A year and a half of Pasts and Futures in a pandemic


Halfway through the first lockdown in 2020 I spoke with my brother on the phone. ‘There you go, Anselma’, he said. ‘Now this is already the second historical event we’ve witnessed in our lifetime. Personally I feel one would have sufficed’. As a former East German he was referring to the fall of state socialism in 1989 and German reunification in 1990 as the first event, the current Covid19 pandemic as the second. I advised caution: ‘you know, Sebastian, given our age, there is a fair amount of scope for a third’. And personally, I wonder what flavour such a third might have.

There we have it, pasts and futures, imagination, all rolled into a three-minute conversation on the phone, between a brother and a sister, one in Germany, one in the UK. The pandemic has certainly raised many questions about the future, in particular I think. There was hope for the environment in the first and most severe national lock down in the UK; concern about children’s development after months of school closures; and all along wishes to get back to ‘normality’, but which one?

In the midst of all this eventfulness however, running cluster meetings and attending to the creative process of research has been much harder. This blog concerns the cluster activities during the start of 2020 and May 2021.

After many hectic months of trying to come to terms with this new pandemic present, the first cluster meeting in June 2020 was a social get together via zoom videocall to provide time away from emails, news announcements and the pressures of converting to online teaching and assessment. We did the same again in July 2020, and for many this involved again a cup of coffee or tea. During this period, we were joined by Nina Liebhaber (Innsbruck), who works on a project regarding environmental education of school children. We welcomed back Matthias Wienroth (Northumbria) and Felix Ringel (Durham), and enjoyed hearing about Audrey Verma’s work, which in Feb 2021 involved the fascinating online symposium Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene. PGR blog link here.

We began meeting again in an unstructured way in November 2020. Since then the cluster has once again engaged in more targeted conversations. On 25th March 2021 Dariusz Gafijczuk and Anselma Gallinat reflected on ‘the social life(use) of metaphor’ from a sociological and anthropological perspective respectively.[i] We heard that Dariusz had become more interested in the topic when teaching epistemology in first year and thinking about what guides perception. Anselma told us how this is often conceptualized as meaning-making in anthropology, but that metaphor specifically has more recently been linked to the production of culture. The conversation led onto the role of emotion and Anselma was prompted to think of Veena Das’ argument that (academic) concepts also stem from emotions, not just intellect.[ii]

We used this thought as a bridge into our meeting on 26th May on Knowing the past, rethinking the future through gut feelings.


Grit Wesser was going to reflect on gut feelings as knowledge about the East German Stasi; and Janice McLaughlin would speak about the possibilities of rethinking the future from the here and now. Unfortunately, on the day Grit was indispensed. The group enjoyed hearing from Janice about her thoughts – prompted by developments during the pandemic – about how to effect political change for disability rights without losing space for alternatives. This prompted discussion in the group about conditions for change. Hugo Radicce (Leeds) wondered whether the status quo prior to the pandemic was already a contested one, that would enable a return to a different ‘normal’ in the aftermath? With the mentioning of the role of emotions to strengthen arguments Ken Taylor was reminded of impact activities in a recent project, which prompted Angeliki Sifaki to think about her work on nationalism among LGBT communities in Greece.

After these stimulating discussions, we intend to close this yet again tumultuous and often simply very hard year with a relaxed and supportive zoom get together in early July when we will also think about our plans for next year 2021-22.

AG, June 2021

[i] After Sapir, D and Crocker, J C. 1977. The social use of metaphor. University of Pennsylvania Press

[ii] Das, Veena. 2018. The life of concepts and how they speak to experience, in Nielsen & Rapport (eds). The composition of anthropology: how anthropological texts are written. London: Routledge.  

Writing the past to create a future, Or: What on earth am I doing…?

A lockdown story, by Anselma Gallinat.

This cluster concerns the ways in which imaginations/views of the past interlink with visions, hopes or fears for the future. My own work has looked at how the history of difficult time periods is written, told, performed to support national identity and how it interlinks or challenges individual recollections and senses of self. I tend to do so through a focus on narrative and have usually collected life stories as part of my ethnographies.

