The complexities of structure and agency :: social networks among Canadian immigrant women

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University of New Brunswick


This is a mixed methods study of ethno-religious immigrant women and their social networks during the early years of the settlement process. Immigrant women’s social networks are the locus of the interplay between structure and agency. The study uses a feminist intersectional framework to explore how immigrant women make strategic choices in the face of pressures from multiple structures. Statistical analysis of the Longitudinal Study of Immigrants to Canada shows that ethno-religious diversity as well as differences in main activities lead to variability in women’s mental health trajectories throughout the settlement process. The results of growth modeling indicate that Muslim immigrant women struggle to create the social capital necessary for overcoming structural barriers. The qualitative portion of the study is a comparison of Muslim and Christian women who settled in the Maritimes in the past decade. Eighty-nine immigrant women from twenty-seven countries took part in focus group discussions and individual interviews. Twenty-two service providers from community organizations were also interviewed. Analysis of the qualitative data focused on the impact of ethnic origins, as well as the particular stage in the settlement process, on immigrant women’s social networks. The qualitative findings provide a rich description of the resiliency and vulnerability of ethno-religious minority women. Settlement agencies, universities and Christian evangelical churches play key roles in the women’s creation of social capital in the early months and years. Christian immigrant women benefit from established institutional infrastructures in the region but there are differences in support according to ethnicity and denomination. Muslim women’s social networks are still in the early phase of formalization and one of the challenges they face is a wide range of ethno-religious diversity. The settlement experience offers religious immigrant women opportunities to learn that the interlocking structures of gender, ethnicity and class are movable and that together they can forge pathways in a new society through participation in social networks.