Social Analysis, Volume 59, Issue 1, Spring 2015, 1–18 © Berghahn Journals
doi:10.3167/sa.2015.590101 • ISSN 0155-977X (Print) • ISSN 1558-5727 (Online)
Flight and Exile—Uncertainty in the Context of
Cindy Horst and Katarzyna Grabska
Abstract: This introduction addresses the ways in which ﬂight and
exile create particular types of uncertainty, including both radical and
protracted, in people’s lives. We argue that the concept of uncertainty,
in its meaning of imperfect knowledge and the unpredictability of the
future, is central to studies that theorize conﬂict-induced displacement,
transit, and refugeeness. We start with an exploration of the spatial
and temporal aspects of uncertainty in situations of displacement, and
within that we discuss how uncertainty functions as a governing mech-
anism. We then analyze the ways that refugees and those internally
displaced navigate situations of radical and protracted uncertainty.
This article and those that follow in this special issue suggest that in
our analysis of conﬂict-induced displacement, we must understand
uncertainty rather than certainty as the norm.
Keywords: conﬂict, coping, displacement, hope, social navigation, tem-
poral and spatial dimensions, uncertainty, waiting
Uncertainty is a permanent condition in human lives, a fundamental experiential
realm of human existence. At the same time, as we will argue throughout this
special issue, conﬂict and conﬂict-induced displacement produce both ‘radical’
and ‘protracted’ uncertainty. In what ways do conﬂict and displacement create
these particular types of uncertainty in people’s lives? How do we understand
and theorize the temporal and spatial aspects of uncertainty in contexts of forced
displacement? And how can accounts of the ways that refugees and internally dis-
placed persons (IDPs) deal with radical and protracted uncertainty during ﬂight
and exile reﬁne theoretical debates on social navigation? The articles in this spe-
cial issue address these central questions in order to argue for the importance of
understanding displacement, transit, and refugeeness as contexts of uncertainty.
2 | Cindy Horst and Katarzyna Grabska
The type of precariousness that conﬂict and displacement create recon-
ﬁgures societies in abrupt, dramatic, and contradictory ways. The speed and
unpredictability of unfolding events, the experience of violence, and the need
to take risks in conﬂict situations delimitate a particular experience of radical
uncertainty. In contexts of conﬂict and ﬂight, it is often urgent to act, but this is
at the same time difﬁcult to do because of a dearth of information. While before
and during ﬂight displaced people have to deal with changes and challenges
that occur at rapid speed and in highly dramatic ways, in exile uncertainty
often takes on a much more protracted and slow form. The protractedness of
many conﬂicts and, by extension, of displacement creates liminal situations
for refugees and IDPs (Agier 2011; Horst 2006b; Malkki 1995a; Turner 2004),
in which hope and waiting play central roles. As various articles in this special
issue illustrate, liminality in protracted conﬂict and displacement can be seen
in light of the dynamic nature of the waiting that accompanies it. While radical
and protracted uncertainties are interrelated, the distinction between the two
allows for a better understanding of the temporal and spatial dimensions at
stake in conﬂict and displacement situations, as well as the risks, opportuni-
ties, and strategies that are involved when navigating them.
Crises are largely seen as external events interfering with a certain stable
social reality (Horst 2006b; Vigh 2008). And yet, as Davis (1992: 152) under-
scores, for many “war is a part of social experience and is embedded in social
life” while “causes of suffering are not exceptional breakdowns of social order,
of the proper functioning of social institutions.” In other words, while conﬂict
and uncertainty may produce radical uncertainties, it is important to under-
stand and analyze these uncertainties as part of life rather than external to it.
The radical uncertainties created by conﬂict and displacement are historical,
embedded in the societies where they take place (Grabska 2014; Horst 2006b;
Lubkemann 2008; Monsutti 2004). As Das (2006: 80) reminds us, conﬂict,
violence, and abject poverty can be so embedded in the social fabric that they
become indistinguishable from it, forcing people to make lives in fragmented
and volatile worlds. Such realities have been described as a condition of ‘nor-
mality’ for many (Jackson 2008; Scheper-Hughes 2008; Whyte 2008).
Vigh (2008) aptly coined the term ‘chronicity’ to analyze this continuity in
people’s experiences. For our purposes, however, chronicity does not sufﬁce,
as it ﬁrmly situates people within conditions of conﬂict and crisis, accepting
and navigating those conditions as part of life. Although for refugees and IDPs
uncertainty is a context, “a terrain of action and meaning rather than an aberra-
tion” (Vigh 2008: 8), it is not perceived as chronic or epidemic since displaced
people per deﬁnition have not merely accepted conditions of conﬂict and crisis.
Refugees and IDPs do not simply navigate within such contexts: their act of
moving illustrates refusal to live in such conditions and introduces waiting and
hope for the possibility to return or to re-create a better life elsewhere. Focusing
on radical and protracted uncertainty, we draw attention to the particular and
context-speciﬁc circumstances of those who experience ﬂight and exile.
