Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Annette Lareau

Second Advisor

Randall Collins


Studies have increasingly examined the economic lives of refugees, revealing a wide range of economic activity in displacement. Seeking to promote a neoliberal ethos of self-reliance, policymakers have focused on the role of employment on individual life trajectories. Yet, research also suggests the crucial role of humanitarian organizations and social networks. Drawing on ethnographic observation and interviews with refugee households and humanitarian workers in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, along with weekly questionnaires with refugee families, this dissertation brings together three papers on refugees’ economic lives. In Kakuma, a broad range of social institutions played a key role in the distribution of resources—from humanitarian organizations to refugee-led groups, such as churches and women’s groups, which structured social networks. Yet, sources of support could become sources of instability, as refugees’ faced barriers in accessing assistance. First, although employment and income are important economic drivers for self-reliance, refugee households across social class backgrounds reported successive economic shocks across sectors. These shocks reverberated across communities, destabilizing even refugee households with relatively stable employment. Thus, a household’s ability to cope with any one shock depended not only on their income, but also on the broader context of multiple intersecting shocks. Second, while refugee social networks provided crucial resources to overcome shocks, social ties also faced resource downturns. As a result, their support varied over time. Thus, the presence of a social tie did not equate to access to their resources, rather social capital was contingent on the success of mobilizing a tie based on their changing resource levels and resource demands. Third, refugees might have turned to humanitarian institutions; yet, facing overwhelming need with insufficient resources, front-line workers in humanitarian institutions distanced themselves from refugee clients through informal work practices. These practices marginalized refugee workers within humanitarian organizations and created barriers for refugees to access organizational assistance. Thus, models of refugees’ economic trajectories need to take into account how sources of support often became sources of instability.


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