Workshop “Vital Conjunctures – Gender in Times of Uncertainty”, March 6-7, 2015, Leipzig



By Nadine Sieveking

The anthropologist Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (UC Berkeley) introduced the notion of ‘vital conjunctures’ in her keynote. (Photo: private)

How are conditions of uncertainty affecting gendered life projects and anticipated futures? How can we take account of the significance of demographic ‘vital events’ (such as marriage, childbirth or migration) when the horizons within which these events acquire meaning become pluralized, fluid or contested? How to conceive of the links between changes in the gendered pattern of individual life courses and social transformations on different spatial and temporal scales?

These were the central questions debated during the workshop on ‘Vital Conjunctures – Gender in Times of Uncertainty’ that took place in Leipzig, 6–7 March. The event was organized by the DFG Priority Programme (SPP) 1448: ‘Adaptation and Creativity in Africa’ and the DFG Research Training Group (GK) 1261: ‘Critical Junctures of Globalization’ in cooperation with the Centre for Area Studies and the Graduate School Global and Area Studies at the Research Academy Leipzig.

The notion of ‚vital conjunctures‘ as inspiration

The workshop was inspired by the notion of ‘vital conjunctures’, which was introduced by the anthropologist Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (UC Berkeley). Her concept has been well received within African studies in Germany because it provides a widely applicable framework for analysing how social aspirations and imagined futures are influencing intentional action in contexts of persistent uncertainty, instability and crisis. By contrast, the fruitful implications of this notion for the conceptualization of gender have not yet been thoroughly explored. There is a widespread consensus across academic disciplines that social constructions and practices of gender are heterogeneous, not only in different parts of the world but also within a given society. Nevertheless, gender is usually associated with the idea that there is a more or less determined sequence of life stages corresponding to a set of relatively stable, culturally determined categories of social status. The notion of ‘vital conjunctures’ questions this idea. Instead, it proposes a concept of status based on the interplay between aspirations and institutions, shaping ‘the moments when seemingly established futures are called into question and when actors are called on to manage durations of radical uncertainty’ (Johnson-Hanks 2002: 878). Starting from these reflections, the two-day workshop aimed at discussing how social transformation and reproduction are interlinked in times of uncertainty, and, at the same time, sought to contribute to developing innovative approaches for the study of gendered inequalities.

The workshop started with an introductory keynote by Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, who revisited her concept of ‘vital conjunctures’. While still engaging in a critique of mainstream Western social science, where the assumption of ‘a stable, consistent sequence of stages, whether life stages or development stages’ prevails, she focused on three questions that have taken her original idea of a vital conjuncture further as ‘the zone of possibility that emerges around specific periods of potential transformation in a life or lives’: What happens if this zone is enlarged in scale and vital conjunctures are considered on an aggregated scale? What happens if this zone of possibility, the ‘duration of uncertainty and potential’ where change may occur, expands in time? And has there been a kind of convergence on a global scale since the zones of an uncertain present and suspended future seem to expand indefinitely, in time as well as in space? This process, she argued, is not only occurring in contexts of poverty, unrest and crisis in Africa or other parts of the global South but also within educated US middle classes and in the heart of the rich North. Reflecting on the trajectories and future aspirations of four young urban women in Cameroon and the US, Johnson-Hanks concluded that ‘flexibility and the suspension of planning have become the new normal’. Hence, ‘there is nothing inevitable about life stages, there is nothing inevitable about large-scale social change’ and therefore ‘we need conjunctural models of social change’. This need was addressed in various ways during two days of intensive exchange and discussion. Opening up the topic, the keynote inspired the workshop participants to critically and constructively engage with Johnson-Hanks’ concept.

Discussing ‘vital conjunctures’: workshop participants Gudrun Lachenmann (Universität Bielefeld), Petra Dannecker (Universität Wien) and Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (UC Berkeley). (Photo: private)

Applying ‚vital conjunctures‘

In the following paper on ‘Vital conjunctures and the dimensions of time’, Erdmute Alber (Universität Bayreuth) referred to her research on intergenerational relations and the negotiation of girls’ futures in Benin. She convincingly argued that vital events, such as motherhood or a marriage, never concern the individual alone but should be better understood as ‘an entanglement of vital conjunctures in the life course of different persons’. Thereby, she also underlined the relational quality of gender, since with the marriage of a girl not only her own life course and social status as an adult woman are at stake but also those of a number of related persons, such as her husband, her parents and other relatives. With ‘the whole bundle of social relations that are involved in any vital conjuncture’, the concept definitively risks to become increasingly ‘messy’. Yet it also becomes more apt to cover the complexities of gender and intergenerational relations in a context where socioeconomic differences, even between close relatives, are rising and ‘go hand in hand with deep differences in the life-style, the future aspirations and the normative ideas about the life trajectories’. In conclusion, Alber strongly affirmed the theoretical as well as heuristic value of the concept of vital conjunctures as it allows the precarious, negotiated, and contested nature of social status to be studied while taking into account that ‘even such a seemingly unambiguous category as motherhood can be reversible’.

