Narratives of complexity : an ethnographic exploration of resilience and wellbeing among single refugee women in Brisbane

Lenette, Marie Desiree Caroline (2011) Narratives of complexity : an ethnographic exploration of resilience and wellbeing among single refugee women in Brisbane. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


This study aimed to explore resilience and wellbeing among a group of eight refugee women originating from several countries (mainly African) and living in Brisbane, most of whom were single mothers. To challenge mostly quantitative and gender-blind explorations of mental health concepts among refugee groups, the project sought an emic and contextual understanding of resilience and wellbeing. Established perspectives, while useful, tend to overlook the complexities of refugee mental health experiences and can neglect the dense nature of individual stories. The purpose of my study was to contest relatively simplistic narratives of mental health constructs that tend to dominate migrant and refugee studies and influence practice paradigms in the human services field. In this ethnographic exploration of mental health constructs conducted in 2008 and 2009, the use of in-depth interviews, participant observations, and visual ethnographic elements provided an opportunity for refugee women to tell their own stories. The participants’ unique narratives of pre- and post-migration experiences, shaped by specific gender, age, social, cultural and political aspects prevailing in their lives, yielded ‘thick’ ethnographic description (Geertz, 1973) of their social worlds. The findings explored in this study, namely language issues, the impact of community dynamics, and the single status of refugee women, clearly demonstrate that mental health constructs are fluid, multifaceted and complex in reality. In fact, language, community dynamics, and being a single mother, represented both opportunities and barriers in the lives of participants. In some contexts, these factors were conducive to resilience and wellbeing, while in other circumstances, these three elements acted as a hindrance to positive mental health outcomes. There are multiple dimensions to the findings, signifying that the social worlds of refugee women cannot be simplified using set definitions and neat notions of resilience and wellbeing. Instead, the intricacies and complexities embedded in the mundane of the everyday highlight novel conceptualisations of resilience and wellbeing. Based on the particular circumstances of single refugee mothers, whose experiences differ from that of married women, this thesis presents novel articulations of mental health constructs, as an alternative view to existing trends in the literature on refugee issues. Rich and multi-dimensional meanings associated with the socio-cultural determinants of mental health emerged in the process. This thesis’ findings highlight a significant gap in diasporic studies as well as simplistic assumptions about refugee women’s resettlement experiences. Single refugee women’s distinct issues are so complex and dense, that a contextual approach is critical to yield accurate depictions of their circumstances. It is therefore essential to understand refugee lived experiences within broader socio-political contexts to truly appreciate the depth of these narratives. In this manner, critical aspects salient to refugee journeys can inform different understandings of resilience, wellbeing and mental health, and shape contemporary policy and human service practice paradigms.

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ID Code: 45935
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Brough, Mark & Cox, Leonie
Keywords: ethnography, mental health, refugee women, resilience, single mothers, wellbeing
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Past > Schools > Social Work & Human Services
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 12 Sep 2011 02:28
Last Modified: 12 Sep 2011 02:28

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