Refugee Networks, Cooperation, and Resource Access

Daniel Masterson

American Political Science Review (2023) 


This article examines the role of social network structures in refugee community deliberations and problem solving in Lebanon and Jordan. High-density networks can facilitate information flow and in-group sanctioning, thereby encouraging greater engagement toward addressing collective problems. However, less densely networked and more diverse groups can bring a wider range of skills, information, knowledge, and connections that may make them more effective in solving problems. 

The analysis is based on a social experiment comprising 56 moderated community meetings with almost 500 Syrian refugees across 14 cities, towns, and refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. The author created single-sex groups with different social network structures by varying the recruitment methods for community meetings. To enable an analysis of effects at both the group and individual level, groups were constructed using two levels of random assignment. First, community meetings were randomly assigned to be recruited through either referral sampling or random sampling. Referral sampling creates groups that are likely to have dense social networks, whereas random sampling creates groups with the potential for diverse connections and information. Second, a subset of refugee participants was randomly assigned to be placed in one group type or another.  

The moderated community meetings elicited and observed dialogue around common community problems such as public safety, freedom of movement, resource distribution, and livelihoods. The author identified and coded instances of cooperative dialogue (such as comments that discussed solutions to community problems or that responded to or prompted comments from other participants) and comments relating to the existence of resources that Syrian refugees can draw on. Data on group network structure and participant characteristics were collected using a participant questionnaire. 

Main findings: 

  • Dense refugee networks increase group and individual engagement in response to collective problems. Discussion in networked groups exhibited higher engagement in response to community problems compared to randomly sampled groups. This result is driven by both the structural characteristics of the groups (group composition) and individuals’ incentives to contribute more when working with a networked group. Individuals assigned to a networked group engaged with each other in response at higher rates than those assigned to randomly sampled groups. 
  • Networked refugee groups draw on fewer unique resources in their discussions. The average number of unique resources discussed in a community meeting was lower in networked groups than in randomly sampled groups. Networked groups are consistently less likely to say that they could draw on a range of resources (such as Syrian leaders, brokers, community dispute resolution, and NGOs) in response to the problem being discussed. Resource diversity disadvantage of networked groups is likely driven by structural features of the groups. 
  • There aren’t any significant group-level network effects on access to host communities, police, or government for refugees. This suggests that network diversity facilitates access to other Syrians who may be helpful but not host community members (i.e., host community, government, and police). 

The author concludes that networked groups of refugees have a cooperative advantage that leads to higher engagement in collective problem solving, but they suffer from a resource diversity disadvantage. In Jordan and Lebanon, the findings suggest that diverse groups have greater access to a broad network of Syrians and NGOs, but not Lebanese and Jordanian government actors or police. In communities where trust or reciprocity is the binding constraint for effective cooperation, building social ties and systems of accountability within the community can be helpful. In communities where resource access is the main binding constraint, linking refugees to service providers, surrounding neighborhoods, and local authorities, may be an effective way to facilitate access to the resources necessary to address collective problems.