SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Mr Thomas van der Molen

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


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:


Companionships emerging in light of ethnographic research have been most important in moving me along as an engaged anthropologist. Among the first of these were encounters involving what I have called “fieldwork under surveillance.” This prompted me to write my dissertation at VU University Amsterdam in a spirit of reflexivity. I further analyzed my findings in a peer-reviewed article on the “small, small incidents” staged by my companions to mark their dissent against the military occupation of the Kashmir Valley. To this were added encounters with young European Tibetans carried out in light of a subsequent postgraduate degree pursued at SOAS. There followed an ongoing doctoral project undertaken with Tibetan migrants in Nepal and Switzerland.

PhD Research

My research revolves around phenomenological engagements with the ways in which sporadically documented Tibetan migrants affectively attune themselves to time. It is based on ethnographic encounters that took place in Nepal and Switzerland over a period of more than a year. Those living in the first of these countries have been denied both residence and travel permits while facing growing repression. An impasse in time has arisen on account of diminishing opportunities for the future. Tibetans have tended to envision more durable senses of being by anticipating lives overseas. Switzerland is among the countries where some of them have managed to travel. Yet its authorities have increasingly conditioned and refused Tibetan applications for residence permits. I therefore suggest that “documentary impermanence” has marked both initial and onward migrations. My concern is with its being “registered” in the multiple senses of the word. This partly represents a critical response to anthropological scholarship on documentation. Such work has often been limited to a focus on documents as objects located in space. But the papers with which my companions engaged appeared to affectively materialize in the very process of being desperately anticipated. Documentation emerges as a temporally fluid rather than a spatially fixed phenomenon. I suggest that its ambiguity entails simultaneously distinct and indistinct legal temporalities. This rendered my companions susceptible to rumours about the conferment of papers. Yet my multi-temporal ethnography shows how time wasted on waiting for elusive documents failed to immobilize people. My companions literally kept taking steps to fulfil time otherwise emptied out through mechanisms of migration control. Gendered practices of walking opened the way for both employing and enjoying time. Some people cultivated contemplative avenues for transforming time altogether by applying Buddhist teachings to it. Such embodied counterpoints to documentary impermanence developed simultaneously with its affective resonances.


  • 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.


  • Anticipating Law: The Prognostics of Fear and Hope," EASA Lawnet Conference, Bern, 19 to 21 September 2017.
  • Incoherence: Disorder, Normativity, Anthropology," American Ethnological Society Spring Meeting, Washington, D.C., 31 March to 2 April 2016.


  • SOAS Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies


  • Documentation
  • Migration
  • Time