ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Ethnographies of waiting

Location Quincentenary Building, Tausend Room
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 09:00


Manpreet Janeja (University of Copenhagen) email
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This panel examines: forms of (in)actions/(in)activities, regulatory norms, rituals, notions of productivity, historical inequalities, power configurations, multiple scales, subjectivities and socialities that constitute modalities of waiting; also ethnography as a methodology that rests on waiting.

Long Abstract

From Malinowski's analysis of the return gift in the kula prestige-economy to Lefebvre's critique of 'modern' everyday-life to Bourdieu's meditations on unemployed men in 1960s Algeria as waiting communities, we are reminded of the ubiquity of waiting. We all wait in areas, developed and developing: in traffic-jams, identity-document offices, school-meal queues, a let-up in the weather. Beyond such 'ordinary' forms of waiting are others: periodic-waiting (national-elections), crisis-induced waiting (compensation-waits), 'chronic-waiting' (development-aid). There are forms of violence enmeshed in waiting - in residents awaiting decisions on rehabilitation for the good of the 'community' or human inhabitants attacked by 'wild-animals' awaiting compensation. There are also forms of delayed gratification, creativity, and affectivity embodied in modalities of waiting - a "productive gap-year"/sabbatical on a CV or the consumption of perfectly-ripened brie.

The panel invites reflections on forms of (in)actions/(in)activities, processes, practices, and perceptions that constitute waiting. Questions the panel could address:

What are the diverse norms that seek to regulate and order waiting? Are there rituals of waiting? What are the notions of productivity that elicit understandings of waiting as an 'active-strategy'/'dead-time'? How might we revisit processes of subjectivity and sociality through various configurations of waiting across multiple temporal scales? What are the historical inequalities manifested in different modalities of waiting? How might we conceive of the linkages between configurations of power and the social production of waiting? What might ethnographies of waiting reveal about ethnography itself as a methodology that hinges on waiting as a tool which possibly facilitates extending 'sympathy' towards those studied?

Discussant: Dr Mukulika Banerjee (London School of Economics)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Waiting and waiting at the edge of the Indian city

Author: Ian M Cook (Central European University)  email


Waiting is a rhythmic relational practice between those who wait and who/what is waited for. This is explored through an analysis of waiting on multiple temporal and spatial scales in the lives of Indian auto rickshaw drivers.

Long Abstract

Auto-rickshaw drivers in Mangalore wait on multiple temporal and spatial scales for the city around them. This ethnography of an auto-stand at the edge of the city explores the practices of waiting in the lives of auto-drivers and other Mangaloreans. The paper argues that waiting is a rhythmic relational practice between those who wait and who/what is waited for, analysing these on three scales. Firstly everyday waiting for fares: not always passive, waiting can be active both in relation to passengers ('roaming' junctions for rents) and also in relation to other drivers (amongst whom caste/community lines are blurred when waiting). Secondly, the expectant waiting of family/peers for auto-drivers to 'progress' in their lives. Thirdly, waiting for 'development': the area where the drivers wait at the edge of the city is scheduled for inclusion in the mooted Mangalore Corniche ring-road that will sweep along the city's river front; whilst drivers and others passively wait for this 'development' real estate developers buy up land. These waiting practices are tied together through an 'ethnography of the particular' of the auto-driver Raj, a regular at the stand whose family became wealthy after selling land to make way for the Corniche. Raj however opts out of the 'progress' and 'development' expected of him due to his new found wealth and continues to wait at the stand. In doing so his practices challenge India's placement in the 'waiting room of history', rejecting the expectations of modernity in favour of the rhythmically diverse non-linear everyday waiting.

Dhaka jammed: languages of the jam, spaces of the city

Author: Lotte Hoek (University of Edinburgh)  email


This paper explores the social energies that are created as we wait in traffic jams.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the creative energies of the traffic jams that form and transform the urban spaces of the crammed megacity Dhaka. I focus on the types of sociality that are produced by the jam. Mapping these through the languages that are produced in and about the jam, I argue that jam is a singular utterance, the coming into being of an unstable and transient socio-material form, erupting out of the contours of the urban space through a collective slowing down.

