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When the Future Decides: Uncertainty and Intentional Action in Contemporary Cameroon
Authors: Jennifer Johnson-Hanks
Source: Current Anthropology, Volume 46, Number 3, Pages 363-377, June 2005
Topic(s): Fertility
Country: Africa
Published: JUN 2005
Abstract: Young Beti women in Cameroon regularly assert that because they are uncertain about what the future will bring, they cannot make any plans. But they do plan, strategize, and indeed act quite effectively. The purpose of this paper is to explain how they do so, specifically in reference to marriage and reproduction, and thereby to contribute to a general understanding of intentionality, uncertainty, and social action. Action has been commonly theorized as the fulfillment of a prior intention. But uncertainties, both the probabilistic uncertainty of events and the subject’s experience of uncertainty, threaten to dissolve the link between intention and its fulfillment. This paper argues that, at least under the conditions of uncertainty applicable in contemporary Africa, effective social action is based not on the fulfillment of prior intentions but on a judicious opportunism: the actor seizes promising chances. In other words, women’s negation of Weberian rational action is not a lack; by engaging in heterogeneous activities without a clear trajectory in mind, they are able to get by. The paper makes this argument on the basis of ethnographic and demographic data from Cameroon and theoretical