The articles in this special issue analyze the different types of uncertain-
ties in a range of contexts of conﬂict-induced displacement. We conceptualize
Introduction: Flight and Exile | 3
displacement both in terms of a prolonged subjective experience of disenfran-
chisement in exile and as a reality with juridical implications. While some refu-
gees acquire an ofﬁcial status, many remain in refugee-like situations without
access to the limited privileges granted under international refugee law. The
articles focus on protracted internal displacement realities in Georgia, Iraqi
urban refugees in Cairo, the situation of refugees ‘in transit’ in Turkey, South
Sudanese returnees from Kenya and Canada, and Bosnians resettled in the UK.
In these different contexts, experiences of exile and often precarious legal posi-
tions combine to create conditions of uncertainty.
Anthropology has long focused on people in transition, those “uneasy about
themselves in a world that ignores their desire and need for continuity” (Colson
2003: 3). The articles in this issue aim to bring long-term experiences of suf-
fering, violence, and the precariousness of life into focus in new ways through
a distinctly temporal and spatial analysis of uncertainty. These ethnographic
studies in contexts of conﬂict-induced displacement extend the possibilities
of developing anthropological concepts in new frames by examining the ways
in which refugees and IDPs navigate such uncertainties. With the ‘mobilities’
turn in the social sciences (Hannam et al. 2006; Urry 2007), the particular
experiences of those displaced by conﬂict are being sidelined because the role
of power relations in different forms of movement is insufﬁciently recognized.1
In academia as well as in policy and practice, refugees are increasingly under-
stood as a subcategory of migrants, as if physical mobility is the most deﬁning
aspect of the refugee experience (Horst 2013a: 230). The articles in this issue
instead argue that the radical and protracted uncertainty associated with con-
ﬂict, ﬂight, and exile is central to refugees’ experiences, particularly as this
uncertainty is caused by the precarious position of refugees and IDPs within
‘the national order of things’ (Malkki 1995b).
The types of uncertainties that we propose to pursue analytically here are key
to anthropological understandings of concepts such as waiting, violence, and
risk, but also hope, coping, and governance. The articles in this special issue
contribute to theorizing on these topics by focusing on the temporal and spatial
realities of uncertainty created by conﬂict-induced displacement and the ways
that displaced individuals cope with those realities. This focus has been one of
the central drivers of the work behind this issue, allowing us to pose a number
of questions in our attempts to understand the life-worlds of refugees and IDPs
through ethnographic approaches: How do radical and protracted uncertainties
affect people’s aspirations for the future and for their life- and place-making
projects? What do communal and governmental attempts to create certainty
look like? How can we analyze uncertainty in conﬂict-induced displacement
in ways that allow us to explore the dynamic nature of agency in conditions of
protracted uncertainty (Lubkemann 2008; Vigh 2008, 2009; Whyte 2008)?
In the remainder of this introductory article, we ﬁrst deﬁne the concept of
uncertainty. Then we analyze the temporal and spatial dimensions of uncertainty.
A following section discusses the different ways that displaced people come to
terms with the particular uncertainties they experience. In conclusion, we explore
the implications of understanding uncertainty rather than certainty as the norm.
4 | Cindy Horst and Katarzyna Grabska
Understanding Uncertainty: Deﬁnitions and Approach
In the literature on uncertainty, a distinction is made between two closely linked
sources of uncertainty: imperfect knowledge and the unpredictability of the
future (Williams and Baláž 2012: 168). The distinction lies in what Adam (2007:
5) calls facta and futura: “Facta have already taken (unalterable) form, futura are
still open to inﬂuence.” The ﬁrst source of uncertainty relates to things that are
knowable—that is, they have already happened or are known to exist—but about
which people do not have access to clear or convincing information. In conﬂict
situations, this type of uncertainty is paramount: people are continually evaluat-
ing their safety and the best strategy for protecting themselves and their fami-
lies. In circumstances dominated by rumors, contradictory accounts, and fearful
speculations, the lack of reliable information causes great levels of uncertainty
in an environment where people are terriﬁed of pain, loss, and death. As such, a
common trait of civilians caught in conﬂict is that they are constantly looking for
information in order to create some sense of certainty. Dahabo’s account of what
happened when the civil war broke out in Somalia illustrates this well:
From morning to evening, I was thinking about whether I would survive the
afternoon, or whether I would survive the night. And if I survived the night, I
would still wonder whether I would survive the next day. I was worried because
people were losing their lives so suddenly. Even if I would have cooked very
good food, I would not have been able to eat it because of worrying too much.
I was too worried to sit, to eat something, to chew because I feared that people
might come and kill me. At that time, I preferred to just drink milk or water
quickly. Then I was off, I would ask what is happening, who is coming, where
they have reached, what is the latest news. I was always after information. We
were talking too much both during the day and at night. I just wanted to hear
any rumour, and I wanted to see everything that was happening. From morn-
ing up to evening I did not get tired of carrying the children. My mind was too
occupied with what was happening and I would ask people a lot of questions.
(Horst 2006b: 60)
The problem with information during conﬂict is not only that it is vital yet
hard to get, but also that it is very difﬁcult to verify. During periods of conﬂict,
formal information may be seen to be highly unreliable because it is often part
of the war effort. The degree to which information is valued depends to a large
extent on whom people feel they can trust. Thus, informal information and
rumors may be looked on as more reliable than formal information if the govern-
ment is involved in persecution or is not trusted for other reasons. Those who
have ﬂed from elsewhere are often important sources of information. At the same
time, it is very difﬁcult to verify the information that displaced people provide, as
it is easily colored by fear and/or hatred. In the face of radical uncertainty dur-
ing conﬂict, as Dahabo’s story illustrates, moving away is on everyone’s mind
because the uncertainty of staying is often as great as the uncertainty of moving.
