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date: 06 May 2021

The Anthropology of Hopefree

  • Stef JansenStef JansenUniversity of Manchester


As part of a belated interest in people’s engagements with possible futures, the start of the third millennium witnessed the emergence of a burgeoning subfield around the anthropology of hope. Anthropologists investigate the objects of people’s hopes and their attempts to fulfill them. They also reflect on hope as an affect and disposition, and as a method of knowledge production. Three interrelated but analytically distinguishable concerns can be discerned in the anthropology of hope. First, anthropologists are interested in the conditions of possibility of hoping. Such studies of the political economy of hope explore the circumstances in which hopefulness does or does not flourish, and the unequal distribution of intensities of hoping, and of particular hopes, among different categories of people. A second domain consists of anthropological research on the shapes that hoping takes. Studies in this phenomenological vein investigate how hopefulness and hopes appear in the world. How does hoping work over time in people’s practices, reflections, and orientations, and with which intended and unintended effects? A third concern emerges around the relationship between hoping as a subject matter of ethnographic study and anthropology as a form of knowledge production. How do scholarly understandings of hope inform the development of the discipline and, particularly, its engagement with political critique and its capacity to help imagine alternatives?

Hoping: Hopes and Hopefulness

People’s ability to imaginatively and practically engage with potential futures—surely, a human universal—has received little attention in anthropology’s first century or so. Even when documenting divination, ritual initiation, or cargo cults, anthropologists have mostly shied away from addressing dynamics, forms, and intensities of, say, anticipation, expectation, fear, or apprehension. It was only in the middle of the first decade of the third millennium that sustained attentiveness to such issues fed into an emerging anthropology of hope. This occurred at a historical conjuncture when political theorists and others diagnosed a crisis of hope in the world due to disillusionment with the diagnostic critique of left emancipatory thought and action (e.g., Zournazi 2002; see Kleist and Jansen 2016). Many anthropologists share some variety of this concern, and writings that include the term “hope” in their titles often revolve primarily around an affirmative positioning that evokes the imagination of alternatives to the political status quo (e.g., Moore 2011). The studies assembled here under the heading “anthropology of hope” go beyond that: they aim to unpack hope, and they seek do so ethnographically.1

The defining term in the anthropology of hope remains a notably fuzzy concept. By design or by default, “hope” is often left undefined and deployed in different ways even within single studies. In line with its colloquial use in the English language, it appears in two modalities (Jansen 2016, 448–449). In its intransitive understanding the term “hope” is used primarily to denote the affect of hopefulness, of which different intensities can then be identified without specifying any object. In its transitive modality, hope is conceived of in relation to objects: it refers to people’s hopes for something or that something will occur. This entails an acknowledgment of plurality: people may cherish many different hopes at any given time and over time. They may do so with different intensities. Both modalities, then, involve people who engage in hoping, and it is through this verb that a subject matter can be constructed for ethnographical investigation.

The Conditions of Possibility of Hope

If all human beings are probably capable of hoping, the intensity of their hopefulness and the specific hopes they cherish always shape up in particular conditions. This raises questions of the political economy of hope. In which circumstances, in which times and places, does hopefulness flourish more or less? Who hopes? Who hopes for what? How are intensities of hopefulness and hopes for particular objects distributed among categories of people?

A rare early example of such a study of the political economy of hope is Bourdieu’s collaborative research in late-colonial Algeria ([1963] 1979). Foreshadowing his later conceptualization of habitus, Bourdieu addressed the relative attunement of “subjective hopes” to “objective probabilities” and thus contrasted the fatalistic dispositions of “subproletarian” Kabyle newcomers to the city to the more calculating ones of established workers in the “modern sector.” This study was not taken up widely in English-language anthropology. Indeed, forty years later Appadurai (2013, first published 2004) noted that anthropologists still paid scant attention to people’s engagements with futures. Writing about collective struggles of poor people in India, he called for the study of how an unequally distributed “capacity to aspire” shapes up in relation to collective (cultural, political, legal, etc.) horizons as well as to people’s experiences and estimations of success and failure. If Appadurai’s critical appropriation of Bourdieu’s practice theory sought to reclaim questions of hoping for anthropology by emphasizing its cultural character, the same period also witnessed writings inspired more directly by Bourdieu’s work. Notably, Hage placed questions of hopes and hopefulness at the heart of his discussions of the unequal distribution of “societal hope” in capitalist Australia. With this phrase he referred to collective visions of meaningful and dignified life within a given society, which in capitalism are tightly associated with “an experience of the possibility of upward social mobility” (Hage 2003, 13, emphasis in original). Hage’s analyses of “paranoid nationalism” among white Australians (2003) and of neoliberal government through the promotion of particular orientations toward futures (2009) drew analogies between desires for physical migration and for upward social (“existential”) mobility, with some categories of people more enabled to maintain a sense that they are “going somewhere” and others feeling more “entrapped.” In Bourdieusian fashion, hope appears here as a resource (or, in Appadurai’s words, a “capacity”) that is rendered scarce and thus becomes an object of struggles for accumulation.

Hope for Better Lives

For Bourdieu, Appadurai, and Hage hope is not an autonomous disposition, springing entirely from within persons. Instead, these authors ask how particular social formations provide conditions of possibility for different degrees of hopefulness and for different hopes. And while their foundational studies of the political economy of hope remain relatively vague on its objects, their examples converge around hopes for a sense of direction and for approximation of certain forms of life that the people in question consider desirable. Transitively understood, these are hopes for good lives—or more precisely, accounting for their relational character: hopes for lives that are better than current ones.

