Seeing the Future Through Cultural Lens

In this post I will briefly discuss the possibility of including imaginations about the future among the instruments for historical research in the diaspora. The process of imagination of the future is an essential cultural phenomenon, consisting of the different ways in which time is turned into something meaningful, intelligible: as the opening already suggests, I am inspired primarily by the reading of Appadurai’s essay The Future as Cultural Fact. I believe that this topic is of a paramount relevance for migration and diasporas studies in historical perspective, because it can reveal a new facet of the mosaic composing contemporary trans-cultural encounters; a facet expressed in the competition between different views of the future and on the instruments most apt to achieve it in the way that it has been conceived.

First of all, it is useful to recall that according to Appadurai the capacity to aspire is a cultural capacity and as such is a feature which is “recognizably universal”: it follows that the act of thinking about the future is a practice that we can investigate on trans-cultural bases, because in a way or the other all human beings are engaged with it during their lives. By the same token, it also means though that the capacity to aspire “takes its force within local systems of value, meaning, communication, and dissent”, and cannot be separated “from language, social values, histories, and institutional norms, which tend to be highly specific”. Hence, as long as these values and norms are preserved by the individual, the imagination of the future will be responsive to culture-specific stimuli. It goes without saying that in a context of migration, where a ‘minority’ lives within the social structures established by the ‘majority’, cultural imaginaries of the future can reach a considerable degree of diversity among the different groups in the society, and that this circumstance can be exploited for political aims.

However, we shall refrain from thinking that we are in front of a static situation where dissimilar ideas are perennially confronting each other: quite the opposite, we shall leave the door open to postulate that the ways in which the future is envisioned may change over time. As a matter of fact, former divergent ideas of the future might sooner or later align just as shared visions of the yet-to-come may split into two or more concurrent imaginations. In order to sustain my argument, I introduce the temporal categories of (spaces of) experience and (horizons of) expectations, as elucidated by Reinhart Koselleck, the founder of conceptual history. Simply put, the historical present is the result of the tension occurring between the experiences collected in the past and the future as one would expect it on the basis of that same past. This relation is utterly dynamic: in fact, if the future doesn’t match with our expectation once it becomes present, we interiorize the consequent disappointment as experience, while the novel expectation we come up with will vary from the previous one due to the agency of the disappointment itself. Change, in other words, is always possible and depends on our daily experiences that constantly reframe what we know already and what we can only imagine. Pushing conceptual history where it has never been applied, I argue that the very same dynamic of tension between past and future characterizes the historical present of the individual migrant, who is suspended between the interiorized past of the homeland and the expectations to be carved out of the new experiences lived in the host country. Whether or not the individual will modify her/his practices of aspiration in the aftermath of the exposure to the social structures of the hosting societies, it is up to the researcher to find (and it is indeed what I am attempting at finding out in my research). Yet, it is going to be anyway a “cultural fact” as much as it is regulated by certain ideas and values, to quote again Appadurai.

I argue that the understanding on the individual as historical subject provides us with a new entry point to analyze the migration context. Through this conceptualization we are able to put in balance the weight of past experiences in the decisions that the individual migrant is confronted with in the present: we shall not forget in fact about the potential hindering effects of the past towards some forms of participation in the host society, as this tends to be often overlooked already. To be sure, to understand the future(s) we need to know the past(s). At the same time, we would also gain new opportunities to both reflect on the disappointments taking place in multicultural societies and to reason on their root causes.

In conclusion decisions, disappointments and fulfilled expectations are all guided by the capacity to interiorize the past and to aspire. They manifest themselves in the forms of language, communication, values such as emotions and memories, which thus become the instruments of the historian to assess changes over time.




  • Appadurai, Arjun 2013. The Future as Cultural Fact: essays on the Global Condition. New York: Verso
  • Koselleck, Reinhart 2004 [1979]. Futures Past: on the Semantic of Historical Time. New York: Columbia University Press
  • Robins, Kevin 2014. “Transcultural research as encounter, and a possible creative modality of its dialogue” In Transculturality and Interdisciplinarity: Challenges for research on media, migration and intercultural dialogue, edited by Yolanda Onghena Barcelona: CIBOB Edicions.
  • Vansina, Jan 1985. Oral tradition as history. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press

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