Investigating Gender and Enterprise in “Fragile” Refugee Settings: The Use of Critical Realism to Explore Institutional Dynamics and Change


Advancing earlier studies in Afghanistan and Kenya, the research discussed in this case study sought to further investigate gender and enterprise in “fragile settings”—where the state is weak, absent, or unwilling. The research case specifically explored Syrian refugee women’s evolving economic lives, and related socio-cultural dynamics in the context of Jordan. Adopting an “institutionalist” perspective, the research looked at the precarious nature of emerging social and economic practices—including women’s increased public mobility, and new work norms in enterprise. The empirical study drew on an “exploratory” in-depth case study approach, critical realism, to examine “less known social phenomena” in institutional change and the interplay between structure and agency. Such an approach may permit an exploration of different realities, but it necessitates a self-reflective and self-aware researcher, with flexibility to guide and reshape the investigation as necessary. At a grassroots level, the article expounds on the ethnographic tools employed and the value of such tools in less formal settings. Yet, the case study draws attention to three potential levels of bias that may influence the research process and outcomes, including the researcher, the research respondents, and the research process. A recognition and awareness of these biases may be of particular importance in open and iterative critical realist research that aims to explore the “social world,” and build an understanding of “reality” over the course of the research.

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