Ethnographic studies have traced such hopes for better lives in a number of domains. Some focus on clearly defined hopes specific to particular people, such as in claims for land restitution in Mexico (Nuijten 2003), in patient activism for medical treatment in the United States (Novas 2006), in postearthquake reconstruction in El Salvador (Sliwinski 2012, 2016), in urban people’s turn to magic to “make lives livable” in post-Soviet Russia (Lindquist 2006), or in struggles for compensation for people who have died from overwork in Japan (North and Morioka 2016). Such hopes can be embedded in life trajectory expectations, as in self-organized schooling in wartime Bosnia and Herzegovina (Jansen 2013, 2015) or in young women’s strategies for marriage in Cameroon (Johnson-Hanks 2005) and in Morocco (Elliot 2016). Yet such hopes can also be more short-term, frivolous even, as in the hopes people invest in their countries’ football teams (Jansen 2016). All these studies demonstrate how immediate hopes are often nested in more encompassing ones for better lives on different scales.

In line with disciplinary conventions, anthropologists often study hope among people considered to have a relatively short supply of it. This includes a cluster of research on the cultivation of hope among sick people and their families, for example in the United States (Mattingly 2012, 2014), Denmark (Grøn and Mattingly 2018), Japan (Danely 2016), and Australia (Warren and Manderson 2008). There is a string of writings on hope, and especially hopelessness, among underemployed young men, for example in Egypt (Schielke 2015), Ethiopia (Mains 2011), Georgia (Demant Frederiksen 2013), Mongolia (Pedersen 2012), and Iran (Khosravi 2017). Another concentration of research converges around violently displaced people, for example, Löfving (2008) on resistance communities in Guatemala, Thiranagama (2008) on returnees in Sri Lanka, Brun (2015) on internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia in Georgia, Feldman (2016) on Palestinian refugees on the West Bank and in Lebanon, Norum, Mostafanezhad, and Sebro (2016) on Burmese refugees along the Thai border, Jansen (2008) on IDPs and returnees in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bendixen and Eriksen (2018) on undocumented Palestinian migrants in Norway.

The body of work on displaced people shows that in their hopes for better lives, people often look to particular locations. This is not only the case for people who are already on the move. Studies of sedentary young men, for example, also find that for many, hope lies elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, then, the topic of hope has come to feature prominently in ethnographic studies of migration. Some, like Bredeloup’s (2017) study of migrants in Francophone West and Central Africa, show that the adventure of travel itself may be part of the allure, at least in a particular stage of life. Yet a more common focus is on migration, or a desire for it, as a route toward fulfilling other, longer-term hopes, akin to those of many people who stay put: hopes for better lives for oneself and for one’s family. These studies show that people rank places in terms of the degree of hopefulness they are considered to afford, and in terms of the routes toward fulfillment of specific hopes they are seen to offer (Demant Frederiksen 2014; Grill 2012; Jansen and Löfving 2008; Kleist and Thorsen 2017; Mar 2005; Pine 2014; Puzo 2016). Here “places” are often thought of as “states”: people then assess the relative capacity of the institutions that govern people in particular places to foster hope or, at least, to reduce hopelessness (Hernández-Carretero 2017).

Government of/through Hope

The conditions of possibility for hoping and their unequal distribution have a strong institutional dimension. Taking a cue from Foucault, this has been explored in research on the government of hope, and of hope as a technology of government. An important stream of such work has emerged around issues of health and biomedicine. Indeed, it is here that the phrase “political economy of hope” has thus far been employed most frequently. While its intended meaning varies, these studies share an interest in the continuous rhetorical mobilization of hope by actors in the biomedical domain (for a cure, for example, or for conception). Hope is shown to be central in treatment of and dealings with patients and those close to them, strategies of scientific discovery, patient activism, and entrepreneurial logics of the pharmaceutical industry (Good et al. 1990; Novas 2006; Mrig and Spencer 2018; Petersen et al. 2017).

Beyond health, again, much work in this vein focuses on mobility. For example, ethnographic studies show how particular hopes are fostered in the interactions of (would-be) migrants with US embassy procedures in Cabo Verde (Drotbohm 2017) or with regularization programs for undocumented Senegalese people in Argentina (Vammen 2017). Other institutions also play a role: in Kenya, Turner (2015) contrasts the hopes projected by rebel organizations in refugee camps for Burundians with those of evangelical churches in Nairobi. The latter, he shows, resonated more with the daily precariousness of the young undocumented men in Nairobi. The role of evangelical Christianity in sustaining mundane hopes for getting by and grand hopes for fantastic fortune is also documented in Haugen’s (2017) study of a Pentecostal Nigerian migrant church in China. Among young migrants from Côte d’Ivoire in Burkina Faso, Bjarnesen (2017) found that hope was conveyed through a more loosely institutionalized channel: the lyrics of and urban-cosmopolitan style associated with Zouglou music.

Fusing a focus on hope with one on persuasion, some anthropologists combine a Foucaultian eye for technologies of government with a Gramscian one for hegemonizing projects. In the shrinking German city of Hoyerswerda, Ringel (2018) found that diffuse governmental practices sought to mobilize people through a form of “prescribed hope.” Such “enforced futurism” remained mostly unsuccessful. Verdery (2017) traces similarly ineffective techniques of persuasion to animate hopes of different strata of the population in line with ideological hopes of 1950s collectivization policies by the Communist Party in Romania. Turning to the ecological conversion of an island in Denmark, Papazu (2016) contrasts the failure of top-down attempts to enlist residents through “management through change” with the success of earlier, locally driven “management through hope.” In a study of land restitution claims in Mexico, Nuijten (2003) explains that state bureaucracy, and specifically brokerage, functioned as a “hope-generating machine,” continuously rekindling people’s efforts. Like Miyazaki’s (2004) account of land petitions in Fiji, Nuijten’s account explains that this machine failed to deliver but encouraged people to maintain their hopes for land and the momentum of their hopefulness. In postwar, postsocialist Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jansen (2015) traces a hegemonizing project that aimed to govern through hope, with grand projections of a not-yet-“normal state” and EU accession and more prosaic offers of clientelistic opportunities for day-to-day endurance. In a study of political legitimacy in similarly “troubled” postconflict and postsocialist Kyrgyzstan, Beyer (2015) also documents how projected hopes for statehood resonated with citizens in a broadly shared faith that constitutional change would lead to collective improvement.

