Discursive navigation of employable identities in the narratives of former refugees
In the coming decades, nations worldwide, exacerbated by political and environmental instability, will likely continue to struggle to deal with growing numbers of displaced persons. In this study I take an interactional sociolinguistic approach to exploring a critical area of refugee resettlement; that is, securing stable, desirable employment in host nations. Navigating the labour market in a new context can be a challenge for any migrant, and particularly so for former refugees. Host governments tend to consider accessing stable, long-term employment to be the most important factor for former refugees’ social integration. It is also a high priority for former refugees themselves, who are often unable to find employment appropriate for their qualification and experience levels. I approach this issue of employability from the perspective of an employable identity, rooted within a social constructionist view of identity as emergent from and negotiated within discourse. This approach facilitates a view of employability as a discursive and socially situated phenomenon, which is interactionally achieved with employers, interviewers, and colleagues. Specifically, I explore the negotiation of employable identities in narratives, the stories we tell about ourselves through which we make sense of our place in the social world. Narratives are rich sites within which to explore the co-constructed negotiation of identity, through the positioning of self (both as narrator and protagonist) and other (both present interlocutor(s) and other characters within the storyworld). This study comprises two phases. The first involves four highly-educated former refugee participants originating from different Middle Eastern and North and East African countries. Two were in (or finally achieved) full time employment, and two were unemployed for the duration of their involvement in this research. The data for this phase comes from multiple semi-structured, conversational, and ethnographically-informed interviews that were conducted with each of the participants over a 20-month period. The interview data illuminates the ways that these participants navigate the challenges of unemployment and underemployment in the New Zealand labour market. The second phase of this research focuses on the enactment and negotiation of an employable identity in the workplace. Following the methodology and ethos of the Language in the Workplace Project, I explored a former refugee’s navigation of workplace and wider local norms in interaction with two residents, while in her role as a carer at an eldercare facility. In both phases, the ways in which identity is negotiated (and re-shaped) in narrative emerge from the data. Specifically, the analysis indicates that negotiating a locally-useful employable identity in New Zealand, for former refugees, involves the navigation of social Discourses of Refugeehood and (refugee) Gratitude that can suggest more or less desirable or acceptable subject positions in discourse. The analysis suggests that the participants exercise discursive agency to align with, or disalign from, these Discourses in order to position themselves as capable, agentive, and employable in the local context. Furthermore, I explore the various types of cultural and social capital the participants have at their disposal, the challenges involved in actualising that capital post-migration (as well as creating new capital in a new context), and the ways that they draw upon that capital in discourse in attempts to negotiate a locally-valuable employable identity. This study draws attention to the two-way process of resettlement, in which both host society members and newcomers have roles to play in negotiating successful transitions from the peripheries of society to belonging.