ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Im)possible lives: on futures as process
Location Science Site/Chemistry CG91
Date and Start Time 07 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Simone Toji email
  • Laura Petracchi (Università degli Studi di Milano Bicocca) email
  • Michele Wisdahl (University of St Andrews) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel explores the relationship among futures, hope, fantasy and the re-configuration of selves. In particular, the session will concentrate on future as process that involves a subject's everyday life.

Long Abstract

In lives lived in time, senses of past, present and future are at stake. This panel looks at the process of future making. Differently from considering future in a holistic approach (Mead 2005 and Textor 1995), this panel examines future as a dimension that tirelessly pervades the micro-level of a subject's everyday life.

What are the affects, desires, visions, fears, dreams and material resources that move people to change their lives? How do people work in and on their present (and their present pasts) to contest, shape and imagine their future(s)?

Hope and fantasy may emerge as inspiring clues (Jackson 2011) in the making of people´s futures. Hope as category (Crapanzano 2013) and method (Miyazaki 2004) for understanding future(s); fantasy as push for action and for the re-configuration of selves (Moore 1994).

However, in the making of life-in-the-world, what are the footprints and legacies that define a person´s past, present and future? Class, ethnicity, race, rank, religion and gender have been productive concepts to identify collective inheritances that offer frameworks to live a life. At the same time, these concepts may also place limits. How do people contest and/or re-affirm these concepts and categories in their everyday lives?

We invite papers that ethnographically examine the crossroads between past, present and future and the (im)possible transformations people undertake. We are particularly interested in future(s) as process(es) in education, healing and care, migration, conversions, voyages and/or narratives.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Dreams for the future: time work in a Brazilian high school classroom

Author: Michele Wisdahl (University of St Andrews)  email

Short Abstract

This paper builds on Flaherty’s concept of time work to explore how students at an emerging middle-class private high school in Northeast Brazil cultivated powerful dreams (imagined futures) to help navigate the difficult present.

Long Abstract

Leão et al (2011) argue that, in planning for the future, one attempts to exercise control over uncertainty in a "modern equivalent of magical practices" (1073). Drawing on 12 months of participant observation in the classroom, I focus on the "magical practices" at work in an emerging middle-class private high school in Northeast Brazil. Throughout their final year, students were encouraged to cultivate powerful dreams (imagined futures) that would help propel them through the difficult present.

Time work, both behavioural and cognitive, is not always visible to others: it involves imagining a future different to the present as well as planning and acting on that imagined future. Flaherty (2014) highlights the complexities and demands of time work: exercising "temporal agency" to project oneself through the present towards an imagined future requires confidence, discipline and perseverance.

Accordingly, the school promoted self-esteem as an imperative for creating powerful dreams that would transform students. High self-esteem appeared to enable a student to construct and believe in her dreams for the future, turning that sonho (dream) into a projeto de vida (life project) towards which she could work. This type of time work also served to affirm students' "modern" middle-class statuses. In this paper, I explore the affective component of time work that was key to helping students imagine (im)possible futures.

International mobility, knowledge and the shaping of (imagined) futures in India

Author: Antonie Fuhse (Georg-August-University Göttingen)  email

Short Abstract

I examine how Indian students and scientists use mobility as a strategy to shape their (imagined) futures in India for which gaining knowledge and foreign degrees appear to be important. How are their present lives shaped by their hopes for the future? How is the future reshaped by the present?

Long Abstract

Many hopes and aspirations are connected to education in India: economic and social mobility, development of the nation and shaping of a better future. Therefore, Indian students and their families work hard and make many sacrifices to achieve good education. Migrating to other parts of the world for studying is thus one strategy to invest in the future. But what kind of hopes and aspirations do the mobile Indian students and scientists have for their futures? And how are their present lives shaped by these visions? Based on my ethnographic fieldwork in Göttingen I will show how education and the accumulation of knowledge and experience are understood as means of shaping a future in India, a future with a well-paid job and an appropriate spouse. I will demonstrate how this future is not only framed by the present live of the students and scientists but also by their past (their biography, their family background, cast, class etc.)

Completing a degree, a Ph.D. or a Post-Doc in Germany or another "western" country is perceived as a requirement to create a certain imagined future in India. For the Indian students and scientists being mobile means the separation from "home" and the possibility to make new experiences, thus mobility can also stimulate the transformation of the self. What does that imply for the aspired future? How is the future reshaped in the process of mobility? What happens when the imagined future never comes into existence?

"Opening up la chance": (un)certain futures of university graduates in Bamako, Mali

Author: Susann Ludwig (University of Basel)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation elaborates on how university graduates in Mali act in an uncertain present context. It is argued that the process of “opening up la chance” is crucial in order to seize how futures develop and are being developed.

Long Abstract

In Mali, more than 70 percent of young academics are searching for employment. They encounter severe difficulties finding a job that corresponds to their qualification or entering the labor market in general. University graduates find themselves in situations characterized by uncertainty, which impacts both their actions in the present and their imagination and planning of their futures.

