Being late, going with the flow, always doing more: the cruel optimism of higher education in Jordan

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Berlant’s notion of cruel optimism refers to investments in material structures, social norms, and ideological claims of being that work against individual and collective flourishing. Drawing on ethnographic and interview data spanning 2007–2016, this longitudinal study utilizes cruel optimism to explore material and affective investments of middle class Jordanian men into becoming educated, despite their acknowledgement that education delivers limited social mobility. Analyses of school-to-work transitions suggest Jordanian youth is confronting longer periods of transition, rather than indefinitely living in times of compromised possibility. However, a focus on ameliorating transitions and ‘mismatches’ in youth skills and expectations, does not adequately consider how shared understandings of the promise of education change over time, nor how uncertainties of transition become normalized as everyday life. Through participants’ life trajectories, this article examines youth modes of improvisation when ‘transitions’ persist indeterminately, and sanctioned means of future-building fail to deliver normative ideals of the present.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)293-310
Number of pages18
JournalInternational Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 15 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, © 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Berlant
  • Jordan
  • critical educational studies
  • neoliberalism


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