Feeling the Gendered Labor of Fortunetelling

by Zeynep K. Korkman

Have you ever had your fortune told? Many of us are intrigued by fortunetelling, yet most of us consider it empty entertainment at best and charlatanry at worst. Intrigued myself, I sought to understand divination by conducting research to observe and listen to fortunetellers and their clients. My main research site was fortunetelling cafés in Turkey where fortunetellers read the residues left at the bottom of a cup of Turkish coffee, which is served unfiltered, with the grounds.

Image by Zeynep K. Korkman
Image by Zeynep K. Korkman

During this research, I followed coffee cups as they circulated among friends, relatives, neighbors, and, increasingly, strangers, in the privacy of homes as well as in public businesses. I especially spent a lot of time at fortunetelling businesses, observing and talking to fortunetellers, their employers, and their clients. I conducted twenty in-depth interviews, observed numerous fortunetelling sessions, and had my fortune told dozens of times. I discovered that, contrary to common wisdom, divination is less about discovering the future and more about experiencing and expressing emotions. Fortunetellers make predictions about their clients’ personal lives, commenting on past, present, or future romantic interests, family conflicts, job prospects, and health concerns. In doing so, they tap into their clients’ most private hopes and troubles. Describing sometimes unusual, sometimes mundane scenarios of love, money, and everything else that moves us, fortunetellers invite their clients to imagine themselves as the very subject of those scenarios. Clients accepting this invitation get to explore how they (had/would) feel as the main actor of the situations described.

Whether a client deems a particular prediction as accurate or unlikely, joyful or saddening, every comment is an opportunity to turn inward and experience how one feels about a (past, present, or future) situation. In fortunetelling businesses, you might encounter an older client who breaks into tears when she hears the fortuneteller inquire if there was a recent loss in the family or a young woman whose face lights up when the reader describes a tall, young man she will meet soon.

Image by Zeynep K. Korkman.
Image by Zeynep K. Korkman.

Since fortunetellers are strangers who do not share the same social circles with their clients, clients feel safe in exploring their intimate desires and fears in the anonymity of a fleeting commercial transaction. This peculiar combination of anonymity and intimacy is particularly precious for women, youth, and LGBTQ individuals, who constitute the majority of divination clientele and whose private lives are highly monitored and controlled by their families and the larger society.

While few people think of divination as work deserving compensation, I found that fortunetelling does take considerable skill and effort. Fortunetellers need to attune to their clients affectively and feel (with) their clients in order to guide them in exploring and experiencing a range of emotions. In doing so, they expand emotional energy that is not reciprocated by their customers. Many fortunetellers explain that they feel emotionally exhausted and find it harder to emotionally care for others after a day’s work. They also express that they find little recognition for the effort their work requires, either from their clients or their families and friends. Indeed, the labor involved in divination is generally minimized and looked down upon. This is largely because fortunetelling is culturally coded as “women’s work.” Similar to a variety of labor from childcare to sex work that provides intimate, emotional care, divination is culturally coded as “feminine” and considered unskilled and not effortful.

Image by Zeynep K. Korkman
Image by Zeynep K. Korkman

As a result, fortunetellers are often devalued, both monetarily and socially. Their incomes are low and irregular, their hours are long and capricious, and they are informally hired without employment security or benefits. They are stigmatized as immoral individuals and as frauds, and many hide their occupation from their families. Given such work conditions and the gender stereotyping surrounding divination, it is no surprise that fortunetellers are predominantly women and LGBTQ individuals who are perceived as “naturally” fit for the work and whose access to other, more highly valued employment is limited.

As a feminist sociologist, I am motivated to increase our recognition of the devalued labors of divination. Scholars have long been debating how to analyze similar feminized and devalued work, offering concepts like “reproductive,” “caring,” “emotional,” or “affective” labors. Inspired by and synthesizing these, in my article (here), I describe divination as a “feeling labor” that produces an affective interpersonal space for the experience and expression of emotions. It is my hope that learning about the feeling labors of divination in Turkey helps us recognize and value the various forms of feeling labors that shape our transnational world.

Zeynep K. Korkman is assistant professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona. Here article, “Feeling Labor: Commercial Divination and Commodified Intimacy in Turkey,” is published in the April 2015 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

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One thought on “Feeling the Gendered Labor of Fortunetelling

  1. Pingback: Using the Future

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