How Immigrants Draw on Social Capital to Build Resilience in their New Communities

By: Felix Ntenhene
December 10, 2023

Migration is a complex phenomenon, however, there are no shortage of concepts and theories in explaining it. Human migration has been an enduring aspect of civilization throughout history and in an increasingly interconnected contemporary world, the movement of people from one place to another, stands as a defining phenomenon shaping our world. The movement of people across borders has become an essential issue to governments and individuals because migration shapes economics, cultures, and societies across the globe. Therefore, there has been a growing polarization in immigration policies. Discussions on immigration, whether among politicians or individuals, have consistently been fraught with both emotional fervor and logical arguments.

Some of the personal stories of migration are very chilling, prompting curiosity about why an individual would forsake their family, society, culture, and possessions for an uncertain future in a new place. This explains that a lot goes into the individual’s decision to migrate. Theoretically, the rational choice theory offers a more comprehensive insight into the dynamics and decision-making processes of immigrants (Massey et al., 1993; Stark, 1991). The theory first introduced migration as an investment decision, wherein potential migrants evaluate the costs and benefits of relocating to a new place based on expected returns (Sjaastad, 1962). Therefore, the decision to migrate and the choice of a destination is determined by an individual’s available information and resources. The theory suggests that potential immigrants assess the potential pros and cons of moving to a new country compared to staying in their current residence. Factors such as employment opportunities, living standards, social networks, and access to public services factor into individuals’ migration choices. Therefore, individuals’ social networks play a big role in accessing resources to enhance both migration and settlement in their new communities.

In addition, the network theory explains the ties between potential immigrants, pioneer immigrants, and non-immigrants across countries of origin and destination (Samers & Collyer, 2016). Potential immigrants often establish social networks with pioneer immigrants at their preferred country of destination, thereby, enhancing their resources and heightening their chances of migrating compared to those lacking such networks (Massey, 2012). These networks typically involve friends, family and social ties within communities or networks sharing common cultural, ethnic, or regional affiliations (Samers & Collyer, 2016). Charles Tilly’s notable phrase, “it is not people who migrate but networks,” succinctly captures this phenomenon (King, 2012: 21). The networks serve as a medium for the flow of resources between potential immigrants and pioneer immigrants and the value of these resources are translated into social capital. For this reason, immigrants with social networks are more likely to fare better than those who have a very limited network at their destination (Piracha et al., 2013).

Immigrating to a foreign country often presents numerous unforeseen challenges for individuals and families, affecting various aspects of their lives. These challenges include finding suitable housing, employment, education, integration, etc. It is the responsibility of immigrants and their host communities to develop strategies to overcome these hurdles. However, on the part of the immigrant, social capital becomes a straw to clutch at. Upon arrival in the host communities, immigrants often rely on networks with their co-ethnics to access knowledge, assistance, and other resources that facilitate their economic and social integration (Abdul, 2020).

Social capital, according to Bourdieu and Wacquant (Palloni et al., 2001:1263), refers to the accumulation of resources that result from long-lasting networks of mutual recognition. It is one of the four capitals, including economic, cultural, and symbolic, that shapes life trajectories (Bourdieu, 1985). The World Bank defines it as the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape societal interactions, incorporating trust and interaction principles (Aldrich, 2012). Hanifan (1916) identified social capital as goodwill, fellowship, and social interaction within a social unit. This concept has been widely embraced across disciplines, illustrating how social capital benefits individuals and communities (Portes, 1998). However, Haas, (2010) argues that one’s social capital depends on network size and the economic, cultural, or symbolic capital within their networks.

Portes (2010) explores social capital as resources within an immigrant community where immigrants develop specific strategies to tackle the challenges they face in their new communities. Portes (2010) further explains that the interconnectedness among immigrants, fostered by shared language, history, and/or common destiny, creates a sense of loyalty and mutual obligations. These relationships can give rise to formal organizations or informal social networks that further transmit and perpetuate social capital and for the distribution of resources within the networks (Portes, 2010). However, the process of integration and the formation of new social networks can be more demanding if there is no existing community of fellow nationals in the new settlement area. Typically, initial interactions with the new homeland occur through contact with other immigrants from the same background (Behtoui, 2022), because through the shared experience in their new environment, immigrants tend to form strong bonds and provide mutual support within their own communities (Behtoui, 2022).