Juggling time(s): waiting for inundation and resettlement in Malaysian Borneo

Author: Liana Chua (Brunel University London)  email


Exploring how four villages involved in a dam-construction and resettlement project deal with their situation by juggling different temporal regimes and modes of waiting, this paper argues for the need to treat waiting as a productive space rather than a transitional state with a clear outcome.

Long Abstract

In a rural, rainforested part of Malaysian Borneo, four small indigenous communities in the hills around a new dam wait to be resettled to a nearby township. Or so it seems. But in a situation where half the population has moved to town, a significant proportion has built new villages further inland, and a vocal minority are contesting the legality of the entire scheme, what does waiting actually involve? Who is doing the waiting, and what are they waiting for? Drawing on fieldwork conducted in the area at various intervals since 2007, my paper explores the different ways in which the affected communities have dealt with the prospect of inundation and resettlement. I suggest that more than being a transitional period oriented towards a specific end-point, waiting can itself be agentive and productive of new identities, relations and politics. By showing how my acquaintances juggle different temporal, political and moral regimes (and the modes of waiting embedded in them) in the gap between their old lives and a projected future, I argue that waiting needs to be understood not simply as something that takes place in time, but also as a relationship to time(s).

'We sit and wait': labour migration and temporality in Guliston, southern Tajikistan

Author: Diana Ibanez Tirado (SOAS, University of London)  email


This paper examines the act of waiting for labour migrants to return to their home-village in southern Tajikistan. Described as a passive act of sitting, waiting was practiced as a set of dynamic and contingent activities that ensured village people did not let time pass unmarked.

Long Abstract

There are few countries in the world today that generate a higher proportion of their gross domestic product (GDP) from remittances than Tajikistan. In 2008, when migration to Russia reached its peak, foreign transfers to Tajikistan constituted nearly 50% of the country's GDP. I examine in this paper the pending return of three male labour migrants who work in Russia to their home-village in Guliston, southern Tajikistan. The act of 'waiting' to return was often described by the migrants' families in the village as a passive act of 'sitting'. I analyse the ways in which waiting actually provides Guliston's villagers with opportunities to 'invest' in the future, and shape and update their everyday routines in the face of contingency and unexpectedness. Focusing on the mundane everyday activities envisioned as 'waiting', I suggest, displaces the significance of migration both as a rite of passage for men and as something best understood in terms of its impact on migrants' wives. I argue that, because 'waiting' is accomplished in Guliston as a set of dynamic and contingent activities, people in the village are constantly engaged in creative ways of renewing their expectations about the future beyond simply 'sitting', longing or killing time (activities that inaccurately characterise the daily lives of those who do not migrate). I also suggest that, in the same way that waiting and sitting were not passive activities, the 'absent' labour migrants were never completely missing from the routines of daily life in their home-village.

The modes and meanings of waiting for asylum in Glasgow

Author: Rebecca Rotter (University of Edinburgh)  email


This paper explores bureaucratically-induced, long-term waiting for Refugee Status among a group of asylum applicants in the UK. It reflects on some of the processes, actions and perceptions that comprise their waiting, and suggests that waiting is not a passive, empty interlude as is often assumed.

Long Abstract

Waiting is a universal condition which punctuates every stage of the life course, yet waiting events and the forms they take have proliferated with the complexity of modernity. This paper is concerned with one particularly modern form: long-term, bureaucratically-induced waiting for Refugee Status and the 'normal' life it symbolises. Drawing on ethnographic material derived from 12 months of participant observation in Glasgow, it examines the various meanings given by a diverse group of asylum applicants to their waiting. Living under restrictive policies, excluded from a range of activities including paid work, and with limited ability to effect a change in their circumstances, these individuals tended to frame their experiences of waiting in terms of suffering, passivity, disrupted social rhythms and lost time. However, they also attempted to fill time, such as through socialising, immersing themselves in daily routines, gathering information about the asylum process, and eliciting support from peers, thus challenging the notion of waiting time as inactive and 'empty'. Indeed, some even retrospectively referred to the waiting period as 'preparatory' for future life in the UK. Ultimately, the paper attempts to move beyond simple dichotomies and common sense assumptions to suggest that waiting can, under certain conditions, be experienced and interpreted as both empty and (ful)filled/creative time, both passive idleness and engaged activity, and both a disruptive and productive/generative force.

