The Vertiginous Power of Decisions: Working through a Paradox about Forced Migration

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Public Culture, Volume 28, Number 1 78, p.139–160 (2016)



decisions, forced migration, Somalia, South Africa


Based on two years of intensive fieldwork with Asad Abdullahi, a young itinerant Somali man, this article explores a paradox about forced migration. Asad, in his own words, has been “kicked around like a stone,” having had to flee several homes over the past two decades. And yet the course of his life has been shaped in no small part by his own decisions. This is precisely because circumstances have unmoored him from the sorts of firm and enduring institutions that shape human trajectories. Herein lies the paradox: a forced migrant’s life is often radically decisional. The argument is that Asad is acutely aware of this paradox and that his awareness thereof issues in a distinctive mode of action that is profoundly future orientated and yet dispenses with calculations of probability. The article explores the phenomenology of this nonactuarial thinking, the internal conflicts it engenders, and the conceptions of self that it embodies.

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