This relates to the second source of uncertainty, namely, the unpredictability
of the future. As Boholm (2003: 167) underscores: “Uncertainty has to do with
Introduction: Flight and Exile | 5
what is unpredicted in life, the odd possibilities and irregular occurrences …
Uncertainty implies recognition of change and awareness that states of affairs
are not static; they can alter drastically, for better or for worse.” While the
unpredictability of the future is a fact of life in any situation, there are three
aspects of realities in conﬂict and in displacement that create a heightened sense
of unpredictability. The ﬁrst is the imperfect knowledge about past and pres-
ent just discussed, thus linking uncertainties of facta and futura. The second
is the speed at which dramatic life-threatening occurrences take place in many
conﬂict situations, especially if they lead to displacement. The third is the lack
of control that refugees and IDPs have over many life choices because govern-
ments to a great extent determine their ability and rights to build an alternative
future. This includes the government in the country of origin, whose policies
impact possibilities to return, as much as governments of potential refuge, who
regulate refugee status determination and treatment.
Uncertainty is often discussed in one breath with risk, but the concept of
uncertainty has not informed analysis in the social sciences in the same way
risk theory has. Risks can be understood as ‘known uncertainties’ or ‘known
probabilities of outcomes’. Whereas the concept of uncertainty leaves all
options open, starting from the unpredictability of the future, the concept of
risk instead is based on a full understanding of possible outcomes and of the
likelihood of those outcomes occurring—without knowing which outcome
will occur in each individual instance. As such, the concept of risk can be
understood as “a framing device which conceptually translates uncertainty
from being an open-ended ﬁeld of unpredicted possibilities into a bounded
set of possible consequences” (Boholm 2003: 167). Whereas much of the
research on risk as calculated uncertainty comes from economics, a socio-
cultural approach toward risk “acknowledges the fact that risk knowledge
is seen as historical and local, as constantly contested and as a subject to
disputes and debates over their nature, their control and who is to blame for
their creation” (Zinn 2006: 278). Understandings of risks thus can be inter-
preted as a strategy of managing and coping with uncertainty, a theme taken
up in this special issue.
We argue that under conditions of mobility in conﬂict, a focus on uncer-
tainty rather than risk is certainly more appropriate. The idea that risk is cal-
culated uncertainty that “can be practically managed, reduced or increased …
taken or avoided, depending on one’s own and others actions and motives”
(Boholm 2003: 167), does not match the realities of many of those caught up
in conﬂict and having to make decisions about whether or not to move. It also
does not accurately describe the situation of those who face protracted uncer-
tainty in exile. Accounts of imperfect knowledge, confusing rumors, highly
unpredictable events that unfold quickly, and a sense of lack of control over
personal circumstances while faced with violence, death, and abrupt changes,
as well as with migration management systems—all are common in the life
histories of refugees and IDPs. Coming to terms with uncertainty, then, is often
not about calculated risk taking but about coping through hope, waiting, nego-
tiating, and navigating.
6 | Cindy Horst and Katarzyna Grabska
The radical uncertainty associated with situations of violent conﬂict, both
in the sense of not having access to reliable information about what is hap-
pening and in the sense of the extreme unpredictability of the future, severely
complicates people’s decisions about whether to stay or move. Staying might
involve a higher risk than leaving, so moving away from conﬂict is one way in
which people protect themselves and reduce radical uncertainty. At the same
time, migration generates the uncertainty of not knowing where one will end
up and what will happen along the way. And, as we will see throughout this
issue, the protracted uncertainty of being in between, both in a temporal and
spatial sense, also comes with a fundamental lack of knowledge about one’s
situation and a profound sense of unpredictability about the future—as long as
the present is not accepted as permanent by states and the people affected. We
propose to distinguish between radical and protracted uncertainty in order to
highlight these temporal and spatial dimensions of waiting and longing experi-
enced by refugees and IDPs.
Two main themes run through the articles in this special issue. The ﬁrst
focuses on how uncertainty is experienced in people’s relationship to time and
place and on how states draw on this reality. Conﬂict-induced displacement
is produced by radical uncertainty and is seen to require resolving. As Brun’s
article on ‘active waiting’ points out, even in protracted situations of displace-
ment—or, as the author suggests, in “permanent impermanence”—everyday
time “continues to ﬂow through routinized practices and survival strategies.”
As such, explorations of how the temporal and spatial dimensions of uncer-
tainties are experienced by refugees and IDPs are crucial. In contexts where
waiting and hoping are central to people’s experiences, temporality is key to
understanding them. We will argue that uncertainty also plays a considerable
role in the systems that govern the movements of the displaced and can be
explored as a deliberate governance strategy that aims to discourage mobility
and/or settlement in places of exile. Displaced populations are often consid-
ered—and consider themselves—in a liminal situation, waiting and hoping for
the return that will normalize their situation again.
