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The ethnographic negative

Capturing the impress of boredom and inactivity

Bruce O'Neill

Outside the main railway station in Bucharest, Romania, otherwise unemployed day laborers hustle for small change as informal parking lot attendants (parcagii). While their efforts yield numerous ethnographic observations of entrepreneurial activity, these attendants report “doing nothing” day in and day out. This article explores the tension between etic observations and emic feelings in order to ask a methodological question: how can “not doing” and “absent activity” be captured within an ethnographic method primed to observe activity constantly? In response, this article takes inspiration from photography to develop “the negative” as a technique for bringing the impress of absent activity on social worlds into ethnographic view. The intent of this methodological intervention is to open new theoretical lines of flight into the politics of inactivity.

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Introduction

Rethinking the class politics of boredom

Marguerite van den Berg and Bruce O’Neill

Nearly a decade after the global financial crisis of 2008, this thematic section investigates one way in which marginalization and precarization appears: boredom. An increasingly competitive global economy has fundamentally changed the coordinates of work and class in ways that have led to a changing engagement with boredom. Long thought of as an affliction of prosperity, boredom has recently emerged as an ethnographically observed plight of the most economically vulnerable. Drawing on fieldwork from postsocialist Europe and postcolonial Africa, this thematic section explores the intersection of boredom and precarity in order to gain new insight into the workings of advanced capitalism. It experiments with ways of theorizing the changing relationship between status, production, consumption, and the experience of excess free time. These efforts are rooted in a desire to make sense of the precarious forms of living that proliferated in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and that continue to endure a decade later.

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Bruce O'Neill, Helene Maria Kyed, Pauline Peters, Ruy Llera Blanes and Hege Toje

Martin Demant Frederiksen, Young Men, Time, and Boredom in the Republic of Georgia (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013), 214 pp. ISBN 9781439909188.

Didier Fassin, Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 320 pp. ISBN 9780745664798.

Ørnulf Gulbrandsen, The State and the Social: State Formation in Botswana and Its Pre-colonial and Colonial Genealogies (New York: Berghahn Books, 2014), 343 pp. ISBN 9781782383253.

Franco La Cecla and Piero Zanini, The Culture of Ethics, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2013), 119 pp. ISBN 9780984201044.

Madeleine Reeves, Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 292 pp. ISBN 9780801477065.