Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran by Shahram Khosravi (review)
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Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran, by Shahram Khosravi. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 275 pages. $55.

Anthropologists of Iran have had difficulties pursuing fieldwork there since the revolution of 1978–79. For this reason, many recent works relying on recent fieldwork have been welcomed for their fine-grained contemporary ethnographic content. Shahram Khosravi's book Precarious Lives is one of these.

Professor Khosravi has provided detailed, well-written accounts of the lives of ordinary Iranians, as well as analysis of some contemporary film and artistic endeavors. His narrative gives welcome prominence to the Iranian middle and lower economic classes, with some additional material from areas outside of Tehran, including his native Bakhtiari region, where members of his family still reside. This book thus departs from other recent works that have focused on more elite populations and have paid heavy attention to the wealthier residents of northern Tehran.

The principal theme of Khosravi's book is the idea of precarity, a theme he has borrowed from anthropologist Anne Allison, whose work he quotes throughout the book.1 Khosravi's view of precarity is "to understand how insecurity in the material condition leads to pathological symptoms that haunt multiple aspects of contemporary life" (p. 4). In pursuing this theme, he deals with the alterations in Iranian society that have occurred due to important demographic changes since the revolution.

Iran has had a demographic whiplash. There was a population boom following the revolution of 1978–79. Today more than 50% of the population is under 35, creating an effective glut of youth. From the time of the revolution until today, the birth rate has dropped dramatically. The child mortality rate was very high, at 50.4% between 1990 and 1995, and malnourishment was considerable. Although these problems have not been fully addressed today, general health has improved. The infant mortality rate has now dropped to 14.0%, allowing families the confidence to have fewer children. In 1980 the fertility rate was 6.54%; today it is 1.79%.2 Although Khosravi claims that the poverty rate is "between 31 and 40%" (p. 216) based on a news report from 2014, this is contradicted by statistics from the World Bank for the same period that state, "Poverty is estimated to have fallen from 13.1% to 8.1% between 2009 and 2013."3

These demographic changes have freed up resources for a variety of improvements in family economy and have fueled increased aspirations for upward social mobility—a long-noted feature of Iranian society.4 Among the most important developments is the rise in educational opportunities for the youth of the nation since the Revolution, encompassing both men and women. The institution of the Free University (Daneshgah-e Azad) and other new higher education institutions have led to widespread aspirations for upward mobility. The rise in average marriage age for both men and women has also changed the family landscape for many Iranians. Although many young Iranians delay marriage to pursue education, as Khosravi points out, many young people simply cannot afford to marry, and for those who do, it is necessary for both husbands and wives to work.

The problem is finding work commensurate with education. With more Iranians obtaining high school diplomas and university [End Page 672] degrees, employment at a level suitable for more highly educated young Iranians is difficult to find. Consequently, unemployment is high. The World Bank claimed that in 2016 the unemployment rate was 12.7%.5 Citing news sources, Khosravi claims that unemployment among young people aged 15–24 is twice that (p. 6). With high unemployment, young people often do not marry or they live with their parents if they do.

The substantial number of young people without work has created an extensive range of social problems. Khosravi points out the plight of young unemployed working-class men identified as arazel owbash, which Khosravi translates as "thugs." These young men are rounded up by authorities under flimsy pretexts and either arrested or humiliated in public for their "threat to societal values and interests" (p. 105). Khosravi refers to this stigmatized group throughout the book as an example of...


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