Italian course, organised in the second reception centre, focused the attention on the participants’ ability to tell their story in a foreign language, urging participants to support and listen to each other more closely. (IntegrArt project -report 2014: 19).

19The partner from Turkey organised workshops at a school and in the private homes of a limited group of migrants, where stories were not generated from sharing in a group, as in the previous cases, but from the relationship between trainer and narrator. (IntegrArt project -report 2014: 23). Instead, the German partner chose the premises of an association that works with refugees and migrants. This experience highlighted the need to identify a physical and mental space where workshop participants can feel protected and respected. Overall, this type of workshop must be held in a space where trainers and participants can trust in and listen to each other (IntegrArt project -report 2014: 15)3.

20The stories produced by the participants in the refugee camp in Hungary refer to past experiences, to their life before leaving: work, family, the socio-cultural conditions that compelled the narrator to leave his/her home. The stories produced outside the refugee camp, instead, tell other events: the narrating subject does not feel isolated, but perceives him/herself as part of a community, where s/he hopes to stay.

21The past and future times of these stories refer to difficult moments, which are overcome thanks to meetings with new people who welcome them into their communities, as well as to changes in their socio-economic conditions, such as going to school, finding a job and learning the language of the receiving country. The space where workshops are held is one of the factors, along with the training and multidisciplinary nature of the staff involved in the process of creating the story, that influence the story’s final content. In the case of vulnerable subjects such as asylum seekers, this also affects the building of a narrative identity in which balance can be found between past experiences and what one may become. As a matter of fact, if we look at the stories generated outside the refugee camp, we may observe that there are few references to the reasons that drove migrants to leave their country. Instead, they choose to tell stories of their “new life”, such as finding a job and joining a community where they perceive themselves as independent subjects, “agents” capable of making an important contribution to the reality they live in.

Digital Storytelling between “Giving Voice” and the Limits of Listening

22The media sociologist Nico Carpentier places Digital Storytelling in the area of Community Media, where the focus on the participants’ process of emancipation is connected to their participation. According to Carpentier, the difference between DST (Digital Storytelling) and other forms of participatory communication lies in the fact that, in the first case, the authors of the stories are not part of the organisation that promoted and led the workshop (Carpentier 2009). In this sense, the participatory process includes the moment of the workshop and the phases of the production of the stories, but not the choice of the place, time, duration and type of circulation of the stories produced; instead, these details are proposed to the participants by the organisation at the beginning of the workshop.

23The narrator’s feeling of being in a space where s/he can feel safe, where his/her story can be listened to with respect, depends not only on the “physical” space, but also on the training the facilitator has received. As the document for ethical conduct written by the Story Center highlights the facilitator must be able to manage the power relations present within the group, and know how to relate to the professional figures involved in the participants’ reception; these elements can either ensure the effectiveness of the workshop or jeopardise the process of promoting their voice4.

24The space for listening to refugees in the Digital Storytelling Workshop, which this study considers as a case history, illustrates the complex self-representation of the refugees. Here, “giving voice” to stories means that the narrators reveal their own desires, expectations and hopes in a brief but shared and significant framework, making them visible and therefore possible. The ability to become active agents of change of one’s own condition through the narration of personal experiences is therefore central in the case of refugees and asylum seekers. This is not only for them to become aware of themselves in relation to their past, but to begin to practice the ability to build a present and a future, and not remain confined to the sole identity of “refugee”.

25In this case, telling one’s personal story is seen on a wider scale, where one refugee speaks for other refugees, not only to improve one’s own conditions, but also the conditions of those who have faced the same set of problems. Stories can be bridges for connecting with the others through shared knowledge, but also a guide for telling one’s experiences in a more detached and effective way. If, on the one hand, taking part in the workshop is considered an opportunity to make one’s voice heard and look back on one’s past, on the other, it reveals the participants’ expectations to change their socio-economic condition. A study by sociologist Sigrid Kannengieer investigated the use of Digital Storytelling for the empowerment of women who are victims of sexual exploitation. If, on the one hand, women involved in the workshop considered telling their own stories as a liberating moment, when, thanks to group sharing, they could free themselves of the weight of their traumatic stories, on the other hand, they also expected a socio-economic change after the end of the workshop (Kannengieer 2012).

