It's about time

Published 15 January 2013 / By Marthe Achtnich and Roger Norum, COMPAS DPhil students

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A few weeks ago, while sitting in a lecture room waiting for a COMPAS panel discussion on migrants’ journeys to begin, we found ourselves pondering the idea of time.

Social scientists have long considered notions of time, often alongside issues of space and inbetweenness, as an object of their research. How people experience time has, for example, been a key phenomenological consideration among anthropologists and sociologists working in small-scale societies and communities from the early days of the disciplines (Marcel Mauss’ Seasonal Variations of the Eskimo is one seminal ethnography that comes to mind). But while temporality has often played a role in anthropological work looking at so-called ‘static’ (in the sense of physical movement) communities, it has curiously not always served as a primary topical fulcrum for research in the field of migration studies.

Focusing on time
A recent COMPAS symposium on the relationships between time and migration (see Griffiths et al., 2012) argued that, historically-speaking and across disciplines, migration scholars have tended to focus on the spatial elements of migration trajectories rather than their temporal connections. The recent Journeys seminar series brought to the fore issues concerning not just the various movements of objects, ideas and values (as well as people) but also the role that time-based considerations must play in such movements (i.e. a given move must implicitly have both beginning and end points in time; the timings of movements might be continuous or fragmented, etc). These temporal enclosures of given migratory phenomena can reveal much about the processes of being, becoming and belonging among actors.

How are COMPAS researchers thinking about time?
Here at COMPAS, a growing number of scholars are beginning to look at time in new and interesting ways, turning the lenses of social enquiry toward states of limbo, transience and liminality. Time's time seems to have arrived, as it were.

Several current COMPAS DPhil students, for example, have been looking at time and its relationship to mobility among ‘traditional’ migratory trajectories. Melanie Griffiths recently defended her thesis which – amongst other issues – addresses how immigration detainees and refused asylum seekers experience time. In her work, she argues that deportable migrants suffer from the instability and precarity created by living with a dual uncertainty of time, one that is simultaneously endless but that can bring change at any moment. Melanie distinguishes between frenzied, indefinite and suspended temporal guises, as well as examining two sources of temporal uncertainty (see Griffiths 2010; 2013 Forthcoming).

Recently returned from the field, Nora Danielson’s doctoral research examines the politics of urban asylum in the global south through the study of a three-month sit-in protest by Sudanese refugees in Cairo in 2005. She investigates temporariness as a barrier to urban refugee community development and assistance; the use of space and time in refugee self-advocacy; waiting and communication about the timing of asylum processes in the creation of refugee 'limbo'; and dynamics of change and stasis in asylum in contemporary Egypt (see Danielson, 2012a, 2012b).

Other DPhil researchers are looking at similar themes but in more mobile contexts. Current research by Marthe Achtnich, for instance, considers the notion of ‘strandedness’ among sub-Saharan African migrants, investigating senses of temporality, subjectivity and legality. Her work follows migratory trajectories connecting Libya (before migrants reach the EU), Malta (following irregular and often unanticipated arrival by boat) and subsequent relocation countries within the EU (after resettlement), attempting to situate and consolidate what being stranded means for people and their decision-making.

Esra Kaytaz’s doctoral work on Afghans in Turkey looks at how the passage of time affects subjects’ perceptions of risk and uncertainty in their migratory journeys, and how migrants manage the impact that 'waiting' has on their lives in Turkey.

The experience of time by Mexican migrants living in New York City is something being studied by Marisa Macari, whose dissertation examines how these subjects' precarious work schedules, 'night shifts' and disrupted sleep patterns shape their food practices and nutritional outcomes.

New conceptualisations of time
But it is not just scholarly work on so-called ‘traditional’ trajectories of migration (i.e. Global South to Occident) that may benefit from deeper engagements with time. The temporal is also an important consideration in research on more mobile and privileged groups of people – communities whose movements may, on the surface, appear to be 'fluid' and less constricted. The so-called ‘mobilities turn’ questioned what is sedentary or fundamentally ‘territorial’ in contemporary human movement (see, for example, Benson, 2012; Benson and O’Reilly, 2009). This new-fangled interest in mobilities has further enabled conceptualisations of movement that are not bounded by fixed notions of ‘temporary’ (i.e. tourism or short-term labour stints) or ‘permanent’ (i.e. refugees seeking asylum), but rather as constituents of a continuum of placement along time and space.

Current work by COMPAS doctoral researcher Roger Norum investigates the experiences of temporality among Western expatriates living in Asia (specifically, Kathmandu). For some expatriates, such a liminal context may be a place where ‘time out here slows down’ (in the words of one participant), while an ever-present impending departure date can mean cramming in many social obligations and experiences, thus augmenting the sense that life is in fact moving very fast. Furthermore, experiencing senses of transience and liminality may well affect subjectivities and the moral compass (Norum, Forthcoming 2013).

