All posts by Herve Varenne

Constructing the virus and the defense against it in the Corona epoch

On March 5 2020, I left New York City headed for California. I was to give a series of lectures along the way. I had recently read about a virus that was agitating the media. My university announced that “nonessential events … would be cancelled.” Three days later I did lecture at Indiana University, and then at Wisconsin and at a college in Minneapolis. And then I was told that all other lectures had been cancelled. I continued driving West, noticing how various governors were responding. On March 29th, as I was threatened with having to spend 30 days in my hotel room, I drove back home where I locked myself up in my house. I was by then fully caught into what I will keep calling the “Corona” epoch officially known, in American Corona speech, “the Covid pandemic.”

A year later to the day, I received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. In one year, the world population went from “discovering” (experiencing for the first time, bumping into…) something new to finding a way to live with that which was discovered so that it does not hurt too many people any more. But, of course, to talk about “world population” is to beg all questions about who did what when for me (and now hundreds of millions of humans) to get vaccinated. Who would do what had to be distributed on the basis of earlier distributions. Sorting out this distribution and its synchronization, is something that should not be guessed or assumed. It must be investigated, in details.

So let’s play at modeling as a guide for future research:

1) let’s assume that, in January 2020 only a very few human beings had an inkling as to what to look for which was making people sick on a large scale. I am not sure of their exact specializations (though I suspect it is already multiple). I will call them “research biologists.” They, based on their “knowledge,” suspected and then demonstrated to their satisfaction that this was a “Corona virus” they labeled “the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2” I imagine many of them worked in universities and research labs

2) Soon, some of these, let’s call them “biological engineers” starting working on a vaccine. This should be restated to acknowledge the “culturing” of Corona since my model probably only works “in America,” and not in other fields with different organizations of legitimated engineering. I imagine those to be mostly employed by large capitalistic corporations like Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, etc. who are now well known for their vaccines.

3) at some point the management of these corporations started to organize those who would actually produce the vaccine in their factories. The management also had to organize the lobbyists who would converse with various governments agencies, the financial people who would converse with the banks, “legal” who would converse with those who might challenge this or that part of the process, etc.

4) in parallel the engineers in charge in testing for efficacy had to recruit volunteers, as well the writers for the reports to the various government agencies who would approve the vaccine.

5) another parallel activity must have started to ensure the production of the little bottles that are the concrete form of the vaccine and then its delivery to various distribution sites (even before one knew where these would be).

6) … 7) … 8) … 9)

1000) at the most local level of my own vaccination, all this activity by this crowd also required the hiring of the parking attendants who  ensured that a usually very sleepy parking lot could handle hundreds of cars moving in and out: the dance of these men (and they were all young black men) was amazing!

Amazing is the word to use for the emergence of the machinery that put a needle in my arm a year after I found out about that which required this needle.

By every account, each sub-activity, as well as the overall one, is an “achievement” (even, or particularly, in the ethnomethodological technical sense). These “achievements” have to be constructed on an ongoing basis by human beings who may never had constructed it, even if they had some mastery (in the Lave sense) in this kind of construction. One of the evidence of this human production is the variety of what was actually constructed. At every point the scientists/engineers/administrators had to select one possibility among others (one dose vs. two doses, extreme refrigeration vs. regular, etc.) thereby taking an arbitrary step (e.g. make a power move constituting this reality for this sub-population) that produced an arbitrary solution to a communication problem. The current vaccines work, but they are not simply “functional” or the only possible. They are also “poetic.”

I emphasize the (social) “construction” of the vaccine (“reality”) to counter one misplaced interpretation of what is now known as the “sociology of science.” I like to quote Bourdieu’s dismissal of early work in ethnomethodology as it emerged in the 1970s. Bourdieu feared that demonstrating how scientists “constructed” their “facts” would undermine the authority of science. In certain versions of this now not-so-new tradition, “reality” is dissolved as “mere” construction. I regularly warn students that they should not follow any author who leads them in that direction—for example when discussing the “body” and its processes (including the reaction of bodies to viruses). But, of course, tracing how some scientists come to see and represent some thing outside themselves does not, as such, say anything about the factual reality of that thing or the usefulness of the particular (cultural) “scientific” construction of that reality. One may be initially bothered by the way Garfinkel writes about the discovery of pulsars (1981), or by the way Goodwin writes about air controllers “constructing” air planes out of thin air (a pun I cannot help making) in order to land real planes and their passengers safely to the ground (1996).  But one need not be bothered that, for the controllers, the “plane” is only blips and condensed text on a screen as long as the plane is landed safely.  That human beings can actually do this, through language and complicated practices, is what remains amazing.

This argument applies to what humans did with the virus I call C19 (in order to resist the arbitrariness of the more “correct” label). It must have started as an hypothesis (“these symptoms look like they are produced by a virus), “confirmed” by a set of steps using complicated (culturally produced) machines leading to a fuzzy picture that led to the pretty picture that allows “us,” the non-biologists, to “see” the virus. That neither representation captures the virus-as-is (that is the indefinite number of “actual” viruses that infect) is besides the point. The important thing, for the overall achievement, was the construction of the model of the virus that allowed for future action.

I will conclude for today with a return to my last post about fishes and the water. What is clear is that the initial metaphor is based on an extremely limited model of all life in which only one kind of fish (native) is shaped and blinded to only one kind of water (culture). Given a volume of water, it will be inhabited by many fishes that will experience different versions of the water (depending on depth and light, salinity, predators, etc.) as well as, most importantly perhaps, each other. So the fishes will have not one model of the water they inhabit, but many that may or may not look much like each other. The biological model of the virus used by biologist engineers to make the vaccine is clearly a very particular one very few among the world population could understand. Most of us will never experience the virus as an object (even when we experience the disease encounter with the virus may produce). Each of these models, in the not so long run (a year!) will do something that needed done.

1979 Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. (with Steve Woolgar)


Garkinkel, Harold and M. Lynch, E. Livingston   1981     “The Work of a Discovering Science Construed with Materials from the Optically Discovered Pulsar.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 11, 2:131-158.

Goodwin, Charles and Marjorie Goodwin   1996     “Seeing as a Situated Activity: Formulating Planes.” in Cognition and Communication at
edited by Y. Engeström and D. Middleton. Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press: 61-95.

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar 1979 Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. New York: Sage Publications.

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On fishes, water, and consciousness

It would hardly be fish who discovered the existence of water. (Kluckhohn 1949: 11).

If we describe a community as an ecological system we describe it not as the members of that community themselves think of it. They are ignorant of a science of ecology. (Redfield 1960: 32)

Could it be that the fish do know much about just what, about water, makes the most difference as they continue swimming? (Varenne 2019: 25)

Recently, a student wondered how I could write what I did about fishes swimming in their water and quote Redfield approvingly (at least in general).

