Somali Women and Well-Being: Social Networks and Social Capital among Immigrant Women in Australia

By McMichael, Celia; Manderson, Lenore | Human Organization, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Somali Women and Well-Being: Social Networks and Social Capital among Immigrant Women in Australia


McMichael, Celia, Manderson, Lenore, Human Organization


Somalis have been one of the largest groups to migrate to Australia under its provisions for refugee and humanitarian resettlement. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in Melbourne in 2000-2001, we explore how the loss of social relationships as a result of civil war and displacement contribute to women's distress and sadness. To explore the erosion of social relationships among Somalis in Australia, and how this affects everyday life and women's well-being, we draw on the concepts of social capital and social networks. We suggest that social networks among Somalis in Melbourne are problematic, restricting women's capacity to use and create social capital to settle in Australia. However, the concept of social capital only partially accounts for women's continued sense of displacement. Well-being is not just about contemporary social structures and activities, it is also affected by how women use the past to give meaning to the present. We argue that women's understandings of contemporary social relations are given comparative meaning through their juxtaposition with memories of social worlds in Somalia.

Key words: social capital, well-being, refugees, Somali women, Australia

Social capital and social network theories have informed much contemporary research on migration. Social networks have long been seen as central in migratory movement, informing where people choose to resettle, influencing patterns of sociality in the area of resettlement, and shaping continuing relations between homeland and host societies through remittances, marriage, and additional migration (Palloni et al. 2001; Wilson 1998). Social capital is widely emphasised as central to immigrant solidarity and cultural continuity (Menjivar 2000:28). In theory, immigrants are able to lock into established networks and take advantage of early experience and information. The existence of community organizations can enhance a sense of belonging among new settlers and provide them with resources, addressing immediate concerns for housing and employment. Government decisions to accept new settlers are influenced by the presence of established communities and the personal security that sponsors may provide for potential immigrants. In Australia, most government responsibilities to new arrivals are discharged within three months. Subsequently, people must rely on their own networks.

Studies of resettlement suggest that migration creates reliance among immigrants greater than would have been the case in the country of origin (Brettell 2000; Werbner 1990). For example, Portes and Zhou (1992) describe how Cuban immigrants to the United States create and find "bounded solidarity"-niches and sheltered spheres of activity and experience, practical and symbolic-that allow the community to exist in partial isolation from the host community. They describe how, when faced with a hostile reception in Miami, Florida, Cubans retreat into the familiar by consuming home products and associating and working with coethnics. This evolves into ethnic enclaves, as community businesses thrive and ethnic identities are formed.1

However, the literature concerned with cultural continuity and resistance among migrant populations often slides over intragroup jealousies and tensions and posits an idealized view of community, palatable to both informants and readers. Menjivar writes that "in general, immigration scholarship is still concentrated on depicting a one-dimensional view of immigrant informal networks that focuses almost exclusively on their positive aspects" (2000:33), and relatively little attention has been paid to negative outcomes of immigration from the perspectives of immigrants. Our research explored the impact of war, displacement, and resettlement on social networks among newly arrived migrants. In this paper, we explore the utility of social capital as a construct to understand "successful" resettlement.

Below, we argue that social capital applies to some, but not all, of the interpersonal and affiliational dimensions of settlement.

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