Anthropologies of the Future

Felix Ringel

Department of Anthropology

Durham University

& Sonja Moghaddari

Department of Sociology and Social Research

University of Trento

June 2020

The future is in crisis, or at least that is what many people around the world think and feel in the late-liberal, post-industrial era. Climate change, economic crises, the failure of both, the developmentalists state in the global south and the welfare state in the global north. Decaying infrastructures, precarious lifeworlds, incurable diseases. Arguably, these and other real-world problems are the reason why anthropologists have – finally! – started to pay more explicit and sustained attention to the future.

However, the future is and has always been a major experiential dimension of human life. In all cultures and societies, people think ahead, plan, predict, hope or fear in one way or another. The future might not always have been as pronounced a temporal dimension as in modern (capitalist and socialist) times; it has been there nonetheless. Why has it taken the discipline so long to tackle the future? Why have anthropologists continued to understand human beings more through their pasts and less through their prospects, concerns and hopes for the future? Why are we not better equipped to account for the many different relations humans individually and collectively build up to the future?

One reason for the long absence of the future in anthropology might be a metaphysical one: in any given present, the future, arguably, does not exist. So why study it? A study of what has not occurred yet, might, for some, verge on the unscientific. Following a general reluctance in the social sciences, anthropologists might not want to be seen predicting the future. We are an empirical science, after all, and our ethnographic material, by necessity, is of the past. Still, since the future is everywhere, there is no fleeing from it. Many colleagues have recently started to showcase the future in their work.

This reading list is a first and broad introduction into an exciting and diverse field of anthropological thought and writing. After a short theoretical overview, we focus on a variety of themes and authors in order to underline the potential of the anthropology of the future. What all of these accounts of the future have in common is that they respond to the aforementioned metaphysical challenge: the future’s non-existence. Whether they deal with utopian anarchist practices, professional planning routines or everyday concerns, they have to confront the fact that human ways of ‘knowing’ the future are diverse, complex, and often unreliable. 

However, these representational and non-representational modes of knowing the future have an impact in the present. They might not always succeed in fully ‘orientating’ (as Bryant and Knight 2019 have it) this present, but they sure leave their traces. The items on this list all deal with concrete and contested affective and epistemic representations of the future, and the effects and affordances these representations produce in the present. This reading list does not pretend to be exhaustive; it is conceived as an invitation to explore. We chose a few exemplary publications in order to introduce debates within the anthropology of the future, across professional hierarchies, gender, race and language differences. 

Theories of the Future

The following two sections attempt a short and necessarily incomplete overview of the anthropology of the future. This first part provides a robust reading list for more theoretical explorations without discussing any contribution in-depth. For many reasons, the discipline – as other social sciences – has not yet developed a comprehensive, uncontested theory of the future. Different philosophical traditions allow different anthropological approaches to the future: eternalist, presentist, pragmatist, phenomenological. Arguably, anthropology still has to come up with its own theoretical framework. That is why we, too, focus on ethnography.

With few exceptions (for example, Barbara Adam’s 1990 Time and Social Theory and Vincent Crapanzano’s 2003 Imaginative Horizons), theories of the future in the human and social sciences are rare. Prominent approaches usually evolve around fashionable temporal concepts such as risk, hope, prefiguration or utopia, and integrate various philosophical ideas about time. Anthropological theorisations of the future also started with a surge of interest in time. Nancy Munn’s essay “The Cultural Anthropology of Time” and Alfred Gell’s monograph The Anthropology of Time, both published in 1992, still state the absence of the future in the discipline’s long history. However, in some sense, the future has always been prevalent, whether in early theories of (social) continuity and (cultural) change or in the sustained disputes about linear and cyclical understandings of time throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s between Clifford Geertz and Maurice Bloch, and between Marshall Sahlins, Gananath Obeyesekere and others. Still, none of these landmark publications took on the future as a topic in its own right.

More topical bodies of literature stepped forward, and here is where our reading list of the anthropology of the future begins. James Ferguson’s (1999) Expectations of Modernity problematised the future in the context of (failed) development.The anthropology of postsocialism had to extend its usual concerns with the past to the future, such as in Dominic Boyer’s (2006) work on East German politics of the future or Haldis Haukanis and Suzanna Trnka’s 2013 special section on “Recasting pasts and futures in postsocialist Europe”. The anthropology of planning (for example, Simone Abram and Gisa Weskalnys’ 2013 Elusive Promises), too, tackled the future, whilst others took the detour of the past for the same purpose, such as David Rosenberg and Susan Harding in their 2005 Histories of the Future or Peter Pels in his 2015 article “Modern times: Seven steps towards the future”. 