The issue is even more complicated if we add another version of the underlying issue concerning consciousness and knowledge:

The anthropologist will be dealing on the one hand with raw phenomena and on the other with the models already constructed by the culture to interpret the former. Though it is likely that, …, these models will prove unsatisfactory, it is by no means necessary that this should always be the case. As a matter of fact, many “primitive” cultures have built models of their marriage regulations which are much more to the point than models built by professional anthropologists. Thus one cannot dispense with studying a culture’s “home-made” models for two reasons. First, these models might prove to be accurate or, at least, to provide some insight into the structure of the phenomena; after all, each culture has its own theoreticians whose contributions deserve the same attcmion as that which the anthropologist gives to colleagues. And, second, even if the models are biased or erroneous, the very bias … are a part of the facts under study and probably rank among the most significant ones. (Lévi-Strauss [1952] 1963: 282)

In many ways I do not have much to add to Lévi-Strauss beyond trying to make more concrete what we might do if we are inspired by what he says about “home-made models” (a phrase I prefer to “models constructed by the culture”). How would we, anthropologists, recognize a “home-made model”?

As an easy example, I will follow Lévi-Strauss’s lead about models of marriage regulation and quote a statement about marriage by one of America most authoritative institutions, the Supreme Court:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. (2015 Last paragraph of the Obergefell v. Hodges, written by Justice Kennedy)

In my own work, and building on Schneider (1968), I used such statements in Americans Together (1978) to argue that “in America” “love” trumps all. I also emphasized that “love” is only one part of a model that also includes discourses and practices about “individualism” and “community.” I would probably write all this differently now but I would still say that, for people in the United States (the fish) experiencing their condition (water) when deciding whether to applaud or resist the Supreme Court, “love” remains the problem/solution that shapes practices and, particularly, disputes about practices. And so, I was not surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision, and even less by its justification.

Of course, many if not most social scientists, and not just Marxists, would question working with what they might label an “ideology” that masks “deeper” structural matters, and produces hidden consequences. Lévi-Strauss does argue that the same practices might be modeled differently and stresses that the differences themselves are useful for further investigation and analysis. Individualism/community/love is also neo-liberalism depending on how one models American practices.

How to handle such differences is something for another day. For now, I am just going to refer to Supreme Court opinions as an instance of (native) “discursive consciousness.” That is, writing such a statement, living with it, and resisting it, must involve and trigger “consciousness” by about any definition of consciousness. No fish swimming in American waters can fail to take into account the discourse and its practical consequences (even if, should the Marxists be right, this discourse mask properties of the water to which these fishes are blinded).

There is also what I call “practical” consciousness. This is the consciousness revealed by the actual practices of those who might not produce a discursive account of their experience. An easy example (based on something I overheard in the street):

Child (excitedly): “Mom, I singed yesterday, and it was great”
Mother (somewhat sternly): “Dear, say I ‘SANG’ yesterday.”

As all ethnographies of speaking with young children have demonstrated, parents all over the world intervene to require some change in the way the child is speaking. In other words, a parent (older sibling, etc.) will invoke some rule (and there are many!) about “speaking well” even if this parent could not produce a grammar of the language (and even less the full panoply of usage customs it would take long “ethnographies of speaking” for an anthropologist to produce).

Such moments of correction are ubiquitous and are probably the basic method for maintaining any arbitrary (e.g. ‘irregular’ verbs in English). There are many more some might find more significant as to ground any way of life. One example of this would be the generations of farmers in Bali who developed the complex agricultural practices that sustained millions over century (Lansing 2006). What exactly the farmers (and priests, rulers, etc.) “knew” about their ecology and technologies is a question that generations of colonial administrators and development specialists dismissed—to catastrophic consequences in some cases when the local populations followed the very discursive consciousness of those who esteemed themselves as experts. By every measures, the local “models” proved more useful than those developed by these others. In this case Redfield, though correct in principle as far as the “science of ecology” is concerned, is quite wrong in terms of survival requiring complex technological solutions involving a large crowd of people.

At this point one could bring to bear Ranciere on the wisdom of shoe-makers, or Gramsci on “organic intellectuals.” One might also note that there is great value in the specific form of consciousness (knowledge) developed in what is variously known as the “West,” “Euro-America,” the “Global North.”

To go back to the metaphor, it may be that the fish do not have a discursive consciousness of the water to the extent that … they cannot speak! However, everything about them, including the way they swim in the various waters this or that kind of fish might encounter, will tell much to the observer that the observer might not easily notice. And, of course, given that human beings are not fish, and that they do speak, what they say about their conditions is essential, even if it is not the last word on the matter—as they themselves might acknowledge as they dispute what they should do in some future.


Lansing, J. Stephen   206     Perfect order: Recognizing complexity in Bali. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2006

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1963 “Social structure.” Tr. by C. Jakobson and B. Schoepf. in his Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. pp. 277-323.

Schneider, David [1968] 1980 American kinship: A cultural account. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Varenne, Hervé 1977 Americans Together: Structured Diversity in A Midwestern Town. New York: Teachers College Press.



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What is anyone to do about GameStop? Who knows?

On the ignorant in capitalistic action

Like about everyone else I started the week of January 25, 2021, from a position of total ignorance about GameStop, Reddit, the Robinhood “Commission Free Trading & Investing App,” and the epic battle between hedge funds and young ones (mostly men I believe) As far as I can tell this is the position of many besides grandfathers who are not any more “dans le vent” as I might have said of my grandfather half-a-century ago. I am just one among the hundreds of millions who, like me, were completely ignorant and were also altogether irrelevant since we were not participating in the battle. This irrelevance may be changing as some among this crowd, like me writing this blog post, are starting to participate though mostly as an audience to a drama playing itself on a distant stage.  As we watch we discover significant actors, their networks, their conflicts, their tactics, their armaments and their uncertainties in a very dubious battle.

The more interesting ignorance, for a social scientist, is that of the significant actors—those whose activities might have a direct impact on the activities of others.  Many of those actors probably thought, a few weeks ago, that they were knowledgeable experts, and then found out that this was not true at all. Among these actors are the millions who knew about Robinhood and used whatever it provides.  And there are also the smaller number who populate the “hedge funds” and also discovered their ignorance about actors they apparently had not noticed or had dismissed.  As an ethnographer, I would open what should not remain black boxes (“hedge funds”) to reveal their internal organization.  I might chose as my site Melvin Capital who appears in the media as one of those funds who lost the most last week (possibly half its value a month ago). According to  Google, Melvin Capital has several “chiefs” (Chief Investment Officer, Chief Operations Officer, etc.). It probably also has hundreds of employees many of whom are those I believe are known as “traders.”  I suspect many of those are hired young men (and now probably also some women) who are in charge of actually doing the work of the firm.  I am sure ignorance was well distributed among all those. I would also not be surprised to learn that some of the new traders have now been fired for not noticing what was happening and for having almost bankrupted the firm. At some point the chiefs must have become aware of the losses and then discovered who were the actors producing these losses. How could they have imagined that young (some as young as 13!) men (where are the women in this fight?) would find a way to organize to defeat a bunch of famous experts at their own game: make a lot of money with little investment by playing on obscure possibilities?