A second theme explores the ways in which individuals cope with uncer-
tainties produced by conﬂict-related displacement. While waiting could be ana-
lyzed as a coping strategy in situations of protracted uncertainty, it is important
to recognize the dynamic nature of that waiting in the different stages of the
conﬂict and displacement. Furthermore, coping can have a more active nature
as well. This has been explored through the concept of social navigation,
which acknowledges ways in which individuals “act in difﬁcult situations,
move under the inﬂuence of multiple forces or seek to escape conﬁning struc-
tures” (Vigh 2009: 419). Uncertainty creates spaces for negotiations between
individuals and between individuals and states, ultimately leading to social
transformations. Thus, the focus on uncertainty moves beyond an exploration
of how individuals and states come to terms with it. Uncertainty can also be
seen as a positive force for innovation and transformation. As Grabska and
Fanjoy (this issue) show, these negotiations and transformations have strong
gender and generational characteristics.
Introduction: Flight and Exile | 7
Experiencing the Temporal and Spatial Dimensions of Uncertainty
Those who move to escape conﬂict and its consequences relate to the tempo-
ral and spatial dimensions of their displacement in unresolved ways. Exactly
because of its spatial character, expressed through the physical act of mov-
ing, conﬂict-induced displacement becomes a distinct point in time as well.
The dramatic occurrences and radical uncertainties created by conﬂict and
displacement lead refugees and IDPs to long for a ‘before’ that is also an ‘else-
where’, as time and place often get intertwined in their memories of the past
and/or hopes for the future. In the words of an internally displaced woman in
Tbilisi, Georgia: “[E]verything good that happened in my life happened there
… Everything good is related to that place. And my father is buried there.
Besides, another thing has happened: it is that when I look forward, there is no
light—it is blurred. When you can’t envisage the future, the only thing you can
do is to think about the past. I have to think about the past” (Brun, this issue).
Many of those who are displaced similarly do not accept where they are, in
the sense that they wish to be somewhere else and ﬁnd it difﬁcult to endure
the present when the certainties of their past disappeared so suddenly and their
future is uncertain and contested. Simultaneously, the displaced are seen as
‘matter out of place’ by the societies around them (Arendt 1958; Malkki 1992,
1995b). This creates an expectation of temporariness in situations that can only
be described as chronic, but where various actors have an interest in holding
on to this expectation of temporary exile, followed by return, long after its expi-
ration date. So whereas violent conﬂict and the displacement it brings about
often involve speed and radical change, the protracted uncertainty that follows
with long-term displacement is to a certain extent caused by the unwillingness
of individuals, governments, and donors to accept the status quo as the new
reality. At the same time, of course, even if return does take place, it is never to
the past—to the time and place that once was. ‘Shifting landscapes’ of home
are impacted by a host of changes on the individual and societal level (see
Grabska 2014; Grabska and Fanjoy, this issue; Hammond 2004).
There is a fundamental ambiguity in the attempts of humans to control or
accept the future in their ‘quest for certainty’ (Dewey 1929). Adam (2007: 1)
points out that we “create futures and … anticipate what might happen as the
result of our own and others’ actions … without needing to think about it.”
She locates this in modernity, with the control and colonization of time (Adam
2003), and opposes it to times long past and to traditional cultures, which
do not see the ownership of time as lying in humankind’s hands and which
instead focus on fate. While we consider the underlying Eurocentric evolution-
ary perspective problematic, Adam’s explorations are highly relevant to our
analysis. In fact, we argue that people’s relationship with the future and how
much they ascribe to destiny are to a large extent driven by the level of control
they feel that they have. The fact that life is seen as risky and governed by fate
rather than self-determination is connected to a person’s sense of his or her
own powerlessness to affect events (Gardner 1995). Ownership also comes
with responsibility, and for those whose future feels extremely unpredictable,
8 | Cindy Horst and Katarzyna Grabska
unknown, and out of their own hands, it may be very painful to create futures.
Views on fate and destiny that are part of (religious) worldviews assist people
to rationalize and justify the course of events or the impossibility of changing
them (Benda-Beckmann and Benda-Beckmann 1994: 17). As a young woman
who was a refugee in Egypt and suffered from mental problems expressed
this, when asked about her future: “I don’t think in this way because thinking
in this way made me suffer and sick [ta’ab] … I pray to God and I’m living
my day, because thinking of the future all the time is making me sick” (El-
Shaarawi, this issue).
Over two-thirds of refugees in the world today are in protracted refugee situ-
ations. Millions of refugees struggle to survive in camps and urban communities
in remote and insecure parts of the world, and the vast majority of these refu-
gees have been in exile for many years (Loescher et al. 2008: 3). Simultaneously,
European asylum systems increasingly produce cases of individuals who are left
in limbo for decades in asylum camps or temporary lodgings. A number of the
articles in this special issue discuss waiting as a crucial element of dealing with
protracted uncertainty, where successful long-term waiting can be understood
as managing everyday life while coming to terms with the underlying structural
uncertainty. Such acceptance takes time while getting used to harsh everyday
realities, so psychological pressures are often great. Protractedness, however,
does not mean that a situation is necessarily static. As a consequence, the wait-
ing that occurs in protracted displacement is often active and dynamic.
As Brun (this issue) argues, in protracted situations waiting changes from
being short-term to long-term. The uncertainty that originally is very extreme,
with high levels of unpredictability and an acute lack of knowledge about the
constantly changing circumstances, becomes less severe when certain things
become more predictable, when the speed of change slows down, and when
more knowledge about what is happening and has happened becomes avail-
able. This occurs when both conﬂict and displacement become protracted.
