Making a Life on the Margins: An Ethnographic Theory of Identity Bootstrapping in a Total Institution

Research output: Working paperAcademic


How do people establish a positive identity in an institutional context that systematically curtails their agency? Drawing on forty-eight months of ethnographic research on the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, we develop a process-theoretical model of identity bootstrapping, an identity construal process that encompasses reestablishing agency and mustering identity resources under conditions of extreme adversity. To Rohingya refugees, identity bootstrapping involves an active search for a ‘dignified’ and ‘meaningful’ identity that differentiates them from thousands of nameless others. We abductively theorize that the identity bootstrapping process requires creating a figured world, organizing identity spaces, and developing identity resistance against ongoing identity assaults. Whereas the figured world provides the refugees with the emotional energy to carry on, the notions of identity space and identity resistance enable them to sustain the figured world and build an environment conducive to sustaining positive identities. Our model shows that positive identity construal requires the camp’s inmates to marshal new identity resources, which they derive from social roles taken up in self-initiated community organizations. We contribute to positive identity research by showing how, in a contested space, identity bootstrapping allows refugees to express resistance and resilience, and regain a sense of self-worth.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2023


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