Life in Limbo: Identity Bootstrapping in a Refugee Camp

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Drawing on extended ethnographic fieldwork in the Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee camp in Bangladesh, we use grounded theory approach to develop a process model of identity bootstrapping observed amongst some refugees. Refugees face continuous challenges to keep their lives meaningful and identities vital. When most refugees fall victim of mortification, some come out successful in constructing a positive identity against the totalitarian assaults on their self-concepts. To the Rohingya refugees, identity bootstrapping involves their active search for a ‘dignified’ and ‘meaningful’ identity that differentiate themselves from thousands nameless others. We theorize that a successful identity bootstrapping requires constructing a figured world in presentism that inspires agentic actions to develop identity resistance to face identity assaults and elaborate on prospective identities to claim a valued identity in the camp. We show that to construct a positive identity and keep it alive in the camp context one needs to continuously improvise one’s ideational as well as material resources and at the same time create new identity resources to secure an identity. We argue that in the contested space, that is a refugee camp, identity bootstrapping becomes refugees’ expression of resistance, resilience, and an attempt to regain some lost sense of self-worth. While not every refugee manages to engage successfully in identity bootstrapping, we document several cases in which individuals manage to reconstrue a positive identity even amongst the deleterious conditions found in Kutupalong. Keywords: Refugee Camp, Total Institution, Identity Bootstrapping, Identity Resistance.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the Academy of Management Annual Meeting (virtual), August 3-7, 2021.
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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