"Pausing...to Come Together": An Interview with Anna Eisenstein

Moving together in Mbarara: a successful woman leads as two others keep pace. Photo credit: Anna Eisenstein.

This post builds on the research article “On Waiting Willfully in Urban Uganda: Toward an Anthropology of Pace” by Anna Eisenstein, which was published in the August 2021 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

In the following interview, Anna Eisenstein delves into the multiple dimensions at play in an ‘anthropology of pace.’ As the author elaborates on her analysis of waiting, social support networks, and practices of self-love, she underlines the necessity to ethnographically question the multiple valences, as well as the inherent tensions of these concepts.

Isabel M. Salovaara: In this article, you move beyond understandings of a forced ‘waithood’ to explore ideas of pace and pause as deeply relational. Much of the ‘waithood’ literature acknowledges that creative forms of association emerge from periods of unemployment among (mostly male) youth and that waiting is a luxury (or a requirement) for those who can afford not to take up forms of work they deem undesirable (e.g., Jeffrey 2010; Mains 2012). Your piece goes further, describing “strategic” or “pregnant” pauses in terms of the “situated intentionality involved in linking one’s life up with others’” (459). As anthropologists search for avenues of inquiry beyond the critique of neoliberalism (e.g., Ferguson 2015), what kind of analytic and political stakes are involved in the shift you propose toward an ‘anthropology of pace’?

Anna Eisenstein: I really appreciate the invitation in this question, echoing Ferguson, to articulate specific strategies and tactics to mobilize around a positive alternative vision. On an analytical level, I found that thinking in terms of pace helped bring the relational stakes of temporal practice into central view. It helped me recognize that people employed a range of temporal strategies to their advantage; it also helped me see who people were trying to link with as they paced themselves. In turn, I could begin to glimpse the risks, possibilities, and injustices, at stake in choosing to wait. On a political level, an anthropology of pace makes it necessary to treat the moral valence and socioeconomic and political consequences of any temporal practice as an ethnographic question, rather than given and determined a priori. In Uganda specifically, recognizing the meaning and value of pace has at least two very direct and practicable implications: 1) Stop judging and discouraging practices of pause as lazy or dangerous forms of behavior, as international development projects of population control often do (Moore 2018); and 2) Rather than pressuring women to complete schooling before having children, make loans and incentives available for women to go to school and/or start businesses whenever they want.

"Thinking in terms of pace helped bring the relational stakes of temporal practice into central view... In turn, I could begin to glimpse the risks, possibilities, and injustices, at stake in choosing to wait."

Marie M. Vidal : You observe that waiting was a valuable strategy to enter “social adulthood” (477), understood not only as a move forward in the life course, but also as a move upward on the social ladder, in the company of others. Since waiting can combine stop and go phases, achieving the status of an adult can then be delayed, extended in life. And indeed, your research subjects’ ages range between 18 and 28. Would you still uphold the concept of “life stages,” as you acknowledge that social adulthood is often only variably achieved through these pauses? How do you theorize age to grapple with ethnographic phenomena such as the “hard deadline” (471) of being married by 30? Is age a difference (e.g., Cohen, 1998) to be conceived of as being as fundamental as gender to making sense of these young women's liminal positions?

AE: I have been thinking with Elise Berman’s (2019) idea of “aged agency” to theorize the ways that age is inextricably linked to gender and to choice. As Berman and others have pointed out, people are not just socialized into gender roles but into age-specific gender roles that change as someone moves across the life course. Different forms of agency are open to people of different ages, and this helps me explain why women who are getting older and are still not married feel more pressure not to “get stuck” and thus have less choice about who to marry. Even while many people in Uganda do not know, or fib about, their exact age, the social categories of childhood, adulthood, and elderhood continue to structure the meaning and feeling of movement through the life course. For this reason—and in light of ethnographic phenomena like the “hard deadline,” female initiation events like bridal showers (cf. Haynes 2017), and deferential titles for old people—“life stages” remain an integral part of the social imagination and the experience of the “vital conjuncture” (Johnson-Hanks 2005).

IMS: I wanted to pick up on a thread that you introduce at the beginning of this piece. In the introduction, you convey your interlocutor Olivia’s view of waiting for marriage as “a way of ‘loving herself’” (458). To what extent was this ethos of self-love woven into the understandings of the women you interacted with at this “vital conjuncture” before married motherhood? How do you understand the significance of this discourse, perhaps in the context of the ethics of “self-care” and pleasure as a political tool (Lorde 1988; brown 2019)?

AE: The kind of “loving herself” that Olivia talked about might be best described as watching out for herself and her chances in life. With this turn of phrase, she meant she was not giving in too early to societal pressure to marry, but instead, holding out hope that waiting would allow her to achieve greater socioeconomic gains and/or match with a richer or more progressively-minded partner. This kind of “loving yourself” is like believing in yourself. It says, “I’m worth it and I’ll be okay.” It takes faith.