While I have read and used Jerome Bruner, Charlotte Linde, Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps, and have used quotes like ‘identity is a life story’ McAdams (1993), as a postgraduate student especially I often found some of this literature problematic. It seemed to imply that we fashion our stories rather consciously to ‘manipulate’ others (Fernandez and Carrithers [and, yes, Gallinat] call it ‘persuasion’), and I felt much of this narrative work, at least on the individual and social level was undirected, unconscious, sort of emerging organically. Later I considered it as the – at best – semi-conscious outcome of social interaction (2016). I continue to see narrative, story-seeds, discourse and metaphor as not only consisting of text language, but also performances, symbols, embodiment.

However, if I am critical of word-heavy constructed stories, what am I doing sitting here ‘writing’ and illustrating (yes, with pictures) my nine-year–old daughter’s ‘life story book’…? So this blog reflects on why I felt the need to rework her life story book, some of the ways in which I have done so, in their relation to childhood trauma in adoption. Whilst K’s life story book is the peg, on which I hang these reflections, this blog doesn’t tell ‘her story’. It tells a story of my writing an immensely important text.

The Life Story Book
In adoption, the LSB, a folder with printed A4 pages, is used to tell a child where they have come from – how they have come to live with their ‘new’ or ‘forever’ or ‘adoptive’ family. It provides information on their parents and siblings, if any. So if I, as K’s adoptive mother, write this story, about her birth family, it surely cannot get any closer to trying to engineer an identity, can it?

To understand this, we need to backtrack a little. In British adoption, children should be told about their birth origins. To this end, within 10 days of the adoption being fully legalised (granting of adoption order) a life story book is provided to help parents tell their child where they came from in a child friendly way. At this point, in many cases adopted children no longer have direct contact with their birth family, especially the parents. Contact is usually continued only by letter mediated by social services. Much of these practices seem to work ok for children who are very small when they were moved into care.

A little more backtracking. Most looked after children are in care because of neglect, broadly speaking. Neglect from womb through to baby and toddler stages impacts on brain development – usually talked about as ‘developmental trauma’ or ‘developmental delay’. One consequence of this is that those children, who experienced life in their first home, only have very fragmented memories that lack language and are dominated by sensory impressions – the way a situation feels, smells, sounds like, including how the body feels in that situation (in pain, cold, hungry, dry, itchy).

What kind of a story is this?
In these cases the LSB has to tell the story of the early years in a way that allows the child to order those sensory, felt, non-narrative memories. It has to tell the story in a way that makes clear to the reader that this home wasn’t safe and won’t ever be safe, however much the parents loved their children, no matter trips to the park, the beach and MacDonald’s. This is one important purpose. The second is to help these children develop a sense of identity – a ‘habitable identity’, as Vieda Skultans put it for sufferers of severe trauma in Soviet-occupied Latvia – as part of both birth and adoptive family (and for the anthropologists: in a cultural context of the primacy of biological descent).

So I am sitting here ordering pictures (better pictures) into the LSB, adjusting the text, and taking out an awful lot of cheerful clipart! Like the almost stick figure couple – the man with tie, the women with skirt carrying a baby, smiling broadly – a ‘family’! It doesn’t get more heteronormative, garishly coloured than that. This picture and that of a house framed by a rainbow are moreover inappropriately suggestive of the ‘happy ever after’ that stands in great contrast to the tough grind wrought through with loss, screams, spit and tears that adoption is for most – children and (adoptive and birth) parents alike.

I replace both images with a tree in the shape of a heart – calm colours, less directive.

Instead of clip art of a funny little butcher, a chef and a prominent fast food chain – colourful pictures that apparently engage children’s attention – I use plain text to explain where birth parents have worked, and add that they were also out of work. This of course still doesn’t explain why the children were taken into care. Being jobless, poor, or poorly trained is no crime. I add text about criminal convictions, where they existed, indicate brushes with the law, saying factually but in a few words the reasons for this; in child-friendly language (‘xx was often in trouble’) but clear nonetheless. This matters, it matters a very great deal.

Embodied memory
As Oakwater argues, if we narratively ‘bubble wrap’ our children (2012) telling them their home was a ‘bit messy at times’ and then later request they tidy their bedroom because it is ‘a bit messy’ too, our children will not understand that their first home was an unsafe place to be. We need to be clear that it was dirty, chaotic and had a bad smell. So they can place sensory memories of awful smells or understand their own involuntary reactions when certain noises send them into an emotional spin.1 But also to create a contrast to the new, safer home. To be clear, this is not about demonising anyone. Good days and ‘treats’ in the first home are also displayed, including in pictures. Maybe the hardest part of the LSB is that it has to teach children about complexity – the good wrought through with the bad and the very much in-between.

