The Hot Lava Edge of Cultural Flows

The Hot Lava Edge of Cultural Flows: Global Social Inequality and the Anthropology of Uncertainty, Contingency and Future Orientation is a project coordinated by the Department of Social Anthropology, NTNU. The project also has members from Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), University of Tromsø, University of Oslo, and University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Bergen. The project, which is funded by the Research Council of Norway, started in January, 2013 and ends in December, 2016.

The project is headed by Associate Professor Liv Haram, Department of Social Anthropology, NTNU.




The «hot lava edge of cultural flows» alludes to the forceful transformative power of hegemonic and powerful streams that flow over the world - often destructive, but also sources of creativity and novelty, when the directions and nature of the flows are altered by active resistance and contrariety, or by opportunities that open up for entrepreneurship. The project explores the edges of these flows; what new forms of social and individual realities are formed where global forces meet with local agency. These meetings may spur creativity and improvisation, but also apathy and inability. By studying the «hot lava edges» we ask how social inequality at a global scale is created, recreated and solidified, or, alternatively, how it may take new and surprising turns, resulting in altered forms of inequalities. We claim that the lava flow represents uncertainty and contingency, and as such, it affects how the future can be acted upon, if at all.

The main objectives of the project are to explore the following by assessing already collected ethnographic material: a) global social insecurity and how it is related with people’s groups’ and communities’ experience of uncertainty and contingency and how this affects orientations towards the future, b) the strengths and limitations of ethnographic and anthropological method to analyze these relationships. Moreover the project contributes to strengthen Norwegian anthropology by bringing together researchers from Norwegian and international institutions for annual workshops that shall lead to published works in reputed channels.


Fri, 02 Oct 2015 14:32:48 +0200

- Opening Workshop, 18th and 19th April 2013. NTNU, Trondheim.    Program

The main objective of the workshop was 1) to refine and sharpen the overall themes and hypotheses of the project; 2) to present each individual sub-project in a re-analysis of the project and in relation to the other sub-projects.

The workshop was divided in three sessions in which project members presented a paper facilitating a broad discussion around global-social inequality, uncertainty, contingency and future orientations. Each session was assisted by a discussant namely Michael Hertzfeldt (Harvard University), Rosemary Coombe (York University) and Tord Larsen (NTNU). The fourth and last session discussed the next year’s annual milestones.


- The annual Anthropological Conference, Norsk Antropologisk Årskonferanse  3rd and 5th May 2013. UiT, Tromsø.  Program

This conference set the NRC’s ISP topics on the agenda and invited the project to present one of the main conference papers: “Precarious Lives and Violent Murders as the Magical Preconditions to Luck and Prosperity”. The project also convened a workshop group entitled “Fractured Certainties and Contested Representations”.


- Internal Seminar, 20th May 2014. NTNU, Trondheim.   Program

This seminar was aimed to share and inform about research progress and to offer the members of the project as arena to further discuss and develop their papers.


- Second Workshop, 30th and 31st October 2014. Røros.  Program

This was a follow-up workshop which aimed to give the participants the opportunity to present and further develop their research papers, as well as to develop and strengthen the ISP-lava research network. Achievements, challenges and strategies were discussed for the future progress of the project.


Several members of the project participated in international conferences of relevance for their research.


IUAES 2014 The Future with/of Anthropology. Tokyo, 14th – 19th May 2014

Trond Waage Character Driven Ethnographic Film in the Study of Social Persons in Urban Cameroon.

Short Abstract: Character driven ethnographic filmmaking in concrete social situations is argued for as a strategy grasping processes of identity management in urban Cameroon. The collaborative aspect of filmmaking joined with living images concreteness, opens for a dynamic sensorial urban anthropology.


2014 Satterthwaite Colloquium. Glenthorne Quaker Centre, Grasmere, 26th- 28th May 2014

Sharon Hutchinson Violence, Ethnicity and Prophecy: Nuer Struggles with Uncertainty in South Sudan.


