On the Limits of Life Stages in Ethnography: Toward a Theory of Vital Conjunctures

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Abstract

This article argues for a new anthropology of the life course, one founded in indeterminacy and innovation. The fact that vital life events are rarely coherent, clear in direction, or fixed in outcome dramatically limits the usefulness of the life cycle model. In its place, I propose a unit of social analysis based in aspiration rather than event. I call this the vital conjuncture—integrating the "vital" of demographic vital events with Bourdieu's conception of the conjuncture of structure and action. Vital conjunctures suggest a new way of aggregating life history experiences and thus working between the individual and the social, free from the stultifying assumption of Stapes de vie. To illustrate the usefulness of the concept of "vital conjuncture, I focus on motherhood among young, educated Beti women in southern Cameroon. I demonstrate that rather than a clear threshold into female adulthood, here motherhood is a loosely bounded, fluid status. Contrary both to folk intuition and to the assumptions of a life cycle framework, Beti motherhood is not a stable status. Beti women who have borne children are not necessarily mothers, at least not all the time. Motherhood, instead, constitutes a temporary social status, an agent position that can be inhabited in specific forms of social action. The material offers perhaps an extreme example of what I argue is a more general phenomenon: "life stages" emerge only as the result of institutional projects, their coherence should be an object, rather than an assumption, of ethnographic inquiry. [Keywords: life course, Africa, demography, vital conjuncture]

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