Category Archives: of Corona

relating to the responses to the spread of the COVID-19 virus in 2020

Experiencing life and constructing a local “next”

If a “lived experience” is one that has, personally, experienced, then I have never experienced COVID (the virus). I have experienced Corona (the cultural epoch) but, to the extent that I have never been sick from the virus, and have not even ever tested positive (so far?), then the virus is something I only know through conversational and textual means: I have talked a lot about it with many people. I have read a lot about it. And I have written about it. I have experienced the pressure to explain myself when (not) wearing a mask. In contrast, these past few months I (lived) experienced open heart surgery or, more precisely, the weeks leading up to it, and the recuperation after it: anesthesia does make it impossible to experience the surgery itself!

Various authorities requested that I be tested and this has happened such a number of times that I have lost count. Those requests (actually orders) concern, in my analysis, Corona as cultural fact. As for the virus, I’d say that my experience is, at most, “vicarious” or, in jargon, “entextualized.” I do know people who had close relatives who died. I do know people who were seriously sickened. I also know people who tested positive and showed (“experienced”?) no symptoms. But this “knowledge” is conversational—that is I was told about these cases but did not have to deal with them personally

I have, probably, been lucky (as well as possible privileged for having had access to vaccines and boosters as soon as they became available). But this kind of luck (escaping sickness and experience of the sick) opens an interesting question: what is the “next” step a person so lucky may take when confronted with any aspect of Corona (as the entextualization/institutionalization of COVID)? This question imposed itself as I drove out of Manhattan across the United States to Palo Alto and back. Once I crossed the Hudson, and until I entered Silicon Valley, masks all but disappeared—except when I traversed the Navajo Nation where large signs told people to mask up. I saw workers in one motel wear a mask. Sometimes one employee among several did. I am not sure I saw any in the various Walmarts I entered. This will not surprised those who read opinion pieces in papers like the New York Times: people in red states are said to be opinionated and fed false information about the virus. This may be true but it may ignore the possibility that many (most?) people in the United States have actually never directly experienced the virus.  One might perhaps say that there are people for whom the virus is not a “lived experience.”  In probably not so few cases, their livid experience may have been such as to settle on other next steps (mandate this or that) than what some/many might take.  Many may summarize their “lived” experience of the virus the way Eric Adams, NYC’s current mayor, once dir: “I feel fine, outside of the raspy voice, I feel fine. No fevers, … I’m not tired, no aches or pains at all” (April 11, 2022). Reading this may give some a vicarious experience of what it is like to live the virus and, not irrationally, make them decide to continue disregard some mandates that appear overdrawn.

The problem for those responsible with public health (including budding applied anthropologists) is what to do with situations when the lived experience of the people, as they may themselves actually en-textualize it in local conversations with direct consociates, contradict the message as designed. “Wear a mask to protect yourself and your loved one at risk” maybe a fully appropriate injunction, but it will always be placed within broader local conversations that, in the many cases I experienced while driving across the United States, lead to people not acting on the injunction. As all teachers actually do know, most students do not act on what they teach them and not only because the students are not “learning.” As I like argue, people do learn but they also analyze and criticize that which they have learned… whether because they suspect the teacher, or because that which is taught contradicts their (lived) experience, or because they know the teacher is wrong (as keeps happening in (post-)colonial encounters with alternate “local knowledges.”

The broader issue here, and one that perhaps should become the main one, is whether facing to “lived experience” may make one doubt any explanation of behavior that relies on hypotheses about “dispositions acquired early in life” (habitus). What if what I will do next is best investigated by checking what I lived (and possibly learned) a few minutes ago (rather than decades ago)? That I speak French (but not Chinese and about any of the languages human beings have devised) has to do with my being born and raised in France. When I sign retirement papers has much more to do with what my current local “others” will make me experience in the near future.

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Local controls of mask (not) wearing

Nurse to other nurses (in a health care setting where nurses and patients must wear masks, but where the “office” staff, also nurses, do not consistently do);

“I do not put my mask on when I get into a store and it is not crowded. If it is crowded, then I put it on”

The other nurses gave their own stories, and moved on to other topics.

Vignette #1

As many have noted one can sort areas in the United States in terms of the ratio of masked/unmasked—whatever the local governor’s mandates. And, as mentioned everywhere, these mandates vary a lot from state to state, and from nation to nation.