26The actions involved in the process of building the story, based on the methods of the Digital Storytelling Workshop, have increased the participants’ regard for their personal path: in light of the work done along with the others, the story is considered a memoir that can rehabilitate one’s personal and social condition. However, the expectation of being able to apply this experience outside the workshop, and therefore of an actual change in one’s economic and social condition, is not met. The brief examples mentioned here show how the processes of emancipation and increasing one’s ability to influence and improve skills and knowledge, once activated during the workshop, can only continue beyond the experience of the workshop itself if the subject has the opportunity to participate in other socio-economic and political contexts directly, where his/her thought can be heard and taken into consideration.

27As Nick Couldry (2008) maintains, in order to bring to the fore the relation between Digital Storytelling and the process of emancipation on a wider scale, the styles of Digital Storytelling itself must be studied carefully, including an analysis of those who are involved in this narrative process and where it is performed. Additionally, we must consider the context and conditions in which digital stories can be produced and shared, and how they can be recognised as useful sources for establishing a space for dialogue, where participants are not only free to express themselves, but they are also listened to (Couldry 2010).

28Methodologies such as Digital Storytelling in the field of receiving asylum seekers and refugees may be used as tools for reflection, in order to connect personal experiences/narrations to wider social themes, such as political participation and the ratio of vulnerability between operator and recipient. In order to meet the initial goal of increasing the participants’ abilities, the significance of this use needs to reach political decision-makers.

29The limits of the Digital Storytelling Workshop lie in the fact that even if the workgroup and staff that facilitate the creation of stories do listen carefully, once the workshop is finished, it is not clear how the content of the stories and of the voice that has expressed itself can be truly listened to. Two key factors that limit listening can be identified. Firstly, the tension present in structuring the Digital Storytelling Workshop model, where great emphasis is placed on emotions and on the individualistic perspective of the story, with less attention to and reflection on the context and frame where these stories are introduced. Secondly, the authors of the digital stories are usually celebrated for having expressed their point of view, with no in-depth analysis of the ways these voices can bring about socio-political change.

30The analysis of the communication processes put in action during the Digital Storytelling Workshop shows the presence of power relations that must be considered whenever such an activity is presented to refugees and asylum seekers. Understanding its peculiarities is useful to identify the potentialities of a communicative device to facilitate or limit a person’s possibility to feel and be perceived as a subject able to contribute to the development of the society in which they live.

The Capability Approach in Media and Communication Studies

31The analysis of the literature concerning the media representation of refugees reveals how media not only spread a message, but act in a performative way to create an image shaped by relations of social and cultural power (Chouliaraki 2017). Along with economic and political factors, these contribute to building the definition of “we”, of the stranger, and of the excluded.

32In recent years in the field of Media and Communication Studies, debate has been held over the need to identify a theoretical framework that can re-evaluate the function of digital media in society. Some scholars claim that concepts such as “well-being”, “human rights”, “justice”, “development” and “social change” must be considered beyond the neoliberal market logic, in order to focus on the responsibility that media have in contributing to the development of a society (Hesmondhalgh 2017:1, Couldry 2010). The theoretical reference chosen for reassessing the relationship between the media system and development is the Capability Approach, theorised by economist, philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, and extended to the field of social justice and human rights by philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

33According to Thomas Jacobson, who researches Communication for Development and Social Change, “While productive theoretical work has been done in relation to participatory development, environmentally sustainable development, gender and development, and more, there is little work taking place at a fully macrosociological scope integrating these concerns into an overarching conceptual framework that also includes economics, democratic political theory, human rights, and so on. Sen’s capabilities approach does this.” (Jacobson 2016: 2). Jacobson maintains that “Amartya Sen’s capability approach should be employed as an overarching conceptual framework that also includes economies, democratic political theory, human rights. ” (Jacobson 2016: 2). Other scholars, such as Robin Mansell, have referred to Amartya Sen’s thought in order to reinterpret new media policies in light of an approach based on justice and social rights: “Extending the idea of capabilities to the issue of new media development and policy requires a shift away from a focus on the causes and consequences of the ‘digital divide’. It suggests the need for a focus on what citizens are able to do as a result of their interaction with the new media and what capabilities they are able to acquire as a result of those interactions. ” (Mansell 2002:424).

