Making Sense of Society: Vanessa Hughes

For the last two years the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has held a writing competition to encourage and recognize the writing skills of ESRC-funded students. Winners for the 2016 round were honored March 21 at a ceremony in London. Social Science Space will publish the winning essays, runners-up and eight shortlisted pieces in the next few weeks; here we present the shortlisted essay, “Uncertainty: how to imagine a future while living in Limbo?,” from Vanessa Hughes of Goldsmiths, University of London.

For more on the competition, click here.

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(Photo: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr/(CC BY-SA 2.0

Uncertainty: how to imagine a future while living in Limbo?

Vanessa Hughes
Vanessa Hughes

By Vanessa Hughes
To many of us it feels like events of 2016 have plunged us into major future uncertainty. Brexit and the election of Trump are likely to bring significant shifts to lives that have been fairly comfortable and stable to many of us living in the West. Instead of witnessing wars, famines, regime collapses or environmental disasters from a safe distance, such events are coming closer to our everyday realities. The war in Syria and other conflicts have brought large numbers of refugees to Europe’s borders. Austerity measures have made food poverty a reality and an underfunded NHS is struggling to provide sufficient care to all who need it. All of it means change from a world as we know it to something unknown. This sense of uncertainty is unsettling, disorientating and at times frightening. Yet, while for many of us an uncertain future is a new feeling to negotiate, there are many in our society for whom such uncertainty has been a familiar companion for some time.

In my PhD research I work with young immigrants in London to try and understand how they make sense of their worlds, how their immigration experience and status has shaped and continues to shape their lives and identity. They all have different stories, different reasons why they are in the UK, how long they have been here or how they feel here, but what they have in common is that they are all facing an uncertain future. The reasons for this uncertainty can largely be found in an immigration system that is forcing a sense of temporariness onto those who want to live in the UK. Most immigrants now are given some type of temporary status to stay in the UK. Whether a refugee from Syria, a student from Australia, a high-skilled worker from India or joining a family member, your right of stay in the UK will be limited over time and restricted in access to entitlements, while being subject to continuous scrutiny to prove your value to the British state and society.

Furthermore, during this time the potential future citizen has to prove their deservingness to permanent residence through their exemplary behaviour before applying for British citizenship – an increasingly highly valued good. If not, they could fail the ‘good character’ test when applying for citizenship. A scrutiny that most British citizens escape through the privilege of holding ‘the right’ passport, or ‘the little red book’ as one of the young people in my research called it.

Imagine Sarah’s situation. Together with her family she came to London from West Africa at the age of four. While she has some memories of growing up there, her home is London. This is where she went to school, where her friends are and where she grew up. London is the place she knows and where she feels she belongs. When we first met in the hustle and bustle of a South London college she was totally at ease, while I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. She was confident, ambitious and a successful student. I felt uncomfortable calling her an immigrant while I had the privilege of calling myself a British citizen, even though she had spent more of her life in the UK than I had. She felt more British to me than I did. However how we feel is not on the list of eligibility criteria of the Home Office. Instead the luck of the draw in the birthright citizenship lottery determines which state we legally belong to in the world. For Sarah that is a state in West Africa and for me it is the UK and Germany, which do not align with our actual feelings or lived experience.

Furthermore, citizenship as a legal status significantly determines our chances and future possibilities. Sarah and I both grew up imagining similar futures of going to university and pursuing professional careers. Yet our different immigration situations and changes in education policy meant that this future was real for me in 2004 and blocked for Sarah today. The dream of her future was shattered just a few months before we met. Although she was offered a place on her course and university of choice, she was told she would be classed as an international student, increasing her fees three-fold, and that she was not eligible for student finance. She had no means of self-financing her studies and is now on a ‘forced gap-year’, as she calls it.

This story illustrates that the globalising world we live in looks very different for different people, depending on geopolitical positioning and the citizenship among other factors. Mobility and opportunities are not equally accessible to all, and historically constituted. The consequences of these systems are real and matter, leaving Sarah to wonder what future she will have.

Sarah has recently started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for her to go to university. You can support her here.


“Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual” |Wilhelmiina Toivo, University of Glasgow

“Living and looking for lavatories” | Lauren White, University of Sheffield


“Marginal money, mainstream economy”| Max Gallien, London School of Economics and Political Science

“Biotechnology and the world of tomorrow” | Elo Luik, University of Oxford


“Better healthcare with deep data” | Alison Harper, University of Exeter

“Child labour: making childhood work” |Sophie Hedges, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

“What future while living in uncertainty?” | Vanessa Hughes, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Ensuring a sweeter future” | Siobhan Maderson, Aberystwyth University

“Understanding the forgotten decade” | David Pollard, University of Birmingham

“Schools, funding and donor power” | Ruth Puttick, Newcastle University

“Fostering inclusion in the face of division” | Caoimhe Ryan, University of St Andrews

“Listen to the local” | Ruben Schneider, University of Aberdeen

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