These differing strands of research focus more broadly on the movements of a range of peoples, the reasons they ‘migrate’ and their various subjectivities at different points throughout their movements. Deeply concerned as much with the processes of movement as with the temporal spans over which they take place, a concept of mobility may therefore be helping researchers expand the breadth of their work beyond overt geographical and governmental borders – and beyond disciplinary boundaries (the developing interest in mobility has also broadened the scope of what is meant by the very term ‘migration’, elucidating how marked and coded the word has become in recent years). This work is expanding the field which Anthony Jackson (1985) has called ‘anthropology at home’, looking towards the motility of Western subjects (for example) in order to further an understanding of the anthropology of the self.

To stay or to go? Mobility and stasis

Photo by Kelly O'Brien, COMPAS Photo Competition 2010

One interesting focal point for some of this work lies in the powerful dynamics that occur between mobility and stasis. While being mobile can contribute to multiple place-based identities across borders, a surfeit of choice can in fact lead to immobility, constricting both time and what is possible in it. Such ’involuntary immobility’ most surely encompasses persons who wish to migrate but are unable to do so (Carling, 2002; see also Vigh, 2009). But subjects (‘free agents’, perhaps?) who appear to command the wherewithal, freedom of movement and ability to make their own choices at any time, may in reality be more constrained and thus suffer very real senses of vulnerablity and risk (Korpela and Nagy, Forthcoming 2013).

Of course, as DPhil researchers and scholars ourselves, we do not live, nor do we work, inside a bubble. While we engage with time as a relevant and important aspect of our academic lives, we may too seldom engage intellectually with our own experiences of the very phenomena we study. Career academics, policy scholars and researchers in training are, it must be said, affected by the same societal structures they seek to engage with in their writings. Many of us at COMPAS, for example, are international students – migrants ourselves. By definition, we must be geographically (and, as doctoral students, temporally) mobile, and we may experience the vagaries and vicissitudes of time and place in rather similar ways to our subjects.

The DPhil experience
As DPhil students cautiously eyeing our thesis submission date – and as researchers fighting deadlines for manuscripts and conference abstracts – we know we are always under the pressure of time. Imagining the future is not just about hope and aspiration for that time but must also be about emotional uncertainty in the here and now. The future – and eventual submission and graduation – will for many students remain an unknown (and thus very malleable) entity, often leading us to reevaluate our pasts and presents. The thesis-writing endeavour itself is one not just of time management, but of time brokering. Excessive time spent on a given chapter section, say, may prove unproductive, leading to stasis – or worse, the opposite, disproductivity. Or take, for example, the emotional consequences of a suspension of status which may occur while wading through necessary institutional bureaucracies for ethical and safety clearance for one's fieldwork. Such a setback can lead to temporal disorientation, slowing down one's experience of time – and yet remaining flexible and capable of reassigning expectations (to say nothing of deadlines) is essential if one is to stay on one’s feet. Such multiple mobilities can greatly impact the life of a doctoral student – and the trajectory of becoming a future career scholar.

Benson, M. 2012. How Culturally Significant Imaginings are Translated into Lifestyle Migration. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 38(10), pp 1681-1696.

Benson, M. & O'Reilly, K. 2009. Lifestyle Migration: Expectations, Aspirations and Experiences. London: Ashgate.

Carling, J. 2002. Migration in the age of involuntary immobility: theoretical reflections and Cape Verdian experiences. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 28(1), pp.5-42.

Danielson, N. 2012a. Field report: revolution, its aftermath, and access to information for refugees in Cairo. Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration 2(2): 57-63. Available online:

Danielson, N. 2012b. Urban refugee protection in Cairo, Egypt: the role of information, communication and technology. New Issues in Refugee Research, Policy Development and Evaluation Service, United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Available online:

Griffiths, M. Rogers, A. & Anderson, B., 2012. Migration, Time and Temporalities: Review and Prospect. Unpublished Conference Paper, Migration, Time & Temporalities Symposium (29th June 2012). Oxford: Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS).

Griffiths, M. 2010. "Temporal Uncertainty and the Absence of Change", Paper given at the Conference on Temporal Relations and Change, University of Manchester, November.

Griffiths, M. (forthcoming). "Frenzied, Decelerating and Suspended: The Temporal Uncertainties of Failed Asylum Seekers and Immigration Detainees." (under review)

Jackson, A. (ed.) 1987. Anthropology at Home Anthropology at Home. ASA Monographs, 25. New York: Tavistock/Methuen.

Mauss, M. 1979 [1950]. Seasonal variations of the Eskimo: a study in social morphology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Korpela, M. & Nagy, R. Forthcoming, 2013. Special Issue of International Review of Social Sciences.

Norum, R. Forthcoming, 2013. "The Sexpat? Trekking, sex tourism and Western elite mobile professionals in the high Himalaya" in Sex Work(s). (eds) Dubel, Marta Lidia and Kaluza, Anita. HammockTreeRecords Kollektivs  (under review).

Vigh, H. 2009. Wayward Migration: On Imagined Futures and Technological Voids. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 74(1), pp.91-109.