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 cyclic predicament described in the Tantric Buddhist teachings on the Wheel of Time evokes 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 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 thus offer a contribution to a temporally sensitized anthropology of migration that is now gaining momentum. Its combination with the equally nascent ethnographic study of affective investments in movement and documentation can only add to this endeavour.

The understandings I developed through ethnographic encounters virtually cry out for such a simultaneous concern with the temporal conditions and resonances of papers. They illustrate how documentation is timed and time documented. Yet, what they offer above all is a phenomenological account of how Tibetan migrants staying in one of two divergent countries interacted with the paper artefacts of temporal powers. Not only was to face documentary regimes to exist on borrowed time. Everyday encounters with documents also tended to be affectively charged. The various ways my companions engaged with papers thus emerged as tense ones in the double sense of involving both time and apprehension.


  • 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