Managing the transition to a new life: a longitudinal study of learning processes and identity (re)formation among refugees in the UK

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Morrice, Linda Mary (2010)
  • Subject: L1 | HN

Over the last two decades there have been dramatic increases in the movement of people around the globe. The UK, like other wealthy countries in the global north, has become the recipient of increasing numbers of refugees, many of whom are highly qualified and have professional backgrounds (Kirk 2004; Houghton and Morrice 2008). This thesis captures the experiences of refugees with professional and higher level qualifications as they seek to rebuild their lives in the UK. Rather than look at migration through more traditional lenses of assimilation and acculturation it instead links the experience of refugees with theories and processes of learning and identity formation. This offers a more nuanced and fine grain understanding and analysis of refugee experience. The study is guided by two broad questions: firstly, how might individual biography shape and inform the strategies adopted by refugees in the UK, and secondly, what insight does learning (both informal and formal) offer to our understanding of the processes involved in transition to the UK. To address this I have adopted a longitudinal approach which follows five refugees over a four year period as they move through the asylum system, negotiate a new social space and enter higher education. The narratives presented illuminate the hybridity of experience and indicate how each refugee has his or her own personal story which is linked to their unique biographical, cultural and social background. However, each narrative is lived within the broader social template of what it means to be a refugee in the UK in the first decade of the twenty first century, and how this template is negotiated, managed and sometimes subverted in different ways. These experiences cross cut and intersect with differences of ethnicity, of gender, of country of origin, faith and age. I draw on Bourdieu’s framework of capital, field and habitus as tools to apprehend and explore the processes underlying the narratives (1977; 1998; 1999). Becoming a refugee in the UK firmly placed participants into symbolic structures of inequality and disadvantage. They are structured and positioned through mechanisms of capital transformation and trading which mean that they rarely have opportunities to convert and trade up the capitals they possessed into symbolic capital, and educational and employment reward. The narratives presented depict the struggles of refugees to accrue and convert capital in order to claim a positive identity. It is also about the struggle to be recognised as having moral worth, to be respected and seen to be respectable (Skeggs 1997; Sayer 2005). A broad range of learning processes are involved in managing transition. To capture the profundity and complexity of subjective construction and identity formation I suggest conceptualising learning as processes of ‘becoming’ and ‘unbecoming’(Biesta 2006; Hodkinson et al. 2007). From the disintegration and deconstruction of self which accompanies migration this research illuminates how participants learn to ‘become’, which in its broadest sense is learning how to rethink themselves in order to live with integrity and dignity in a new social space.
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