People shift from emergency mode to a mode where the feeling of ‘permanent
impermanence’ is matched with the certainty and predictability of everyday
routines. Although refugees may not accept where they are, their daily lives do
continue, focusing on food, shelter, and care for family members. Simultane-
ously, as several articles in this special issue illustrate, even in the predictable
everyday great levels of uncertainty are involved. The short-term uncertainty of
the everyday blends with the longer-term uncertainty of imagining a future that
is somewhere else—either back in the country of origin or in a third country
that is stable and peaceful.
For displaced people, emotions play an important role in a range of contexts,
and various articles in this issue introduce people who suffer severe stress and
mental health problems as a consequence of protracted uncertainty. While risk
research insufﬁciently addresses emotions and subjectivity, medical anthropologi-
cal work on suffering in the face of violence and within spaces of transition and
cultural change makes important contributions (Das 2006; Das et al. 2000; Das et
al. 2001; Scheper-Hughes 1993, 2008; Whyte 1997, 2002). Robbins (2013) argues
that in the 1980s, suffering became an important theme in anthropology that
Introduction: Flight and Exile | 9
marked a shift from a focus on the ‘other’ to one that highlighted shared human
experiences related to pain, conﬂict, and violence. Some of that shift is explicitly
linked to inﬂuential works on refugees and asylum (Agier 2011; Malkki 1995a).
The radical uncertainty associated with conﬂict and exile—with the risk of
dying and the unpredictability of the future—creates feelings of insecurity and
fear, of ambiguity and contradiction, of psychological stress. Ghorashi (2005)
discusses these feelings beautifully when she describes the presence of the
past in the lives of Iranian women in exile. Recounting her own emotional
struggles as an outsider/researcher and an insider/ex-political Iranian activist
now in exile, she reﬂects on the fact that some of her interviews took her back
in time because of the nature of the words used by the women she interviewed:
“In this way, revolutionary words became mediators between the past and
the present and showed how the past remained an essential part of the pres-
ent. Expressions were drawn from different periods of time and raised deeply
embedded emotions. The revival of those words created in me the feeling of
being completely transferred to another time, as if I had lived another life”
(ibid.: 367). Ghorashi’s writings—inspired by feminist anthropology—create
space for emotions that often are seen not to belong in academic writing. A
focus on uncertainty makes it difﬁcult to ignore the emotional, as uncertainty
creates strong emotions of various kinds. In Ghorashi’s words: “When I ﬁrst
transcribed the women’s voices, and listened to the uncertainties of their lives,
I had to cry. Realizing how bleak they felt reminded me of my own feelings of
uncertainty about the future and the pain of a lost home” (ibid.: 369).
States play a central role in the temporal and spatial dimensions of uncer-
tainty that refugees and IDPs experience. In the context of asylum, Erica James
(2009) describes the uncertainty and anxiety created by the politics of deﬁning
belonging and otherness in terms of ‘neomodern insecurity’. There are two
aspects to this: ﬁrst, states identify marginalized groups, including refugees
and IDPs, in terms of risk; second, measures to manage and control this risk
create great levels of uncertainty for the people identiﬁed as such. In late mod-
ern times, attempts to eliminate uncertainty and colonize the future are central
to common approaches in science, medicine, law, and other ﬁelds (Douglas
and Wildavsky 1982; Tulloch and Lupton 2003). As Douglas (1992: 7) argues,
in this process “certain marginalized groups are identiﬁed as posing risks
to the mainstream community, acting as the repository for fears not simply
about risk but about the breakdown of social order and the need to maintain
social boundaries and divisions. These concerns about risk feed into the policy
domain.” For governments, people on the move represent an uncertainty that
must be managed (Hammond 2011). It is crucial to study “how the production
of knowledge about the risks associated with migration—both for migrants
and especially for host societies—[comes] to deﬁne what are considered risks”
(Williams and Baláž 2012: 177). This has been explored, yet often uncritically,
in the migration literature that focuses on the securitization of migration.
At the same time, the policies and practices aimed at controlling mobility,
including those related to border control, immigration measures, and aid provi-
sion, create extreme levels of uncertainty among the displaced (Horst 2013b).
10 | Cindy Horst and Katarzyna Grabska
The uncertainty created by conﬂict and displacement is thus maintained or
heightened by the actions of states. Unable to gain the necessary information
and knowledge to predict what will happen to them, refugees and IDPs often
feel that their future is in the hands of authorities and bureaucracies that they
do not understand. As Biehl (this issue) powerfully shows for the case of Turkey,
maintaining a level of uncertainty among the displaced is a central element of
governing them. This is the case in many situations beyond Turkey and relates to
both facta and futura: the states that host displaced populations rarely provide
them with sufﬁcient knowledge about their situation, creating a range of vulner-
abilities that they experience. The bureaucratic systems that ultimately decide
central aspects of refugees’ and IDPs’ future—such as where they will live in the
near and distant future and whether or not they have access to certain rights—
create incredible levels of uncertainty. The unpredictability of life in exile for
those without the legal right to live where they are—be it Turkey, Egypt, or any
European country—is extremely high when every single day people fear that
they may be asked to leave and return to their country of origin. This precarious-
ness has a powerful governing effect on people, rendering them extremely vul-
nerable and consequently often unable to act. It creates an underclass of people
who are not considered to have the same rights as others, in ways that Butler
(2004) and Agier (2011) have similarly argued. As an exiled artist from Iran in
Turkey expressed this experience: “Spiritually it is worse than Iran. We have no
rights here; we are useless, not human. We have forgotten our humanity here.
