Chance in Time of Crisis

Panel (convened with L. D’Angelo) at the Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, Maynooth, Ireland, August 2010

Chance in time of crisis

Panel abstract

The panel aims to collect those contributions that highlight the role played by chance or by luck in individual or collective experiences and particularly in situation of crisis. We often talk about causality when confronting drastic and critical phenomena which we are unable to control or predict, i.e. “natural” disasters. In many cases, people, feel dependent on luck and chance: stock exchange investors, gem and precious metals prospectors, punters, but also anyone in his or her daily life. Fortune (or misfortune) are important useful to explain the outcome of a lottery or a game show, a sports scores, stock market investments, a successful professional career, or an existential drama, an unfavourable financial situation, and so on. In any case, the notions of luck and chance are supposed to explain the reasons for an uncertain and indeterminate, and therefore, unpredictable reality. Contributions will focus on most recent events of public interest, as the case of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe, the “environmental” disasters like the tsunami or earthquake, and other crisis derived from ecological deterioration (droughts, famine) or technological risk.

The objective of this panel is to raise the debate on a comparative level. On the one hand, it will address the issue of luck in front of the shared human condition of uncertainty and vulnerability. On the other, we will try to understand whether, in the globalized “risk society”, the concepts of luck and chance acquire a special significance. This is probably inferred by some depoliticizing explanations made by analysts and politicians to the recent international economic crisis.

Panel presentation

Please let me introduce the panel issue very briefly and explain the idea of talking about chance in a conference on crisis and imagination.

Nowadays, in philosophical and political discourses about risk, we see a form of secularization of the human relation to uncertainty – in our risk society, as Ulrich Beck put it, we have to control our vulnerability and uncertainty. Therefore, chance should become a controllable force.

Nevertheless, we would like to shed new light on this subject by considering two critical issues.

–      First, in daily discourses the notion of chance, luck and fortune spread, even in our secular modernity. For sure, anthropology has something to say about this: in fact, the discipline has often treated the topic of ideas of chance and contingency as a particular way to give meaning to unpredictable reality and especially to crisis.

–      Second, the idea of chance is currently re-emerging as a rhetorical device for political debate. Let’s think about the last economic crisis: political and economic elites sometimes describe it more or less as the result of fate, misfortune or unpredictable non-human forces in the so-called “casino capitalism”. The aim is to depoliticize responsibilities, or paraphrasing a Mary Douglas’ article, it is a form of depoliticization of risk. You will excuse me if I quote Karl Marx who wrote: “Not the gods, not nature, but only man himself can be this alien power over man”.

These examples highlight the role played, in our contemporary societies, by chance or by luck in individual or collective experiences and particularly in situations of crisis. So, the papers presented here deal with these issues form quiet different perspectives.

Lorenzo D’Angelo will show how chance must be studied by analyzing the way people cope with uncertainty and try to manage risk and randomness in a diamond mining economy in Sierra Leone.

If we tackle the issue of chance form a subject-oriented point of view, this demands us to ask ourselves which is the place and role of chance in the agency-structure dilemma: actually, it may seem a buffer zone between the two, a black spot of uncertainty where destiny and individual will challenge each other. Professor Danielle De Lame will shed a light on this issue by relying on the life trajectory of a young man from Rwanda and from a theoretical point of view.

Chance is not only a matter of individuals but is related to collective meanings and re-elaborations. Especially after events of dramatic crisis, social groups try to make sense out of what happened: as Giovanna Salome will explain in relation to a plane crash accident in Martinique, this is a matter of social cohesion, of grief re-elaboration and of memory of traumatic experiences to imagine new collective futures. Actually, this is the case of disasters of different kind. Relying on fieldwork evidence in San Salvador after the 2001 earthquake, Alicia Sliwinski will show how notions of chance, luck and fortune are related not only to natural disaster but also to the way international aid was distributed to vulnerable populations: she shows an apparent paradox: the way in which the more unhappy vulnerable people can become, to the eyes of the others, the luckiest ones.

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