Hope, Affect, and Infrastructure

While institutions are central to the mobilization of hope as a governmental tool, a productive stream in the anthropology of hope has emerged around accounts of its nonhuman, material dimension. In that vein, Street (2012) shows how the colonial and later donor-funded architecture of a hospital in Papua New Guinea conjured up a historically layered affect of hopefulness and disappointment for its users. In a prison in the same country, Reed (2011) conceptualizes hope as a force that was “thrust upon” inmates on remand but not on others. While he does not use the term “affect,” like Street, he effectively traces the presence and performative consequences of hope thus conceived.

Seeking to complement what they consider the overly “people-centered” tendency of existing work, Hauer, Nielsen, and Niewöhner (2018) in their study of informal house construction in Burkina Faso propose a “material-semiotic” approach to hope. Drawing on actor network theory, they insist that particular forms of hope are always situated in specific physical environments and trace how hoping people and their material surroundings were “co-constitutive” of rapidly changing periurban life and space in Ouagadougou. Such coconstitution—and the possible emergence of unforeseen articulations of the social—is also an important feature in anthropological writings on infrastructures, which include a strong focus on future-orientation, promise, and emergence (e.g., Harvey, Jensen, and Morita 2017; Knox 2017). For example, turning to the intricate play of hope and fear regarding road building projects along the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Reeves (2017) proposes the notion of “infrastructural hope” to investigate the entanglements of material construction with widely shared desires for security and sovereignty. Similarly, Cross (2015) explores the ways buildings, roads, and walls constructed as part of India’s special economic zones provided anchoring grounds for hopes of different groups of people, and Jansen (2015) addresses the centrality of public city transport in promises of restoration of “normal lives” after the war in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. All these authors note that many promises projected by such (planned) infrastructures remained unfulfilled, but that this did not prevent them from continuing to evoke as-yet-unrealized futures. Sometimes, a keen awareness of potential failure prevails, as in Weszkalnys’s (2016) study of hope for oil as a “resource affect” in São Tomé e Príncipe. She explains that years of prospecting and of rumored megadeals for extraction generated a particular kind of “doubtful hope,” stabilizing in relatively modest hopes for improvement, hedged by cautious moral admonitions.

The Shapes of Hope

A second key concern in the anthropology of hope revolves around the ways hoping appears in the world. One important line of inquiry in such phenomenological analyses traces the role of hope in the ethical cultivation of selves, with a methodological and epistemological focus on individuals. Other studies investigate how hope works, how it is embedded in social practices and temporal orientations, and what its effects are. In many writings such concerns appear alongside an interest in the political economy of hope.

Crapanzano (2003) was among the first anthropologists to publish a text on “hope as a category of analysis” in phenomenological terms. Reflecting on his 1980s work among white people in South Africa, he considered hope to be the “passive counterpart” of desire, depending for its fulfillment on some external agency. This led him to warn that hope can be paralyzing: “one hopes—one waits” (Crapanzano 2003, 18). Despite its title, this much-quoted essay does little to create categorical clarity around hope, partly because what Crapanzano offers up as hope in these ruminations had appeared in his earlier work as waiting. Fifteen years later, in a study of Palestinian irregular migrants in Oslo, Bendixen and Eriksen reestablish the distinction between waiting and hope, tracing their endeavor to turn “the passive time of waiting [for residence permits] into a time of project-oriented activity [of protest]” (2018, 97).

Hope, Morality, Ethics

Seeking to incorporate hope into the study of morality, Zigon (2009) rejects attempts to pin it down as either active or passive, as well as the tendency to conceive of it as oriented toward an ideal. Following distinctions made by artists and Orthodox Christians in Moscow, he sees hope, first, as “the temporal structure of the background attitude that sustains an already accomplished social life,” and second, as “the temporal orientation of intentional ethical action” in crisis moments (2009, 254). These two temporal “aspects” of hope, Zigon says, continuously slip into each other. Robertson’s (2016) study of Shinto oracular practices in Japan takes up this focus on the mutual constitution of a disposition of perseverance and actions geared toward fulfillment, often in challenging circumstances. Likewise, Mattingly has provided longitudinal phenomenological analyses of how hope appears (and is made to appear) in the lives of Afro-American parents of children with severe disabilities and chronic illnesses (2012, 2014). Accounting also for the political economy of hope in healthcare, she conceives of hope as a space of “moral possibility” in narrative “first person virtue ethics” that is negotiated in interactions, for example between parents and health professionals.

A similar interest in ethics locates hope in the subjectivities-in-the-making of activists, for example in Ringel’s (2012) study of the “creative presentism” of anarchists in Germany. Writing about humanitarian practitioners working with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Brun (2016) develops a discussion of ethics in humanitarian intervention that focuses less on technologies of the self or conceptions of the good, and more on feminist work on temporality and an ethics of care. Schielke’s (2015) study of young men in Egypt unfolds in sustained dialogue with writing on ethical self-cultivation, but his emphasis is also less on internal processes of becoming, and more on the ways these young men continually negotiate their sometimes fraught hopes for a morally sound and fulfilling life in light of different normative “Grand Schemes.” These writings productively combine study of both the political economy and the phenomenology of hope. Moreover, they deploy a focus on contemplation alongside a keen interest in the practices that hope entails. This is sometimes referred to as the work of hope.

