The role of sport in the integration process for women from refugee backgrounds.

  • Stephen O'Grady

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


While its potential to play a part in generating social integration among different ethnic cultures is regularly explored, it is rare for sport to be regarded as an obvious choice where women from refugee backgrounds (WRB) are concerned. However, with displaced women of varying ethnic identities emerging from many troubled global regions, it is clear that the question of WRB and sport is a pertinent and arguably prescient one. Previous research shows a one-size-fits-all approach must be eschewed and ongoing inclinations towards generalised assumptions about the practice and behaviour of cultural groups need to be quelled.

Drawing on previous research around culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD), Muslim, migrant and marginalised women, this research study, a Queensland Government-supported project, spotlights women with refugee experiences in Queensland, Australia. Using a combination of data collection methods including focus groups, one-to-one interviews and participant observation, this qualitative study considers the ways WRB get involved in sport, their strategies in relation to such involvement, the constraints to involvement they encounter and the quality of benefits that accrue through their involvement. Integration is conceptualised to guide an understanding of this sport involvement as it pertains to WRB who resettle in Queensland. A productive innovation in the research design positions WRB as facilitators of the focus groups, inviting their peers to share their experiences while also contributing significantly to data collection.

Two distinct but interrelated WRB groups emerge in the findings. The first group, including mothers, aged 30 or older who have limited English language proficiency, has a casual involvement with sport which is made obligatory at times by the institutional involvement of their children. The second group, including non-mothers, aged under 30, who speak English proficiently, has an ongoing relationship with organised sport which is often initially fostered within the institution that is the Queensland school system. Six dimensions of constraints to involvement are identified across a structural-cultural continuum, which combine dynamically to restrict sport involvement across the two groups and the individuals therein. An important need to address multiple dimensions at the same time emerges, and the dimension located at the entry points to sport clubs is observed to be one where adaptation on the part of both WRB and sport organisations can potentially facilitate sustained involvement.

Drawing on Bourdieu’s practice theory, the study activates related sub-concepts of unrecognised cultural currency, habitus repertoire, bounded agency and devalued migrating cultural capital to understand perspectives of WRB who are influenced by past experiences as they negotiate current and unfamiliar social circumstances. Sub-concepts of bonding social capital and linking social capital are fused to probe the value of intracultural relations to the two groups, and to explore the use and importance of relationships which arise from sport involvement at a time of resettlement.

Sport emerges as a social institution that can provide valuable support to new arrivals, most notably in building self-awareness among WRB about their capacity to be involved in sport and to make involvement meaningful. However, without proactive adaptation of sport’s structures, it is clear the potential for WRB to take the first steps towards sport is highly limited given their prevailing resettlement priorities in the midst of an ongoing sense of uncertainty and a combination of constraints. Drawing on the experiences of 41 WRB, primarily from the Middle East and Africa, the findings from this research offer insights into how and why sport clubs in Queensland can adapt in their own right while constructively nurturing adaptation among WRB to become increasingly resilient, confident, connected, and informed social agents as they resettle. Whether this amounts to integration, however, is questioned. At a time when the import of multiculturalism is obscured by the onset of globalisation and transnationalism, a further question rising out of this study asks: ‘why the need for a troubled concept like integration?’
Date of Award16 Feb 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorLisa Gowthorp (Supervisor) & Danny O'Brien (Supervisor)

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