Storied Pasts: Evolving Norms in US Affirmative Asylum Narratives 1989-2018

Posted: 13 Mar 2023

Date Written: March 8, 2023


This article develops a framework for understanding the emergence and evolution of structural and substantive norms in asylum narratives over time. First I offer an historical framework which shows how these norms evolve as a result of combined legal, political, cultural and institutional changes. Institutional norms are infused with politics, undergo processes of bureaucratization, and change in response to imperatives and opportunities presented by social and cultural shifts in the way asylum is framed. Second, drawing on a sample of 120 affirmative asylum claims filed between 1989 and 2018, I offer an empirical analysis which reveals the rise of a contemporary system in which competing demands on asylum stories severely limit how those seeking protection can communicate about their experiences. The result is a legal and institutional environment in which asylum seekers must respond to demands for increasing conformity to institutional expectations about how experiences are narrated by adhering to a progressively more formalized, legally and institutionally-legible structure for narrating experiences of persecution or fear.

Suggested Citation

Stepnitz, Abigail, Storied Pasts: Evolving Norms in US Affirmative Asylum Narratives 1989-2018 (March 8, 2023). Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, Vol. 41, No. 2, 2023, Available at SSRN:

Abigail Stepnitz (Contact Author)

Drake University ( email )

Des Moines, IA 50311
United States
50311 (Fax)

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