The Work of Hope/Hope as Work

Some anthropologists insist that hope is work (Pedersen 2012) or that hoping is a practice (Hauer et al. 2018). Most authors implicitly distinguish between practices of hope and hope itself, which more often appears as a disposition or an affect. Yet, despite such terminological divergences, there is substantial common ground here with a shared interest in how hope works in practice. And, again, when investigating this, researchers tend to cast a phenomenological interest in the shape of that practice against the conditions of possibility of hope, its political economy.

Reporting on a day spent in the company of young men in the capital of Mongolia, Pedersen (2012) shows how many of their practices converged on attempts to momentarily integrate dispersed capacities and assets into assemblages that could facilitate the fulfillment of their hopes. Many of these practices looked random and irrational, but Pedersen argues that in the unpredictable constellation of post-Soviet Ulaanbaatar it was precisely, and only, their defiant belief in success that could conjure up networks of trust and interdependence as “dormant futures” (2012, 147) that might one day bring fulfillment of particular hopes. In their investigation of informal house building in Burkina Faso, Hauer et al. (2018) present a case where such provisional assemblages—in which they include material objects and surroundings—did effectively “coconstitute” new realities. Also emphasizing this performativity of hope, Lindquist (2006) focuses on practices of magic and healing in urban post-Soviet Russia. Borrowing from Bourdieu and Hage, she argues that, for her interlocutors, consulting magi and healers served to conjure up hope as a “replacement” for agency as understood in Western individualist notions. Engaging with the literature on ordinary ethics, Sliwinski (2012, 2016) too phrases her contribution in terms of agency. Exploring postearthquake humanitarian work on a housing reconstruction project and in a hospice in El Salvador, she seeks to enhance the practice dimension of hope by considering the ways it produces value and attributes this to actions. This resonates with Mattingly’s writings (2012, 2014), where hope is located in the continuous work of ethical self-cultivation.

Since hope is per definition disappointable, there can be no unambiguous causal relationship here between practices and fulfillment. Heeding this uncertainty, anthropologists have foregrounded the importance of opportunism. Johnson-Hanks (2005) writes that young women in Cameroon insisted that strategic planning was impossible in their lives and simultaneously engaged in all kinds of strategies. Tracing their attempts to shape their marital and reproductive futures, she explains that their “judicious optimism”—seeking to position themselves favorably in relation to potential opportunities—was in fact remarkably successful. Inspired by this analysis, Elliot (2016) writes of the “labor of hope” of young female Muslim students in Morocco to address the ways they manage the paradox between their stated beliefs that their conjugal future is divinely predestined and their practices (considered un-Islamic) of beautification, staging visibility in urban space, and communication with men they consider to be desirable matches. Turner (2015) found a similar paradox between beliefs in predestination (here in the evangelical key) and judiciously optimistic practices (here mainly through learning and cultivating connections) in his study of undocumented Burundian young men in Kenya. “While they wait for miracles,” he writes, “they position themselves so that these miracles might happen to them” (Turner 2015, 189). Earlier studies in Oceania showed how evangelical Christianity fostered among its adherents a particular sense of history and of the forward-looking role of individual agency in it (Gewertz and Errington 1993). Indeed, evangelization has been said to be marked by a “tilt toward futurity itself” (Keane 2015).

Some forms of contemporary labor are so imbued with, even structured by, hope that they have been referred to as “hope labor.” Focusing on people in the United States who made unremunerated contributions to online platforms with an eye on future rewards, Kuehn and Corrigan (2013) emphasize the counterproductive dynamics of such work for employment prospects. They argue that the hope it conjured up was false, because it was already fully caught up in corporate strategies of capital accumulation. Turning to precarious creative workers in South-East Europe, Alacovska (2018) strikes a more optimistic note. For these people, she says, the “labor of hope” served important practical functions as therapy, as networking, and as social engagement.

Hope as a Method of Knowledge

Implicitly, many anthropological studies of the work of hope conceive of it as an epistemic practice. A particularly elaborate set of reflections on hope as a method of knowledge is offered by Miyazaki (e.g., 2004, 2013, 2017). His primary concern is with hope as a method for anthropology, but he also ethnographically documents instances of hope of nonanthropologists. The repeated, unsuccessful petitions for restitution of ancestral land by generations of Suvavou people to the Fijian government, Miyazaki argues, were not only hopeful claims to that land but also, and primarily, ways to rekindle, time and again, hope for “self-knowledge, the truth about who they really are” (2004, 3). He seeks to develop an analysis of hope that foregrounds that “not-yet” force in people’s consciousness, the ways they deploy hope as a form of knowledge that allows for, and indeed relies on, indeterminacy. Miyazaki traces this back to the dynamics of Fijian gift exchange, but a desire to appropriately render “prospective momentum” also marks his work on financial traders in Japan (2013). Their attunement to open-endedness and ambiguity, which was at the heart of their professional arbitraging practices, decreased as major reforms to their business unfolded. Yet in the midst of such disappointment, Miyazaki still detects the workings of hope as a method of knowledge.

Among the more thoughtful engagements with Miyazaki’s work that remain relatively faithful to it, Pedersen’s (2012) article on young men in Mongolia describes their seeming presentism and their “stubborn optimism” as a “distinctly Mongolian (or perhaps distinctly postsocialist) variation of the method of hope theorized by Miyazaki” (2012, 145), which Pedersen further analyzes by drawing on Bergson and Deleuze. Compared to Miyazaki’s findings, Pedersen says, the work of hope that he documents was less cognitive and less epistemological in emphasis. It was more pragmatic and directed at more earthly objects, such as “profit” and “women” (2012, 146). In his study of temporal reasoning in a German city, Ringel approvingly quotes Miyazaki’s conception of hope as a method (2018, 12) and does focus on its epistemic function. Yet he, too, is driven by his empirical findings to diversify the notion of hope as a method for knowledge. Where Miyazaki sees the potential of hope in people’s ability to redirect their knowledge from retrospective contemplation to prospective openness to indeterminacy, the actual hopes that Ringel documents rather underpinned the work of endurance and continuation (2018, 25).