The last speaker of the first day, Gudrun Lachenmann (Universität Bielefeld), considerably widened the scope of the debate with her rather historically contextualizing take on the concept of vital conjunctures. In her paper on ‘Changing Gender Ordering in Times of Uncertainty’, she explored how the concept could be applied not only on a micro- but also on a meso- or macro-level in order to analyse the room for manoeuvre of individual and collective actors as well as their potential for change in the West African context. How have gender orders been affected by socioeconomic transformations such as the ecological crisis following the droughts of the 1970s, the structural adjustment programmes, the destabilization of the cooperative sector, or the democratization and decentralization initiated in the following decades? And what were their effects on women’s agency? By analysing the transformation of women’s economy, she especially focused on the dynamics of informalization (e.g., the crowding out of women from the formal sector) versus entitlements (e.g., traditional institutions regulating access to land, labour and natural resources). Lachenmann identified various dimensions of analysis that come into play when zones of uncertainty are expanded and particularly underlined the relevance of middle level concepts, namely the concept of institutions. In this way, she followed the implicit suggestion of Johnson-Hanks’ argument that life stages only exist where and when they are institutionally produced. Thus, vital conjunctures can also be studied in order to better understand the role of institutions.

Based on these three papers that, partly from a comparative perspective, addressed different African contexts, a lively debate on the applicability of the concept of vital conjunctures arose. What makes a particular conjuncture ‘vital’? What is the evidence for a vital conjuncture and how can it be empirically studied? Within which temporal dimensions and on which spatial levels does the concept still make sense? And at what point is it no longer useful to speak of a conjuncture because ‘the durations of radical uncertainty’ became so permanent that we should speak of a crisis?

Workshop organizer Nadine Sieveking (Universität Leipzig). (Photo: private)

Broadening the regional scope

During the second day, the discussion took another fruitful turn initiated by the paper by Petra Dannecker (Universität Wien), which focused on a different world region, namely Southeast Asia, and investigated processes of social transformation in Muslim societies. Referring to male and female migration between Bangladesh and Malaysia, she analysed the effects of multiple uncertainties on individual life courses. The uncertainties these migrants are facing are not only precipitated by economic conditions but mainly by the conditions of changing moral orders going along with the (partly diverging) Islamization in both countries. Dannecker examined how translocality and travelling through space interacts with changes in social status while asking how migration processes are shaped by, as well as contribute to, the transformation of institutions. She gave particular attention to the way migration is changing the institution of marriage. She thus used the concept of vital conjuncture to examine the systematic link between two vital events – migration and marriage – and explored how this interconnection is contributing to institutional change. Similar to Lachenmann, Dannecker highlighted the overlaps and intersections between processes on different scales. By studying how individual life courses are embedded in locally or translocally established moral orders, she further underlined the relational meaning of gender: the prestige and honour of a husband depends on the behaviour of his wife. This is why, especially in middle-class households, practices of veiling and seclusion are becoming more and more frequent.

Following the discussion of this paper, the debate was further enlarged by a critical assessment of intersectionality approaches. Johnson-Hanks acknowledged that inequalities and unequal access to resources have to be taken into account in order to explain the unequal distribution of vital conjunctures within a given population. However, the concept of conjunctures is more process oriented than the concept of intersectionality, which can hardly rely any longer on a clearly determined notion of class. Instead, the production of social boundaries has to be empirically explored. This is research focus, which can also lead to new findings about the horizons within which aspirations take shape and within which vital conjunctures, acquires meaning.

Finally, the discussion turned back to the questions and problems raised by the recognition that vital conjunctures are a multiscalar phenomenon. How can we integrate the different scales and how do we take account of uncertainties that are nested in one another? How can we decide which institutions are involved in a vital conjuncture? And how can we identify the horizon within which a vital conjuncture becomes meaningful as such and how can we detect the conjuncture empirically? The friendly atmosphere of the workshop allowed for an in-depth discussion of these questions across disciplines and beyond academic hierarchies. It also provided a framework for enriching encounters between senior and junior scholars from different locations, meeting each other over the discussion of a concept that is also suitable to reflect one’s own positioning. While many questions arose that will need further investigation, it became clear that the concept of vital conjunctures invites for a fresh understanding of the making (and unmaking) of gender as well as offers a fruitful approach not only for the conceptual deconstruction of gendered differences but also for imagining new practical ways of unmaking gendered inequalities.

Johnson-Hanks, Jennifer (2002), ‘On the Limits of Life Stages in Ethnography: Toward a Theory of Vital Conjunctures’, in: American Anthropologist 104 (3), pp. 865–880.



Citation: Nadine Sieveking, Workshop »Vital Conjunctures – Gender in Times of Uncertainty«, March 6-7, 2015, Leipzig, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.05.2015

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