Abram, Simone, and Gisa Weszkalnys. (eds) (2013) Elusive Promises: Planning in the Contemporary World New York: Berghahn Books.

Boyer, Dominic. 2006. Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany.” Public Culture 18 (2): 361-381.

Ferguson, James. 1999. Expectations of Modernity: myths and meanings of urban life in the Zambian Copperbelt Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haukanes, Haldis and Susanna Trnka (eds) (2013) “Recasting pasts and futures in postsocialist Europe.” Theme Section. Focaal Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 66: 3–72.

Rosenberg, David, and Susan Harding. 2005. Histories of the Future Duke: Duke University Press. 

Pels, Peter.  2015. “Modern times: Seven steps towards the future.” Current Anthropology 56(6): 779–795.

Conceptually, Paul Rabinow and his colleagues advocated early on for a reformulation of Michel Foucault’s history of the present into an anthropology of the contemporary, whether in Rabinow’s 2003 Anthropos Today or in Rabinow, George Marcus, James Faubion and Tobias Rees’ 2008 Design for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Their approach allowed a first glimpse of the immediate future. Also influenced by Foucault, Jane Guyer in her groundbreaking 2007 article on “Prophecy and the Future” led the charge on near and distant futures. Inspired by Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, Matt Hodges (2008, 2014) and Morten Nielsen (2011) proposed a less linear and epistemic as well as more durational approach to the future, granting the future a more imminent existence in the present. Felix Ringel further develops Adam’s presentist approach to the future, extrapolating the temporal agency human beings exercise with regards to the future (2016a&b), a theme that Arjun Appadurai had taken up earlier in his book on The Future as Cultural Fact. With a more distinctly anthropological theoretical background, Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov in his 2017 monograph Two Lenins – A Brief Anthropology of Time embeds futures in the complex and contested relations between different temporalities. 

Appadurai, Arjun. 2013. The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition London: Verso.

Guyer, Jane. 2007. “Prophecy and the near future: Thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical, and punctuated time.” American Ethnologist 34(3): 409–421.

Hodges, Matt. 2008. “Rethinking time’s arrow: Bergson, Deleuze and the Anthropology of Time.” Anthropological Theory 8:399-429.

Hodges, Matt. 2014. “Immanent Anthropology: a comparative study of ‘process’ in contemporary France.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 20(S1): 33–51.

Nielsen, Morten. 2011. “Futures within: Reversible times and house-building in Maputo, Mozambique.” Anthropological Theory 11(4): 397–423.

Rabinow, Paul. 2003. Anthropos Today New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Rabinow, Paul, George Marcus, James Faubion and Tobias Rees. 2008. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary Duke: Duke University Press. 

Ringel, Felix. 2016a. “Beyond Temporality: Notes on the Anthropology of Time from a Shrinking Fieldsite.” Anthropological Theory 16(4): 390-412.

Ringel, Felix. 2016b. “Can Time be Tricked? – A Theoretical Introduction.” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34(1): 22-31.

Ssorin-Chaikov, Nikolai. 2017. Two Lenins – A Brief Anthropology of Time Chicago: HAU Books.

The latest culmination of these theoretical efforts can be found in accounts solely focused on the future: From more political invocations of the future of and for our discipline, such as in Laura Bear’s 2017 article “Anthropological Futures” and in one of our own contributions (Felix Ringel’s 2018 presentist monograph Back to the Postindustrial Future, which maps the many representational and non-representational relations to the future of the citizens of Germany’s fastest shrinking city) to the exciting outputs of the EASA Future Anthropology Network, notably Juan Francisco Salazar, Sarah Pink, Andrew Irving and Johannes Sjoberg’s edited volume Anthropologies and Futures, which reconsiders the discipline’s methodological approaches to the future and argues for a different future role of anthropology. 

Bear, Laura. 2017. “Anthropological futures: for a critical political economy of capitalist time.” Social Anthropology 25(2): 142-158.

Ringel, Felix. 2018. Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest-Shrinking City. EASA Series. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books. 