34Considerations on the field of New Media in light of the Capability Approach should focus on the ways new media contribute to the development of citizens. Mansell claims that development or “empowering” should be connected to the acquisition of digital literacy, viewed as a means for reinterpreting the concept of “digital divide”. The term “digital divide” must no longer refer to the modalities of accessing digital resources, but to the inability to analyse, use critically and revise information found in these resources, which are considered fundamental for the life of every citizen. Research by Amit Schejter and Noam Tirosh also moves in the direction of “new media literacy”: starting from the comparison between three different philosophical schools of thought of justice developed by the Utilitarians, John Rawls and Amartya Sen, they conclude that the Capability Approach provides a wide and complex perspective on the actual freedoms and abilities that people possess. They also affirm that disadvantaged subjects who move on from the state of being “voiceless” pass through policies of new media literacy: “How do we make the fact that the voiceless have been provided with an opportunity to communicate also useful for them? Bringing Senian justice to the table requires taking a step beyond what traditionally has been regarded to communication and information policy. According to this approach, it is not enough to ensure that the least advantages are given the tools that allow them to interact like the advantage. […] It seems to us that this would require two separate stages of education: first, enabling utilization of the media and, second, developing what can and should be called ‘new media literacy’, or the ability not only to ‘read’ its contents but also to ‘write’ it” (Schejter and Tirosh 2016:121).

35Sticking to the field of the connections between Information and Communications Technology and ideas of “development”, scholar Dorothea Kleine uses the Capability Approach to analyse the dominant issues in the field of ICT for development critically. This brings her to develop the “choice framework” to investigate how ICT policies can influence people’s lives. From this point of view, development depends on how much these technologies support people in their freedom to live the lives valued (Kleine 2013).

36The focus on the freedom of choice also appears in the work of Jacobson, who reflects on two types of communicative processes: “The capabilities definition of development includes two kinds of communication processes. The first is the building of communication capabilities themselves, which increase the value of choice, such as media system, media advocacy practices, participatory process. The second kind is communication processes that are used to enable other kinds of capabilities such as freedom to choose preferred policies for health, nutrition or gender equality. ” (Jacobson 2016: 18).

37The different perspectives of these scholars, who draw on the thought of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum to reconsider their areas of study, show the complexity and profusion of the Capability Approach as an economic-philosophical theory that lays its foundations on the re-examination of the idea of well-being.

Well-being as flourishing

38The concept of “well-being” outlined in the Capability Approach is based on the idea of eudemonia, flourishing, which was developed by Aristotle. The Capability Approach defines the human and social conditions that allow or impede the attainment of eudemonia, which is not seen as happiness in itself, but as freedom to reach happiness.

39When he juxtaposes the concepts of freedom and flourishing, Amartya Sen moves away from the utilitarian conception of life, and this is precisely where he criticises Development Economics in favour of an idea of Human Development. Starting from Kenneth Arrow’s theory of social choice, Sen’s innovative contribution to the idea of Development was to propose alternative indicators to those used in the dominant theoretical approaches in the field of Economic Development, which indicate well-being by calculating the increase of per-capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product). From the 1930s, GDP has been the main indicator of the state of well-being of a nation and its inhabitants. Calculated by adding the quantity and value of the goods and services produced in a country (or, vice-versa, the income of its inhabitants), until today GDP has represented the number that allows us to measure and compare different countries, gauging the rhythm and extent of a territory’s economic development.

40By contrast, the main objective of an economy focused on Human Development is to increase the possibilities available for people to choose, through the creation of an environment where people can live long, healthy lives full of stimuli and opportunities for them to enhance their abilities. The paradigm of human development considers all aspects of development, where Economic Development is not an end, but a means to create the conditions in which people can expand their possibilities of choice.

41In On Ethics and Economics, published in 1987, Sen highlights that individual usefulness is not the only thing that has value when determining people’s choices, and that utility does not represent a person’s welfare adequately.

42Sen’s “Capability Approach” has employed core terms such as capabilities, functionings, well-being, and agency. “The relevant functionings can vary from such elementary things as being adequately nourished, being in good health […] to more complex achievements such as being happy, having self-respect, taking part in the life of the community, and so on. ” (Sen 1992: 39). Functionings are treated as the expression of what a flourishing life might entail.

