Can we afford waiting?

These are some of the considerations about waiting I presented as the keynote speaker recently at the ANTHROMOB international workshop on Mobility and the Future of Work.

Immobility and waiting have been often disregarded as irrelevant topics of study. In fact, waiting is often attached to those called left-behind, people who do not migrate but are part of families with migrant members. In particular women have often been perceived as “waiting penelopes” (Mata-Codesal 2016) from Homer’s Odyssey and the image of Penelope, who waits for her traveller Odysseus. The so-called Odysseus and Penelope syndromes are particularly illustrative of this: the former to name the feeling of displacement experienced by migrants, while the latter refers to the sense of abandonment experienced by migrants’ relatives. The impossible situation of waiting is sublimated and poeticized in this ancient epic, where love and faithfulness are able to overcome twenty years of separation. Penelope as the ‘left behind’ is commonly portrayed as passive, subordinated and lacking agency in their relatives’ mobility decisions. However, recent research questions the passive nature of the so-called left behind, and show the necessary roles they play in their relatives’ migratory projects and the development and maintenance of transnational social fields (Mata-Codesal 2015). People’s waiting for their relatives’ return may not just entail a passive inertial situation, in some cases we can even consider their waiting agential, active and intentional (Gray 2011), fulfilling essential tasks for the success of the migratory project.

In a context portrayed as a time of increasing speed and mobility, waiting has not deserve much academic attention. In words of Robin Kellerman, a transport scholar, “owing to a predominant academic attention for ‘kinetic’ promises of transport and mobility” (Kellerman 2019), wait is at the best conceived in a very simplistic way as a waste of resources, a waste of time. This was all too familiar to what I have encountered when I started thinking about immobility in contexts of high mobility. Sometimes I wonder if we are not falling again into the same trap as with international migration and methodological nationalism, and just focusing on what the neoliberal project promotes, labour flexibilization, uncontrolled or imposed mobility, incremental speed, acceleration… and disregarding anything that did not adjust to that frame as remains to be soon erased, elements from the past or temporal faults of the system, instead of conceiving immobility, waiting and similar categories as possible alternatives or even acts of resistance.

The more I think about the concept of waiting, the more I see the parallelism between the two pairings, migrating and staying put, and moving and waiting. Initially immobility had not deserved much academic attention as we had seen, as it was portrayed as a by default situation that did not need to be explained. Recent research has shown however how in fact immobility is as complex as migration and that there are many different ways of staying put. It seems to me that waiting as a research topic is still facing the same type of academic disregard, while holding great promise to shed light onto a great number of situations in this era of growing precariousness. If we think about it, precariousness and waiting are closely related. Precarious labour often means waiting times between short-time jobs, long working hours of waiting bodies in 24-hours cafés or off-licences, blurred job schedules that translates into a total availability of workers whose family, leisure and social spheres must always wait for the job to be done… The service-on-demand economy requires completely availability, and that can only be achieved with the presence of waiting bodies and minds, being constantly on call as a state of tense waiting….

There are many different questions that come to my mind when I think about waiting. Are we always forced to wait? Is waiting by definition a passive situation? Is it just an act of despair and lack of choice? Can waiting become an act of resistance in a context where mobility is praised as the essence of our times? Is waiting always synonym of being stuck? Can be consider waiting as a marker of class? Who can afford waiting? When is waiting a privilege and when is it a burden one cannot escape from? What means waiting in a context of accelerated mobility? Who chooses to wait? Who is forced to wait? Do we know enough about waiting?

I guess for most of us here, the first image that comes to our mind when thinking about waiting is a bus stop. We have all spent many hours waiting for undergrounds, buses, trains, flights and all sort of public means of transportation. Interestingly then, given the amount of time we are waiting to get somewhere else (sometimes the waiting time well exceeds that of the movement itself), there are very scarce projects focusing specifically on the experience of waiting. As David Bissel noted almost ten years ago “waiting through spaces of mobility is an often-inevitable and frequent experience woven through the fabric of the mobile everyday [but it is] strangely absent from the current and burgeoning mobilities literature” (2007: 277).

There is interestingly a fairly amount of research about waiting carried out by psychologists and economists on queuing and waiting lists. I recently learnt that there was an area of inquire called “queuing psychology” that shows that how people feel while waiting seems to matter more than the length of the wait. As research on queuing and the social organization of access and time management have shown, being forced to wait in a queue is a way of body governance, a filtering mechanism where some are allowed to pass through without further delay while others need to wait in long queues. We are all used by now to the classification of bodies in airports in fast priority lanes that go quickly through security checks while most of us wait next to them in long and slow queues.

A specific case of waiting is that of the waiting lists for life-saving surgeries. The ordering mechanism and the way a person is assigned a position in the list is literally of vital importance. There are all sorts of studies to show how to make more efficient those waiting lists, as well as studies that show how the ordering criteria may be biasing health appointment scheduling (e.g. Samorani et al. 2019; ). Waiting lists for health treatments and access to other public services also have priority lanes. The increased times in waiting lists for all public services is a consequence of the neoliberal dismantling of social security mechanisms which is closely linked to the state of growing life precariousness for many of us.