Salazar, J, S. Pink, A. Irving, J. Sjoberg. (eds) 2017. Anthropologies and Futures: Researching Emerging and Uncertain Worlds London: Bloomsbury.

The most recent exponent of these ground-breaking times of and for the future in our discipline is Rebecca Bryant and Daniel Knight’s The Anthropology of the Future. Whilst also explicitly relating their own approach to ongoing philosophical debates, Bryant and Knight propose a helpful taxonomy of selective orientations to the future: anticipation, expectation, speculation, potentiality, hope and destiny. These concepts go full circle again: they show how the future can have an impact on the present, even though the future does not yet exist. As a taxonomy, however, they also invite further work, both theoretically and ethnographically, to further expand our discipline’s engagement with the future.

Bryant, Rebecca, and Daniel Knight. 2019. The Anthropology of the Future Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ethnographies of the future 

So far, we have explained why and how the future recently emerged as a field of research in anthropology and we have laid out some of its most relevant theoretical debates. This being a blog concerned with ethnographic theory, the remaining part of this reading list is concerned with introducing literature that centers on ethnography to create theoretical knowledge about the future within four subfields of the discipline (anthropology of Outer Space, of protest, of the state, and high finance). From everyday dealings with the uncanny to effervescent timescapes in social movements, from carving out a space for agency within discontinuities of failed futures to epistemological reflections about the role of the anthropologist in shaping what is yet to come: these entries highlight the dialectic relation between knowledge and affect, between representational and non-representational modes of knowing the future. 

Lepselter, Susan. 2016. The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny. Book Collections on Project MUSE. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lepselter’s ethnography is a poetic and unconventional introduction to one of the main themes that concern the anthropology of the future: diverse vernacular interpretations of modernity, capitalism and progress and the everyday affective orientations to the future they stimulate. This book, “a semiotic journey”, theorizes the future rather implicitly. Understanding stories as theory, Lepselter introduces us to the lived worlds of UFO experiencers in the (dominantly White working class) American West of the 1990s. She shows how advances in technology, state and corporate surveillance together with the felt distance from the “powers that be” create apprehensions of apocalypse, which resonate with the uncanny traumas of American colonial crimes. In the familiar space of half-knowledge, causation gets blurred as the future and the past, acceleration and nostalgia overlap.

Further reading:

The anthropology of Outer Space emerged as one of the first fields of anthropological research that takes social meaning-making of – and with – the future seriously. Lepselter’s ethnography is an example of how this strand of research intersects with research into various Protestant Christian movements, and Indigenous and New Age spiritualities. They all show that the experience of unknown futures provokes everyday earthly affect to revolve around the anticipation of limitations and their imaginative transgression. They examine how the expectations of apocalypse create present worlds by opening collective imagination towards cosmological renewal and the conjuring of “counter-futures” (see Sabine Mohamed’s reading list on Afrofuturism).

Battaglia, Debbora, Christof F. Roth, D. Samuels, and S. Lepselter. 2006. E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces Duke: Duke University Press.

Carey, Matthew (ed.). 2019 “Apocalypses”. Journal Special Issue, Terrain 71.

Cometti, Geremia. 2015. Lorsque le brouillard a cessé de nous écouter. Changement climatique et migrations chez les Q’eros des Andes péruviennes Berne : Peter Lang.

Masco, Joseph. “The End of Ends.” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4 (2012): 1107-124. Accessed June 16, 2020.

Pels, Peter. 2013. “Amazing Stories: How Science Fiction Sacralizes the Secular.” In Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between, edited by Jeremy Stolow, 213–38. New York: Fordham University Press.

Pels, Peter. 2018. “Anthropology as Science Fiction, or How Print Capitalism Enchanted Victorian Science.” In Magical Capitalism: Enchantment, Spells, and Occult Practices in Contemporary Economies, edited by Brian Moeran and Timothy de Waal Malefyt, 239–68. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Robbins, Joel. 1998. “On Reading ‘World News’: Apocalyptic Narrative, Negative Nationalism and Transnational Christianity in a Papua New Guinea Society.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 42 (2). Berghahn Books: 103–30.

Robbins, Joel. “Secrecy and the Sense of an Ending: Narrative, Time, and Everyday Millenarianism in Papua New Guinea and in Christian Fundamentalism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43, no. 3 (2001): 525-51.