43Capabilities represent the various combinations of functionings (beings and doings) that the person can achieve. “Capabilities reflect the person’s freedom to lead one type of life or another, to choose from possible livings” (Sen 1992: 40). Capabilities are “the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value” (Sen 1999: 87). The distinction between functionings and capabilities is between the realized and the effectively possible, between achievements, on the one hand, and freedoms or valuable options from which one can choose, on the other.

44For Sen, a person’s well-being not only consists of his or her current states and activities (functionings), which may include the activity of choosing, but also the person’s freedom or real opportunities to function in ways alternative to his or her current functioning. Agency, like well-being, has two dimensions, namely, agency achievement and the freedom for those achievements. The framework of the Capability Approach touches on many aspects of human life, from the individual element of personal growth to social, economic and political factors. The communicative process through which scholars intend to re-examine the media system moves on two levels. The first aims to reconsider the concept of “well-being” in Media Studies, and investigate not how this field can contribute to Development Economics, but instead to Human Development. The second refers to the critical development that for scholars involves education on the informed use of media languages. This is the point from which the process of Digital Storytelling will be re-evaluated, starting from the results of the workshop with asylum seekers and refugees.

The Digital Storytelling Workshop: Freedom of Choice, Well-Being and Agency

45The Digital Storytelling Workshop has two distinctive elements: authenticity in representing personal experience, and the narrator’s expectation of being recognised as a person capable of acting, saying and describing oneself by telling his/her autobiographical story (Lambert 2009:29). The Stories produced in the DST Workshop represent identities mediated by the use of digital tools. In sociocultural studies in recent decades, attention has been placed on this genre of stories due to the centrality of the individual as a social and cultural actor who is able to use the narration of his/her personal experience to generate a greater understanding of the complexity of society. Autobiographical stories can include different types of narrations, such as written, oral or audiovisual ones; these share the idea that the content of the stories is connected to the development of an individual’s life. Different levels of truth are present in these stories: the event, the memory of the event, and reflection on the memory of the event. The narration of the event depends on the context, the type of narration, the selection of memories and the narrator’s reflections.

46For asylum seekers, dealing with the authenticity of the autobiographical story means not only starting from their present condition to reflect on their past, but also worrying if their story will be considered “true”. A study by Darcy Alexandra, which investigated the use of Digital Storytelling with asylum requesters and refugees in Ireland, highlighted the attention that workshop participants (two refugees and six asylum requesters) placed on the consequences of their story: “Participants expressed worry about how collaborating partners might respond to the digital stories, repeatedly asking if their story was ‘okay’, if they could ‘really’ tell it, and if the collaborating agencies would approve of their stories […] they did not want to appear dangerously ‘ungrateful’, or to be seen as ‘complaining’ or ‘giving out’. ” (Alexandra 45). Considering the expectation of truthfulness present when listening to any story told in the first person, the final part of the process of the Digital Storytelling Workshop, when stories are shared outside of the space of the workshop, reveals the correlation between personal experiences/narrations and social context.

47This self-representation, seen in the light of categories such as “being listened to” and “having a voice”, suggests that taking part in this type of workshop makes participants able to place their own autobiographical story in a process that does not terminate with its narration, but that is introduced into a network of social actors and technological and cultural systems. The ability to move in this network refers to digital literacy, which is practiced in the Digital Storytelling Workshop through the creation of a story based on the development of skills such as writing, narration, the selection of images and final editing.

48Following the logic of the Capability Approach, questions we may ask in order to examine the act of narration as the creation of meaning may include: what type of choice did the narrator make? What freedom of choice does the narrator have to decide which part of his/her personal experience should be shared with others? What information is the choice of the story based on? What functionings (doing and being) did the narrator draw on to create the story?

49While the narrator has total control over the entire creative process in the workshop, from creating the story to sharing the final product, the narrator has no control over the following phase—including how and when his/her story is shared outside the context of the workshop—, since s/he is not an organiser of the workshop. Unlike other forms of participatory communication, where authors are also members of the organisation that produces stories, and are therefore able to decide how and when the stories produced are shared, participation in the Digital Storytelling Workshop is based on the trust between narrator and organisation.

