Ethnographies of Uncertainty in Africa: An Introduction

  • Elizabeth Cooper
  • David Pratten
Part of the Anthropology, Change and Development book series (ACD)


The starting point of this collection is to understand the positive and productive potential of uncertainty in Africa. The relevance of the focus on uncertainty in Africa is not only that contemporary life is objectively risky and unpredictable (since it is so everywhere and in every period), but that uncertainty has become a dominant trope, an ‘inevitable force’ (Johnson-Hanks 2005: 366), in the subjective experience of life in contemporary African societies. This routinized perception of uncertainty is sometimes coined as ‘the crisis’ — the conjunction of economic depression, instabilities, fluctuations, and ruptures — giving rise to experiences lived by people at all levels of society defined by physical and mental violence (Mbembe & Roitman 1995: 324). It is against this context of ‘incoherence, uncertainty, and instability’ that we may better account for the ways in which people weave their existence. Indeed, by foregrounding ‘crisis as context’ (Vigh 2006) we begin to see how uncertainty critically shapes ways of knowing and being on the continent. Hence, the analysis of radical, routinized uncertainty offers a productive conceptual apparatus to describe Africa’s complexity and to account for ‘the power of the unforeseen and of the unfolding…[and] people’s relentless determination to negotiate conditions of turbulence to introduce order and predictability into their lives’ (Mbembe & Nuttall 2004: 349).


Social Relation Food Insecurity Social Contingency Trust Talk Uncertain Time 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Elizabeth Cooper and David Pratten 2015

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  • Elizabeth Cooper
  • David Pratten

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