Stewart, Kathleen, and Susan Harding. 1999. “Bad Endings: American Apocalypsis.” Annual Review of Anthropology 28 (1). Annual Reviews: 285–310.

Valentine, David, Olson, Valerie A., and Debbora Battaglia (eds.). 2012. “Extreme: Humans at Home in the Cosmos”. Journal Special Issue, Anthropological Quarterley 85 (4).

Krøijer, Stine. 2015. Figurations of the Future: Forms and Temporalities of Left Radical Politics in Northern Europe. Ethnography, Theory, Experiment. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Bridging social movement literature and classical issues in anthropology, Krøijer’s ethnography of Left Radical groups reconceptualizes the notion of cosmology and argues for a non-chronological conception of the future. Set around the global economic crisis in 2007/08, the book focuses on the preparation and realization of extraordinary activist events, but also traces everyday forms of protest. Krøijer demonstrates that these collectivities see capitalism as a discontinuous, yet all-encompassing cosmology to which no clear route of escape is in sight. On the affective level, their activism is therefore shaped by indeterminacy and open-endedness. Against the idea of prefigurative politics, she explains why activists in the Radical Left perceive time in a non-linear way: as they oscillate between two co-present perspectives of dead time and active time which are both bodily and temporal, it is only in the ephemeral active times that the future exists. This practice, which she calls figuration, allows activists to momentarily give determinate form to an indeterminate future.

Further reading:

Krøijer’s book takes up concepts that have been controversially discussed in anthropological research on the future within politics and social movements: prefiguration, imagination and utopia. Emerging through the study of new social movements, and in particular the decolonial, feminist, environmental and anarchist movements of the 2000’s, these concepts refer to the anticipation of the future through means-end unity, in other words, the conjuring of an ideal society through present activist practices. More recent work, instead, critiques the recursive and processual character of this acting “as if” for its linear understanding of time and hailing of progress that mirrors evolutionary aspects of modernization theory. Highlighting apprehensions of different forms of collapse and disaster, these studies foreground presentism or an open-ended, generative approach to the future as a way to attend to affect such as frustration, anxious hope and disconnection.

Bonilla, Yarimar. 2015. Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Cooper, Davina. 2014. Everyday Utopias: The Conceptual Life of Promising Spaces. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Graeber, David. 2002. “The New Anarchists.” New Left Review 13: 61–73.

Graeber, David. 2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography. Edinburgh, Oakland, Baltimore: AK Press.

Gordon, Uri. 2017. “Prefigurative Politics between Ethical Practice and Absent Promise.” Political Studies 66 (2): 521–37.

Gould, Deborah. 2019. “On (Not) Knowing What Is to Be Done (In 17 Affective Registers).” Emotions and Society 1 (1): 15–43.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008. Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization. Experimental Futures. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Maeckelbergh, Marianne. 2009. The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement Is Changing the Face of Democracy. Anthropology, Culture, and Society. New York: Pluto Press.

Ringel, Felix. 2012. “Towards Anarchist Futures? Creative Presentism, Vanguard Practices and Anthropological Hopes.” Critique of Anthropology 32 (2): 173–88.

Nielsen, Morten. 2014. “A Wedge of Time: Futures in the Present and Presents without Futures in Maputo, Mozambique.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20 (S1). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 166–82. 

Nielsen’s ethnography-based article destabilizes ideas of progress and end-orientation while acknowledging linear chronology. For people who want to build a house in a place styled as a modernist “model neighborhood” in Mozambique in the mid-2000’s, knowledge about the future is shaped by the expectation of failure. Departing from the analytical focus on hope that dominates the literature on failed futures, Nielsen suggests that anthropologists can learn from the inventiveness that emerges out of people’s differentiation between desired and unwanted (but expected) futures by attending to the ways social transformation occurs “in non-linear and non-progressive ways”.

Further reading:

The anthropology of development and of the state at the margins of the international economic and political power structures is carrying the legacy of the idea of linear time underlying the promises of modernization. Within the experience of loss, stagnation, disillusion, and dysfunctionality caused by governance, war, environmental disasters, infrastructural decay, and ongoing colonialism, these studies are concerned with the way people strive towards attaining what they identify as an “ordinary life”. Against the trend, in this strand of literature, to focus on idleness and hope as a subject of inquiry, Nielsen’s article exemplifies work which takes the multiplicity of vernacular perspectives on the future as an impetus to rethink taken for granted understandings of time and temporal agency.

