Navigating a river by its bends

Gea Wijers, of the Vrije University Amsterdam, studies Cambodian immigrants who have gone back to Cambodia: "returnees."

By Gea Wijers
Special to Khmerican 

Amsterdam, the Netherlands – My name is Gea Wijers, and I am a Ph.D. candidate at the Vrije University Amsterdam, the Netherlands / Cambodia Research Group. For the last three years, I have been conducting a study called “Navigating a river by its bends: A study on returnees’ contributions to the progress of Cambodia.”

Funded by the NWO-WOTRO Science for Development organization, our research group is working on an integrated program titled “Competing hegemons: Foreign dominated processes of development in Cambodia.” This program’s strategy is based on building capacity in Cambodian higher education, in a partnership between the Faculty of Social Sciences of the VU University Amsterdam and the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Most of my academic colleagues are Cambodians who conduct fieldwork in their home country and work as lecturers at Cambodian institutions on the side. Please check out our website if you would like to know more about my colleagues and our research experiences in Cambodia.

You may wonder why a Dutch person decided to focus on Cambodian communities. To me, however, it seemed the only natural thing to do. After spending two years in Cambodia as a strategy and management advisor in the Ministry of Environment, Cambodia had become part of me, and I wanted to find a way to contribute to its progress in a more meaningful way. Already, these personal experiences in Cambodia have provided the material for a Dutch blog and a Dutch and English book. But I hope the findings of my research will help people make sense of their experiences upon return as well as be considered by policy makers when designing resettlement, remigration and citizenship policies.

The dissertation will be finished by February 2013. By sharing some of the material with you on this site, aside from raising awareness, I hope to also receive preliminary feedback to improve my analysis.

To give you an idea: fieldwork findings seem to confirm that voluntary return of former refugees, and their possible contributions upon return, should be described by taking full account of distinct characteristics that set it apart from remigration by migrants.  As Rodicio (2001) has proposed, for Cambodia this consists of the experiences of repatriation, reintegration and reconciliation leading toward a true restoration of life. Case studies show that Cambodian returnees’ contributions to the progress of Cambodia, although transnational, need to find firm grounding in the Cambodian institutional context. The emancipatory character of their work produces very mixed results. Findings thus propose that the dynamics of return are more complex than would be expected from prominent literature on transnationalism focusing on its “unembedded” nature and the simultaneity of transformational influence in multiple sites (for example, see Glick & Schiller, 1994, 1995; Levitt, 2001; Portes et al., 2007).

A step back in history

The turbulence of a civil war (1970-1975), the Khmer Rouge takeover (1975-1979), and the Vietnamese intervention (1979-1989) forced many Cambodians into exile. Among the nations offering refuge, America and France stand out for the number of Indochinese refugees who were accepted for resettlement (Chan, 2004; Ong, 2003). Decades after these conflicts, the first generations of refugees from these countries, among others, are re-resettling in Cambodia, according a 1991 report by the Center for Policy Analysis and Research on Refugee Issues. This first repatriating generation has combined the personal experiences of pre-conflict Cambodia and a prolonged stay in countries of exile with the process of “getting reacquainted” with a post-conflict Cambodia that suffers from widespread corruption and is often characterized as a hybrid democracy and a fragile state (Becker, 1998; Un, 2005).

My doctoral research explores the return of Cambodian refugees to their native country and their personal experiences in trying to “do good,” working toward the development of Cambodia. It grew out of an observation I made while working at the Ministry of Environment; I kept wondering why Cambodian American and Cambodian French returnees employed different strategies in working in Cambodia. Why does the first group often start non-government organizations (NGO) and the latter prefer working for the Cambodian government? Translated into a research design, the question under scrutiny is thus: In what ways do first-generation Cambodian French and Cambodian American returnees evaluate the employment of transnational networks in their contributions to the progress of Cambodia?

Research design

The Ph.D. research was designed as an ethnographic, multi-sited, embedded case study comparing Cambodian French and Cambodian American returnees’ narrativizations of their experiences in exile and upon return (Marcus, 1997; Schweizer et al., 1997; Yin, 1994).

Ethnography offers a holistic approach to cultural systems, attempting to describe their social contexts and political meanings. For these descriptions to allow for inferences that go beyond the particular observations collected, they need to fulfill requirements of unbiasedness, efficiency, and consistency (King et al, 1994). Ethnographic methods were considered most pertinent for data collection with key informants and individual community members in multiple sites: Lyon, France; Long Beach, California; and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The major aim of comparative research is to identify similarities and differences between social entities contributing to theory formation. It’s all about perspective. The comparative method is fundamentally a case-oriented, small-N technique. It is typically used when researchers have substantial knowledge of each case included in an investigation and there is a relatively small number of cases (Przeworkski and Teune, 1970).

For this multi-sited comparison, the classic triangular interdependence between three parties, the returnee, the overseas ethnic community, and homeland society was taken a starting point. The returnees’ contributions to the progress of Cambodia are traced from, firstly, their experiences in exile to, secondly, the resources available in their transnational networks to, thirdly, their life upon return to Cambodia.

An embedded case is characterized by the idea that cases can only be understood in their social context; thus, next to analysis of an individual case, a case study will include contextual analysis to come to an integrated overview. In my research this is accomplished by:

• presenting “narrativizations” of personal experiences that are an important part of the ongoing construction of returnees’ reality
• evaluating field-level conditions that may restrain or enable the use of resources available in transnational networks

In contrast to personal “narratives,” a continuous story from beginning to end, a narrativization focuses on particular experiences. Narrative interviews are much like conversations that both the interviewer/listener and the narrator/interviewee engage in as participants (Mishler, 1986). Narrativizations may evolve naturally from a semi-structured interview in response to focused questions. Issues are approached here through conversation and narrativization in order to obtain not only comparable information about past actions in multiple sites, but also to infuse them with meaning (Kohler Riessman, 1993).

The multi-sitedness thus resulted in a form of juxtaposition of phenomena that conventionally would appear to be “worlds apart” while overcoming the agency-structure dichotomy so often prevalent in conventional sociological research (Marcus, 1995: 100-102).

Please see the list of references for information about the literature the research builds upon. Having now provided this orientation, selections from my research will be published periodically at

Thank you

My thanks go out to the wonderful people I have been allowed to spend time with over the last several years in France, the U.S., and Cambodia and for all their contributions to this research. Words cannot express how much I have appreciated the ways you have shared your stories. I hope I can do them justice.


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