Subjunctivity: narratives, evidence, and uncertainty

Subjunctivity: narratives, evidence, and uncertainty

When dealing with trouble, people often entertain multiple possible narratives of things that happened and that may happen.

Profound uncertainty

The profound uncertainty that may undergird living with multiple narratives was conveyed to me during my research on the remaking of everyday life after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in the province of Aceh, Indonesia. In Aceh, the tsunami killed an estimated 170,000 people, many of whom were buried in mass graves. When I first came to the province three years after the disaster, I soon noticed how my neighbors literally talked about the people who “disappeared”; most survivors had never found the bodies of their loved ones.

Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami
Reconstruction amid the ruins in banda Aceh after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Indonesia 2005. Photo: AusAID

Islam is very important to everyday life in Aceh, and many people told me they had come to accept that those who went missing were dead and with God now. They said similar things about their lost children. Yet, sometimes parents’ questions or off-hand remarks suggested that another possibility kept bothering them: that their children had perhaps survived the tsunami but had been stolen in the chaos that followed, to be sold abroad or put into orphanages. This was the rumor that circulated in the first weeks after the disaster and kept haunting grieving parents.

The Indonesian authorities and international organizations claimed the rumors were unsubstantiated. When I very carefully started to ask questions about the rumor, many people told me they knew about it, that they had heard some stories, which could possibly count as evidence, and that they thought the stories were possibly true. They told me how they themselves, or their friends or relatives, struggled with the possibility that their children were still alive, but that they had no way to find out the truth. At the same time, many emphasized that they strongly believed that their children were in heaven now.

I was struck by the subjunctive elements of their coexisting alternative narratives about the loss of their children and how these contained both the hope that their children might still be alive and the fear that they may have been stolen and subjected to mistreatment.

When and how do people actively sustain multiple narratives in navigating everyday difficulties? What does it mean to keep different interpretations and perspectives alongside each other, building on different strands of evidence? And how may powerful actors and institutions shape narratives of uncertainty in the absence of evidence? To address these questions, anthropologists have studied the subjunctive character of narrative experience.

Illness narratives

The subjunctive quality of narratives has mostly received attention in the field of illness narratives. Byron Good and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good (1994) have pointed out that, when hoping for a cure, people nurture multiple perspectives on causes and remedies. Susan Whyte (2002) shows how in the late 1990s Ugandan AIDS patients discussed biomedical test results not as conclusive evidence, but as indicating one possible cause of their illness: in the absence of antiretroviral treatment, these patients thereby narratively exchanged a future with certain death for one in which hope for health could still be fostered.

Poster urging people to get tested for HIV, Uganda

Describing even more explicit acts of sustaining multiple narratives, Cheryl Mattingly (2014) notes how in the face of severe illness and possible death of their children, parents invest in nurturing several parallel plots of their personal future. While individuals faced with profound uncertainty may thus actively engage with the “what-ifs” and “maybes” of their own lives, the subjunctive mode may also be forced upon them by powerful actors who claim to have a lack of evidence – thereby keeping open different truths. This may happen for instance when medical authorities in psychiatric settings fail to come up with a single diagnosis, as different elements of a story are incoherently produced at different moments (Pinto 2012). In the case of rumor, institutions may prolong uncertainty when they claim a rumor to be “unsubstantiated” yet not false – keeping open possibilities of truth and untruth for those affected by the rumor, as possible “evidence” remains forever unconfirmed (Samuels 2015).


Byron J. Good and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good “In the Subjunctive Mode: Epilepsy Narratives in Turkey.” Social Science & Medicine 38 (6, 1994): 835-42

Cheryl Mattingly Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life. Berkeley: University of California Press (2014)

Sarah Pinto “The Limits of Diagnosis: Sex, Law, and Psychiatry in a Case of Contested Marriage.” Ethos 40(2, 2012): 119-41

Annemarie Samuels “Narratives of Uncertainty: The Affective Force of Child-Trafficking Rumors in Postdisaster Aceh.” American Anthropologist 117(2, 2015): 229-41

Susan Reynolds Whyte “Subjectivity and Subjunctivity: Hoping for Health in Eastern Uganda.” In Postcolonial Subjectivities in Africa. Edited by Richard Werbner, 171-190. London: Zed Books

This article first appeared on the AAA Blog of the American Anthropological Association in the series 'Teaching AAA 2016'.


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