We can also think of more serious cases of waiting reported in the literature, particularly when a migratory project is not completed, and even when it cannot even start, and the migrant becomes stuck in some sort of immobility (Carling deals with involuntary immobility (2002); Ostbo with secondary immobilities (2012) and Suter with waiting in transit (2017)). With extremes cases being those ethnographic accounts of refugees and other groups in camps, detention sites or offshore processing spots as “lives of never-ending imprisonment” (Condon 2011: 356) waiting for a resettlement or the asylum seeking process to proceed. As we know from some of the narratives of refugees and asylum seekers in camps, life can just be hopeless waiting, a constant feeling of being stranded, without any control over the situation, no signs of the end of the waiting that leads to no hope for the future. Waiting as putting one’s life on hold, when that hold is imposed and there is no certainty that the hold would even finish. However, even in these extreme situations people keep on with getting in love, marrying, having children, eating, gathering… while waiting (Mountz 2011: 390).

On the other hand, we find those people who can afford to wait for the right opportunity to arise. In Economics there is a theory called the “option value of waiting” that explains by in the event of wage differentials, people still do not migrate or take longer to migrate that one would expected (Burda 1995). This is a modification of the so-called gravity models that explain migration as a way to restate wage equilibrium in different locations, but taking into account uncertainty and information deficits. The basic idea that underlies this option value of waiting is that in a context of uncertainty where there is no perfect information the more time goes by, the more information about a situation or an opportunity a person gets to gather. Economists have realized that waiting, for whoever that is possible and in a context of uncertainty, may entail positive consequences, making waiting and non-migrating a preferable option. This makes me think that waiting, being able to remain settled, can also be considered a valuable asset, or even a privilege that only some can afford. Waiting for the crisis to go away, waiting for better times to come, waiting to get offered a proper job…

The experience of waiting is probably shaped by the degree of voluntariness of the act of waiting. The pairing hope-uncertainty is important as hope may shape how people assess their future and develop their expectations (Müller-Funk 2019), and it may in turn affect the decision to wait and the experience of waiting itself. The despair and hopelessness attached sometimes to waiting is more related to the uncertainty than to the waiting itself. It is not the same to wait when one knows something will happen, than when the outcome is completely unpredictable. One can endure the current waiting as long as there is hope that something will come up in the future. Election and hope as two basic elements that shape the actual experience of waiting. In fact, we can see the element of election and voluntariness deriving from the assessment of how much one can afford to wait. I completely agree with Marco Di Nunzio when he states that: “those who wait are often those who can wait” (2019: 15). I also find interesting Marina de Regt’s work and her suggestion that gender, as with migration and immobility, seems to shape waiting: “Women seem to wait less; they do not have the time and possibility to wait and sit still, hoping that a change will come” (de Regt 2019). However, this is a narrow understanding of waiting, sitting still, that may not cover all the possible ways in which waiting is experienced. Waiting does not necessarily implies passivity or an exclusionary nature that prevents the development of simultaneous actions. In fact, if we think about it, doing nothing while waiting is a rather unusual thing. If waiting to get the work visa, one can still work. If waiting for the bus, one can still engage in small chat with whoever else is in the bus stop. If as a waiter waiting on for a customer to order a coffee, one can spend the time chatting with a friend over the phone. If waiting for the crisis to go away, some people can still live a perfectly complex and full of action life. I quote here Brenda Gray: “waiting is not something that takes place in suspended time or outside of “doing” things, but instead as an active and intentional process, integral of constructions of subjectivity and significantly shaping the lived life” (Gray 2011: 421). However, we are guided by binary notions of waiting vis-à-vis productivity that do not leave space to thinking waiting as active or intentional (Condon 2011: 357).

Waiting has a definitive time dimension, it projects itself into the future: it definitively a future-laden concept. Waiting is a form of anticipation. It is often understood as a trade-off between now and later; to be at hold in the present for something else in the future. However, this derives from a time linearity that can be questioned. “Within the linear and ‘productivist’ time perception of Western societies, waiting times are primarily perceived as causing economic as well as psychological costs […] Concealed by an inflationary attention for movements and masked by a ‘modernist’ passion for concepts of high‐speed and tempo” (Kellermann 2015: 3). We want things and we want them as soon as possible. And this can be read both, for waiting times for transport, but also for life changing projects. Immediacy as the supreme goal of our fast-speed world. If it was ever true, we have missed by now the pleasures of waiting. But, what if we change the perspective and instead of only focusing on what people wait for, expand it to include also who people wait with and what people do while waiting. What if we look around, to the people we wait with? How resistance and activism can appear while waiting? “What is ‘waiting with’ as a form of experience?” (Mattingly 2019: 18). So similarly to how immobility can be a desired situation, requiring life strategies to be able to stay put, waiting can be an active and intentional situation with time for other doings to take place, including a collective and even activist element if waiting with someone else.

It is clear that waiting seems to afford “considerable conceptual, social and political breath” (Condon 2011: 355) and that there is much to be learnt from looking at the ambiguities of waiting, including how waiting can be actively experienced and the fact that activism can take place in waiting (Condon 2011: 355). So good things may or may not come to those who wait, because as it is often the cases, there are different ways of waiting.