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Learning and identity (de)construction: the case of refugees

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posted on 2023-06-08, 15:31 authored by Linda MorriceLinda Morrice
This paper considers the learning and identity processes involved as refugees make the transition to life in the UK. It draws on empirical research conducted between 2005 and 2010 at the University of Sussex on the South coast of England. It combined a longitudinal study with a life history approach to explore refugee narratives both before and after migration. In total fourteen refugees of mixed nationality were interviewed over a four year period. Participants were recruited from a University of Sussex course which was designed specifically to support refugees who wished to access higher education (Author 2009). Initial interviews usually took place within a year of arrival in the UK and were conducted every six to nine months thereafter. Interviews were transcribed and analysed thematically in line with the conventions of life history research (Plummer 2001; Yow 2005). The broad aim of the research was to explore the learning and identity processes which accompany transition, and secondly to understand how individual biography shapes and informs the strategies adopted by refugees in the UK (Author 2011). For refugees, the movement across social spaces are moments of intense learning as they have to modify the structure and the meaning of their lives and adapt to the new social world. Uprooted from former communities, culture, work and language they are stripped of aspects of their previous identity. The process of migration disrupts the inherited frames of reference and the accumulated biographical repertoire of knowledge and understanding and they are forced to learn new behaviours, understand new rules and to adapt to new values and another type of social organisation. The dominant stories individuals told about themselves no longer cohere and they are confronted with an urgent need to story their lives differently. The research indicated how some of the strongest learning comes from what is experienced and practiced informally, and how learning is intimately linked to processes of identity formation. Much learning theory is based on constructivist notions whereby individuals build on previous learning, where new information is processed and stored in relation to existing knowledge or leads to transformation and a new, better adapted frame of reference. For example Mezirow (1990; 2000) refers to individuals developing a ‘superior perspective’ and Jarvis (2006) refers to learning as being concerned with the ‘need to re-establish harmony’. These theories tend to be underpinned by notions of personal growth, positive change and adaption. In a similar vein a number of theories and models have been developed to try and elucidate the identity shifts and adaptive processes which occur as migrants negotiate new and unfamiliar cultural contexts. The focus of these models has generally been how individuals develop cultural competence (Bennet 1993; Hammer, Bennett and Wiseman 2003) or cultural intelligence (Earley and Ang 2003). The assumption being that the process of adaption to new cultural contexts is developmental and that the individual’s sense of identity, confidence and self-esteem increases over time. The research presented in this paper challenges and disrupts this understanding and I argue for a conception of learning which acknowledges that it can be a deconstructive process, involving individuals in ‘unlearning’ and letting go of much of who and what they were. The research highlights how for refugees there is a deep underbelly of learning which is around ongoing processes of identity formation which cannot be understood in terms of positive transformative outcomes. Through social activity and interaction, refugees constructed meaning and learned the social identity of refugee. Learning involved epistemological processes – changing how the world was perceived and how they made sense of the world. It also raised fundamental ontological issues about who and what they could be in the world. Participants became painfully aware that to be an asylum seeker or a refugee was morally problematic and a source of stigma. They were concerned about refugee identity in terms of what it said about their worth and value and struggled to be seen as respectable and to generate distance from representations of themselves as pathological. In conclusion, this paper highlights the need for an enlarged concept of learning which acknowledges that perspective transformation can involve profound ontological and epistemological processes and can have negative outcomes. The case study of refugees highlights the significance of the socio-cultural context in which learning occurs and the need for learning theories to recognize the potential dis-benefits and negative outcomes of learning on identity and conceptions of self.


Publication status

  • Published

Presentation Type

  • paper

Event name

Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education

Event location

Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada.

Event type


Event date

28-30 May 2012

Department affiliated with

  • Education Publications

Full text available

  • Yes

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes

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