In contrast to Lorde’s conception of self-care as self-preservation, this kind of self-love is different in that it’s a practice of hope in the self. It is not preserving the self but allowing the self time to become more of who one would hope to become. Yet this self-love is like Lorde’s self-care in that it is also an act of political warfare. It potentially transforms the situation in which women have so much more to lose than men by getting pregnant out of wedlock or by delaying to marry. Loving oneself in this way is risky, but it allows women who succeed with it to step into more power and influence over the structures, images, and narratives that shape others’ lives and relations too.

"I asked participants in my study to capture moments they felt showed important aspects of what it was to be a young woman in this town... Their waiting was borne of constraint, yet chosen. In waiting, they were stationary, yet active. I really wanted these multiple pulls to come through in my ethnographic writing..."

MMV: I am curious about the narrative techniques you have found useful to describe the specificity of young women’s pausing in your ethnographic writing. In order to convey the experience of waiting, Vincent Crapanzano (1985), for instance, chose to rely on discourses and reminiscences. He also underlined that waiting was, in his case, compounded by fear while retaining a metaphysical dimension. The state of “waiting” (or pausing) you elaborate on was a “patient waiting” (459), an attempt to “attain a worldly return through actively partnering with God” (465). Christian women in urban Uganda would then spend days during which they would not eat nor talk on the phone in the interest of focusing on God. Such a logic is also at play in the landscape surrounding these women, in the shape of construction projects extending in time. Do these landscapes become metaphors? How do you capture the feelings (for Crapanzano: fear, boredom, despair...) that imbue your interlocutors’ state of waiting?

AE: Much of my ethnography of young women’s pausing comes through voice recordings and short videos that my participants took and sent to me during specific experiences of pause. It was not that I set out to study pause; rather, I asked participants in my study to capture moments they felt showed important aspects of what it was to be a young woman in this town and that they wanted others to know about. I would listen and respond to the recordings they sent to me in our ongoing Whatsapp conversations, and later, would also sit with the women to look at, interpret, and analyze the recordings; I would record these analytical sessions as well, and as we talked, fuller narratives of waiting and pertinent details about who was who, would often emerge. Both the original recordings and the narratives about them were full of tensions. They were resigned, yet hopeful. Their waiting was borne of constraint, yet chosen. In waiting, they were stationary, yet active. I really wanted these multiple pulls to come through in my ethnographic writing, and for this, I have found narratives, dialogues, and vignettes essential.

As for the landscapes, I cannot say that they became metaphors in any explicit sense. However, my reason for connecting them with other forms of stop-and-go is the similar meta-level discourse used to talk about the speed of building projects, building businesses, and building relationships.

IMS: One of the objectives of your interlocutors’ waiting was to strengthen what you call “networks of interdependence” (478). Do you see your ethnography as tying into one or more of the lineages of the network (Knox, Savage, and Harvey 2006) in anthropological and social theory? How do you temporalize the spatial metaphor of the network?

AE: My use of the term “network” hearkens to ongoing conversations in global public health on “social support networks.” Many studies of health behavior and healthcare decision-making recognize the importance of social relationships, documenting the influence of guidance and/or emotional and socioeconomic support of one’s friends or relatives. However, this literature tends to treat social support networks as given, preexisting entities. In my larger work, I show how, far from falling back on a set of preconfigured relationships, women in Uganda actively work to manage who has a voice in their social support network. They do so by pursuing some social relationships and working to close themselves off from others (not least through practices of pace!), and thus, I theorize the composition of networks as an ongoing, interactional process. Further, in speaking to health audiences, I wanted to highlight the continuing relevance of relationships of hierarchical interdependence in shaping the ways women seek well-being and care for themselves and their children in this setting. Importantly, one may be a follower/client to some and a patron to others, and I use the word “network” to capture this multiplicity and nestedness of relationships. Finally, my interlocutors in the field often described the value of having a “vast network” and of “linking up” and “connecting” with others whom they valued as part of their network. (They used those words in English.) And, as you have picked up on in your question, part of my intervention here is to draw attention to the evolution of a network across generations and over time; maintaining relationships and indeed, one’s network, requires pausing in order to come together with others.


Berman, Elise. 2019. Talking like Children: Language and the Production of Age in the Marshall Islands. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brown, adrienne maree. 2019. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Chico, Calif.: AK Press.

Cohen, Lawrence. 1998. No Aging in India: Alzheimer's, The Bad Family, and Other Modern Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Crapanzano, Vincent. 1985. Waiting: The Whites of South Africa. New York: Random House.

Ferguson, James. 2015. Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Haynes, Naomi. 2017. Moving by the Spirit: Pentecostal Social Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jeffrey, Craig. 2010. Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Johnson-Hanks, Jennifer. 2005. Uncertain Honor: Modern Motherhood in an African Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Knox, Hannah, Mike Savage, and Penny Harvey. 2006. “Social Networks and the Study of Relations: Networks as Method, Metaphor and Form.” Economy and Society 35, no. 1: 113–40.

Lorde, Audre. 1988. A Burst of Light: Essays. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books.

Mains, Daniel. 2012. Hope Is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Moore, Erin V. 2018. “Idle Women, Bored Sex, and the Temporal Interventions of Population Control.” Voices 13, no. 1: 74–87.