- Hope Is Cut: youth, unemployment, and the future in urban Ethiopia
There is a burgeoning ethnographic literature on ‘youth in Africa’ that examines young people’s experiences in the wake of transformations in the structure of capital summed up by the term, ‘neo-liberalism’. To this already groaning bookshelf we can add Daniel Mains’s engaging study of young men in urban Ethiopia, Hope Is Cut. While the topic cannot be called entirely new, Mains certainly brings a host of innovative perspectives to this wider conversation, and makes an especially valuable contribution to it. [End Page 660]
What is distinctive about his ethnographic work in the town of Jimma is its focus, not only on young, unemployed men (subjects who have certainly received their fair share of attention across the continent), but his consideration of the significance of employment and work itself in the lives of people who are, on the whole, unemployed, or significantly underemployed. Mains offers compelling evidence drawn from detailed accounts of enduring relationships with a number of young men (and his informants are almost exclusively young men, for reasons that Mains does not shy away from discussing), and provides the kind of fine-grained detail that both substantiates his arguments and allows him to demonstrate the wider significance of his work. It is also notable that Mains’s book provides us with some insights into urban Ethiopia, a region of Africa that deserves to be better represented in the Africanist literature.
While Mains’s book is mining the rich vein of ‘African youth’, he is also making a substantive and useful contribution to anthropological and social theory, more generally. In my view, he ably justifies his Weberian perspective, taking very seriously (which is to say, both adopting and being critical of) questions like ‘occupational status’ and ‘stigma’. He approaches these Ethiopian young men’s own understandings of work from a perspective that both considers the symbolic value of particular kinds of employment and activity, and also thinks about ‘status’ as it emerges in a field of social relationships. Like Weber, Mains is not only interpreting the lives of these men, but also seeing their lives as engaged in and informed by acts of interpretation. Rather than focusing on either production or consumption as ‘economic’ dimensions of practice, this is a work that attends to the ways that identity is formed through social positioning; thus, status, standing and stigma are compelling features of these men’s social world and of its analysis. These reflexive understandings of one’s place in an intersubjective world provide the underlying motivation and narrative for these men, even as they encounter structural shifts in the political economy of the town and nation.
In addition to these concerns with status and stigma, Mains’s analysis pays particular attention to stratification, which he argues can be conceived of as relative ‘control over relationships’ (p. 131; Chapter 5 passim). We can see how this value operates both at a micro-level of interpersonal interactions, as well as on a global scale. This is another virtue of Mains’s approach, as it allows us to see (p. 11) how such culturally specific concepts as ‘humiliation’ – yiluññta – take on a different significance when they are situated at different scales of interaction; the yiluññta that craft work engenders is mitigated when it is carried out by migrants who travel away from the interpersonal contexts where it would be most problematic. Similarly, the question of time and the connection between the present and the prospective arc of one’s future prospects – that is, of hope – is understood with respect to these socio-centric concerns. Again, problems of the emptiness of the present are managed by such familiar processes of ‘killing’ and ‘passing’ time, but this is done, as Mains demonstrates, in ways that show how young men are concerned with imagining and implementing a viable future for themselves – that is, of quite literally keeping hope alive in the banal and mundane activities...