I am not saying here that the young ones are more knowledgeable. They appear not to have known that the chiefs could organize themselves to demolish the young ones’ positions for the few hours it would take to mitigate losses (and probably make a lot of the young ones loose money some of them might not have been able to afford). An early story in the New York Times (1/31/2021) only mentions young men making money, not losing it.
While Rancière might celebrate the fact that they are mostly “self-taught” (that is that their education was not controlled by any authority besides each other), the grandfather in me suspects that only a very few will end up with more money than they started with. As far as I know, one rarely wins battles against “the Market” (and those end up managers of hedge funds…). As it is often put, the young ones are going to “get an education”…

Money is being made and lost on a grand scale. If much of this money is not essential for survival anyway, then one suspects that all this is also “fun” in the way deep play can be. So, let’s leave aside the money aspect for a while, and recognize what has been happening as, also, involving active explorations of possibilities given what one might call the “affordances” of the epoch. This would include the affordances of new software, the collapse of schooling as control of young bodies for hours on end, Zoom boredom, social media dares that may be less dangerous than others (no sex, no Trump, just “ready money” that is not quite needed for survival). And then, as the young ones could no longer be dismissed by the chiefs, there is the chief own explorations of aspect of Wall Street affordances they had not noticed before. I am about sure that those the chiefs manage will now use what the young ones discovered. I am reminded of Souleles’s work on private equity funds that surprised Wall Street in the early 1970s (2019a, 2019b). At that time a few young men had discovered a possibility, and soon many followed suit.

But Souleles had to work from 40-year-old documents, and reminiscences from some of those who followed the pioneers. What I  hope will now happen is that someone will keep ethnographic tabs on the actors in this GameStop moment in order to develop better models of what I understand as ongoing education through collective difficult deliberations (2007, 2019). I trust this kind of research would help move the field away from easy “explanations” that end with the mention of “capitalism,” “neo-liberalism,” “greed,” “white privilege,” and any other such purported root cause. Obviously, the moment is part of a broader epoch that started with Reagan and Thatcher, or the Bretton Woods agreements, or Adam Smith, or … But none of these, as moments in the history of capitalism, are, precisely, causes. They are at most new conditions (constraints and possibilities) in an ecology with affordances that keep emerging and evolving. Neither the chiefs nor the young ones of the GameStop moment are just billiard balls with habitus careening on some billiard table.

So, I propose to look at the event as a sequence of moves by life forms responding poetically to various triggers. From my reading of media reports (and expanding on my post of January 28, 2021):

Time 1 — GameStop was a failing business.  Its stock was  moving lower, perhaps to 0;

Time 2 —  Some hedge fund managers (probably low level ones at first) noticed this, imagined that the “overly” high price was driven by the ignorant (see the young ones above), and decided to make money by betting that the price would go lower;

Time 3 —  young men in various basements continued buying the stock and its price kept on getting higher (I wonder why they would do this: ignorance of business fundamentals? Nostalgia from the time when the shop was their utopia where to spend Christmas money?)

Time 4 —  some of the young men noticed that they were bothering New York hedge funds and organized to buy even more stock (with the idea they would bankrupt the funds).

Time 5 —  the chiefs of the managers noticed that they were getting played and got together to apply raw economic power over the actual market place (Robinhood) where the buying was taking place and got the price to get down;

Time 6 —  the young ones mobilized further and exercised their own raw political power by making the media notice, thereby leading to a backdown from some actors—though after some of them had limited their losses;

Time 7 —  …….. [to come] ……….

To generalize, we have here a conversation or deliberation during which the ignorant teach each other new possibilities even as they make some new ones and there by produce consequences that are far more than “texts” or “narratives.”


Souleles, Daniel & Hervé Varenne   2019a   “Redesigning capitalism.” Chapter 4 of  Educating in Life by H. Varenne et al., 63-78.  New York: Routledge.

Souleles, Daniel 2019 Songs of profit, songs of loss: Private equity, wealth, and inequality. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

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on the ages of Corona

The peak Corona epoch is ending.

This may be deemed optimistic if one only listens to the New York Times or NBC. It is not that optimistic if one extrapolates from most other pandemics that appear to run their course in 18 or so months. With coming of the various vaccines, the end may even be closer.

Those who have read my earlier blogs on Corona as human production will not be surprised to read that calling “the end” will be another political act on par on the acts that, in early March 2020 closed restaurants, schools, and about everything else. Calling “the end” is to be a symbolic, imaginative, narrative move (speech act) that various governors and authorities will make at very different times. China appears to have already made this declaration. The nations of the Global North (that used to be known as ‘the West’) will declare the end in various ways. Some will just announce that large crowds can now gather in stadiums. Some will go through the process of lifting various declarations of “emergency” that currently limit usual rights. And some may even do what Catholic governors used to do in ages past and have a formal Te Deum sang in some national cathedral (as was done on the 26th of August 1944 in the Notre Dame cathedral to celebrate the liberation of Paris). As for the scientists of the CDC and WHO, they will debate for years when to place “the end” (as some continue to debate when the 1918 flu ended).

I am writing this as another kind of scientist. I am one of those who insist that close attention be paid to what human beings do with a virus and a disease as they deliberate about the virus and disease and transform them into something I call the “Corona” epoch. This transformation involves both imaginative operations (related to what Lévi-Strauss referred as “wild thinking”) and very practical onesthe length of the conversation may be much shorter: I am fascinated by the absence of the 1918 flu in the literary canon of the 1920s and 1930s: Does the flu appear in Fitzgerald? Hemingway? Colette? Woolf? Dreiser? Faulkner? with major consequences on the lives of people in their most local, communal and familial lives (as about every social scientists since Max, Durkheim or Weber have insisted). It is as such a scientist that I speculate about what will happen starting late in 2021 and continuing into the next century.

Be that as it may, what concerns me is the rising of the “grand narrative” about “how it was like during the pandemic” and the disputes about this narrative. Specifically, I do not quite fear that this narrative will obscure the variety of the people’s experiences. Emphasizing such varieties is now an unavoidable truism, if not a cliche. Rather I fear that the coming grand narratives about Corona (“the Covid pendemic”) will erase the evolution of Corona in the lives of the people. The main issue for me is not that Corona will have been different for people of Type A by contrast to people of Type B (C, D, E, F…).  The main issue is that Corona will have been different at various points over the course of the epoch so that we, social scientists, should model the experience of A as “At1″ (A at time 1), “At2,” and so on (and of course Bt1, Bt2…, and Ct1, Ct2….)

