Social Change / Development

We are living in a time of rapid change. Economic instabilities, political uprisings, climate change and technological revolutions, along with more general processes of modernisation, urbanisation and globalisation all influence our lives in various, sometimes irreversible, ways. But what are these changes about and how do people deal with them?

The question of change has occupied anthropologists since the late nineteenth century. At that time, anthropologists assumed that human societies developed progressively through a series of defined stages. Although the notion of unilinear evolution is largely dismissed today, the idea that societies develop in a certain direction is still widespread. This concept of progress through modernisation underlies much of the development thinking of national governments, international agencies and other development actors who believe technological advances are the main drivers of a country’s wealth and standard of living.

Yet these teleological accounts of development, change and modernisation have long been criticised by anthropologists such as James Ferguson, Arturo Escobar, Tania Li, Anna L. Tsing and Thomas H. Eriksen, who describe decline and rupture as well as accelerated but also fragmented, often conflicting narratives of change. Indeed, processes of globalisation and economic growth do not benefit all: certain people, sectors and places are ‘left behind’, and major problems and tensions related to social inequality, uncertainty and environmental destruction can arise.

To understand change, we examine how it is reflected, experienced and contested within people’s everyday lives, relations and aspirations. Our research ranges from the study of livelihood strategies and markets to shifting kinship relations and marriage celebrations in, for example, post- or late socialist societies. We perform critical interrogations of development and innovation discourses and their materialisation, and investigate how new technologies and forms of energy shape people’s lives and futures. We highlight the ‘ephemerality of progress’ by studying the social life of everyday things and trace globalisation from the lived practices of commodity production to globally expanding markets. We thus seek to explore ‘how the world changes from what it was to what it may become, and how it manages at the same time to stay in certain regards very much the same’ (Sidney Mintz 1985), as well as emerging forms of life that otherwise go unnoticed under the banner of progress.