13th EASA Biennial Conference Collaboration, Intimacy and Revolution Tallin,  31st July - 4th August 2014

Harald Aspen Crisis, Change and Chronicity: anthropological challenges in understanding insecurity and life trajectories in the context of the Ethiopian developmental state.

Short Abstract: The relationship between the ethnographic present and anthropological analysis of change poses a methodological and theoretical paradox which is addressed with reference to key concepts (crisis, development, change, chronicity), based on 25 years of ethnographic research in Ethiopia.


Liv Haram The Religious-magical Dimension of Mining Technology among Small-scale Miners in the Tanzanite Mines in Northern Tanzania.

Short Abstract: The paper explores the effect of neoliberal economy in the Tanzanian mining industry. Small-scale miners use religious-magical techniques as a means to secure their hazardous working conditions, and to make sense as to why some are blessed with fortune while others are not.


Anne Kathrine Larsen On the Outskirts of Dubai: Bedouin villagers in a rapidly changing world.

Short Abstract: This paper addresses the methodological challenges anthropologists face when trying to understand people’s conduct in relation to a contingent future. The focus is on Dubai nationals of Bedouin background and how multi-temporal fieldwork may reveal the interplay between people’s outlook and choices.


113th AAA Annual Conference. Producing Anthropology Washington 3rd-7th December 2014

Panel entitled: "Seeking Health and Life in Conditions of Adversity".

Ruth Prince Trials and tribulations of medical internship in a Kenyan hospital.

Abstract: This paper follows a group of young doctors during their internship year in a large public hospital in Kenya.  Charged with learning to practice medicine: to diagnose and treat patients, and to manage both acute and chronic disease, interns work under conditions that both challenge their professional capacities and that make them competent doctors, as they face the downstream effects of structural violence and inequality in the bodies of the patients they treat. The hospital's facilities are uneven: the CT scan does not work, X-ray machines are unreliable, the hospital's only pathologist may be unavailable, and interns soon learn they have to send patients to private facilities to buy particular medicines or to get blood cultures done. They learn that getting a patient's history and socioeconomic status is vital in order to make appropriate decisions about treatment, as there is no point in prescribing a medicine a patient cannot afford.  Building on the legacy of Susan's Whyte's work - on patient's struggles against misfortune and uncertainty, on the moral economy of health work and the landscape of care in East Africa, this paper attends to the struggles of young east African doctors with medicine and morality as they seek to repair health and life under conditions of adversity.


Denat-ISP. De-naturalizing Difference. Ontologizing Difference: de and re-naturalizing boundaries. Bergen 19th-20th January 2015

Martin Thomassen Reflections on grounded methodology: the ontological turn meets art-talk   between 1989-2015.


Festival: Carte Blanche à Eva Joly: “Migrations”. Paris 29th-31st January 2015

      Film viewing “Les Mairuuwa” by Trond Waage.

One case study addresses "the nationalist project" and has been carried out by Jason Sumich, NTNU (The Uncertainty of nationalism: Legitimacy, alienation and the middle class in Maputo, Mozambique) (Finalized 2013).

Sumich has examined the changing relationship between the ruling Frelimo party's nationalist narrative and members of a middle class who have been among the primary beneficiaries of the political and economic order in Mozambique. The project aims at exploring how members of a group that largely owe their social position to the party are also increasingly alienated by it and suspicious of the wider population. It has ethnographically reassessed Sumich's previous research to see how growing social uncertainty effects how inequality is viewed by not only the poor, but also the powerful, and how such social situations serve to exacerbate existing social inequalities. Sumich provides valuable comparative material by bringing forward ethnographic data which may be less common in the literature; a governmentally favoured, but increasingly alienated minority economic group which is losing faith in the nationalist project.