I make photographs smaller, especially of the birth parents, and I pare down the great number of happy smiley pictures from the last time K met her parents, when they all had to say good bye to each other – a clearly terribly sad moment despite the smiles and tiny birthday cake. I remove mention of ‘wonderful presents’ that had been exchanged. Much of this is due to Ingrid – adoption specialist, child therapist and general lifeline. Large pictures of birth family become very intense for the children. They unsuspectingly turn a page and wow, there are MUM and DAD! Back in force! So pictures are smaller; and I try to mix several to reduce intensity of just one image that displays K, her family or us – frozen in time. Regarding the ‘good bye contact’ I pick only one picture, making it smaller, and add a sentence that this is ‘another difficult part of the story’.

So I engineer my daughter’s life story sand her identity. Do I? That’s not the goal, says my gut.

The text was first written by the relevant person in social services. Ingrid was never happy with it, nor was I. I’m reworking it, and Ingrid will check on what I’ve done and amend as need be. I combine my interest in writing for specific audiences, my enjoyment of making a page visually attractive (yes, actually, although some people are much better at it than I am), my understanding of the needs of adopted children and my daughter, with my academic ‘gut feeling’. Veena Das has recently argued that however much we may wish to believe that our academic work springs from pure intellectual thought and reason, concepts actually arise from experience and emotion. We have a gut feeling for which concept seems best, or is really quite incorrect, and then look for literature, theory, arguments to build that point. I know in my gut that I need to write K’s story better, photos, clip art and all, in order to allow her to keep growing through understanding herself.

For the future
I am not writing a coherent story of her either. The ‘texts’ have narrative quality, but key is to provide information, knowledge – of the family, her birth, her first home – to enable K to start putting her memories into her own words, and to create her own narrative/s. I am not expecting and I don’t want to shape her reflection into the production of one ‘rescue narrative’ akin to the stories patients or recovering drug addicts are institutionalised into (Holstein and Gubrium). Rather, I want to aid her thinking. I hope she will use the story as impetus, ‘story seeds’ that do not, as in Carrithers (2012), indicate an already known longer story, but seeds that spark potential stories in K’s own mind. Nuggets of information that allow her to sift through her memories, put words to them, take on board, reject, rewind, and that way learn who she is or feels she is, then and now. Also to learn the good, the bad and the in-between. To learn about love and loss and families, of all sizes.

So I am writing about this past to enable K to know herself better in time and open up new potential futures for herself!

‘Love the NHS’ from K to the world in lockdown I.


1 See Van der Kolk (2015) The body keeps the score on embodied, word-less, trauma memory and its everyday impact.

Bruner, Jerome. 1987. “Life as Narrative,” Social Research 54(1): 11–32.
———. 1990. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
———. 1991. “The Narrative Construction of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 18: 1–21.
Carrithers, Michael. 2005. “Why Anthropologists Should Study Rhetoric,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11(3): 577–83.
–. 2012. “Story-Seeds and the Inchoate,” in M. Carrithers (ed.), Culture, Rhetoric and the Vicissitudes of Life. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Das, Veena. 2018. ‘The life of concepts and how they speak to experience,’ in Morten Nielsen and Nigel Rapport, The Composition of Anthropology, London: Routledge.
Fernandez, James W. 1986. Persuasions and Performances: The Play of Tropes in Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Gallinat, Anselma. 2016. Narratives in the making: Writing the East German past in the democratic present. New York: Berghahn.
Holstein, Jaber F., and James Gubrium. (eds.). 2001. Institutional Selves: Troubled Identities in a Postmodern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Linde, Charlotte. 1993. Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McAdams, Dan P. 1993. The stories we live by: personal myths and the making of the self. New York and London: The Guilford Press.
Oakwater, Helen. 2012. Bubble wrapped children. MX publishing.Ochs, Elinor, and Lisa Capps. 2001. Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Skultans, Vieda. 1998. The Testimony of Lives: Narrative and Memory in Post-Soviet Latvia. London: Routledge.