50The narrators’ well-being therefore depends on their possibility to choose, and on the expectation that their story could be heard by someone; this can activate a form of agency, where the act of narration is not generated by the need to speak of themselves, but instead, the act of sharing their story allows the narrators to perceive themselves as agents of possible personal and social change.

Digital storytelling within Research Practice

51According to the language of the Capability Approach, well-being depends on both the actual possibilities available to a person, and on his/her freedom to choose which functionings are needed to live a life worth living. The space for evaluation, which considers the functionings and capabilities of a person, not only examines the opportunities available, but also the person’s perception of his/her capacities. This generates the question on which the third part of this work is based: Can Digital Storytelling also be seen as a method for participatory research, in which the functionings and capabilities of participants, in this case asylum seekers and refugees, may emerge?

52The Digital Storytelling Workshop as a practice has been applied in different social contexts, such as mental health, conserving cultural heritage, community building, education, professional training and civic activism. The case study analysed in the first part of this work is included among the practices that intend to spread counter-narratives to stigmatising representations of certain subjects through the sharing of personal experiences. In this case, the subjects are asylum seekers and refugees, who are mainly depicted as victims or criminals, and rarely as active agents for the development of themselves and the societies they live in. The stories created by the five European partners produces a great amount of interesting data, such as the relationship between the content of a story and the place chosen to hold the workshop, the value of listening as an essential condition for creating a story, and the historical-social conditions that form the backdrop of a story’s plot. Reading the stories produced and analysing the process of the workshop shows the complexity of building a narrative identity. Reflections on the connection between flourishing and the act of narration mediated by the use of digital technologies lead us to evaluate the advantages and limits of applying Digital Storytelling to the context of research.

DST as Participatory Research

53Digital Storytelling is considered to be an ideal tool in collaborative projects where the main objective is to do research with people, instead of on people. One study by Adèle de Jager analyses the value of using Digital Storytelling in research in order to develop knowledge of a number of phenomena that is different from what could emerge from traditional interviews. Research performed with subjects in difficult contexts, as asylum seekers and refugees may be, shows that “Through reflecting on and reimagining experiences when creating digital stories, participants across many studies mention the benefits of DST as being cathartic, in which they are encouraged to work through their experiences and reflect on and deepen their understanding of what really matters in their lives. ” (de Jager et. al. 2017: 2571). According to the results of these studies, participatory research, in addition to encouraging a deeper, more intricate level of understanding of a specific topic, contributes to the development of participants’ digital literacy and narration skills. However, these advantages may be coupled with the risk that workshop participants could face when dealing with traumatic memories. How these memories are managed is a fundamental aspect that all researchers must consider when designing their studies.

54Researchers Chloë Brushwood Rose and Colette Granger investigated the tension between self-knowledge and self-expression in a Digital Storytelling Workshop process held with a group of new immigrants in Toronto. This study revealed the limits of applying a narrative approach to gain knowledge of the immigration experiences of the women involved: “As researchers who use stories as both a source of data and an interpretive method, we have become interested in how the nature of the narrative texts we encountered might illuminate the problem of narrating experience, thereby complicating practices of narrative inquiry that look to stories as evidence experience. We argue here that in some way, every story is contradictory, partial and untold, and that these contractions, refusal and silences are central to understanding the place of narrative in negotiating our relations with others and the world. ” (Brushwood-Rose and Granger 2013: 217).

55The reflections these two studies generate show both the benefits and limits of using Digital Storytelling in research, in particular with vulnerable subjects such as asylum requesters and refugees, for whom the act of narrating their experience can be involved in dynamics of both control and emancipation. The possibility that this workshop process can create the conditions for participants to flourish lies in considering the act of narrating and the act of listening within a wider process, one that involves the person as an active agent. This means valorising the dialogic nature inherent in the process of creating a narration, where the narrator is able to reflect on him/herself and discuss questions of public interest that regard him/her personally along with others. But it also means reflecting on the rules of a digital narration, and clarifying the use and circulation of the stories once they have left the Digital Storytelling workshop.