This paper elaborates on two questions: what is it that graduates do in the present? And to what extend are their present actions geared towards the futures they imagine? One answer lies in what Malian graduates refer to as "opening up la chance". La chance is a phenomenon that separates the present from the future since it enables a different present - a present that has been imagined as the future in the past.

Drawing from narratives about individual and common experiences with la chance, I argue that the process of "opening up la chance" is a way to deal with uncertainty in the present and, consequently, a way to access the future.

The results presented are based on three periods of ethnographic fieldwork in Bamako during which biographical and narrative follow-up interviews were conducted with thirty university graduates. The longitudinal character of the study enabled me to understand the social context of my informants, to follow their present actions, to trace their pathways into the future and, ultimately, to seize how futures develop and are being developed.

Future-making and femininity: education, marriage and migration in (im)possible upward social mobilities

Author: Catherine Earl (Federation University)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on Vietnamese women’s experiences of being and becoming middle-class, I explore how their hopes, dreams and fantasies can be realized with investments of considerable resources in education, marriage and migration to create future opportunities for new social, economic and gendered status.

Long Abstract

Marriage is a recognized strategy for women to gain social status, economic security and new experiences beyond the natal family. Yet, marriage strategies can be risky for young Vietnamese middle-class women in realizing their desires for a better future. In the Vietnamese context, postsocialist reform offers both 'persevering' and 'active' hope (Zigon 2009). Future-making is complicated by footprints and legacies not only of socialism, but also postcolonialism and war which have shaped affects, desires, visions, fears and dreams of the middle classes. Kin have experienced upward then downward social mobility with transformations of political and economic structures in 1945, 1954, 1975 and 1986. Nevertheless, in contesting, shaping and imagining their futures, family, school and mass media have remained central in competing processes of socialization that form encultured dispositions and reproduce class cultures. Differential access to privileges enables individuals to transform themselves and exert an influence on others across 'multidimensional' families, where different members occupy qualitatively different social status positions, so long as the forms of capital (Bourdieu 1984) they embody can be deciphered as signals of cultural sophistication. Drawing on Vietnamese women's experiences of being and becoming middle-class, I explore how their hopes, dreams and fantasies can be realized with investments of considerable resources in creating future opportunities for new social, economic and gendered status. For some, this can be achieved through education and career. For others, transnational marriage is a possibility that enables them to evade cultural expectations that oblige their subordination to oppressive feminine norms of the past.

Living the Dream: youth, unemployment, and the promise of a middle-class life in Cairo

Author: Harry Pettit (London School of Economics)  email

Short Abstract

How do people enact mobile lives? In Cairo, educated unemployed young men construct an imaginative sense of possibility through inhabiting hopeful visions promising the good life, visions which, cruelly, legitimate the historically constituted forms of inequality which have marginalized them.

Long Abstract

How do people attempt to enact mobile lives in locations where movement is perpetually inhibited? This paper explores the practices through which educated unemployed young men in Cairo construct an imaginative sense of possibility in a context where they face expulsion from aspirational modes of middle-class living. By latching on to accessible visions, symbols, and spaces of the good life, they endeavor to shift their consciousness away from a frustrating present into the realm of the imagined future, towards an anticipated moment of fulfillment (of their desires for consumption, for love, for employment). This endeavor to enact a mobile present, however, is threatened by constant reminders of existing immobility.

Articulating social and temporal mobility requires investment in various knowledge frameworks that offer up the promise of future satisfaction (such as religious divination, self-help, and meritocracy). This promise, more and more, is portrayed as contingent upon the moral, cultural, and socio-economic behavior of the autonomous individual. It is a portrayal which provides these immobile young men with an imaginary blueprint for future mobility, a source of hope and power in uncertain times. However, in a context in which little ever works out the way it is hoped, such optimism garnered from these systems of knowledge becomes cruel, and eternally unrealizable. These young men focus the responsibility for success or failure upon themselves, and therefore sustain a meritocratic system of future-orientated knowledge that keeps attention away from the past, and the historically constituted forms of inequality which have produced their marginality.

A shred of light and hope during the economic crisis: displaced futures of Greek goths and escaping an 'impossible' present

Author: Panas Karampampas (EHESS)  email

Short Abstract

This paper illuminates how Greek goths imagine a displaced future in Germany that is created by their everyday life experiences as well as their hopes which are born under the prism of fiscal crises.

Long Abstract

Ethnographies of Greek fiscal crises discuss how individuals challenge linearity of time. Many Greeks experience, re-experience or even imagine to experience a complex assemblage of past, present and future events as well as hope and despair. In contrast to that, Greek goths retain a relatively linear but displaced perception of time. Amid the complaints, despair, and suicides in their surrounding, they imagine Germany as a place of Hope where future is possible. A future that most of the times is never realised.

Germany is currently the contemporary 'Mecca' of the European and global goth scene. A considerable amount of goths visit Germany as a secular pilgrimage to a major festival as well as indulging in a night out in the famous goth clubs. Pictures and videos from these festivals are circulated across cyberspace thus creating a fantasy surrounding these places and what goth identity is all about.

