From Refugee to Settlement Case Worker: Cultural Brokers in the Contact Zone and the Border Work of Identity

By Jane Haggis, Susanne Schech and Sophia Rainbird.

Published by The Diversity Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Our starting point in this paper is the notion of the ‘contact zone’ first elaborated by Mary Louise Pratt (1992) to reconceptualise colonialism as a space of cross-cultural interaction and agency rather than as a static picture of domination and incorporation. The paper draws upon our research on refugee settlement in Australia to explore the hypothesis that the concept of the ‘contact zone’ expresses the contemporary global border between developed and developing societies, structuring and framing the people flows of refugees and labour that characterise the contemporary moment. Our attention is on how the settlement process deals with difference. By difference we mean a range of possibilities: racialised difference, cultural difference, and the difference of development and modernity. The border also has its uses in conceptualizing the character of this contact zone. Somerville and Perkins (2003) develop a model of the contact zone as a range of specific kinds of ‘border work’ undertaken by actors: sometimes maintaining, sometimes crossing, borders of difference.
Newly arrived refugees in Australia enter a complex settlement program through which they receive support from government agencies and NGOs. Settlement case workers provide individual and community support on a range of needs such as housing, household formation, assistance with school enrolments, advice and referrals to services such as counselling, health employment and education. Within this workforce are former refugees, often having experienced careers entirely different to that of the welfare industry. These workers act as cultural brokers liaising, communicating and interpreting between service providers and their ethnic communities (Whitehead 1983). This paper considers the extent to which community member, employee, ethnic representative and refugee form aspects of their multifaceted identity. In so doing, this paper suggests that movement within a hierarchy of identities according to need, operates as a coping mechanism, allowing the cultural broker to shift between refugee, case worker, community member and employee in the process accomplishing the ‘border work’ of the contact zone.

Keywords: Identity, Refugee, Contact Zone, Difference, Border Work, Settlement, Cultural Broker, NGO

International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp.237-248. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 563.001KB).

Assoc. Prof. Jane Haggis

Sociology, Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Assoc. Prof. Susanne Schech

Geography, Population and Environmental Management, Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Dr. Sophia Rainbird

Research Assistant, Sociology, Social Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


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