The contribution by Sharon Hutchinson, NTNU/University of Wisconsin-Madison

(Crosscurrents of violence, ethnicity and prophecy in contemporary South Sudan)

also deals with ethnicity in relation to the state, but in this case it is a marginalized and divided ethnic minority population that is pushing back against a fragile and incapacitated state. Specifically, Hutchinson's contribution focuses on the interplay of violence, ethnicity and prophecy in the context of the seemingly endless quest of South Sudanese civilians for adequate security protection.  Hutchinson's point of departure is that processes of militarization—equated with an increased acceptance of, motivation for, and recourse to violence—lie at the molten core of global social inequalities. Whether guided by imperialist, nationalist or ethno-nationalist agendas, military movements everywhere generate their own patterns of social differentiation and hierarchy, set their own standards of authority and value and project their own visions of security and risk onto an uncertain future. Bonds of loyalty and trust mutate, as people are continually forced to reassess the individual and collective bases of their personal security.  In the South Sudanese context, people's collective experience of decades of militarized violence and civil warfare has also generated its own anxieties and uncertainties: When is violence legitimate? And when does it risk provoking the anger of God, as the ultimate guardian of human morality? Seeking answers to these haunting questions, thousands of contemporary men and women have turned for guidance to individual charismatic prophets, some of whom now command their own personal armies consisting of thousands of armed civilian youth, and others of whom eschew all forms of offensive violence and militarism. Hutchinson's contribution to the project will thus focus on these themes within the historical context of South Sudan's tumultuous transition to political independence and subsequent collapse into renewed civil warfare.


The ethnography of Martin Thomassen, NTNU (Identity politics in the northern part of Norway) concerns reflexive identity politics along centreperiphery lines among farmers in northern Norway. What this identity politics promises is a stronger sense of security and control by way of autonomy and self-determination. The research shall focus on the ambiguities that often follow from this. First, since identity politics also means that similarity often overrules equality ideological, internal differences may be glossed over. Secondly, since identity politics more often than not implies articulation of difference by way of a more hegemonic language, the promises which it offers are imbued with a great deal of ambivalence. This subproject thus explores how resistance to standard national or global discourses stemming from initial disquiet, nevertheless trigger disparate processes where new social lines of demarcation are established cementing more uneasiness.


Anne Kathrine Larsen, NTNU

(Voices from the desert: Bedu villagers on the margins of Dubai) will further explore the growing insecurity felt by the elite. She studies a politically and economically favored cultural minority that feels increasingly uneasy and threatened by a disenfranchised majority immigrant population. Larsen will address the outlook and reactions of Bedu villagers living in a contingent world on the margins of Dubai. While this emirate has gone through enormous changes during the last decades, giving its citizens access to wealth, comfort and a modern lifestyle, this development has also another dimension which imply social, physical and bodily interaction and confrontation with a rapid changing and possibly threatening environment which they need to deal with. Not only does the continually ongoing construction work approach the village area causing unrest and turmoil, but the villagers themselves are faced with the challenge of participating actively in a neoliberal economy (see Kanna, 2010). As part of the overall project theme this study will look into how villagers in various ways deal with these challenges, and whether or not their actions may reinforce old or evolve new social inequalities. The project is based on Larsen's multitemporal fieldwork during the last 12 years, with the latest return visit completed in 2014 that had allowed her to follow up selected informants with whom she has previously established close rapport. The analysis of her latest data, will hopefully shed light on their perceptions, dilemmas and choices when facing an uncertain future.