I don’t know myself here anymore. If they told us, ‘You must wait one year or
two years,’ we would be OK. But the uncertainty, the fear of being rejected is tor-
menting. Every Monday my husband tries calling the UNHCR. But there is only
one phone line, and it is open only between two and ﬁve o’clock. We thought
our applications would be processed quickly” (Biehl, this issue).
Coming to Terms with Uncertainty: Hope, Navigation,
By deﬁning uncertainty rather than certainty as the norm, we are challenged
to rethink understandings of coping. The refugees and IDPs introduced in the
articles in this special issue face radical and protracted uncertainty that at times
causes great mental stress. If our starting point is uncertainty and the inability
to know, successful coping strategies are based not merely on cognitive capaci-
ties and the availability of information, but also on learning to deal with the
fact of not knowing through a range of strategies. These include, inter alia, ‘the
work of hope’ (Pedersen 2012), navigation, and negotiation.
Hope mediates uncertainty (Hernández-Carretero, forthcoming) and can
also be a driver of action, as shown by Hage (2003) in his analysis of the coping
strategies of Lebanese migrants in Australia. Others have also explored the inter-
linkages between uncertainty and hope in order to explore the relations between
the emotions and actions that hope inspires. Hernández-Carretero (forthcoming)
illustrates how hope and chance are tools through which Senegalese migrants
Introduction: Flight and Exile | 11
confront uncertainty. In his study of urban youth in Mongolia, Pedersen (2012:
138) similarly discusses hope as “a distinct form of work” for those people who
“have no ﬁrm ground, in the form of a stable economic, religious, or political
cosmos, on which to build their ideas of the future” (ibid.: 141). Hope can thus
be understood as an emotion that mediates and creates the opportunity to act for
“people without a future,” as Bourdieu (2000: 221) refers to North African youth
in the banlieues in Paris.
But hope is a double-edged sword, as is clear from work on resettlement
dreams in refugee camps (Horst 2006a). On the one hand, having hope for
a future elsewhere makes it possible for people to cope with conditions in
camps,2 because it allows them to hold on to the idea of temporariness. The
hope that a better future exists somewhere other than where they are now is
what keeps people going, and a loss of such hope can lead to resignation and
passivity, as well as to severe depression and other psychological problems.
On the other hand, hope transposes energy and resources from the here and
now to somewhere else and thus easily runs the risk of preventing people from
accepting their present-day realities. This is particularly problematic when
hope focuses on a future ability to return to a past that no longer exists—as
illustrated in Grabska and Fanjoy’s article (this issue) exploring return to South
Sudan—or to resettle in a place ‘abroad’ that is unreachable for most and does
not actually exist in the way that it is imagined in the ﬁrst place. Hope may pre-
vent people from accepting their current situation and heightened uncertainty;
it may prevent them from seeing the opportunities that currently exist and from
investing in the here and now. Yet at the same time, if there is no hope, there
is no reason for waiting. These aspects are explored by articles in this issue
that analyze the situation of Iraqis in Cairo (El-Shaarawi), asylum seekers and
refugees in Turkey (Biehl), and IDPs in Georgia (Brun). The authors examine
protracted cases that involve people who engage in waiting for years, or even
decades, and who struggle with the hope(lessness) of return or resettlement
in different ways.
In the last decade, research has shown that people trapped in armed con-
ﬂicts devise a variety of strategies, carefully navigating both conﬁning and cre-
ative aspects of uncertainty (Coulter 2009; Finnström 2008; Lubkemann 2008;
Raeymaekers 2011; Utas 2005a, 2005b). By focusing on the intentions, hopes,
and risk-taking practices of refugees and IDPs, the articles in this issue extend
these discussions, addressing how the displaced cope with their precarious
present and future. Various authors have demonstrated the diversity of coping
mechanisms in situations of chronic crisis and developed concepts to capture
the ways in which people try to come to terms with uncertainty (Finnström
2008; Jackson 2008; Pedersen and Højer 2008; Whyte 1997; Scheper-Hughes
2008; Vigh 2008).
Whyte, for example, built on the term ‘subjunctivity’, which she describes
as context-speciﬁc and active. In her long-term research in Uganda related to
people coping with health issues, including AIDS epidemics, she argues that
“humans are actively and intelligently engaged in creating a degree of insur-
ance despite the lack of assurance” (Whyte 1997: 18). Her work is a clear
12 | Cindy Horst and Katarzyna Grabska
illustration of the fact that, in situations of extreme uncertainty, the search for
solutions will, by deﬁnition, be more intense and radical, if not risky. At the
same time, subjunctivity shows how uncertainty is culturally situated and needs
to be analyzed in speciﬁc contexts from the perspective of the people affected,
as the articles in this issue also powerfully demonstrate. The concept allows
us to examine the intentions, hopes, and doubts of people looking toward an
immediate future whose contours are not certain. As Grabska and Fanjoy (this
issue) argue, subjunctivity helps us focus on the purposes and consequences
of human behavior; it asks us to take seriously the question of what people are
trying to do and to achieve.