Sociological pasts, presents and futures

Thanks to Joy Zhang and Geoff Payne for contributing some fascinating and original thinking to our cluster meeting on Weds 13th November.

Geoff came to talk about his recent chapter in Panayotova, P. (ed) (2019) The History of Sociology in Britain, focusing on how the former polytechnics (current ‘post-92’ institutions) are too often written out of disciplinary histories. The question of who gets to tell the story fo sociology, from what social and institutional positions, remains very relevant and we really enjoyed Geoff’s original approach to this question.

We were also delighted to be joined by Joy Zhang (Kent) who was in Newcastle to give a fantastic seminar later in the day:‘From democratising to decolonising science: Lessons from China’s contemporary life science controversies.’ In our cluster session Joy shared some thoughts about the very different history and present position of Sociology in China as well as connecting this up to her own trajectory and work.

Utopian thinking in international law, human rights, governance

Fantastic symposium at the Newcastle Law School on 8th November 2019 on utopian thinking – thanks to Ruth Houghton for organising! We heard a really rich set of papers with lots to think about for those interested in pasts and futures – and really relevant to a broadly understood sociology even though the overt frame was around international law and human rights.

Kathryn McNeilly (QUB) asked us to think counter-factually about what kinds of worlds might have emerged if utopian moments in the development of human rights law had allowed for the development of radical political daydreaming.

Nathaniel Coleman (Newcastle) reflected on how utopia might be a valuable method for the theory, pedagogy and practise of architecture – reflecting on the central function of architecture in devising and making spaces that might enable new and better ways of being.

Matthew Nicholson (Durham) explored ways of ‘re-situating utopia’ in international law discourse – which usually mobilises fixed, blueprint notions of utopia (whether it locates them in existing frameworks or the promise of a depoliticised human rights). He asked how international law might work in and with a more processual, open-ended and radical utopianism.

I had a few things to say about changing context for imagining better environmental futures and the need for a more speculative, utopian and science fictional sociology.

Sarah Lohmann (Durham) is working on feminist critical utopian fictions from the 1970s and explored how they can be thought of as literary-philosophical thought experiments. They work with a complex, dynamic notion of time and offer imagined alternative societies not as blueprints but as self-organising systems that remain relevant in changing times.

Ruth Houghton (Newcastle) and Aoife O’Donoghue (Durham) are reading feminist utopias and dystopias against global constitutionalist manifestoes in relation to visions of more inclusive and solidaristic visions of international law. How might these texts help us learn how to approach governance that is not predicated on patriarchy?

Between disciplines and interdisciplinarity: bringing sociology, science and environment together

On Weds 12th June Philippe Boudes will be joining us for an informal talk at the meeting point of sociological theory, rural studies, science studies and environmental studies. Co-hosted by Imagining Pasts and Futures and Newcastle’s Centre for Rural Economy, the talk is ‘Between disciplines and interdisciplinarity: bringing sociology, science and environment together’, 12-2pm 12th June Agriculture Building AGRB.3.02.

Abstract: ‘In this presentation I explore how, starting with a very classical academic curriculum, sociology can contribute to interdisciplinary research on environmental and rural issues. Specifically, I explore how sociology can respond to instrumental and policy demands relating to the management and public understanding of those issues. How do we work within an interdisciplinary context which is often limited by demands for operational results? Rather than stay too strongly rooted in my discipline or, by contrast, favour a pro-interdisciplinary posture, I propose a new approach. This is based on trying to « live » my discipline – not denying the diversity of other disciplinary approaches, but recalling always the need to keep in mind the fully social significance of the topics studied. I illustrate this approach with reference to my research on public goods, on the greening of cities, and on river restoration. I show in each case how the contribution of sociology has allowed not only new conceptual inputs with respect to these different issues, but also to the formalization or enrichment of concepts within Sociology, including Simmelian approaches to the city and theories of recognition.’

Remembering difficult pasts – Joanne Sayner 25th March

25th March 2019 was our last scheduled cluster meeting of the semester. We were absolutely delighted to welcome Joanne Sayner to talk about her recent work on culture, centenaries and difficult pasts that she is doing in collaboration with Jenny Kidd (Cardiff). Their research has looked closely at the poppy exhibition which has toured the UK for the centenary of WWI, and in our session raised some fascinating and difficult questions about cultural institutions and commemoration, and how people might be able to think about what the poppy means beyond ‘banal nationalism’ (Billig).

