Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Responsibilization of Refugees in the United States: On the Political Uses of Psychology

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Responsibilization of Refugees in the United States: On the Political Uses of Psychology

Article excerpt

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In the last three decades of the US resettlement program, more than four million refugees have been admitted to the country.1 While this figure is small compared to the number of immigrants entering the country, the highly deliberate and structured process through which refugees are introduced to new communities and acculturated to life in America offers an illuminating window on the US's ability to honor international humanitarian agreements, help refugees become citizens, and accept difference. As a country of resettlement, the US is a significant player: it accepts more refugees than any other country.

The value of exploring the US's resettlement of refugees becomes clear in statements made by refugee resettlement professionals whose salaries are paid by US taxpayers through programs funded by the federal government. One educator, also a Burmese refugee, stated, "I reach out to the men when they cry and embarrass them for crying. They should be strong. Things are different here." Across the country in another city, a different refugee educator said, "Which culture is important? We have to learn the culture in America! If you don't cry, thinking that people will think you are too much like a woman, you will never express your things." While sending different messages, both statements expose the psycho-emotional flavor of interventions. That power is also at work in this process becomes evident in the statement of a third federally funded educator who stated: "You have to change their whole concept of the world."

This article explores the final stage in the process of resettlement, when refugees must come to terms with their new lives in the US. Specifically, I investigate how the state, through resettlement professionals, asserts the need for refugees to change. Many government officials affirm that transformation is not only required, but is to the benefit of refugees. Messages given to refugees about gender equality and intimate relationships are integral to this process. The government perspective is juxtaposed with refugees' understanding of their own adjustment processes to reveal and explore the overlapping and interstitial spaces between these two realms.

I take this approach because a significant tributary in anthropological theorizing on refugees and displaced peoples (Bailey 2009, Fassin and Vasquez 2005, Feldman 2007, Hanafi and Long 2010, Owens 2009, Papastergiadis 2006, Ticktin 2006, Tyler 2006, Ramadan 2012) references Agamben's (1998) argument that inclusion in a political community has become possible only with the exclusion of some, who are not permitted to become full-fledged subjects. The Agambenian political dynamics of rule and exception, as well as bare life and political existence, have been brought to bear on understanding what happens to refugees in camps (Lemke 2005, Schinkel 2010). In Agamben's (1998:123) work, the camp is described as the "matrix of modernity." While Agamben (1995) has advanced persuasive arguments about symbolic violence administered to refugees, including on the part of liberal democracies, "bare life" as theorized to explain camp settings does not account for very different power relations in resettlement. Rather than reducing refugees to bare life, psychology is being deployed to make refugees into full-fledged, responsible citizens. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I see responsibility as something that invites questioning, not something that can be taken as a desirable outcome a priori. An illuminating approach here is a Foucauldian one in which governing democratically means:

...ruling them [citizens] through their freedoms, their choices, and their solidarities rather than despite these. It means turning subjects, their motivations and interrelations, from potential sites of resistance to rule into allies of rule. (Rose 1996b:17)

My usage of responsibilization emerges from governmentality studies that draw upon Foucault's lectures on the history of governmentality. …

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