SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Thomas van der Molen

BSc MSc (VU University Amsterdam), MA (SOAS)
  • Overview


Thomas van der Molen
Mr Thomas van der Molen
Email address:
Thesis title:
Affecting the Wheel of Time: Tibetan Migrant Engagements with Time and Documentation
Year of Study:
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Companionships emerging in light of ethnographic research have been most important in moving me along as an anthropologist. Among the first of these were encounters involving what I have called “fieldwork under surveillance.” The didactic value of undergoing this situation in the volatile context of working with young dissidents in Indian-controlled Kashmir was heightened by the reflexive approach I took to writing my first master’s thesis at VU University Amsterdam. I had the opportunity to further analyze the findings of my study in a peer-reviewed article on the “small, small incidents” staged by my interlocutors to mark their dissent against the military occupation of the Kashmir Valley. To this ethnographic baptism of fire were added encounters with young European Tibetans carried out in light of a subsequent master’s degree pursued at SOAS. There followed an ongoing doctoral project undertaken with undocumented Tibetans living in Nepal and Switzerland. The interests that I have related to my most recent ethnographic experiences have primarily included migration, documentation, temporality, and youth.

PhD Research

The cyclicity described in the Tantric Buddhist teachings on the Wheel of Time remains strikingly pertinent to the present day and age. Time has recently been reported to be at the very heart of the struggles for recognition and restriction waged on the frontiers of a fortified world. An emergent anthropological literature indeed squarely recognizes the centrality of temporality to the everyday lives of those crossing borders. The experiences I gained while undertaking twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork with Tibetan migrants in Nepal and Switzerland lend additional credence to this proposition. My understandings further offer a contribution to a temporally sensitized anthropology of migration that is now gaining momentum. I suggest that its focus on time be fruitfully combined with the equally budding ethnographic study of affective engagements with movement in general and documentation in particular.

The understandings I developed through ethnographic participation virtually cry out for a simultaneous concern with the temporal conditions and connotations of documentation. They illustrate how documentation may be timed and time may be documented. Yet what they offer above all is a narrative account of how some people who had themselves or whose parents had moved to one of two divergent countries affectively engaged with documentary impositions of a temporal nature. Not only did the mechanisms and meanings respectively invested in papers by ministers and migrants prove to revolve around time. They also tended to be heavily charged with emotions when it came to the everyday experiences of those at the receiving end of documentation. The various ways my companions perceived papers indeed emerged as tense ones in the double sense of involving both pace and pain.


  • van der Molen, Thomas, and Ellen Bal. 2011. “Staging ‘Small, Small Incidents’: Dissent, Gender, and Militarization Among Young People in Kashmir.” Focaal (60): 93–107.


  • "Incoherence: Disorder, Normativity, Anthropology," American Ethnological Society Spring Meeting, Washington, D.C., March 31-April 2, 2016


  • SOAS Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies