Accepted paper:

Crisis, change and chronicity: anthropological challenges in understanding insecurity and life trajectories in the context of the Ethiopian developmental state


Harald Aspen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Paper 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.

Paper long abstract:

Rural people of Ethiopia - "the iconic poor country" (Gill 2010:3) associated with recurrent droughts, war and famine - may be seen as subjected to what Vigh (2008) has labeled a "chronic crisis". Indeed a contradiction in terms, but one which opens up for reflection on how we, as anthropologists, appreciate and understand crisis, change and chronicity. Internationally, the image of Ethiopia has moved from a country in deep crisis to a boosting economy, with annual growth rates of around 10% in recent years. Aided by multitemporal research, the paper explores how change, exemplified by moments of particular importance, has influenced both local perceptions of change - phrased as development or civilization - and anthropological scrutiny. Based on 25 years of ethnographic research in the north Ethiopian highlands, I address two major questions: does the immediacy of our ethnographic method - "the ethnographic present" - help or hinder us in grasping change over time? Do we see "more" change, or "less", through our ethnographic lenses, and do we overestimate change that in the longer run has little relevance for the future of people we study, while we underestimate change that proves to have long term and fundamental effects? And how do we discern people's attitudes to change (development) from the propagandistic rhetoric of the power holders - in the present Ethiopian context of the "developmental state"?

panel P056
Obsession with change