Project C05, Framing Futures

Project Summary

Current processes of land conversion and land conflict in Africa are characterized by translocal coalitions between local, national and international agents. These coalitions exist on both sides of the intensification-conservation divide. The particular contribution of this project is to investigate how different agents who are linked across scales achieve sufficient overlap in their visions of the future in what can be called a process of intercalibrating relevant time regimes.

The point of departure is that temporal frames of reference that are taken for granted are effective due to their implicitness, and that they will have to be made explicit through research. This applies to frames that may originate in Africa as well as frames that have been imported or that have been created in processes of linkages across scales. For instance, expectations of growth may collide with apprehensions about the loss of livelihoods creating the potential for experiences of asynchrony, for a lack of coevalness and for conflict between agents involved in changing land use, but also between members of different generations, and even across situations within individual lives. The temporal frames of reference that underlie such expectations and aspirations will be investigated with the aim of establishing how much (or how little) common ground is required in the ways in which time and the future is framed for land conversions to go ahead.

Research Regions: Namibia (KAZA)

Keywords: Social and cultural anthropology, African Studies

Key Questions

1.To what extent are temporal frames of reference made compatible with one another through processes of standardization, and to what extent do they clash and remain incompatible – and what are the consequences for cooperation in land use?

2.To what extent is the assumption that futures are (man-)made and are to be controlled based on a eurocentric bias that collides with other practices of dealing with the future that are premised on accepting the future or on adapting to it?


Joachim Knab and Christa van der Wulp, conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the Zambezi region; v. d. Wulp in Bwabwata NP and Knab in the Salambala Conservancy. Besides participant observation and microethnography of interaction, the researchers designed seasonal calendars with their interlocutors. Further they used freelists, group discussions and semi-structured interviews. Both planned to spend one year in Namibia for fieldwork but had to abort research due to the pandemic after nine months and since then experimented with ‘remote fieldwork’. Since 2021 Sabrina Msangi has joined the team, carrying out a feasibility study to expand the project into East Africa.

Key Findings

In the first phase of this project we have focused on temporal frames of reference that were geocentric, i.e. primarily grounded in space and the local ecology. The PhD projects were selected and designed with regard to contrastive environmental features (forest versus flood plains) and the initial focus of field research was on patterns and variability in seasonal calendars of land use. The preliminary results also highlight geocentric aspects of temporal frames. The PhD project on the Salambala flood plain (J. Knab) shows how seasonal calendars (and related frames) are strongly connected with personal mobility, in particular movements between urban centers and the rural hinterland of the conservancy. The study on the Bwabwata Forest National Park (Ch. van der Wulp) indicates a high discrepancy between local frames (of harvesting wild food for instance) and imposed external frames (of trading and regulating access to wild food) and the political conflicts arising from this discrepancy.

One of the main results of the first phase is that time frames are being standardized and made "legible" by the state very much in parallel to what has been described for the spatial domain (see Widlok, Knab and v.d. Wulp in press), including National Parks (see Widlok and Nakanyete submitted). This corresponds with the more general observation that research on cultural (including cognitive and linguistic) frames of reference regarding time has been strongly influenced by research on models of space (see Widlok 2021 and in press). We were able to show how agents make choices from the repertoire of temporal frames at their disposal which undermines the classification of agents into African or European cultural types.


Widlok, T & F Nakanyete (in press), ‘Framing the future in national parks’, in C. Greiner & M. Bollig (eds), African Futures.

Widlok, T, Knab J & Van der Wulp, C (in press), “#African Time: Making the future legible’, African Studies.

Widlok, T (in press), “Cultural Relativity of time concepts” In: Anthropological Linguistics: Perspectives from Africa (ed. by N. Nassenstein, A. Mitchell and A. Hollington). Leiden: Benjamins.

Widlok, T (2021), A primer for interdisciplinary research on time and future concepts. CRC/TRR228 Database (TRR228DB). DOI: 10.5880/TRR228DB.12

Widlok, T (2020), ‘Who is poor and what is poverty anyway?’, in R Bussmann (ed), Poverty in early civilizations, Habelt, Bonn.

Widlok, T 2019, ‘The world as garden, laid in value chains’, Environmental History, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 665–735.

Widlok, T 2019, ‘Domesticating categories of the wild environment: Eliciting cultural models of nature among Hai//om’, in G Bennardo (ed), Cultural models of nature, Routledge, New York, pp. 219-228.

Widlok, T 2019, ‘Human-lion relations’, in T Breyer & T Widlok (eds), The situationality of human-animal relations, transcript, Bielefeld, pp. 203-219.

Outlook for phase II funding

The second phase builds on the results of the first phase, but it will place the temporal dimension more centrally by shifting focus from geocentric to more genuinely sociocentric frames of temporal reference. This will enhance the overall interdisciplinary outlook of the CRC which is so far driven primarily by approaches predicated on ecology and space. Moreover, the in-depth case studies from the first phase allow us to broaden out to a cross-regional comparison covering sociocentric frames of temporal reference across the CRC regions. By sociocentric we mean frames that relate to social constructs or social groups, e.g. “generation”, “elders”, “youth”, “senior/junior”, “age/age-set” and so forth. If the seasonal calendars, collected in phase one, are the prototype of geocentric frames, generation is probably the prototype of sociocentric temporal frames. The project team seeks to continue by investigating in detail how these sociocentric temporal frames are constructed, how they differ across contexts, and how they relate to one another. A feasibility study in collaboration with Sabrina Msangi from Dodoma University is currently on the way to explore current uses of East African age-set and generation-set systems.

Land conversion will remain a crystallization point for our investigation since sociocentric temporal frames have emerged as major concerns in many land issues, including land inheritance and the allocation of land across generations.

Partner Institutions