Refugees and social theory: from the politics of “bare life” to refugees as political subjects
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This article explores theoretical literature on refugees, noting a significant distinction between an abstract body of work critiquing the politics of humanitarianism and an ethnographic literature focused on refugee subjects. As I argue, refugees should be seen not simply as “bare life” which has been removed from political life, but rather as political subjects whose subjectivities are shaped by the social environments in which they live. To illustrate this point, I draw on Liisa Malkki’s Purity and exile and my own work on exile camps administered by the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) during Namibia’s liberation struggle. Collectively, this and other ethnographic literature highlight limits to social theory which works with highly abstract notions of “the refugee” and suggests that more significant scholarly interventions are now to be made through carefully contextualised work, tracing political subjectivities, in particular refugee communities, and how these subjectivities have been abstracted.