A Relational Understanding of Hope

If people invest much work in constituting and sustaining hope in various realms (e.g., social relations, procedures and institutions of government, infrastructures, material surroundings, cultural forms and styles, etc.), this does not happen in isolation. It is not just that specific hopes may spiral out, reaching into other scales and settings. The ways particular intensities of hopefulness and particular hopes appear in the world are also themselves formed relationally. Therefore, to understand instances of effervescence of hoping, its decline, expiry, and revival, anthropologists reach beyond the internal workings of any particular hope in a particular time and place.

Migratory hopes, for example, are formulated and negotiated in relative terms, comparing experienced and imagined places in terms of their fertility for hopefulness and for particular hopes. And this is not only relevant to (would-be) migrants. Jansen’s investigations of post-Yugoslav yearnings for “normal lives” in which one moves “well enough” show how these yearnings were articulated as part of everyday geopolitical concerns about one’s collective place in the world, with a proliferation of rankings measuring progress toward EU accession (2015). This was partly in response to EU attempts to govern through hope (Jansen 2009, 2014), but in other ways, too, people made continual juxtapositions of their predicaments, particularly with the situations of people in neighboring states (Jansen 2016). Likewise, Khosravi (2017, 13) writes that his young interlocutors in Iran believed that “there is hope but it is elsewhere and for others.” And in her study of the resource affect of “doubtful hope” sparked by oil prospecting in São Tomé e Príncipe, Weszkalnys (2016) also emphasizes the importance of what people knew or imagined elsewhere.

Thus addressing the relationality of hope in spatial terms, these studies also foreground the specific historical junctures when hopefulness and particular hopes may flourish or not, and how this might change over time. Here imagined futures are especially important, because hope, of course, is forward-oriented. Yet (mis)remembered pasts, and especially past hopes, are relevant too. This may become particularly noticeable when people dwell among decaying buildings that embody unfulfilled hopes (Demant Frederiksen 2013) or among both dilapidated and new infrastructures (Street 2012). Moreover, new infrastructures may relay past hopes into the future (Cross 2015).

The spatiotemporal relationality of formations of hope is sometimes analyzed in more or less epochal categories, for example of neoliberalism and post-Fordism (Guyer 2007; Hage 2009; Muehlebach and Shoshan 2012). This often entails a prominent focus on the afterlives of normative frameworks of modernist progress: in circumstances where such frameworks are ever less feasible, the temporal reasoning that animates them may remain a key factor in the making of people’s hopes (Ferguson 1999; Jansen 2015).

Hopes themselves, of course, also have their own histories (Kleist and Jansen 2016). Not only can they draw on previous hopes, fulfilled and unfulfilled, but they may also change over their own lifetime. In her work with long-term IDPs from Abkhazia in Georgia, Brun (2015) traces such transformations in relation to political, economic, and legal developments. In a situation marked by very little change, Feldman’s (2016) study of Palestinian refugees shows that their collective hopes for statehood and return more or less persisted over time, but that the intensity of engagement changed. She explains that the fact that each previous surge of hope had ended in defeat fed into an affective malaise that conditioned present “modes and moods of encounter with the future” on the occasion of new peace negotiations.

Hope and Disappointment

When tracing particular hopes over time, anthropologists acknowledge that they often remain unfulfilled. Most studies include at least some instances of unfulfilled hopes, and many document the work people put in to retain hope even in the face of recurring disappointment.

Clearly, hopes and hopefulness can have their expiry dates. Sometimes it is disappointment itself that becomes a dominant affect. As Schielke (2015) shows in relation to the 2011 uprising in Egypt, and Jansen (2014, 2015) with regard to early postwar optimism in 1990s Bosnia and Herzegovina, such disillusion must be understood in light of the intensity of particular forms of past hopefulness that remained unfulfilled. Studies also trace the origins of current hopelessness in particular hopes of the past, for example when young men find that formal education does not yield the upward social mobility that had once been associated with it (Khosravi 2017; Mains 2011). Sometimes this leads to particularly keen investments in the cultivation of hope through a combination of idealism and opportunism. Among party-affiliated prodemocracy student activists in Nepal in the 2000s, Snellinger (2016) found a “subjunctive instrumentality”: a pragmatically hopeful disposition, not unlike the “judicious optimism” noted by Johnson-Hanks (2005), attuned to the contingency of the not-yet. Another study of student activists, in Serbia, puts disappointment itself at the heart of the analysis (Greenberg 2014). After the heady days of the toppling of President Slobodan Milošević in 2000, these students formulated modest hopes in incremental, procedural interventions that must be understood in relation to achievements and failures of previous hopeful struggles. Disappointment, then, is an important affective form in its own right and, Greenberg argues, a central feature of political modernity.

In a world where cross-border movement, particularly by poor people, is at the heart of political debate and policy making, the theme of disappointment also looms large in anthropological research on migration. The young West and Central African migrants in Bredeloup’s study (2017) were generally hopeful, but she also describes feelings of shame and experiences of “social death” among those who failed to make it to Europe. Among northbound Ghanaian migrants stranded in Niger, Lucht (2017) found loss or suspension of hope but also a stubborn clinging to it, partly by relocating it from this-worldly aspirations to the afterlife. Kleist (2017b) focuses on migrants who had been deported back to Ghana and found that those who had been able to accumulate resources through migration could still be considered successful, whereas early, empty-handed return was read as a sign of shameful individual failure. Far from dampening collective hopes invested in migration, she explains, such individualization of failure in fact sustained their continuation. Disappointment, of course, can ultimately sustain hope in other ways too. Failure may effectively spur further hope insofar as it does not kill off the possibility of fulfillment at some later date.