The people wait: elections and violence in contemporary Bangladesh

Author: Delwar Hussain (University of Edinburgh )  email


This paper explores what it means to periodically wait for national elections in Bangladesh, describing the attendant rituals and socialities that accompany the act of waiting, involving large scale violence, perpetrated by both state and non-state forces.

Long Abstract

As I write, the Bangladeshi electorate awaits news of whether national elections will be held in the country. This is not a certainty, despite the fact that they have been called by the incumbent government for the beginning of 2014.

Much of the uncertainty and cause of the delay is the result of whether the system of Caretaker Government (an "independent" body which oversees the period of electioneering) will be brought into place. The current government believes the Caretaker Government system to be unnecessary, arguing that it is trustworthy enough to hold free and fair elections. The largest opposition party, (which itself dithered with the system when it was in power), refuses to contest the polls unless the system is put back in place.

And so the people wait. They have waited since autumn 2013 when the elections were due. This is not new; the country has grappled with military takeovers and dictatorships since its birth in 1971. Across Bangladesh, violence, scores of deaths, nationwide shutdowns, arrests and disappearances have become commonplace. Commentators believe that this can only come to an end not with the election, but with a return of military rule. This will invariably mean more waiting for elections for sometime in the indeterminate future.

This paper explores what it means to periodically wait for elections in Bangladesh. It describes the attendant rituals and socialities that accompany the act of waiting, much of which involves large scale violence, perpetrated by both state and non-state forces.

The reign of terror of the big cat: bureaucracy and waiting in the Indian Himalaya

Author: Nayanika Mathur (University of Cambridge)  email


This paper examines a series of waiting involved in the management of a man-eating big cat in the Indian Himalaya. Through this ethnography of waiting it shows how a penetrating critique of the operations of the Indian state came to be articulated.

Long Abstract

This article dwells on the stakes of waiting for the contemporary Indian state to accomplish its bureaucratic rituals. It is built around an ethnography of the operations of a man-eating leopard in a small Himalayan town in northern India. This big cat went on to haunt the town for over two months killing and wounding several residents before the Indian state was able to hunt him down. I trace the events that transpired during this long wait to show the chilling conflicts in time between the activities of the big cat, the anger and fear of the town residents, the movement of documents and files through different echelons of the state bureaucracy, and the global 'save the cat' discourse that has led to the construction of a draconian wildlife conservationist legal regime in India. I contrast these long waits and delays in the issuance of hunting permits and the concomitant arrival of trained hunters with the promptness with which colonial officials in the British Raj could shoot down tigers and leopards in India. I argue that living through the painfully long reign of terror of the big cat allowed for a cogent and powerful critique of the contemporary Indian state to be articulated and vociferously voiced in this Himalayan town.

Waiting for food

Author: Manpreet Janeja (University of Copenhagen)  email


This paper unpacks the dynamics of the entanglements of waiting, immediacy, and expectation that characterise state-sponsored conduits of feeding in India.

Long Abstract

Hunger continues to be a divisive matter of concern globally. It generates various contentious intervention programmes and welfare initiatives that seek to address it in areas both developed and developing. The Chhapra school meal tragedy in the Indian state of Bihar brought the Midday Meal Scheme back into the spotlight, and the National Food Security Bill 2013 did the same especially with the Public Distribution System (PDS). These schemes have sought to alleviate and manage issues of hunger, poverty, malnutrition, and socio-cultural prejudices amidst changing economic, political and social demands, with relative degrees of success in different states of the Indian federation. This paper explores these initiatives as located witin the field of contested neo-liberal forms of governance. One is confronted by queues of people waiting for food in state-maintained schools and PDS shops. One is also confronted by various contentious strategies and measures of monitoring, accountability, and transparency that seek to calculate and regulate uncertainty, distrust, and risk that characterise these state-sponsored conduits of feeding. In describing these public performances of governmentality, the paper unpacks the dynamics of the entanglements of waiting, immediacy, and expectation. In so doing, it suggests that hunger might productively be reconceptualised as a nexus of variegated elements - material, spatio-temporal, normative, bureaucratic.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.