- Anthropology as Respair: Anthropological Engagements with Hope and its Others
How do we navigate between hope and disappointment when political change doesn’t make a difference? How is hope differentially distributed within societies along lines of class and citizenship? What do we do when we are compelled to wait in the uncertain space between hope and doubt? Understanding the relationship between hope and its others [End Page 575] (despair, disappointment, waiting) is a growing trend in contemporary anthropological scholarship, as the three books discussed here illustrate. In this review essay, I use the term “respair” to describe the rise of hope in social theory and its implications for anthropological thought and practice. Respair, meaning the return of hope after a period of despair, caught my attention when a March 2017 article in The Economist discussed how it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary only once, in 1425, and described it as one of those words “that English-speakers decided they could happily live without” (Johnson 2017). I do not take the optimistic stance that we are beyond despair; far from it. Instead, I suggest respair is an apt way to describe how hope has become a prominent concept within anthropology. This essay focuses on recent literature that engages with hope not necessarily as a way of moving beyond anthropology in “dark times” (Cantero 2017)—although that is certainly a goal for some—but that mobilizes hope and its associated concepts as frameworks for interrogating how people experience the spaces between probability and possibility.
In this essay, I draw on three recently published books to sketch some parameters for anthropology as respair. In Disappointment: Toward a Critical Hermeneutics of Worldbuilding, Jarrett Zigon (2018) outlines the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of what he terms an anthropology of potentiality, which offers an answer to the question: when our worlds become unbearable, how can we imagine and act for an otherwise? The Economy of Hope, edited by Hirokazu Miyazaki and Richard Swedberg (2016), brings together a diverse set of essays that collectively consider the theoretical and methodological implications of using hope as a framework for the study of economy and society. In Ethnographies of Waiting: Doubt, Hope, and Uncertainty, editors Manpreet Janeja and Andreas Bandak (2018) present a carefully curated set of chapters that examine the politics and poetics of waiting in different ethnographic contexts. A thread connecting all three books is that hope and its others, as well as being generative analytical concepts, revitalize anthropology as a discipline.
I became interested in hope in the mid-2000s when undertaking research with community-based NGOs organizing grassroots development initiatives in India and Papua New Guinea. Kleist and Jansen (2016:373) describe this period of time as having a “veritable explosion of writing on hope,” including seminal work by Crapanzano (2003, 2004), Harvey (2000), Hage (2003), Miyazaki (2004), and Zournazi (2002). Scholarly interest in [End Page 576] hope is usually traced to the early 1990s, when the entrenchment of global capitalism and neoliberalism (which, it should be noted, was viewed by many as a project of hope) following the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a worldwide shrinking of hopes for political and economic alternatives, and a corresponding crisis of confidence in theories of social and political transformation. I view this period as the beginning of anthropology as respair; a turn to hope as an analytic that reflects the concerns of the time and offers a “‘method of knowledge’ for scholarly renewal” (Reed 2011:528; see also Miyazaki 2004, Kleist and Jansen 2016, Knauft 2018). Anthropological work on hope has shown that it is a complex phenomenon, difficult to discuss in isolation from its associated concepts (including anticipation, desire, disappointment, doubt, faith, fear, optimism, waiting) and without taking ethical and moral considerations into account. Navigating the terrain between probability and possibility—which is how Isabelle...