Hope and Anthropological Knowledge Production

A third central concern in the anthropology of hope revolves around the relationship between hope as a subject matter of ethnographic study and anthropology as a form of knowledge production. Here the emphasis shifts from the hopes and hopefulness of other people to the hopes of anthropologists themselves: for their discipline and particularly for the contribution their work can make to the world.

Replications of Hope

Engaging with the philosophical writings of Rorty, Benjamin, and particularly Bloch, Miyazaki deploys the hope of Suvavou people petitioning the Fijian government mainly as a springboard to rekindle hope for anthropology. He thus moves away from “the study of the hope of others” to “an effort to recapture that hope (Fijians’ as well as Bloch’s) as a method for anthropology” (2004, 25). Miyazaki believes that attempts to analyze the conditions of possibility of hope necessarily extinguish its “prospective momentum.” Instead he calls on anthropologists to “replicate” the method of hope they document, performatively reenacting its openness to future becomings. In such a parallel manner, heeding the operation of hope in all forms of knowledge production, Miyazaki argues, anthropology can go beyond diagnostic critique of the status quo. And only in that way, he claims, can it become hopeful again, turning into a mode of knowledge production that “invites one to hope” (2004, 5).

While his writings resound with recurrent evocations of worldly relevance, the politics of Miyazaki’s manifesto for a reinvigorated academic discipline remain vague (Jensen 2014). Whose anthropology is this? Whose particular hopes would be rekindled? Hopes for what? Any substantive contents of hope, or any possible role of collective or individual action, are left unspecified. Miyazaki ultimately seems to be content to evoke hope for hope. In a rare passage that appears to move toward some specification, he approvingly nods at ambivalence and a “nondirectional stance . . . a paradoxically hopeful possibility that the critical study of neoliberalism and global capitalism could reorient itself radically to embrace its loss of direction” (Miyazaki 2010, 250). This leads Miyazaki very far away from the book he continues to posit as his major inspiration: Bloch’s Principle of Hope (1986). Denuded of the Marxist politics from which it sprang and to which it sought to contribute, Bloch’s reading of all kinds of everyday phenomena as “forward dawnings” of a communist society come to be cast as a celebration of nondirectionality (for a discussion, see Jansen 2016). Whether via Miyazaki’s incantations or otherwise, approving evocations of such a demarxified Bloch have meanwhile become a standard ingredient in many anthropological studies of hope (see, e.g., Demant Frederiksen 2013; Grøn and Mattingly 2018; Kavedžija 2016; Khosravi 2017; Mattingly 2014).

Detecting Hope against All Odds: A Particular Humanist Formula

Miyazaki’s writings have become a frequent reference in anthropological work on hope. Yet few authors follow his program beyond authorial declarations that the anthropology of hope should entice hope in the world through a reorientation of knowledge. It is possible to discern a particular analytical operation that runs through many studies. This formula can be disentangled in three steps. First, authors characterize the particular time and place in which they conducted their research as one where hopefulness, as an affect that is positively open to what the future may bring, is in short supply. For example, in Mains’s book (2011), young men in Ethiopia diagnose their situation as hopeless, saying that for them hope has been “cut.” Second, authors deplore the pessimism produced by interpretations (usually attributed to unnamed other scholars) that focus on “structural” determinations of that hopelessness. In contrast, they declare that they wish to contribute to an anthropology that “invites one to hope.” It is precisely in that way that Mains rejects “structural determinism” and aligns his objectives with Miyazaki’s. Third, authors turn to their ethnographic findings and foreground cracks of indeterminacy in the structural edifices that they say other scholars mistakenly hold to be determining. They thus purposively detect hopeful rays of sunshine even where dark hopelessness seems to reign. As Mains states: “I argue that an investigation of diverse economic activities such as unemployment, informal entrepreneurial work, and sharing demonstrates the indeterminate nature of young men’s lives, and that this indeterminacy is grounds for hope” (2011, 17). In other words, the very existence of indeterminacy (i.e., the lack of total determination) is read as proof that there is hope, if not from the emic perspective of interlocutors, then at least from authors’ own etic vantage point.

In this formula, common across many studies (e.g., Kavedžija 2016; Khosravi 2017; Lindquist 2006; Mattingly 2014), anthropology itself is also imbued with hope: it is the ethnographic capacity of the discipline to uncover hope even where others might not find it that is posited as central to its capacity to generate hope. Empirical evidence of the incompleteness of determination is found, for example, in instances of people’s ethical self-cultivation, in the existence of heterogeneity, in people’s valuations of social relations, in their imaginative longings, and, of course, in subversive or resistant intentional action. Yet in such writings ultimately it is the analytical operation of detection itself that provides the ground for claims that hope exists against all odds. As in Miyazaki’s work, in this formula, what people hope for is less important than the indomitable human capacity to hope. Indeed, that capacity appears as one that makes us truly human, here understood in an entirely positive way. It follows that the more hope there is in the world, the better. The term “hope,” then, functions as a trope in particular humanist self-positionings: the anthropologist shows not only that, against all odds, hope exists in the world but also that her or his anthropological scholarship is on the side of hope.

Limits of the Humanist Formula

Many anthropological studies that carry the term “hope” in their titles are uplifting. In a seemingly hopeless world they purposively seek to affirm the hope of their readers. This may account for much of the sudden appeal of this term in the anthropology of the third millennium. Yet the “Particular Humanist Formula” that runs through such work also neglects, and perhaps obscures, other workings of hopes and hopefulness that are no less important to our understanding of human life. At least three sets of questions have received less attention than they might deserve.