Tre bilder av hus og gater, kameler og ørken i Dubai


Trond Waage, University of Tromsø

(When rapid immigration leads to consolidating social hierarchies. Runaway kids in a Muslim quarter in Ngaoundéré, Northern Cameroon) deals with a flood of young and impoverished immigrants who are absorbed successfully, as it were, by a well-established ethnic/cultural group seeking to maintain its regional hegemony. As noted above, the study encompasses both group dynamics with individual efforts to survive as the perspective shifts back and forth from that of the young immigrants trying to break into the water trade to their Fulani patrons. The immigration is so extensive that the Sultan, the police and politicians in Ngaoundéré fear losing control. In addition to pressure on work options, housing, schooling and healthcare, is there an increased flow of cultural meaning (Hannerz 1992) influencing the relevance of local cultural codification systems. Both these trends, flow of people and ideas, influence people's experience of uncertainty. The focus of this study is young men coming from Chad, Niger and the Central African Republic in large numbers to Cameroon, in search for a better life. Many of those coming are without network, money, housing or anything to do. They try to make a living getting access to water transportation, and are constantly faced with an uncertain life situation. It is suggested that by complying with the rules of a respectable lifestyle as defined by the social elite, it is possible to establish a patron-client relation to the latter. Waage's contribution will explore the processes leading to success among some immigrant youth compared to others who fail, resulting in inequalities between them.


En flokk med sauer ved et steingjerde, i regnHarald Aspen, NTNU

(Crisis and life trajectories in the north Ethiopian highlands)

problematizes the concept of crisis in relation to the livelihoods of peasants in the warand drought ridden northern highlands of Ethiopia. His research which was triggered by the major famine crisis in the region in 1984-85 on issues of food (in)security, livelihood and state-peasant relations in Ethiopia concerns how people (and external agents such as NGOs and changing governments) understand and deal with a situation that best can be described as a "chronic crisis" (Aspen 1994; cf. Vigh 2008). In his present project, Aspen shall reassess his ethnographic data and the methodologies he has employed in his analyses. He shall in particular make use of data collected over a 10year period in a small, emergent town in North Wälo, Ethiopia by means of a simple survey, combined with qualitative methods. The two approaches allow for a critical reanalysis of standard views on processes of increased inequality and polarization in the Ethiopian rural society. As a part of the project he plans to conduct a fieldwork to follow up the respondents from his 2002 survey. Their own assessments of how they have fared, and why, will allow for an insight to emic understanding of what characterizes events and circumstances that are judged to have been decisive for the directions their lives have taken. Aspen's research will therefore address both theoretical and methodological questions on how to understand the relationship between long-lasting uncertainty and social inequality.


The troubled matter of gendered violence (such as sexual harassments, rape, abduction, murder) is a major global issue.

In her contribution, Liv Haram, NTNU

(Gender Equality before the law: Future oriented in a contingent world)

will deal with the case of Tanzania, where like all post-colonies, the basic parts of the law system and its standards are imported from a different part of the world (see Comaroff and Comaroff 2006). Although it is somehow modified to the multiple and diverse local standards, yet there is a hegemonic standard. Based on longitudinal studies in Arumeru District and Arusha town in northern Tanzania (Haram 1995; 2005), this project focuses on some cases of structural/gender violence and explores how global standards of human rights accommodate local normative diversity. Pulled into the wider global world, what is at stake locally when different standards and moral logics are up for negotiations? How do people – differently positioned – "talk back" to such globalizing processes?  Based on longitudinal case studies, Haram will explore the conjunctures and contradictions between these moral standards of justice. How are they interpreted and exploited for local purposes? Does the implementation of universal standards create more equity before the law, and, in turn, more security and predictability, or does it generate more ambivalence and thus new forms of inequality and marginalization?


Jennifer Infanti, NTNU

also addresses gender-based violence in her contribution to the project.

(Unravelling complexities of community-based antenatal care in the hill country tea plantations of Sri Lanka: Why are interventions failing?)

This case study is co-authored by Ragnhild Lund from NTNU and Kumudu Wijewardene from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. The study explores the ‘therapeutic landscapes’ (Gesler, 1993) that public health midwives navigate as they provide maternal health services to women living with domestic violence in Sri Lanka’s central province tea plantations. The Tamil-speaking labourers on the plantations were originally brought to Sri Lanka from South India by British tea planters in the mid-1800s. Their history in Sri Lanka is characterised by multiple levels of global and local discrimination and inequalities due to the nature of capitalistic agriculture, political disenfranchisement and ethnic marginalisation, amongst other factors. For the most part, plantation health services have also been suboptimal in terms of quality, accessibility and staffing. Such factors have contributed to the poor health statistics of plantation workers today. Maternal and child under-nutrition, and the maternal mortality rate, are significantly higher in the plantation areas than the national average, and maternal health is compromised by pervasive violence in women’s lives. Public health midwives are the key health care providers in these settings. They have intimate knowledge of the communities within their jurisdictions, including an awareness of the magnitude of the problem of domestic violence. Through group and individual interviews (incorporating visual methods), and participatory workshops, this study contributes new knowledge about the physical, social and symbolic assets, strategies and constraints of the midwives working in the plantations. It also highlights links between domestic violence and other forms of violence in wider society, and disentangles some of the complexities and continuously shifting understandings and responses to caring for women experiencing domestic violence.