Let me take a personal example. I am the child of parents who lived through World War II in Marseille, at the periphery of that war. They were 13 and 14 in 1940. Five years later, as the war moved into the past, they met, fell in love, and had two children who can now by summarized as “baby boomers.” They were married for more than 50 years, until my father died. What I now realize is that I know very little about the internal organization of WWII as the epoch they experienced. I have anecdotes though I cannot remember whether they were told by my parents or whether they come for Hollywood. Of the first type must be the anecdote of my grandfather pursuing a prized watermelon rolling across the Canebière through whizzing bullets (though this might be appropriated by Hollywood). But I cannot quite reconstruct from these how WWII might have been different for a 13 year old as she grew up, got credentialized as a “steno-dactylo” and started working in a bureaucracy as she met her future husband. It is not only that her experiences changed but that she had to change herself given both the changes in her body and social positions, but also in the challenges that the evolution of the war confronted her with.

These reflections were triggered by a student conducting research on the parents of a school in New Jersey. She started the work in September 2020, having laid the ground work through the summer and its various uncertainties. By November she became concerned as what to do when, sometimes in October, regulations about schooling changed. There had been some versions on “on-site” schooling, with the attendant questions about safety, etc. And then that was stopped by the State. This paralleled what was happening in New York City: for parents of school age children, for the children, and for the teachers, “Corona” kept changing the challenges they were all facing. Whatever they had “learned” under the preceding version of the regulations kept getting obsolete, or at least in need of revision.

I now advise students conducting research under Corona to focus on the changes that every one has to endure from the moment when a local governor impose certain types of restrictions, to the changes in these restrictions, to overheard debates as to what other governors are doing, to direct experiences when the decease catches family or neighbor in its own multiple ways (from a close relative who test positive for the antibodies, thereby suggesting that he had gone through the disease in some past, while another relative dies over a few days). Each of these experiences, as they might be told or observed by an anthropologist, should not lead to hypotheses about what a participant may have “learned” about Corona. Rather it should be treated as evidence for what people can do at any particular moment, thereby shedding some light on the various “ages” of Corona for that population. As I have experienced it myself, and as I have been told, when and how to “distance” oneself is never settled, even in close-knit groups.   “Bubbles” expand or retract in response to changes in personal lives, or what one hears about what other people are doing. Every solution to the problem is little more than another tool or material for the further deliberations.

In the famous allegory of the elephant and the blind men, the elephant does not move, grow up, or die while the men deliberate about what it is to be. The “organism” metaphor that seemed to work so well to think about “social structures” (or “systemic organization”) had just the same problem: the “organism” did not evolve or die. Latour’s ANT is in similar danger if one does not recognize that nodes in the network die out while others pop-up, each creating new constraints and possibilities for many in linked nodes. As I have argued in other ways, Corona, as human on-going production, is to be approached as alive and evolving through the difficult deliberations of the governors among themselves and through the deliberations of the many affected by what these governors decide.

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Transporting school into home

I rarely I find a New York Times analysis that echoes something I wrote. On October 1, 2020, Carina Chocano did just that in a piece  on “Distance learning, with shades of big brother.” This was triggered by a wonderful awful video on what little girls should NOT do when Zooming school.

young girl doing school at home via Zoom
do not eat while Zooming for school

As Chocano points out, this video is nor really addressed to 5 year old girls, but rather to her parents.

Why would such a video be necessary?  Why does it make so much sense for school people to tell parents to watch it?

A long time ago (1984), McDermott and I wrote about a well known chore of 20th century modernity: “homework” that is school work to be performed at home. As children continue to do all their school work at home anthropologists should wonder anew about the relationship between home and school.  In 1984,  we argued that family education looks nothing like school education. In general, the organization of family education will always evolve through mechanisms that centralizing authorities cannot fully direct—even as they attempt to do so. Simply put, school teachers are licensed by the State, family teachers are not. School teachers are disciplined by assistant principals or “inspectors” (as they are called in France) to check whether they enforce the currently approved curriculum or pedagogy. Parents, in contrast, cannot be routinely disciplined-thus perhaps the need for a video on how to do school at home.

Our main goal in the 1984 paper was to highlight the reality of family education and particularly the paradox that this education shapes the actual performance of “homework” and easily trumps what the School attempts to do.  We were also trying to investigate an alternate, ethnographic and ethnomethodological, route to the analysis of the great school mystery: why is it that an institution designed to mitigate birth privilege as been such at failure at doing so.  Since the late 1960s at least, “big data” social scientists have established that the most powerful predictor of school success is family organization (Coleman 1966: 218ff).  Half a century later, not much has changed. How can that be?

The most common answer is the one Chocano learned in college.  As she tells us, while watching the video she was reminded of prisons and “big brother.” She then goes on to quote Michel Foucault about disciplining the body of children-as-pupil  to make “docile bodies” who “internalize” the discipline into adulthood and parenthood when they will reproduce it.   She might also have quoted Bourdieu on the production of an “habitus”  without noticing that reproduction through internalization is an altogether wild hypothesis.   This is not Chocano’s fault.  She was probably not taught that Foucault had radically discounted all evidence that the (let’s say French) State (of, say, the first half of the 20th century), however centralized and hegemonic over its provinces essentially failed in its task. The French State did discipline speakers of Provencal into speakers of French (as happened to my grandparents) and it did punish those who refused to send their children to school. But this State, like all other states, failed to so discipline families in their internal organization.  The State and its wardens (to develop what Foucault does not quite tell us is a metaphor) could not prevent families from appearing to satisfy wardens and inmates that they should not punished while they actually escaped the fate the institution prepared for them.

Readers of Foucault and Bourdieu should now focus on this failure of the School to control families.  McDermott and I, as cultural anthropologists have done since Boas at least, were trying to do by documenting the multiplicities of alternate ways families found to do what their schools was trying to discipline them to do.  In the language of the video, they did eat while doing homework, they danced when they should have been sober, and they doodled in the margins of their workbooks (like the little girl does when she fills a comment box with unicorn emojis!).

What I would now say McDermott and I were also doing was bringing out the way school work at home threatens internal familial dynamics and thus requires specific family work to encompass what the School requires. Transporting school into home makes a crisis that those who make this home must then deal with.  By proceeding in this fashion, from crisis to observation of the work of re-ordering, we were doing what anthropologists have always done and was made by Garfinkel into a fundamental methodological tool: we use disruption in the habitual to get a better sense of that particular order some human beings try to live by.  They rarely did.  But we are now living just such a crisis and it can tell us much about many of our institutions including, of course, all institutions in their educational roles.