A Narrative Approach to Well-Being

56The Narrative Approach found in qualitative research develops from the need to propose an alternative method to the quantitative analysis of brut data, in order to highlight that social reality is not only made up of data, but also of interpretations of those data, and that those interpretations are subject to historical and social contextualisations. Therefore, if we want to understand how to direct policies toward the realisation of people’s flourishing, we must not consider only how much people access social networks, but if that access expands their freedom of choice. Martha Nussbaum, a prominent voice in the development of the Capacity Theory along with Amartya Sen, refers to Hard Times by Charles Dickens to develop her criticism of the economic paradigms that determine the standards for evaluating the quality of life, which are held by the two scholars to be oversimplified and lacking in their representation of human complexity (Nussbaum and Sen 1993: 1).

57Nussbaum’s point of view may be found in many studies that show how storytelling, when applied to research, is able to illustrate the contribution of a number of policies in expanding the freedom of choice, agency and therefore well-being of a specific group of people, information which is impossible to obtain by merely gathering data (Hodgett and Deneulin 2009).

58However, as we have seen, stories can be manipulated, because they not only depend on the intention of the narrator, but also on the listener and on technologies used. They are partial, because they depend on the point of view of the narrator, but when considering each person’s point of view, narrations are important in people’s lives, because they connect people to a place and a context, and they develop the sense of imagining oneself in someone else’s shoes. This capacity is considered by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen to be essential to the idea of social justice, which is the basis for understanding “well-being as flourishing”.


59The main metaphors used by media to represent asylum requesters or refugees are those of victims or criminals. This study analysed the Digital Storytelling Workshop as a process for valorising one’s voice and creating a counter-narrative to those forms of representation. The analysis of the IntegrArt case study revealed that narration, intended as a physical and mental space for imagining oneself outside the category of refugee as a criminal or a victim, is strongly connected to the place chosen to hold the workshop, to the technology used and to the power relations between participants and organisers, which determines the type of listening created during and at the end of it. The framework in which these stories are included once the workshop is completed is crucial to the development of the connection between Digital Storytelling and the emancipative process in general. Digital Storytelling, contextualised within the debate over the application of the Capability Approach in Media Studies, shows how the limits of listening can be overcome when we reflect on the responsibilities of the media, which not only spread information, but contribute to the development of society.

60The idea of “well-being as flourishing” that emerges from the analysis of the stories produced in the Digital Storytelling workshops is less connected to the development of a personal interest, in a utilitarian view of life, but refers more to the idea of well-being related to the possibility of establishing one’s agency, which may even contrast with the obtainment of personal well-being: “A person’s agency achievement refers to the realization of goals and values she has reasons to pursue, whether or not they are connected with her own well-being”. As a matter of fact, analysis of the communication setting of Digital Storytelling with refugees and asylum seekers revealed how the sense of well-being, freedom of choice and agency is found in the stories told by those narrators who live in a condition of freedom of choice, who are within a process of integrating into the society receiving them, and who feel the responsibility to share their experience in order to improve the life conditions of those who will come after them.

61Consideration of the use of Digital Storytelling the field of research showed how a story told in the first person can reveal information about the functionings of the narrator (their current condition) and their future expectations (capabilities). These expectations include the possibility to succeed and have the freedom to obtain economic stability, or to manage to reach their family and feel safe in the receiving country. However, the act of narrating and the act of listening raise the question of the conditions in which an asylum requester and refugee is asked to tell his/her story, and refer to the motivations of the person posing the question. Digital Storytelling understood as a participatory process of creating a narration is based on the capacities of people to draw on their cultural experience and know the mechanisms that shape a digital story. The process of creating a story in a Digital Storytelling workshop is the result of a compromise in which each person attempts to identify with another one, combining oral stories with the visual and digital reworking of one’s own image. In the process of learning, creating, handling and sharing these digital stories, the foundations are laid for a community that gives value and investigates the narrative process of creating meaning and education for new technologies, in order to make the idea of “well-being as flourishing” possible.

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Simona Bonini Baldini, « Digital Storytelling with Refugees: Analysis of Communication Setting from the Capability Approach Perspective »Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication [En ligne], 17 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2019, consulté le 26 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Simona Bonini Baldini

Simona Bonini Baldini is an independent researcher. She holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of Rome “La Sapienza”. Her thesis examined the role and value of storytelling in the reception of refugees and asylum seekers from the Capabilities Approach perspective. Her research interests focus on narrative theory, Capability Approach applied to media representation of migration and participatory media. Mail:

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