Bonilla, Yarimar, and Marisol LeBrón (eds.). 2019. Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Choi, Vivian Y. 2015. “Anticipatory States: Tsunami, War, and Insecurity in Sri Lanka.” Cultural Anthropology 30 (2): 286–309.

Hage, Ghassan (ed). 2009. Waiting. MUP Academic Monographs. Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing.

Jansen, Stef. 2015. Yearnings in the Meantime: “Normal Lives” and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex. Dislocations. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books. 

Kelly, Tobias. 2008. “The Attractions of Accountancy: Living an Ordinary Life during the Second Palestinian Intifada.” Ethnography 9 (3). Sage Publications, Ltd.: 351–76.

Khosravi, Shahram. 2017. Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran. Contemporary Ethnography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Piot, Charles. 2010. Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Vigh, Henrik. 2008. “Crisis and Chronicity: Anthropological Perspectives on Continuous Conflict and Decline.” Ethnos 73 (1). Routledge: 5–24. doi:10.1080/00141840801927509.

Yarrow, Thomas. 2017. “Remains of the Future: Rethinking the Space and Time of Ruination through the Volta Resettlement Project, Ghana.” Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 566-591.

Zeitlyn, David. 2015. “Looking Forward, Looking Back.” History and Anthropology 26 (4). Routledge: 381–407.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2009. “Hope Dies Last: Two Aspects of Hope in Contemporary Moscow.” Anthropological Theory 9 (3). SAGE Publications: 253–71.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2006. “Economy of Dreams: Hope in Global Capitalism and Its Critiques.” Cultural Anthropology 21 (2). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 147–72. 

Finally, Miyazaki’s much cited article shows that there is something that connects future orientations in global finance with those of Left-wing activists and social theorists: it is the post-Cold War realization of the capitalist world order leading to human and environmental disaster while appearing unsurmountable for lack of a viable alternative, and the ensuing iterations of hope and hopelessness. By investigating a Japanese high finance engineer’s narrative about his own future-oriented agency, in which combinations of logic and trust fail to contain uncertainty, Miyazaki critically engages with research centering on hope as a subject of inquiry (rather than as a method of knowledge), arguing that it perpetuates a state of expectation without offering an exit to the system. Instead, his epistemological argument goes, we should “redefine radically and imaginatively the constitution of critique”.

Further reading:

Whereas uncertainty infuses all aspects of modern societies, the radical openness of the future is the very essence of dealings in finance. The anthropology of temporalities of capitalism is concerned with the way humans and non-humans in global finance are engaged in balancing reason and affect, while being aware of the fictionality of structure that serves to stimulate investment. Predictive tools, speculation and even magic emerge where ethics, knowledge and techniques constitute capitalist timescapes. Studying mechanisms of high finance has led Miyazaki, alongside a few other authors, to argue for an engaged approach to the anthropology of the future, committed to working towards more inclusiveness, equality and equity. 

Bear, Laura. 2020. “Speculation: A Political Economy of Technologies of Imagination.” Economy and Society 49 (1). Routledge: 1–15. 

Beckert, Jens, and Richard Bronk. (eds) 2018. Uncertain Futures: Imaginaries, Narratives, and Calculation in the Economy. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Bloch, Ernst. 1986. The Principle of Hope. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Holmes, Douglas R. 2013. Economy of Words: Communicative Imperatives in Central Banks. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Holmes, Douglas R. 2016. “Central Bank Capitalism: Visible Hands, Audible Voices.” Anthropology Today 32 (6). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 3–7.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2013. Arbitraging Japan: Dreams of Capitalism at the End of Finance. EBSCO Ebook Academic Collection. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Moeran, Brian and Timothy de Waal Malefyt (eds.). 2018. Magical Capitalism: Enchantment, Spells, and Occult Practices in Contemporary Economies, Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Rudnyckyj, Daromir. 2014. “Economy in Practice: Islamic Finance and the Problem of Market Reason.” American Ethnologist 41 (1). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 110–27. Zaloom, Caitlin. 2009. “How to Read the Future: The Yield Curve, Affect, and Financial Prediction.” Public Culture 21 (2): 245–68.