There are many ways in which individuals cope pro-actively with uncer-
tainty, and Vigh’s (2009) explorations of social navigation are a useful starting
point. How do people navigate in conditions that are constantly in ﬂux, as
Vigh explores, but also, how do they navigate in stable yet impermanent condi-
tions or in conditions of severe dispossession? The articles in this special issue
discuss a range of strategies that the displaced use for navigating uncertainty.
Such strategies might be classiﬁed in terms of faith, precaution, or avoidance
(Boholm 2003), or a combination of the three. People navigate uncertainty by
maintaining trust in the future and their ability to deal with it, by taking action
to prevent negative occurrences or their consequences, and by avoiding poten-
tially negative futures. Navigation can thus entail great variation in the level
of pro-activeness and engagement with possible outcomes. At times, the best
way of coming to terms with the inevitable nature of the future might even be
to stay inactive and accepting.
Explorations of social navigation that focus on motion (e.g., Vigh 2009)
often fail to distinguish between those who choose to accept conditions of
chronic conﬂict and crisis and those who choose to move away from them.
For those who move and end up in contexts of protracted uncertainty that are
seen as temporary, social navigation strategies are strongly context-dependent.
Urban refugees often navigate by being invisible, a strategy to avoid harm, as
explained by El-Shaarawi in this issue (see also Sommers 2001). Return can
also be looked on as an opportunity to mitigate conﬂict-induced uncertainty:
some returnees aim actively at acquiring a desired identity that was not pos-
sible while in exile, as illustrated by Grabska and Fanjoy (this issue) in their
discussions of ‘proper’ masculinities upon return to South Sudan. Yet, para-
doxically, return might result in creating new uncertainties in the lives of the
displaced and the communities to which they return. The comment by a young
South Sudanese man about his return experience demonstrates this clearly:
It is not easy, it is very hard. It seems now like the same as when I left Sudan the
ﬁrst time—I left Sudan just going where I was going—I didn’t have a bed, didn’t
have a house, I didn’t have anything. It’s the same thing now that I came back to
Sudan. I went to Wau [a city in South Sudan], and my dad has four houses and
all my brothers are there and my sisters, but because I am the eldest son I should
have one plot. But I told them, “No, I can’t take it from one of you, you guys
are coming from years in the bush, so I can’t take it.” So I am like a young boy
Introduction: Flight and Exile | 13
now starting all over again. It’s like becoming a refugee all over again. (Grabska
and Fanjoy, this issue)
Navigation also involves what Ryan-Saha (this issue) calls ‘repossession’,
that is, the strategies that people use to regain possession and thereby to
reclaim control and status. The Bosnians interviewed by Ryan-Saha have the
right to live in the UK; they and their children have lived there for many years.
Many of the uncertainties discussed in this introduction were resolved for them
years ago, so they have the space to ‘repossess’. As Ryan-Saha puts it: “To
repossess, then, is to reﬁll a life with things; it is to come to terms affectively
and narratively with material loss and gain, to reappraise rhetorically what
these things are and what they mean, and ultimately to take back into posses-
sion a life after displacement and dispossession.”
Furthermore, social navigation does not take place primarily on an individual
level. Many of the ways in which people re-establish certainty involve constant
negotiations with other individuals or with states. Such negotiations often are
given meaning within groups and/or institutions. Faced with the arbitrariness
of life, with being betrayed by others, or with the randomness of asylum poli-
cies, people by and large re-establish certainty socially, with and through others.
Religion may be an important form of searching for certainties that can be con-
nected to conﬂict and displacement (W. James 1995), although radical uncer-
tainty may also strongly challenge faith. In some contexts, a close extended
family (clan, ethnic group) can provide security. Conversely, the family can be
a great source of vulnerability as well, in the sense that many uncertainties are
connected to family members and fears of what might happen to them.
Whatever the search for certainty involves, responses to uncertainty by indi-
viduals often lead to uncertainties for groups and states. Likewise, the attempts
that states engage in to manage uncertainty may have strong negative effects
on the level of certainty experienced by individuals and groups. Yet exactly in
the openness created by uncertainty there is the potential for innovation and
social transformation as well. The creative aspects of being in between—of
being in a situation where ‘normality’ and the status quo are questioned and
challenged in radical ways—are very interesting to explore, as Grabska and
Fanjoy illustrate in their article on return to South Sudan. While the changing
nature of things can lead to a desire to hold on to the familiar and a resistance
to transformation for some, it creates opportunities for others. In short, there
are winners and losers. There is a great deal of diversity in experiencing,
narrating, and coping with the uncertainties created by conﬂict-induced dis-
placement. As Grabska and Fanjoy clearly demonstrate, in particular gender,
generational, mobility-related, and socio-economic differences play a role in
people’s experiences and choices and have an impact on the varying effects
of uncertainty. Thus, it is crucial to identify the ways in which uncertainty
becomes a limiting or liberating factor for different groups of people, rather
than assuming that we already know what causes uncertainty for all.