As I argued earlier, C19 does not close schools, only some people can do this and, in the process, produce the local orders I label “Corona.”  But, as it is daily made evident, Corona, anywhere that it is getting institutionalized, is made up of different practices depending on whether one is acting as an agent of the School (say a person-as-teacher Zooming) or whether one is doing so as an agent of one’s family (say this teacher-as-parent setting up a child’s Zoom). Interestingly, the production channels are more complex as State agencies are themselves organized so that the part of the State dedicated to public health can impose matters on that other aspect of the State designed to shape schools and maintain this shape.   By enforcing the injunction “Stay Home! Stay Safe!” public health official created a crisis for school  governors who had little choice but to transport school into family.  And, as these governors knew well, by doing this they were also relinquishing much of their disciplinary methods … thus the production of a video that is clear evidence that these governors know very well that children-as-children will do all the things marked as “NO!” on the video (and much else that would not be shown on a “family-friendly” video).  And they know that their parents may let them do these NO things.  Parents may organize their child so that he could, should he decides to do it on his own, explore the Siberian Socialist Republic one one monitor while School Zoom drones  on the others.

young boy doing school at home via Zoom
exploring the Siberian Socialist Republic while Zooming to school on another monitor

That parents may organize their children do what the school say they should not do may or may not be a problem.  As an anthropologist, I always err in the direction of celebrating the human capacity to find ways through crisis no other human being can imagine. One might even say transporting school into home is a step towards “deschooling” society (Illich 1970).  And yet, as a child of three centuries of “democratic” revolutions I also understand the concern about the reproduction of birth privilege through family processes that trump school processes.  Access to three monitors and a desk of one’s own is not something many parents can do.  C19 is also an occasion and justification to radically distance one’s children from all sort of undesirables to the parents—they might carry diseases! There was a good policy reason for “public” schools that radically separated children from their parents and local communities. Whether the aftermath of Corona will lead to a return to this kind of schooling that was already on the way out is something an anthropologist cannot say.


Coleman, James      1966 Equality of educational opportunity. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Foucault, Michel   [1975] 1978     Discipline and punish. Tr. by A. Sheridan. New York: Penguin Books.

Illich, Ivan 1970 Deschooling society. New York: Harper & Row.

McDermott, R.P., S. Goldman and H. Varenne   1994     “When School Goes Home: Some Problems and Defensive Tactics,” Teachers College Record. 85: 391-409.

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Motivations as causes?

Six months into Corona, I “decided” to get tested for the virus I label ‘C19.’ I had no symptoms but, off the top of my head, I’d say that I was “motivated” by:
1) curiosity about the various steps in the process.
2) my employer’s mandate that I be tested if I wanted to enter the building housing the physical Teachers College (of course the College resides virtually in computers all around the world).

One might say that the first motivation was under my control while the other was not (though I could have “decided” that I did not want/need to get into the physical building). And many others might say that deep in my head other, darker, motivations may have been at play.

Whatever my motivation, three days after the test, I was told on the phone that I was “negative.” The formal detailed report stated that “COVID-19 PCR” was “Not Detected.” A whole of set authorities were listed.

This test, and Teachers College’s mandate that I be tested, came at about the same time as there appeared, in the official media, reports of an expert debate about the wisdom of testing when one has no symptoms. I assume that this was not a new debate. I assume that this debate has been going on for months among epidemiologists, the governors, the alt-media, and the familial “pods” where most of us have been living since we were told to “stay home.” But, on August 17 2020, and then again on August 30 2020, the New York Times reported what I imagine are the official conversations.

In the first report readers were told that, in many parts of the world (the Bronx, parts of Brooklyn, the slums of Mumbai, but not the tonier zip codes in Manhattan) “herd immunity” might have been achieved. Not surprisingly, not all experts agreed.

The second report told of a new (for those of us depending on the NYT for our education) debate about the sensitivity trigger for a diagnostic of “positive.” I had never thought about that! It seems, and it really should not have surprised me, that this trigger is a matter of placing a boundary on a continuum. I had been taught that the amount of the virus in a body is a continuum. I have now been taught that the process of testing for the presence of this virus is also a continuum of cycles of amplification with experts differing as to where to put the boundary: should it be 40 cycles? 37 cycles? 30 cycles? Should finding “a genetic fragment of the virus” count as “virus detected,” or not? Cultural anthropologists should always postulate that the placing of a boundary is a matter of an “arbitrary” act by some collectivity of actors.  Making marks in the sand is what human beings do.  But they do not do this after building consensus or writing a contract, as some ancestors assumed.  The mark will always be the temporary remnant of some act of authority, an act that will immediately be challenged (though most often this challenge will not be successful).

All this became all the more salient as one of acquaintances told me she had tested “positive” and quarantined herself from spouse and young child. A week later she tested “negative” and de-quarantined herself. Setting the sensitivity of a test is not purely a public health issue for our governors, it is also an intimate issue within the various “pods” we inhabit. (Not) testing (not) negative will always lead to possibly contentious precisely political debates with our most significant others. Of the two tests, which should my acquaintance have trusted? Should she test a third time?  Another of my acquaintances has been tested four times in two months (“motivated” by various others).  He was told each time he was “negative.”

As I will say, C19 will not tell us whether to get tested, what level of sensitivity makes it visible for human action, or how often one should be tested.

I am not going to repeat myself but will use the occasion to ponder something only my students will think worth pondering (if they are registered in the class I teach this semester they won’t have much of a choice as it is part of the assignments…). I hinted at where I am going when I placed “ ” around the verb ‘decide’ and word ‘motivation’ in the first sentence of this post. The current puzzle has to with something one of the ancestors of sociology once wrote:

[We understand any] particular act [when is] has been placed in an understandable sequence of motivation, the understanding of which can be treated as an explanation of the actual course of behaviour. (my italics. Weber, 1897)

If I understand Weber’s argument, C19 was “meaningless” until it entered human consciousness and triggered action by some subject who made it “meaningful” as Corona (in my language). And, most importantly, these subjects will “place their act” in different “sequences of motivations” that are more less distant from what an act might have been if the actor “had fully adequate knowledge … of his own situation.” This last comment has something to do with ideal-types as methodological tools, but I will not discuss this here.

My problem is with the sequencing of the word “motivation” in the social sciences. To me “motivation” has always been and remain a word about something psychological as I think it is for Weber. I am willing to grant various kinds of psychologists the authority to tell me that what I list as motivations for doing something may not be the “real” ones that might be buried deep in my unconscious. From Freud onward many have tried to dig for hidden motivations and I am not going to fight them on their territory except to the extent that their own vocabularies for motivations, their own sequencing of this vocabulary, in their own discourses and debates, in their own methods for establishing their authority and recruiting new members, etc., have to be deemed “sociological”—in the Durkheimian sense…

That is, I can imagine investigating what Kenneth Burkes call a “rhetoric of motives” ([1950] 1969). I even wrote a paper titled “Culture as rhetoric” (1978)’

But … reporting on the rhetoric of motives that are available to a particular population is not all the same thing as proposing that these motives actually move anybody into action. I remain convinced that Max Weber is the more dangerous of the ancestors as it is easiest to sequence him into the invidualistic ideologies so common sense in America, and so lose the sociological perspective, including the sociological perspective on individual action with all our others.


Burke, Kenneth   [1950] 1969     A rhetoric of motives.. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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Ongoing local culturings of Corona

In my last post, I asked readers to marvel at the multiplicity of institutional responses to similar triggers. It is by now (late July 2020) famous that governors changed their minds about the wearing of masks. Even now, whether masks are “obligatory,” “suggested,” or deemed unnecessary, here or there, is something governors are of multiple minds around the world. I generalized this given what I consider a fundamental aspect of human action: there is no one way to respond to anything, good enough is enough, making it poetically interesting is better.

My last post focused mostly on what might be called “State” culturings. But, given the general character of the issue, there is no reason to stay at that level of particular mandates for a certain population at some time in its history. The “population” impacted by a culturing has no particular size or, perhaps, as Arensberg argued, the minimal size might be three: someone who proposes, someone who responds, and someone who enforces.

shopping in Southern French market

This became quite salient to me when I noticed, going to mass in a Southern French village in early July 2020, first a sign saying that wearing masks was “obligatoire,” and then 15 out of 20 people at the mass not wearing masks. In the village different stores had different rules about how many people could be in the store, what was the shape of the dividing plexiglas (or whether there was one at all), and when/where people in the streets or store wore masks.

All this triggered the ethnographic itch that is not quite satisfied by examining governors’ acts from a distance and without access to the actual conversations among the governors’ staff leading to this or that mandate. I could now see people in the process of making decisions about their behavior and about the behavior of those around them. One incident will remain salient for me. The scene: another small church, without any sign about masks, with more or less the same congregation as the other time. The sequence:

1) The visiting priest who was to say mass entered, masked.
2) He noticed people without masks and asked something like “where are your masks?” in a tone of voice that suggested that he might police the absence.
3) This was taken as such by one congregant who said “this is not required here.”
4) The priest responded that it was obligatory where he came from, but did not insist any further.
5) The mass proceeded with some wearing masks, and some not.

I could have sketched a similar picture of a largish family group performing various forms of social distancing dances, at various times, while often ending visits with hugs.
That such local variation was happening all over France was noticed by governors who then reinforced the mask mandate by invoking their police powers: people would get fined if not wearing masks in the prescribed places. Locally, people noticed and some said they would wear their masks “tomorrow” when they got to be at financial risk. I am not going to weigh in on whether all this is necessary or not, since this blog is not about policy but about the human condition. Even though, I could note that certain early State responses seemed particularly “French” (check my earlier post) I do not want to invoke here French “culture” as any form of explanation. It will not even invoke some “Southern French sub-culture,” or the sub-culture of some sub-section of the population. Happily enough, in anthropology, writing about sub-cultures has about disappeared. But the wonder about local culturings must continue. About every anthropologists would now agree that “culture” never makes anybody do anything. I have written again and again against writing about “my” culture, or “theirs.” Culture is always what other people hold each other accountable for: a good culture makes good neighbors.

But I also insist that anthropologists do pay attention to local culturings, from the bottom up, so to speak. I insist on this all the more that anthropologists, through ethnography, are the social scientists best equipped to figure out how people, together, respond to external triggers. Take a dozen people, most of whom had been told by the press that they were “at risk,” attending the same church came to 1) post on a wall a sign saying “wear a mask,” and then 2) mostly not wear a mask, and then 3) mostly wear a mask while grumbling. That transformation of a trigger into a (temporarily) suitable collective response is what anthropologists must keep at the center of their concerns–whether or not they label this transformation a “culturing” producing a culture (however temporary as all cultures are). There is every evidence that all around the world, local populations, some quite large, other quite small, do not just do what they are told by governors but rather make up something that governors, like so many colonial administrators before them, may consider counterproductive, dangerous, if not outright immoral.

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More on culturing Corona

For many weeks, I was struck by the extent to which media like the New York Times, or governors like Cuomo, justified authoritative acts through a form of what my generation of anthropologists called “functionalism.” They kept telling us that the new order or regulation was the best, and sometime even only, act that would slow the spread of C19. In general, functionalism operates on the idea that, in the not so long run, everything human beings do, however odd it may appear, is the one best solution to achieve a practical, material, goal, given a particular local group (society, system, etc.) at a particular time in its history. At his most combative, Harris argued for example (1966) that cows were “sacred” to Hindus in India because they eat garbage, produce fuel and store milk, and all these tasks are best performed if the cows stay skinny and roam the streets.
Malinowski, to my teachers at Chicago, was the poster anthropologist for functionalism. In the 1960s Marvin Harris at Columbia was the most pugnacious of the functionalists.He was so sure of himself that he never hesitated to go back from effect to functional cause (cows eat garbage, produce fuel, and store milk). As Lévi-Strauss once put it in his usual pithy way: “totems are good to eat” ([1962] 1963: ).

Whether closing restaurants in March 2020 was functionally necessary, or a form of poetic deep play, is something that will be debated for years. What is certain (at least to me) is that closing restaurants (and vast empty national parks, beaches, etc.) was justified in functionalist terms: all the acts of these weeks in March and April were the best practical, functional ones our governors could think of, based on what experts were telling them. Some governors resisted. Experts disagreed. But the justifications in any debate arising at the time were consistent: this had to be done in just this way.

Attestation dérogatoire
For a few weeks, the French State required people to fill this form if they wished to go more than half-a-mile from their residence. As far as I know France is the only State to have had such a requirement.

A few weeks into the Corona epoch, what must have confused some of our most thoughtful governors was the variety of the responses other governors were giving to the same health challenge, even when following the advice of similarly credentialized epidemiologists. The virus remained the same, but what governors were doing about it was not. Without mentioning the more controversial figures, it remains a puzzle how the governors of Sweden decided on a very different road than the one taken by about every other governor in what is generally named these days “the global North.” The range of expert, authoritative, advice was the same everywhere (and similarly fast evolving) but the response was not. As I argued elsewhere,  the advice, as is the case with any speech act, is a trigger, not a cause—even though some governors at least try to say otherwise.

By June, as the virus seemed to move away from places like France or New York State, the variation in the governors’ responses greatly expanded. On such matters as opening, or not, beaches and forests, restaurants (inside or outside), barber shops and clothing stores, the governors of various localities came up with different solutions and time lines. Some boundaries between localities remain, in middle July, still hard (e.g. between France and the US), though others are variously made porous (e.g. between France and Italy or Germany). As the virus started to pop in places that it appeared to have by-passed (say Florida or Texas) governors came up with even more variations. Noone, so far, appears to have returned to March 2020 regulations—though it would not be surprising if some governors tried.

To a cultural anthropologist steeped in the Boasian tradition, the emerging and expanding variation in the responses to C19 are something to expect and I will dare say “respect.” That is, human beings, throughout history (cultureS) have always found other ways to live within an environment. Given a challenge, from finding food in a forest, to some virus starting to kill them, human beings will find other responses that may also be “suitable” (Boas 1887) for the problem at hand. Ruth Benedict once asked us (1932) to marvel at the multiplicity of rituals on such fundamental matters as mourning a death, even across populations fully aware of their neighbors’ doing. All of them must perform the same “function” but in quite different ways, and with different costs. As Lévi-Strauss also put it, “totems are good to think” (1971: 560). Note that this is not be taken in a cognitive way. Dealing with a threatening virus will make anyone think, but eventually, only some of what people can imagine will be “adopted in the collective mode” (Lévi-Strauss 1971: 560), that is only some symbolic forms will become institutionalized by governors, enforced over a population, and resisted by some, sometime.

All this must a problem for epidemiologists and governors…



Benedict, Ruth   1932 “Configurations of culture in North America” American Anthropologist 34:1-27.

Boas, Franz 1887 “The occurrence of similar inventions in areas widely apart.” Science 9, 224:486

Harris, Marvin   2014     Title. Publisher

Lévi-Strauss, Claude  [1962] 1963     Totemism. Tr. by R. Needham. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude [1971] 1981 The naked man. Tr. by J. and D. Weightman. New York: Harper & Row..

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Anthropology for epidemiology (?)

I am not an epidemiologist.

Or am I, as an anthropologist concerned with production of human activity and its diffusion?

I start with the assumption that epidemiologists are, or should be, well educated into what anthropologists call “network theory,” particularly as re-imagined by Latour. Network theory is a way of looking as social action through the linkages that bring people together, and particularly on the movement of “information” through human beings, often very distant from each other. “Information” in this context includes about everything that can move through people from viruses to memes, gifts, money and other resources, health care, the knowledge that leads to school success, men and women, etc.

So, in the C19/Corona case, the New York Times taught me that one person, sometimes in 2019, got infected by C19, some place in Wuhan, China. By mid-June eight million people had been infected and 450,000 had died. The virus moved, and continues moving. Within a few weeks governors in Wuhan and Beijing “locked towns down.” Such policies, what I call “Corona,” also traveled around the world though they evolved even faster than the virus (and continue to evolve as various governors “re-open” the worlds on which they have authority).

In my earlier posts, I mostly focused on Corona, that is on the institutional responses that produce orders like “stay home.” Today, I wonder on the movement of the virus as it circulates along human networks and accelerates (air travel) and slows down (distancing) depending of the organization of the people into populations, and populations within populations (cities within states, neighborhood within cities) down to the smallest units: two or three people eating and sleeping together. Searching for renewed understandings of what was classically called “social organization” was the original task of the social sciences and, one hopes, their continuing task. Anthropologists have greatly contributed to this search. And they contributed something original because of their emphasis on conducting this search far from the beaten paths of the cities and states of their birth or adult lives. The anthropological contribution was fundamental precisely because of the limitations of ethnography: the unavoidable focus on small scale organization—where everyday life actually happens and intimate information travels. I mention infections rather than sickness among the infected as the latter is a biological matter (though possibly compounded by earlier life styles events or predispositions like diabetes or obesity).
Somewhat to my professional dismay, all the epidemiological work on C19 infections I have seen quoted proceeds in terms of black boxes aggregating millions of “data points” (e.g. matters like “size of household” or “income” or “race”). At best such research can tell us which black boxes to open. Some of that this kind of research, for example, highlighted that the virus propagates fastest in settings where small number of people are most intimately brought together so that they cannot escape each other’s breath. One of the setting and activity often mentioned is singing in choirs. The C19 aspect of singing in choirs is clear and a narrowly focused epidemiologist may not want to go further than advise governors to issue orders forbidding singing in choirs.

An anthropologist as epidemiologist would want to go further and first, investigate the organization of choirs, and then, second, attempt to generalize what their organization might tell us about other intimate situations. Choirs, anthropologists will tell anyone who will listen, are a particular form of social organization that is anything but universal in the details of the assembling of the choir (recruitment, resources, etc.), or the performance of the activities that constitute a group into a choir (style of singing, audiences, etc.). The correlation between singing in a choir and rate of infection does not tell us anything about who gets to sing, or how they get to sing on that day when one infected person sang. In other words, the issue about choirs is not that people sing, but that people are breathing hard with each other. This opens more general questions about what might also bring people together in close quarters.

Choirs are special settings and involve rather few people. But they are not the only setting where a multiplicity of people assemble together for long periods of time in small spaces where they will breathe hard on each. Funerals are often mentioned, bars, certain type of physical activities, etc. All those can be escaped. But there is one setting from which participants will not be able to escape each other: those that are generally summarized as “the family” at “home.” I said in passing in an earlier post that the order “Stay home (to stay safe)” appeared to imply a black box unit consisting of two adults of about the same age with 1.8 children. The order also appeared to operate in term of the equation: HOME = SAFE. I have not seen that equation challenged though many reports in the NY Times, when discussing why areas of the Bronx have much higher rates of infection than those in other parts of New York City, mentions “crowded households.” As far as infection is concerned many homes are at least as dangerous as choirs. At this point the anthropologist will weigh in to insist that there are many more types of households (homes, hearths, roofs) than there are of choirs. “Home” covers a multiplicity of human arrangements that cannot be imagined, but might be described by focused local research. This might stand as a kind of “definition” of the “family” (a very contentious matter).In my work here, “home” refers to a network of people whose daily activities are most likely to make a difference on each others activities. This set of people may live “under the same roof.” But they may also live under a linked set of roofs.

Take the case [based on people I got to know recently] of an elderly woman living with her mildly disabled adult daughter. The two are being take care by her son, daughter-in-law, and one or another of four grand-children on a daily basis. In late March 2020, the woman falls sick; the son is told by physicians to “treat her at home” until, a week later she has to be hospitalized and dies a few days later from complications of her infection with C19. These eight people are also intimately linked to several others whose care (including school work at home) is not quite amenable to “distancing.”