Joanne is Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Heritage Studies here at Newcastle. She works on the politics of remembering in contemporary culture. With our own Anselma Gallinat and also Sarah Jones (Birmingham), she is currently Co-I on the AHRC project ‘Knowing the Secret Police: Secrecy and Knowledge in East German Society.’

Unlocking sustainable cities – Paul Chatterton seminar 27th Feb 2019

It was great to welcome Prof. Paul Chatterton for the Sociology Seminar on Weds 27th February 2019. Paul was the cluster’s invited speaker this semester.

As well as being Professor of Urban Futures and Director of the Sustainable Cities Group at the University of Leeds, Paul is a writer, researcher and campaigner. He is co-founder and resident of the award-winning low impact housing co-operative Lilac and helped set up Leeds Community Homes to help promote community-led housing.

In his new book Unlocking Sustainable Cities and in the talk Paul presents a manifesto for real urban change. The book highlights how cities are locked into unsustainable and damaging practices, and how exciting new routes can be unlocked for real change. Across the world, city innovators are putting real sustainability into practice – from transforming abandoned public spaces and setting up community co-operatives, to rewilding urban nature and powering up civic energy.

The talk set out a number of proposals for immediate radical possibilities for more sustainable cities. A lively discussion afterwards explored the scope for change in a world of infrastructural lock-in and entrenched capitalist power and culture – and the ways in which in small ways as teachers and researchers we can contribute to a greener and more just future.

Remembering Knowledge and Secrecy about East Germany’s Stasi before 1990

The cluster’s last meeting of 2018, which took place on 12th December, focused on the new research project “Knowing the Secret Police: Secrecy and Knowledge in East German Society”, which commenced in October 2018 and is led by Dr Anselma Gallinat (PI) in collaboration with Dr Joanne Sayner (NCL) and Prof Sara Jones (University of Birmingham) as CIs.

Anselma and Grit, one of the research assistants, explained the research project that entails three strands: Networks (1), Representations (2), and Memory (3). The first strand consists of four sub-studies into the religious, literary, political and social networks that East Germans shaped and transmitted knowledge about GDR’s state security (Stasi) in everyday life. These studies aim to collect data through oral history and life story interviews with East Germans as well as through archival work. The second strand focuses on representations of the Stasi through analysis of various texts written by East German lay authors (as knowledge) and autobiographies (as retrospective representation).  The last strand comprises various forms of public engagement with the ongoing memory work about the East German past, such as in a bilingual touring exhibition and in teaching materials for A-level students.

Anselma highlighted two main challenges that emerged from her pilot study, which she conducted in the past summer. Firstly, for interlocutors to recall everyday life, that is, episodic memory is a difficult task, since remembering works best in relation to its emotional impact – whether positive or negative – that often revolves around extraordinary events. Secondly, since the Stasi and its representation in public discourse and popular culture have also influenced and reshaped East Germans’ memory, how can a researcher account for these changes in the past thirty years? In a relaxed atmosphere – helped by hot drinks and mince pies – the participants discussed these two issues fruitfully and expressed their interest in hearing more about the research’s progress in the future.

Follow the project on Twitter @SecretsStasi.


Utopia now? Talk 21.11.18

On Nov 21st please join us for a talk about contemporary utopian thought  4pm, ARMB.2.49.

David Bell, Lisa Garforth and Adam Stock will be talking about their recent books which reflect respectively on utopian politics, affect and performative practices; green utopian visions and post-war environmental discourse; and dystopian fiction and political thought:

Rethinking Utopia

Green Utopias

Modern Dystopian Fiction and Political Thought

The three speakers share a background in utopian studies and the conversation will  also explore issues in contemporary utopian theory, practice and politics.

And another meritocracy event…

One of the really interesting contributions to our Discover Society special issue is the piece by David Civil (Nottingham) exploring the history of Young’s concept in relation to mid-century histories of sociology and politics.

David is one of the team organising a discussion in Nottingham next week: Meritocracy in Perspective: The Rise of the Meritocracy Sixty Years On . The panel features Toby Young, Nick Timothy, Faiza Shaheen and Helen Goulden. Free event; register online.