Making a Life on the Margins: An ethnographic account from Kutupalong



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Drawing on a 48-month ethnography of the Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee Camp in this dissertation, I first present a dialectic theory of institutional totalization, the process through which organizations come to control the totality of their members' lives. I show that totalization also propels bootstrapping behavior amongst the inmates, the patterning of which changes in response to the totalizing environment of the camp. I discover three types of bootstrapping: marshalling, indigenizing, and potentiating, which each represent a specific reaction to a distinct phase of the totalizing process. Bootstrapping creates openings for institutional resistance, which coalesces with the securitization efforts of the institutional authorities. The oppositional forces of authoritarian encroachment and institutional resistance dialectically co-determine the evolution of the total institution that enmeshes them both. Totalization creates opportunity structures for refugees who relate to both the authorities and the refugee community by propagating social stability and institutional continuity. 

Secondly, I zoom in on necessity entrepreneurship (NE) as an organizing strategy for marginalized populations; I explore the social implications of necessity entrepreneurship and introduce an ethnographic theory explaining how necessity entrepreneurship leads to the formation of endemic institutions characterized by social cooperation and mutual recognition. These institutions fulfill the fundamental human need for social inclusion by providing a context where participants feel valued, engage in community care, and find gratifying opportunities for social participation. While endemic institutions contribute positively to necessity entrepreneurs' lives and beyond, they also have a darker side, fostering shame, socio-economic divides, and exclusionary dynamics that contribute to social and income inequality.

Finally, I reflect on my ethnographic fieldwork conducted within the Kutupalong refugee camp. Within this reflective analysis, I delineate the various opportunities, challenges, and overarching insights that emerged from the unique experience of conducting ethnography within a community marked by vulnerability and extreme precarity. This reflection not only encapsulates the intricacies of the research process but also sheds light on the broader implications of studying and understanding marginalized communities, offering valuable perspectives on the dynamic interplay between researcher and researched in such challenging contexts.