About every human being on earth is involved in such complex arrangements of other people they cannot escape. Understanding the details of these arrangements is essential when any attempt is made to interfere with what is traveling through these intimate networks whether it is viruses or, not so distantly related, that which helps with achieving school success. Anthropologists, particularly those of my generation’s teachers, made their career documenting the complexity of “home.” This documentation appeared in their debates as “kinship” and should not be ignored even if, somewhat to my surprise, many in my cohorts moved away from this kind of research, perhaps  because they misunderstood one of my teachers’ critique (Schneider 1984). And yet, at about the same time, sociologists of class reproduction rediscovered birth privilege, that is the huge effect of “family” on school success and adult career (Coleman 1966; Bourdieu and Passeron [1970] 1977). This privilege, like the virus, moves through linkages among intimately related persons. Much of this has been brought back to life as part of the discussion of “white privilege.” There is a risk that such recent refocus will reproduce, through the aggregation of “big data” used as proof, the caricaturing of the “white” vs. the “black” family that led, in earlier years, to awful or wonderful research on the multiplicities of familial arrangements and, most importantly, the complexity of the narrowed or expanded networks of significant others whose activities impacted on one’s own by either helping or hindering them (see bibliographic footnote below).

The important thing, for an anthropologically inclined epidemiologist, should not be to classify or to model in terms of aggregations by purported types. It should be to fine tune one’s analyses and face the real complexity of any attempt to rely on “home” to mitigate the effects of traveling information.  Given what we know about “homes,” then relying on home to mitigate certain things (viruses) risks increasing other (birth privilege). In many cases, “home” is dangerous, physically and in terms of one’s future economic success. And yet it is inescapable because it is, also, where one will get the care that is also something that travels best through intimate linkages.

One question for consideration: “does continuing home base learning for public school children augment the familial privilege that comes through the organization of the home?”

Bibliographic footnote

A while ago, I wrote a summary of the anthropological literature on the linkages between “family” and “education” (mostly school achievement) in Families, education and the state in America (1977).  Among the early anthropological works on “the Black family” those that stand out are by Carol Stack (1975) and Holloman & Lewis (1978).  It is important however to take great care when generalizing about the organization of categorically “similar” families.  Even the family next door could be quite different.  And half-a-century has passed since the original fieldwork.  And yet, this work can be useful as guide to the study of familial networks, and broaden our sense of the matters that can travel across these networks.


Bourdieu, Pierre and and Jean-Claude Passeron1977 [1970] Reproduction in education, society and culture. Tr. by R. Nice.. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Coleman, James 1966 Equality of educational opportunity. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Holloman, Regina, and Fannie Lewis 1978 “The ‘Clan’: Case study of a Black extended family in Chicago.” In The extended family in Black societies, ed. by D. Shimkin, E. Shimkin and D. Frate, 201-238. The Hague: Mouton.

Schneider, David  1984 A critique of the study of kinship. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Stack, Carol 1975 All our kin. New York: Harper and Row.


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Corona as trigger

To recapitulate: A question like “What time is it?” or an order like “Do no enter!” are to be taken as an imposition on those who are caught by the statement, whatever the motivation for the statement, or its position into any sequence (for example, street vs. school vs. Corona). The pessimists might say that questions, orders, or any kinds of statements are forms of not so symbolic “violence” (Bourdieu [1972] 1977) or even instances of “micro-aggression” (Sue 2010), Optimists might see them as “gifts” (Mauss [1923-4] 1967).

If I kick a dog, his immediately sequential behavior is energized by his metabolism, not by my kick” (Bateson 1972: 409).

In any event, the question is whether a statement (speech act) is to be considered a trigger for an unpredictable response rather than a cause with predictable effect.

Take a case now familiar to readers of this blog: Imagine a university professor planning a lecture tour. This “plan” involved starting several conversations with colleagues across the country and, in some cases, their staff. Imagine that the professor, as he is driving, is told that the university where he was to speak now forbade all public events. Those who are telling are apologetic even though the cancellation (an aspect of the “Do not enter” speech act) is not something they performed. All they are doing is passing the act along.

What is the professor to do next?

Quite predictably, the planned lectures did not take place: cause led to effect.

The professor also “decided” to continue driving west, away from home: statement triggered response.

My sociological colleagues might respond at this point that while the individual response may not be predictable, a rate of type of responses might have been established if the responses of 1,000 professor were aggregated.  That this may be so remains the basic paradox in the social sciences that may justify the split between anthropology and sociology.

That there will be a response is predictable. What this response will be is not predictable, not even by those initiating the responses. The response will involve a series of circumstances each of which will participate in shaping but not in determining the response. In the case of our professor, he was already a third of the way across the country. He had no other responsibilities anywhere. Things were said to be bad in New York. He had a good car and the means to continue traveling. The weather was good. The governors were not forbidding travel. The professor’s response made sense—even though some did question its wisdom. The professor drove another 1,000 miles west. Two weeks later the professor was given the choice: leave or isolate yourself in your hotel room for the next 30 days. He dove back home. That also made sense, as it might also have made sense to stay put.

That ‘n’ percentage of those who started walking home would die was probably predictable using sociological methods.

At the same time, half-way around the world, tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) were similarly told to “go home” from New Delhi and other major cities in India. Whatever they did next made sense even as many died of deprivation as they trundled on foot towards far away villages. Billions of other human beings were faced with similar moments. Most of these moments were not as tragic as they must have been for the poor of New Delhi. Few were as privileged as the professor’s response could be. All of them were caught by Corona speech acts they then had to translate into the further speech acts that would actually move them. The most powerful of those further acts must have been the answer people gave to the question begged by the order “Stay Home!” Where they had to establish, practically, is home? Who is going to be there? Who will have authority over what there? Are there alternatives? Small collectives then must have gotten someone among them to say “This is home for you” and “these are the people who can reside here (be fed, taken care of if ill, etc.).” I suspect that most of those who performed the initial triggering “Stay Home!” act did not linger too much on what “home” would be. In Euro-America at least, somewhat confirmed by preliminary discourse analyses of media, I image governors imagined a smallish separate residence, with two adults of about the same age, and 1.8 children. That the “home” might be a large compound with extended kin, servants, etc. does not seem to have been imagined. Nor, the possibility that the “home” is a small space inhabited by only one elderly sickly person. Nor the possibility that the home would be a “second” home in the country side that well-to-do city residents might escape to.

In brief, and analytically, the statement “Stay Home!” may have caused much that noone could escape (not entering a building, not giving a lecture) but it also triggered much much more. The statement is less a cause than a condition and a constraint on future action. More on this in a post to come.
Most importantly from a public policy point of view is the reality that one could predict further action would be taken but not what this action would involve—particularly when the trigger has no precedent so that no policy could be “evidence-based.”


Bateson, Gregory   1972     Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Balantine Books.

Bourdieu, Pierre   [1972] 1977     Outline of a theory of practice. Tr. by R. Nice.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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