The simultaneously limiting and liberating nature of uncertainty leads to
crucial negotiations between men and women, young and old, those who stay
14 | Cindy Horst and Katarzyna Grabska
and those who return. During conﬂict and/or exile, differently positioned indi-
viduals experience life dissimilarly, since the social and moral order has been
challenged in a range of ways. As in the process of repossession described by
Ryan-Saha, taking life back into possession after displacement and conﬂict
requires negotiation about what to reﬁll it with—not just materially, but socially
and symbolically as well. In these circumstances, as is also evident in Grabska
and Fanjoy’s article, there are those who have an interest in upsetting the social
order and transgressing norms during the negotiated process of emplacement.
In this introduction, we have illustrated how radical as well as protracted uncer-
tainty is common in the various stages of the lives of those who are displaced by
violent conﬂict. Radical uncertainty ﬁrst manifests itself during the initial stages
of a conﬂict and before ﬂight, when there is a severe lack of information due to
the speed with which changes occur and due to the unreliability of sources. It is
characterized by the extreme unpredictability that the displaced face. Protracted
uncertainty, on the other hand, can take place during protracted conﬂict, but it
is used here mostly as an analytical tool to explore protracted displacement and
exile. In protracted uncertainty, information is still scarce, but this may often be
explained as a governance strategy. Furthermore, we may argue that protracted
uncertainty is characterized by a great level of predictability with regard to
the everyday present, but by an equally great level of unpredictability when
it comes to people’s perceptions of a future solution for their problems. While
radical and protracted uncertainties are closely interrelated, we have argued that
the distinction between the two enables us to understand better the temporal
and spatial dimensions at stake in conﬂict and displacement situations and
ways to come to terms with them.
We have shown the unresolved relationship that many displaced people
have with the temporal and spatial aspects of their situation. They are unable
to live in the here and now, not only because they do not accept the status
quo, but also because their presence is not accepted by many of the states who
host them (Agier 2011; Arendt 1958; Malkki 1995b). The enormous emotional
strain on the people involved is clearly expressed in the many references to a
lost past and an uncertain future made by the interviewees cited in these pages.
The various articles in this special issue offer analyses of governance through
uncertainty, navigation in uncertainty, and negotiation beyond uncertainty.
They challenge common understandings of uncertainty as the exception to a
certain norm and underline that “uncertainty has to be accepted as a funda-
mental modern experience … [that] should no longer be redeﬁned as a prob-
lem of how to produce order and certainty” (Zinn 2006: 277).
While conﬂict and displacement result in radical uncertainty in the sense of
a severe lack of information and an extremely unpredictable future, uncertainty
is, after all, a human condition. Likewise, the suffering associated with war and
famine, for example, “is normal—in experience, in cause and, ﬁnally, in the
Introduction: Flight and Exile | 15
methods people adopt to cope with it” (Davis 1992: 155). Yet our narratives about
uncertainties—societal, historical, and academic—often do not acknowledge this.
The ultimate way in which certainty is created is through how we narrate uncer-
tainties. Risk research has shown that individuals have ‘ambiguity aversion’, or a
preference for risk over uncertainty, so many of the unknowns of the future have
been translated into calculated probabilities. The renarrating of individual stories
into a coherent whole—by those affected by conﬂict and displacement, as well
as by the researchers who spent so much time recording their words—in the end
serves to transform uncertainty into certainty, disorder into order, and ambiguity
into clarity. While this may be the ultimate way of coming to terms with uncer-
tainty, its reality, equanimity, and creative potential may be lost in the process.
We wish to thank all of the presenters and attendees who took part in the “Dis-
placement and Uncertainty” workshop presented by the European Association of
Social Anthropologists (EASA) in 2012. We particularly wish to thank Cathrine
Brun for her comments on a draft version of this article.
Cindy Horst is a Research Director and Research Professor at the Peace Research
Institute Oslo (PRIO). Her current research interests include mobility in conﬂict,
diaspora, humanitarianism, refugee protection, (transnational) civic engage-
ment, and theorizing on social transformation. She is particularly interested
in methodological innovations that allow for critical and ethically conscious
research engagement through shared anthropology and multi-sited ethnography.
Her publications include Transnational Nomads: How Somalis Cope with Refu-
gee Life in the Dadaab Camps of Kenya (2006); “Migrants as Agents of Devel-
opment: Diaspora Engagement Discourse and Practice in Europe” (Ethnicities,
2014), with Giulia Sinatti; and “The Depoliticization of Diasporas from the Horn
of Africa: From Refugees to Transnational Aid Workers” (African Studies, 2013).
Katarzyna Grabska is a Research Fellow with the Global Migration Centre and
the Anthropology and Sociology of Development Department in Geneva. She is
also a coordinator and lead researcher in a multi-country study of adolescent
girls migration. She received her PhD in Development Studies/Anthropology
from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex. Her
research focuses on social transformations in the context of forced displacement
and return, intersections of power, gender identities and gender, generational
relations in forced displacement situations, and the impact of (forced) migra-
tion on youth. She has published widely on these issues. Her latest publications
include Gender, Home and Identity: Nuer Repatriation to Southern Sudan (2014),
and “The Return of Displaced Nuer in Southern Sudan: Women Becoming
Men?” (Development and Change, 2013).
16 | Cindy Horst and Katarzyna Grabska
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