SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Thomas van der Molen

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

Time has recently been reported to be at the very heart of the struggles for recognition waged on the frontiers of a fortified world. An emergent anthropological literature squarely recognizes the significance of time to those crossing borders (Andersson, 2014; Griffiths, 2014). The experiences I gained while undertaking twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork with Tibetan migrants in Nepal and Switzerland lend additional credence to this proposition. Their encounters with temporal powers all too often brought about what they referred to in their mother tongue as dütsö trolak or “waste of time.” This suggests that time emerged as a form of capital actively usurped by state authorities (Andersson, 2014).

The first politically engaged contribution I wish to make concerns the ways in which documentation lends disciplinary currency to time. I argue that it does so in the double-barrelled sense of both systematizing a political economy of “temporal opportunity costs” (Gell, 2001) and materializing the time of migration control. It seems to me that it becomes current through an oscillation between a rational and a magical mode of being (Das, 2007). These respective presences gave rise to tentative and whispered documentary permanence in the everyday lives of my companions. Such temporization appeared across continental borders through both conditioned verdicts and hearsay about documentation. A sense of being “blank” commonly persisted no matter the extent to which categorical illegalization through shokbu nakpo or “black papers” had been forestalled. These observations lead me to pose the following initial research question: How does documentation serve as a disciplinary currency of time affecting Tibetan migrant subjectivities?

The second engagement I offer revolves around persistent endeavours made by migrants to invest themselves in fulfilling time when confronted with its waste. It is at this point that I come to juxtapose the dynamics by which entanglement in the “Wheel of Time” is affected with efforts to affect it. This tantric Buddhist concept dovetails with a Tibetan cosmology of law that accommodates linear, cyclical, and static time in equal measure. A reduction in assuming rigid linearity is thus coupled with due emphasis on the diffuse, multivariant, and ambiguous quality of time (French, 1995). This allows me to explore Tibetan migrant attempts at practising useful and pleasurable time while complementing a materialist perspective with an idealist one. Buddhist approaches are particularly suited to highlighting the spiritual nature of time and space (Loy, 2003). Emergent meditations on the mind can thus be discerned as spaces out of time. Yet, orientations to simultaneously forwarding and deferring spaces in time persisted around such moments. The extent to which chigyel or “abroad” had rangwang or “freedom” and kyapchöl or “refuge” in store remained unclear. I locate agency here by adopting an analogy between affect and the “human gravitational field.” This helps me understand what I call affective critiques as attempts not so much at eluding or overcoming constraints but at warping them into “degrees of freedom” (Massumi, 2015). My second research question is in line with these considerations: How do Tibetan migrants invest themselves in affecting documentation as a disciplinary currency of time?


  • 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


  • Documentation
  • Migration
  • Nepal
  • Switzerland
  • Tibet
  • Time