Abstract: Theorizing Karen Women's Experiences of "Power" to Engage in Self-Help in Resettlement (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Theorizing Karen Women's Experiences of "Power" to Engage in Self-Help in Resettlement

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Tonya Horn, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of St. Thomas, Saint Paul, MN
Background and Purpose

In the context of the longest civil war in recorded history, Karen people have suffered severe persecution, displacement, and forced migration (South, 2012). Karen women have experienced multiple systems of oppression based on their gender, ethnicity, and statelessness (O’Kane, 2006). Even in settings of extreme marginalization and displacement, Karen people have been exhibited a high degree of organization, agency, and self-determination (Suter & Magnusson, 2015; Cusano, 2001). Though a small number of studies have documented how Karen women organized to help each other in Burma and Thailand, research has not focused on how they adapt and utilize those skills, strategies, and structures in the context of resettlement.


This qualitative study drew on constructivist grounded theory methods (Charmaz 2014) and ethnographic methods. In-person interviews were conducted with 10 first-generation Karen women who were community leaders in Minnesota. Data analysis consisted of initial and focused coding phases, which were overlapping. In the focused coding phase, data collection and analysis began to focus on understanding the concept of ‘power,’ its meaning, and participants’ experiences of power to engage in self-help pre- and post-resettlement. Constant comparative methods, negative case analysis, memo writing, member checking, and discussions with a cultural consultant were also used


Karen women in this study possessed significant strengths, skills, and systems for identifying and responding to the needs of their community. Furthermore, they were deeply committed to helping one another and to the successful resettlement of their community. The specific targets of self-help efforts in resettlement were flexible and responsive to emerging community needs, originally focusing on filling gaps in resettlement services and more recently attempting to respond to “family problems,” which included domestic violence, substance use, parenting challenges, and resettlement stress. However, participants’ agency and capacity to utilize their existing strategies and resources were significantly compromised by the resettlement process.

Four categories emerged that described social, cultural, and structural conditions that affected women’s experiences of agency and capacity to engage in self-help in resettlement: (re-) establishing an organizational structure, having personal and premigration relationships, having resources (knowledge and experience, effective existing resources, time, and transportation), and having authority.

Conclusions and Implications

Findings starkly contrast dominant constructions of ‘refugees’ as dependent, passive recipients of professional resettlement services (Malkki, 1996); narrow, individualistic, neoliberal definitions of successful resettlement; and research that focus the role of professional refugee resettlement agencies as central (Majka & Mullan, 2002; McMichael & Manderson, 2004; Suter & Magnusson, 2015; Valtonen, 1999). They revealed significant cultural and community-based systems for identifying and responding to community needs, which played essential roles in the resettlement process for this new refugee-background community. At the same time, findings revealed characteristics of U.S. resettlement and social service systems that decreased Karen women’s agency and capacity to help each other. Findings can be used to inform future research, the development of interventions, and policy changes that empower new refugee-background communities to utilize their indigenous strengths, strategies, and resources to promote their successful resettlement.