First, what are the detrimental workings of hope? As Crapanzano pointed out early on (2003), instances of hoping do not always have beneficial effects on the hoping subjects. It is not just that hopes may end in disappointment but that hopeful dispositions may themselves come to stand in the way of human flourishing, for example when they are incorporated into particular forms of government through hope. As Berlant (2001) has argued, in neoliberal capitalism this may take the form of “cruel optimism” that reproduces entrapment. Even authors who explicitly detect hope against all odds in order to position their analyses on the side of hope sometimes find themselves compelled to acknowledge this. Alacovska’s (2018) study of creative workers in South-East Europe, for example, provides a positive reading of their “labor of hope” but ends on a cautionary note: the targeted exploitation of that labor, she warns, may in fact reproduce their subordination (see also Kuehn and Corrigan 2013). Indeed, drawing on Hage (2009), Kleist and Jansen (2016) show how celebratory accounts of “resilience” can be understood as particular mobilizations of hope that individualize responsibility for successes and failures in line with capitalist ideologies, rather than fostering emancipatory change. From any given evaluative perspective, then, particular forms of hope may have beneficial and deleterious effects, and understanding the work of hope in the world requires anthropologists to account for both.

Second, how does hope inform conflict? Attempts to devise an anthropology that “invites one to hope” start from the notion that hope is good. But which hope exactly is this? Obviously, hopes of different groups of people may be incompatible with each other. Yet a striking assumption of consensus runs through many anthropological writings on hope. This assumption conflates all kinds of hopes held by different people. The hope of ethnographic interlocutors is assumed to be identical to or at least compatible with not only that of other research subjects but also that of anthropologists and that of their readers. Everyone, it is implied, broadly agrees on what it is that is hopeful and thus deserves affirmation. Such conflation must leave the actual objects of people’s hopes unspecified: only in that way can one formally treat hopefulness, intransitively understood, as a generic humanist positive. This can feed into an understanding of hope as a cumulative affective force or method of knowledge where hope begets hope, and where this is considered desirable, because more hope is better than less. In certain examples such a consensus is no doubt borne out by ethnographic evidence. Yet hopefulness can also take the form of a scarce resource (Hage 2003) over which competition may erupt. This is even more notable when considering the objects of particular hopes, transitively understood. In any given social configuration, the facilitation or fulfillment of one person’s hopes for particular futures may be the blockage of another person’s particular futures. Such struggles can often be delimited in collective terms too: hopes for migration from Mexico to the United States, clearly, are in conflict with hopes for a border wall between the two states. Yet surely both of them, as well as the conflictual relation between them, can be studied anthropologically in terms of hope.

This leads us to a third set of questions regarding the particular humanist formula running through much of the anthropology of hope. Some studies tend to jump rather hastily from detecting what the authors consider to be hopeful instances of indeterminacy to declaring such phenomena hopeful tout court. Again this relies on the conflation of different, potentially conflicting hopes. Here the main mechanism consists of empirical selectivity. For obvious reasons, anthropologists who wish to replicate or at least affirm the hope of their interlocutors tend to focus on hopes that they (the anthropologists) personally like and that they expect their readers to like too. Sometimes this is plainly acknowledged in statements of allegiance. And sometimes a common perspective is evoked implicitly. This may be done through the “Particular Humanist Formula.” In addition, an author’s choice of topic, terminology, and writing style may conjure up a “we” held together by a shared, inclusive, nonconfrontational kind of hope (often vaguely liberal-cosmopolitan). In contrast, there are few anthropological studies that analyze hopes that the author dislikes as hopes. Even an article that initially embarks on this route, focusing on online neonationalist subculture in Japan, actually locates hope in the resistance to them by other net-warriors (Hack 2016). What, for example, about hopes for the perpetuation of racial hierarchies, for the reestablishment of conservative-patriarchal control over women’s bodies, for imperial domination, for the entrenchment of ethnonational exclusivism, or for maximal extraction of surplus from other people’s labor? The dearth of studies of such hopes in terms of hope is certainly not a reflection of their absence in the world. Beyond actual objects of hopes, selectivity is also notable in terms of the formal kind of hopes that affirmative anthropological studies have so far focused on. Many scholars consider people’s engagements with the future hopeful—and thus worth researching under the rubric of hope—insofar as they are aimed at change, or at least open to it. This is what has allowed the association of hope with openness to indeterminacy and to unknown future possibilities. In either form, empirical selectivity thus allows an affirmative stance, and a belief that anthropologists are a priori well-placed for it.

Toward a Full-Spectrum Humanist Anthropology of Hope?

An eye for potential detrimental effects of the work of hope, for its conflictual dimensions, and for kinds of hope that authors do not sympathize with helps us situate affirmative self-positionings in the anthropology of hope. Such an eye also highlights the lack of analytical consensus on what the term “hope” actually denotes. Indeed, few authors provide any kind of definition. The focus of many anthropologists actually lies elsewhere (e.g., in “temporality,” “futures,” or “uncertainty”), and their frequent use of the word “hope” deploys it more as a conveniently resonant signpost than as a analytical term. Others do focus squarely on hope but abstain from defining it: some even recommend such abstention as a way to maintain flexibility and open-endedness (e.g., Miyazaki 2017, 2–3). Believing, in contrast, that terminological conventions are necessary for fruitful, reasoned scholarly discussion, Jansen (2016) has tried to distil a tentative working definition from a host of studies, concluding that hope is most frequently and effectively used to refer to a positively charged, disappointable, future-oriented disposition or affect. This working definition implies that hoping is ethnographically researchable both by tracing its relative intensity as an intransitive affect and by analyzing the hopes, transitively understood, of particular people for particular objects. It refrains from any a priori conflation of hopes studied and authors’ own hopes.

