Elizabeth Ekren

Research themes
  • Governance
  • Mobility and migration
  • Institutions
  • Social and Cultural Change and Adaptation
  • Economic change and vulnerability
  • Migration, mobility and urbanization
Research countries
  • Germany
Research projects

Proposed thesis: Agency, opportunity structure and empowerment in everyday refugee life: Enduring and overcoming challenges of daily living in Cologne refugee shelters

Additional information


Professional experience

AssetMark, Inc. (formerly known as Genworth Financial, Inc.), Booz Allen Hamilton, National Defense University, The Heritage Foundation


Master of Science, Russian and East European Studies, University of Oxford (2010); Bachelor of Arts, Psychology, Russian Language, Yale University (2009); Associate of Arts, German Language, Defense Language Institute (2016)


social anthropology, migration, refugees, institutional analysis

Funding institutions

IPID4all (€500 conference grant, March 2017); United States National Military Family Association (€900 tuition grant, April 2017, April 2019); Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (€1200 monthly Ph.D. Stipend, November 2017-2018)

Thesis title

Agency, opportunity structure and empowerment in everyday refugee life: Enduring and overcoming challenges of daily living in Cologne refugee shelters

Thesis abstract

To what extent are refugees empowered in their daily lives to overcome legal, material and sociocultural challenges that governmental institutional structures create? In Germany, where over 1 million refugees have received a form of protection since 2015, clear possibilities for life remaking may be superficially presumed, given Germany’s robust economic and political systems. As such, the purpose of this PhD research is to describe and better understand refugees’ actual capacity for change in daily life in this unique and evolving sociopolitical context. This thesis presents qualitative data from fieldwork conducted in refugee shelters in Cologne—a large, wealthy, progressive city—between 2017 and 2018.

The conceptual approach argues that the possibilities for change are tied primarily to three key areas: 1) the assets and capabilities refugees have (agency); 2) the governmental institutional conditions that define their use (opportunity structure) and 3) the ways these factors interact to enable or constrain choices in building new lives (empowerment). A coding template, constructed deductively from these concepts and inductively from data, is used to analyze legal documents; 48 expert interviews; 28 semi-structured and conversational interviews with refugee families; and 234 pages of field note observations of shelter life. Outcomes are examined at the local level across political, economic and sociocultural domains of daily living.

Descriptive and thematic analyses reveal that refugees’ empowerment for change is constrained in each domain, with respect to qualities of agency and opportunity structure that influence the capacity for choice. Agency as assets and capabilities is slowly expanding across domains. Refugees increasingly value, strive for and gather agency in the form of understanding complex case information, pursuing favorable legal statuses, learning German, seeking employment, establishing homes, feeling less isolated, building connections with Germans and sensing psychological peace. Legal frameworks, however, do not necessarily align to allow for the most effective building or application of agency. Although they are becoming more progressive in principle and provide adequate levels of basic material support, access to benefits, services and rights change rapidly, creating great instability in what can be pursued as solutions to issues in daily life. Similarly, inflexible, hierarchical systems of execution limit clear entry points for dynamic engagement.

As such, refugees encounter difficulties executing choices to reach the goals they value. However, whether choices break down at the level of presence, use or effectiveness varies contextually. Origin country or residency status can eliminate the presence of choice, in terms of imposing explicit legal prohibitions. Sociodemographic assets—such as gender, family status, language skills, education or professional background—threaten the use or effectiveness of choice, as individuals reconcile their former identities within new state-determined possibilities for social participation, as well as doubt the realistic possibilities to reach the increasingly existential employment, home, stability and belonging outcomes they aspire to.

Possessing connections to engaged civil society or local government actors enhances empowerment possibilities most saliently, as such intermediaries are better positioned to navigate aforementioned agency-structure misalignments. These connections are also critical, given that refugees do not view shelters—still their dominant living spaces—as homes or community-based sources of help. At the same time, refugees also demonstrate empowerment through prioritizing family values and undertaking familiar means of homemaking, finding ways to combat turbulence with their own creative constructions of culturally meaningful elements of normalcy.

This PhD research contributes to the evolving understanding of how governmental opportunity structures shape refugees’ possibilities for life remaking. Ultimately, while refugees in Cologne do not find themselves victims in a state of bare life given legal structures with a humanitarian premise, clearer, more stable policy could limit volatility and enhance more empowered means of individually applying agency to drive meaningful life outcomes, as emergency survival gives way to desiring a more sustainable future.

Doctoral research funded by

Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit

Supervisors of
doctoral work

Prof. Dr. Eva Youkhana

Advisor at ZEF

Dr. Wolfram Laube


Al Munajed, D.; Ekren, E..  2020.  Exploring the impact of multidimensional refugee vulnerability on distancing as a protective measure against COVID-19: The case of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Turkey.  Journal of Migration and Health, 1-2   . (Open Access)   Further Information


Ekren, E.  2018.  Obstacles to Refugees’ Self-Reliance in Germany.  Forced Migration Review, 58   : 30-32   . (Open Access)   Download [PDF | 345.40KB]
Further Information
Ekren, E..  2018.  How can theories of institutional design and everyday innovation reveal agency for change in refugee communities?.  International Journal of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies, 3 (2)   : 5-18   . (Open Access)   Further Information

Additionals, Curriculum Vitae
and Downloads

Elizabeth Ekren

Junior Researcher

Department :
ZEF A: Department of Political and Cultural Change