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Refugees as “preppers”? Or what Simon Turner could learn from Keeping up with the Kardashians

Anja K. Franck | 7 December 2021

Over the past year, I have participated in an online writing workshop on Time, Mobility and Political Possibility, convened by Loren Landau, Noora Lori and Anne McNevin. Once a month I have therefore logged onto zoom at 10 o’clock at night to discuss the intricacies and politics of time and temporality with a very interesting group of scholars from across the globe. From the outset, my work BFF, Darshan Vigneswaran, and I mostly signed up in order to stalk the awesome conveners (because yes, academia is very much like high school: take any chance you get to hang with the cool crew!) but the focus of the workshop was also relevant for our ongoing research into how migrants in Southeast Asia hack immigration control. As a person who is not very familiar with research on time and temporality, the conversations in the workshop were at times challenging—and I would often find myself (not unlike some of my elderly relatives) leaning closer and closer towards the screen in order to keep my focus (as if the problem was my hearing rather than my comprehension…). To be fair, the workshop not only took place late at night (at least for those of us located in my time zone) but it also coincided with a year of COVID restrictions—and the serious cognitive damages that I seem to have induced from binge-watching far too many TV-shows produced in the U.S. (I mean, who can resist 17 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy when the alternative is yet another Zoom meeting?!).

As it were, I was about to hit rock bottom with season 20 of Keeping up with the Kardashians when Simon Turner’s contribution to the workshop landed in my in-box. In his previous work, Turner has explored the changing dynamics of hope, anxiety and despair in Burundian refugees’ anticipations of their futures. In the paper for our workshop, he now proposed that the notion of anticipatory practices could help us better understand how people and societies foresee and act upon potential disasters. For refugee studies, this is an important proposition—as it cuts to the core of questions around why and when people decide to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere. If, as Turner proposes, such decisions are not necessarily taken in response to an ongoing crisis or disaster but in anticipation of one, this also means that we need to reconsider the causal relationship between displacement and crisis. As Turner writes in his paper: “Rather than displacement being the effect of crisis, I propose that the anticipation of potential crisis in the future causes anticipatory practices in the present.” Speaking to Burundian refugees in and beyond East Africa, Turner reflects on their decision-making processes as based on past experiences but “directed towards anticipated futures”—as many people he encountered had actually moved before “significant violence had taken place” and had thus rather acted in anticipation of possible future events.

Now, for anyone that has watched season 20 of Keeping up with the Kardashians, this is, of course, familiar territory. Following the raging pandemic in the U.S. and incidents of violence directed towards some members of this large family, Kardashian sister Kim wants to take action to ensure the family’s future safety. At a lunch on their massive ocean view terrace in Malibu, she raises the issue to other members of the family: “I really think the bunker business is where we need to be. I think we just need to have them.” Her mother’s partner, Corey Gamble, agrees. “Well, life is definitely going in that direction, that’s for sure,” he says. In order to investigate the possibility of a bunker, Kim and her sister Khloé hook up with Ron, a private provider of survival shelters. To no one’s surprise, he encourages the sisters to invest in one of his large bunkers: “You know, the world is not getting any better. So, if the shit hits the fan where are you guys gonna go?” While Khloé is much more hesitant towards the whole bunker business, she is empathetic to Kim’s affective state, considering her past experience of being assaulted: “Obviously my fears and anxieties are way different than Kim’s but I get that you almost like fear for the worst and you play out these whole scenarios in your head that kind of boil inside of you.” During episode 4, we, therefore, get to follow these sisters as they, with an increasing degree of frustration, spend a day in one of Ron’s bunkers.

While the Kardashian’s end up ditching the idea of investing in a bunker, I could not help but reflect on the interesting parallels between Turner’s notion of anticipatory practices and the social practice of prepping that Kim is initially drawn towards. The multi-billion-dollar industry that caters to rich potential preppers like the Kardashians in the U.S. clearly does not target or provide services for refugees, but the idea of approaching refugees as engaging in prepping is still intriguing. Not the least because it opens up another route in the endeavor to move beyond the persuasive “exceptionalization” of refugee experiences and practices. In order for that to be productive here, we clearly need to take a step back from the popular image of the prepper as a raving lunatic that stockpiles ammunition and canned food (which may certainly still be the case), and rather think about prepping as a social practice. As prepping has become associated with politically charged but more socially accepted concerns for imminent disaster (like climate change or COVID), the lines between rational and irrational behavior, tolerated or pathological anticipatory practices have also become increasingly blurred. Recent research into prepping suggests that we can think about preppers as people that anticipate and prepare for “what they see as probable or inevitable impending conditions of calamity.” In anticipating and preparing for such calamity, preppers seek out necessary survival gear and knowledge—ranging from toilet paper in the face of lockdowns to the building of underground bunkers. As such, it is useful to think about preppers in terms of people that amplify the conditions of the present. What emerges from such a description is thus an “emblematic and anticipatory figure” that troubles the cracks in governing security logics: exposing their social differentiation while rehearsing their inevitable future failings.

While there are obviously astronomical differences between the anticipatory practices of Kim Kardashian and those of refugees from Burundi (and elsewhere) I would, however, still suggest that for Simon Turner, contemporary readings of prepping may actually be useful for unpacking the processes that underlie how people perceive and act upon anticipated dangers—and what these reactions tell us about societal failures to provide people with trustworthy security infrastructures and safety nets. For inspiration, Turner can start by Keeping up with the Kardishians.


Anja Franck, associate professor, studies migration and borders, with a particular interest in the social and spatial tactics that migrants employ to navigate illegality and deportability in everyday life. She is (sort of) on Twitter @anja_franck.


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