Indeed, if all hopes in the world can be studied ethnographically, there is no reason to assume that the anthropology of hope necessarily facilitates the prospects of change, let alone the type of change that any particular author may desire. On closer reading, it becomes clear that many of the actual hopes anthropologists have ethnographically documented are not only decidedly nonutopian but also wary of indeterminacy. Stability, predictability and sheer continuity are often found to be at the heart of people’s hopes (Zigon 2009). This should not surprise anyone in spatiotemporal constellations marked by threats to continuity, as shown in the persistent centrality of secure employment in the hopes of former ironworkers in Croatia (Potkonjak and Škokić 2013) and in attempts to stave off the predicted disappearance of a way of life, and indeed any life, in a postindustrial German city (Ringel 2018). Moreover, people’s hoping can be inconsistent and contradictory over time, and even at any given point in time, as illustrated, for example, in the stubborn affective investments in a “not-yet” state in which “normal lives” could unfold in the capital of divided, supervised Bosnia and Herzegovina (Jansen 2015). Continuity also emerges as crucial in explicitly forward-looking initiatives such as the efforts to convert Samsø, in Denmark, into a “Renewable Energy Island” (Papazu 2016). Aligning her own hope with that of the project, Papazu first invokes Miyazaki and Stengers to state her aim to affirmatively replicate hope. Yet despite her own embrace of the open-endedness of “becoming,” she ultimately has to step back from conflating everything into one hope because her ethnographic investigation found that the islanders were in fact mobilized mainly by appeals to their pragmatic hopes for continuation and a reduction of uncertainty.

An anthropological focus on hope, then, “should not necessarily be perceived as a hopeful exercise,” however defined (Kleist 2017a, 16). Rather, as Whyte (2002, 175) has argued, it can unfold as part of a broader analytical alertness to “subjunctivity” as “the mood of doubt, hope, will and potential.” The play of subjunctivity, she emphasizes, is not best understood as characterizing particular systems of thought or particular times. It must be analyzed as situated: “it is about the specific uncertainty that particular actors experience as they try something that matters to them—as they undertake to deal with a problem. That is to say, it is a mood of the verb” (Whyte 2002, 175). While the anthropology of hope may in certain instances replicate hope—and indeed particular hopes—its contribution to knowledge production may more generally lie in developing understanding of what matters to particular people in particular spatiotemporal formations (Schielke 2015, 16) and the ways they try to act on such conceptions. Explorations of hope can thus provide a window onto what Bourdieu calls “illusio” (2003): people’s commitment to participate in that which matters to them, their investment in “shared concerns” (Jansen 2015, 20; see Lindquist 2006, 9–10). In that sense, a stronger program of research on what many anthropologists (and many of their readers) may consider unlikable hopes—treating hopes that they do not share as hopes—would enhance the production of knowledge of the world-as-it-works. Ultimately, such knowledge could also strengthen efforts—by all kinds of people, perhaps including people who happen to be anthropologists—to affirm the prospects of particular alternative hopes in that world.

Further Reading

  • Bourdieu, P. (1963) 1979. Algeria 1960. Translated by R. Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hage, G. 2003. Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society. Annandale, Australia: Pluto/Merlin.
  • Jansen, S. 2015. Yearnings in the Meantime: “Normal Lives” and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex. Oxford: Berghahn.
  • Kavedžija, I. 2016. “Introduction: Reorienting Hopes.” Contemporary Japan 28 (1): 1–12.
  • Kleist, N., and S. Jansen. 2016. Hope Over Time: Crisis, Immobility and Future-making. History and Anthropology 27 (4): 373–392.
  • Kleist, N., and D. Thorsen, eds. 2017. Hope and Uncertainty in Contemporary African Migration. London: Routledge.
  • Lindquist, G. 2006. Conjuring up Hope: Magic and Healing in Contemporary Russia. Oxford: Berghahn.
  • Mains, D. 2011. Hope is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Miyazaki, H. 2004. The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy and Fijian Knowledge. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
  • Nuijten, M. 2003. Power, Community and the State: The Political Anthropology of Organisation in Mexico. London: Pluto.
  • Ringel, F. 2018. Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest-shrinking City. Oxford: Berghahn.
  • Schielke, S. 2015. Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration and Ambivalence Before and After 2011. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


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  • Bloch, E. (1959) 1986. The Principle of Hope. Translated by N. Plaice, S. Plaice, and P. Knight. London: Blackwell.
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  • Bourdieu, P. (1997) 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Translated by R. Nice. Cambridge: Polity.
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  • Khosravi, S. 2017. Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press.
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  • Vammen, I. M. 2017. “Sticking to God: Brokers of Hope in Senegalese Migration to Argentina.” In Hope and Uncertainty in Contemporary African Migration, edited by N. Kleist and D. Thorsen, 40–57. London: Routledge.
  • Verdery, K. 2017. “Hope Turned Upside Down: How the Prospects for a Communist Utopia were Dashed in 1950s Romania.” In The Economy of Hope, edited by H. Miyazaki and R. Svedberg, 77–96. Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Warren, N., and L. Manderson. 2008. “Constructing Hope: Dis/continuity and the Narrative Construction of Recovery in the Rehabilitation Unit.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 37 (2): 180–201.
  • Weszkalnys, G. 2016. “A Doubtful Hope: Resource Affect in a Future Oil Economy.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22 (S1): 127–146.
  • Whyte, S. R. 2002. “Subjectivity and Subjunctivity: Hoping for Health in Eastern Uganda.” In Postcolonial Subjectivities in Africa, edited by R. Werbner, 171–190. London: Zed.
  • Zigon, J. 2009. “Hope Dies Last: Two Aspects of Hope in Contemporary Moscow.” Anthropological Theory 9 (3): 253–271.
  • Zournazi, M., ed. 2002. Hope: New Philosophies for Change. London: Routledge.


  • 1. This encyclopedia article is limited to ethnographically informed anthropological writings on hope published in (or translated into) the English language until 2018.