Abstract: Power and Representation in Social Work Scholarship on Forced Migration: A Critical Review of the Literature (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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379P Power and Representation in Social Work Scholarship on Forced Migration: A Critical Review of the Literature

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Jessica Lee, PhD, Assistant Professor, Indiana University - Purdue University, Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN
Odessa Gonzalez Benson, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Karin Wachter, PhD, PhD Candidate, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Background and Purpose

Drawing upon postcolonial theory, the researchers critically analyze findings of a comprehensive literature review of social work scholarship on forced migrants published from 1978 to 2019. An unprecedented 70.8 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced (UNHCR, 2020). Social workers worldwide play a role in the global response to refugees and forced migrants at interpersonal, meso, and macro levels. Yet contributions of the discipline to knowledge about refugees, asylees, and other forced migrants are undertheorized. This critical review examines topical domains of study, the evolution of research priorities over time, and variation in social work research by geographic region. Findings from this study demonstrate Global North-centric knowledge, representation, and power within social work scholarship on forced migration.


The researchers conducted a literature search yielding a total of 394 articles published in 43 social work journals. Forced migrants included in this study were refugees, asylum-seekers, unaccompanied minors, internally displaced people, victims of trafficking, and exiles. Three researchers generated a coding framework based on sensitizing concepts from the literature and used NVivo to code the 394 articles included in the study. The resulting codes and themes were analyzed through a postcolonial framework employing Said’s conceptualization of Orientalism and Spivak’s Subalternity.


The researchers analyzed 394 publications, with geographic, methodological and topical trends highlighted as findings. The final analysis included authors representing 31 different countries. Scholars in North America, Western Europe and Australasia produced 90% of the publications in this review. Authors based in Asia and the Pacific Islands, Eastern Europe, Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa published the remaining 9%. The most frequent topics include practice and intervention, health and mental health. The results show an increase in the number of forced migration studies published in social work journals over three decades. The temporal trends point to an increase in forced migration studies based in countries participating in UNHCR’s refugee resettlement program.

Conclusions and Implications

The over-representation of publications on forced migration by authors in the Global North suggests an imbalance in representation and power. Nearly 90% of studies focus on refugees resettled in a Global North country, yet refugees who participate in UNHCR’s resettlement program represent only about 1% of the world’s forcibly displaced peoples. The majority of forced migrants are in the Global South. This study provides a robust analysis of the topical, geographic and temporal aspects to the scope of social work research on forced migration to date. Findings from this literature review indicate gaps in knowledge in social work research with forced migrants. Much of the world’s displaced populations are missing from social work studies; populations that represent some of the most vulnerable forced migrants. Scholars in the Global South and scholarship driven by forced migrants are also under-represented among the articles in this study. This critical review emphasizes a need for social workers to decolonize knowledge on forced migration through increased global representation, community engagement, and the promotion of survivor-centered scholarship.