More importantly, Greek goths hold a peripheral position in Greece that creates difficulties in their everyday lives. In addition to that, they also perceive Germany as a goth-friendly country where goths are not peripheralised. Those images also make Greek goths consider Germany the utopic place to migrate, mainly because they feel that it will be easier to adapt with the help of the local goth scene but also because of Germany's high living standards and salaries. However, since the migration rarely takes place, Greek goths use their Hope for a displaced better future, to endure living a present 'without a future'.

Dreaming of and making home: daily home-making practices among SDF at Paris' Gare du Nord

Author: Johannes Lenhard (Cambridge)  email

Short Abstract

The dream of many of the homeless people of the Gare du Nord is to have a home. While the desire serves as a constant source of motivation, the daily process of home-making in the environment of the street is as important for the people’s wellbeing as the ultimate goal.

Long Abstract

The people I have been working with over the past 1.5 years on the streets around Paris' Gare du Nord are without shelter, work, security, family and income. They are supposedly home-less. In the first part of this paper, I will present their visions, dreams and ambitions focused on creating a home in senses as varied as a roof over their head, friends and family to talk to or 'the fuzzy feeling of being loved'.

The daily reality of the street makes the path towards their imagined future home nonlinear. Thrown back by trauma and other mental health issues, alcoholism or the complexities of bureaucracy and the security apparatus, people are forced to constantly re-orientate themselves. In a process of repeated and conscious narration and reflection - sometimes within the context of institutionalised conversation with a social worker, other times in informal discussions among peers - dreams are adjusted while not fundamentally altered. Daily steps forward consist of approximating home and the feelings and effects associated with it: applying for an ID card, accessing a homeless day centre to play chess with a friend, building a temporary shelter from bins and cardboard, finding people who speak your language and share your taste. The struggle is both symbolical and literal. The more or less close prospect of leaving the street drives the process while as I observe the goal - in the form of one's own chez soi - is in the reality of the street only as important as the constant approximations.

"Don't think that everything is for certain": encountering post-Yugoslav pasts in a British future

Author: Spela Drnovsek Zorko (SOAS)  email

Short Abstract

Based on research on intergenerational narratives among migrants from former Yugoslavia living in Britain, this paper draws on references to normality voiced by my interlocutors to think about how both possible and desirable futures are imagined in relation to contingent pasts.

Long Abstract

What visions of the future arise when familial histories of upheaval are part of the everyday longue durée? How might what is 'normal' relate to what is desirable, let alone what is deemed to be possible?

Based on ethnographic research conducted on intergenerational narratives among migrants from former Yugoslavia living in Britain, this paper draws on references to normal lives voiced by my interlocutors in order to think about how both possible and desirable futures are imagined in relation to contingent pasts. Within post-socialist ethnographies, 'normal life' has proven to be an analytically useful category for interrogating people's relationship to what 'was' and what 'ought to be' (Jansen 2015), or for illuminating notions of sociality based around shared historicised understanding of lives as fundamentally contingent (Dzenovska 2014). For my interlocutors, such concerns are joined by the familial story of migration, which represents an additional locus where visions of possible lives need to be unravelled particularly when thinking of the futures of young family members born or raised in Britain. How do particular ways of knowing what is possible become linked to experiences of normality interrupted, and under what conditions is such knowledge deemed transferrable? Do diasporic dispositions learned in Britain come with their own sense of possible futures? And how is the very idea of what is intergenerational partially produced within encounters between the (post-)Yugoslav past and the British present-future?

Ruptured faces, ruptured futures? Facial 'disfigurement'; transplantation and the problem of identity

Author: Anne-Marie Martindale (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

I explore participant experiences of becoming facially 'disfigured'. I argue these can disrupt everyday embodied and narrative identities, which can disrupt perceptions of the past, the present and the future, though to varying extents.

Long Abstract

Since the advent of facial transplantation faces and their role in identity (re)creation have received increasing attention. Clinical and ethical authors have suggested a strong relationship between the two. Some have even claimed that identity is corporeally contained within the face and therefore transplantable. I refute this claim as it is founded on flawed Cartesian principles and lacks evidence.

The results of my phenomenological research into the relationship between acquired facial 'disfigurement' and identity shift suggests the issue is complex and multifaceted. Identity is in part related to embodied, everyday practices and narrative constructions. The contexts and processes associated with becoming facially 'disfigured' i.e. cancer or a car crash, have the capacity to threaten and rupture these sense-making frameworks. In doing so they can destabilise the person's sense of who they were, who they are now, and who and what they will be in the future (Frank; 1995).

Drawing on the concepts of biographical disruption (Bury, 1982) absence and appearance (Leder, 1990); ritual pollution (Douglas, 1968) and Frank's (1995) work on narrative disruption I will present new theory to illuminate how facial 'disfigurement' can influence and problematize identities in the immediate and longer term future. Nevertheless, I will be concluding that the role of faces in identity (re)formation has been overstated.

It is persons in all of their glorious complexity that move through the life-course and plan for the future, not faces.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.