Educational disparities between an immigrant’s and the host country might hinder the transferability of skills and qualifications, putting immigrants at a disadvantage compared to the native-born (Chiswick, 1978). Given these circumstances, social capital plays a vital role in helping immigrants’ integration into the social and economic fabric of the host country, offering resources through established networks. Additionally, social capital provides newcomers with insights into the lifestyle and norms of their new country. This potential role of social capital in facilitating immigrants’ socio-economic integration could enhance their progress in the host country (Piracha et al., 2013).

There is evidence suggesting that immigrants primarily rely on relatives and friends, especially those from the same ethnic background, as their main source of resources for settlement in their new communities (Behtoui, 2022).  If there is a significant presence of individuals from the same group in the new place of residence, newcomers primarily establish close interpersonal connections with them. These fellow nationals can provide valuable support in starting a new life in the new country. They may either be concentrated on the fringes of society or well-integrated into the mainstream society, forming a well-organized community (Behtoui, 2022). Contacts with both immigrant communities and the majority population are crucial for the process of integration and building resilience in the new communities.

In a paradox, research conducted on immigrant social networks in Germany and the Netherlands revealed that social capital doesn’t inherently benefit immigrants (Olliff et al., 2022). According to Olliff et al., (2022), immigrants often find themselves confined within the constraints of their ethnic communities, limiting their social and economic progress. Additionally, enclave economies, while generating wealth, also create internal divisions. Immigrants working in these enclaves are somewhat exploited by co-ethnic employers (Abdul, 2020). Consequently, although securing resources through contacts might seem like the best option, the quality of these resources might still fall below general standards if this is the only provision made by the group (Behtoui, 2022).

While the strong cohesion within robust social networks benefits immigrants, these networks can also breed negative attitudes and behaviors toward outsiders (Aldrich, 2012), potentially leading to increased intolerance and discord with individuals outside the immigrants’ network (Pfefferbaum et al., 2017). Granovetter (1973) similarly suggests that close-knit connections and dense networks contribute to societal segregation and fragmentation, while weaker ties and structural gaps are more impactful in immigrants’ progression (Abdul, 2020).

Migration represents a multifaceted process, and the decision to move hinges on various factors. Large-scale migration from the global south to the global north often occurs due to push factors from unfavorable conditions in the migrants’ origins and pull factors from attractive opportunities in the destination. Economic and social disparities between these regions significantly contribute to the influx of immigrants from the south to the north. Migration decisions are typically well-thought-out, involving a careful assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of moving versus staying. This decision-making process relies on the information and resources available to potential migrants, who seek details about the destination and the means to reach there. Consequently, they establish networks with influential or pioneer immigrants who could assist them. These connections form social networks serve as channels for resources needed to fulfill their migration aspirations. These networks possess valuable resources that translate into social capital, deriving value from these networks. Upon arrival in new communities, immigrants gravitate towards individuals they identify with, often based on shared ethnicity, race, or language.

Immigrants face numerous challenges in their new communities, such as unrecognized credentials affecting employment, housing, healthcare access, and integration. Consequently, to overcome these challenges, immigrants develop resilient mechanisms, one of which involves forming networks to create social capital. This social capital serves to distribute essential resources within immigrants’ communities, aiding economic and social integration, adaptation, and more. Pioneer immigrants often provide support through resource-sharing to aid newcomers and existing community members from their home countries. However, despite the importance of social capital in fostering community resilience, immigrants often encounter limitations within their ethnic communities, hindering their progress. Close-knit networks can contribute to societal segregation and negative attitudes towards outsiders, potentially leading to conflict. This article recommends that immigrant host countries and communities create inclusive environments for immigrants and would suggests that social capital should not be the sole strategy for building resilience. It also would emphasize the need for immigrant-serving organizations to collaborate with community leaders and gatekeepers of ethnic groups to understand the unique challenges faced by immigrants based on their backgrounds and origins.  


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