Uncertainty as a resource: from mobilities to informalities

Uncertainty is maintained and even fostered for use as a resource for economic gain by those in power—be it the middlemen offering services to avoid the state or state officials acting in the name of the state. Interethnic relations and nationalistic discourse rather strongly shape encounters, particularly when crossing borders (Turaeva 2018). Intensified by the additional uncertainty of the travellers, this creates favourable conditions for violence and abuse.

This environment is precarious, as described by Judith Butler (2009, 2016). Butler (2009: ii) defines precarity as a ‘politically induced condition of maximised vulnerability and exposure for populations exposed to arbitrary state violence and to other forms of aggression that are not enacted by states and against which states do not offer adequate protection’. Here, it is important to distinguish between systemic qualities of risk—as in Beck’s risk society model (Beck 2009)—and precarity as a structural condition where knowledge of these qualities (precarity and risk) are given. However, in situations of uncertainty, a lack of knowledge about security stands as an a priori requirement for feeling insecure and in doubt (a state of uncertainty). On the individual level, uncertainty—namely, the lack of knowledge about risks—renders one completely dependent upon others and. therefore, vulnerable to violence and abuse. Pelkmans (2013) highlights the intellectual aspect of doubt, whereas McBrien (2013: 253) draws attention to the emotional aspect of doubt. The anthropology of uncertainty (Boholm 2003; Samimian-Darash 2012) is an emerging field of study, and scholarly works on uncertainty and risks remain dominated by quantitative analysis primarily in the fields of medicine, health, business and trade.

Mobilities imply change and always involve novelty if focused on location, people, institutions and rules. Mobilities are, therefore, often connected to a positive outcome and moving up the social and economic ladders. However, mobilities as something fluid also denote instability and uncertainty. New locations, new rules, new environments and the absence of familial networks and family support lead to situations of uncertainty and risk unless people are friendly to each other, state officials do not abuse their authority and people are protected by their families and networks. In an environment of precarity, those who have no power depend on the mercy of those in power, feared as capable of abusing their power at any moment. The condition of uncertainty is maintained through, for instance, constant questioning of travellers’ belongings, documents and the purpose of travel. Uncertainty is not always viewed as negative, depending upon the actors and if an actor is in a position to make use of the uncertainties of others. Uncertainty represents a significant resource, making it easy to gain profits in the form of money, presents, private numbers and the attention of good-looking women (Turaeva 2018).

Uncertainty and informality represent a married couple, where precarity and uncertainty are related to informal relations and activities producing vulnerabilities. In this volume, we have collected diverse examples of informal practices taking place in the contexts of mobility and migration. These examples show that individuals who live mobile lives must face the consequences of fluidity and the instability of rules, institutions, locations and networks. Flexibility, navigation and entrepreneurship are important skills actors should possess in order to live mobile lives. Constant efforts aimed at stabilising fluidity and change produce temporal orders and spaces as well as effective networks of trust, where individuals attempt to deal with the challenges of mobile living and uncertainty.

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