Siri Lange, CMI (Medical pluralism in Tanzania) addresses health and biomedicine as a form of standardization that formal health systems the world over adhere to. She will use ethnographic data collected in the period 2009-2011 in Morogoro, Tanzania, to shed light on local perceptions of the folk disease kimeo. The study will focus on health decision-making among parents whose  

children suffer from persistent cough, and the processes that unfold when they vacillate between biomedicine and the diagnosing and treatment of kimeo. To what degree does lack of communication between health workers and care takers of lower socioeconomic status have an effect on the widespread practice of uvulectomy (removal of the uvula)? Kimeo practices are situated in a field where folk medicine and biomedicine intersects, creating ambiguity and uncertainty for those involved. Lange will therefore question whether there is a relationship between social inequality and the choices made during acute sickness, but also how health workers' accountability measures may affect the poor.  







Lastly Ruth Prince,

University of Oslo and National Centre for Migration and Health (NAKMI)

(Uncertainty and inequality: health, development and life in Kenya)

will contribute through her research which is focused on the city of Kisumu in western Kenya. This area has become a centre of "global health" activities and projects, focusing on HIV/AIDS and related development issues such as "poverty". Such interventions target global inequalities in health, yet through their focus on a specific disease, their elevation of a model of the "responsible" and "empowered" individual, and their channelling of development funds into NGOs, they both overlook and exacerbate inequalities, creating islands of intervention in a sea of under-resourced health services and livelihood/welfare issues. Her recent research examines several fields of relevance here. Firstly, she addresses the intersections between subjectivities, economy, and development interventions, examining how people respond to interventions that seek to render them "responsible" and "empowered" in a situation of economic insecurity and uncertainty. Secondly, she explores how biomedical practitioners seek to provide "good care" and negotiate treatment in a situation of uncertain knowledge, lack of medical technology, and inadequate resources. Prince's research thus addresses the interrelations between inequalities and uncertainties that characterize current neoliberal political and economic regimes at various levels of scale. Although the poor are targeted by health organizations, their involvements in contingent situations do nevertheless not redress the problems as intended.


A contribution of a different kind, which contributes both to the ethnographic detail of the case studies, and to the exploration of methodological issues in the project, is Trond Waage's film project:

‘Rester comme ça, ce n'est pas bon' (‘To stay like that, is not good').

The film portraits 8 young boys/men over a period of 6 months in Ngaoundéré, Northern Cameroon. They are all runaway kids from the Central African Republic searching for a better life in Cameroon. The everyday life is a constant struggling for a living. Some of them have their own room, most of them not. Some of them have regular income due to access to handcarts which they use to transport water, most of them not. To succeed earning money on daily basis, they must be accessible for and depend on having the confidence from the local population. All of them say ‘Rester comme ça, ce n'est pas bon'. The film narrative describes in experience near portraits these various boys' self-conscious performances, where some succeed and others are forced to travel further, return back home or are put in jail. These filmed events make the viewer aware of these boys' identity management strategies, their relation to the anthropologist/filmmaker and thereby how they cope with uncertainty. The audiovisual material has potential for discussing the anthropologist's interpretations, and makes the viewer ask if the observed situations are characterized by the ‘imperial gaze' (Bhabha 1999) or by ‘skilled vision' (Grasseni 2007).