I have written earlier about governor’s mandates in constituting the Corona epoch as a cultural fact (for some people) that local action by these people must take into account, whatever their opinion of the wisdom of the mandate. I will today focus further of this local action in settings where there are no immediate representative from the State to enforce mandates (or where governors have relinquished control).

That there are many such settings is well-established and regularly mentioned by epidemiologists wondering about the movement of the virus even in the most governor restricted areas. In my experience, such settings involve family gatherings, shops, offices, church services. In New York State, it is well known that people in New York City are much more likely to wear masks even after the mandates have been lifted while people “upstate” were more likely NOT to wear their masks, even when the mandates were on. Even in New York City, the people from mid-Manhattan may experience different constraints from people in the Bronx.

In my own life, I interact with people/institutions in Manhattan, the Bronx (not to mention parts of Westchester). As such I have to take into account not only the governor’s or the mayor’s mandates, but also that which my immediate consociates are doing, or might do in response to what I start. A long time ago, when conducting fieldwork in Paw Paw, Michigan, I had to sort out something similar about (not) wearing ties here or there, now or then. It seemed obvious I needed one when attending a Presbyterian service (all attending men did) but I was surprised enough to write in my fieldnotes that, the first time I attended a gathering of young working class men while still wearing my tie, it was strongly suggested that I take it off. As it was put: “why don’t you take you tie off, you will be more comfortable.” As a budding anthropologist I always followed this kind of guidance. Fifty years later, I have been known not to as I make a point to be one of the very very few who wear a tie at meetings of the Anthropological Association.

Every human being, I am sure, will find themselves in such situations where they are told (not) to do this or that. In some cases observers (including local consociates) may say that “he is a child, or a foreigner, who does not “know” and should be instructed. Or may be he has forgotten; or the instructions are contradictory. Or, perhaps he disagrees and this should be sanctioned. Every human being, I am also about sure, will at times refuse to follow the instruction they are given, whether they are about ties, hijabs, masks, etc. And yet, eventually, some order (pattern) is established that outsiders easily assume is a form of consensus.

In Europe and America, for the past few centuries, people now known as “behavioral scientists” have tried to “explain” the ubiquity of such situations of apparent consensus everywhere/everywhen human beings assemble, as well as resistance to the consensus. These explanations proceed from various postulates about where to look for this explanation. To simplify greatly:

. a clinical psychologist of a Freudian type might explore why anyone resist wearing a mask by digging into subconscious processes (hypochondria, invulnerability, etc.). Given all theories about self and masks, I am sure one could go far in directions that I will let others explore.

. a sociologist might explore correlations in demographics (race, gender, political affiliation, etc.) that might allow one to predict whether the majority of persons in this or that area are more of less likely to mask. These correlations may then be offered as explanations for “why” red males in Montana mask differently from blue males in Manhattan vs…..

. some anthropologists might be tempted to invoke “culture” (or euphemisms to the same effect) as explanation and join those who will then claim “enculturation,” “socialization,” “habitus,” etc. for a postulated inability to stand against what may be the “dominant” “powerful” version of what to do. The better anthropologists might just attempt to model the pattern rather than assume consensus among the population. At the end, we would still only be left with various different “that’s” (what I sometime call “cultural facts”) which people fact when they live in New York State rather than Florida, or the United States rather than China.

All of these “explanations” may have some use but they do not actually tell us much about how, exactly, in the here and now, an individual has to decide to (not) wear a mask given various possible sanctions by one or another of the other people also here and now with the individual. Again, it appeared easy, from Parsons to Bourdieu, to assume that individual would just do, automatically, that which they are “socialized” into. (Not) wearing would then be said to be what these individuals consider “natural” and not to be questioned. But, of course, we now know that relying on automatic responses cannot work in maintaining any pattern given the ongoing transformations of the actual triggers requiring a response here and now.

A local governor’s mandate:

“masks will become optional on campus for faculty, staff and students who are vaccinated and boosted.”

and this governor’s awareness that this opens just the kind of issues discussed above:

“ It is vital that you respect any individual who chooses to wear a mask without questioning their decision.”

A week later there were some who affirmed “I will keep my mask on” while others celebrated “mask-off day!” In one classroom everyone was unmasked, in another everyone was masked, and in still another the ratio was 50%.

Vignette #2

In general what can be summarized as the ethnomethodological critique of “normal” sociology, anthropologists (and sociologists) are left with the two fundamental questions of sciences of human behavior: how does a pattern (apparent consensus that “we” do (not) mask, in this classroom, here and now), come into being, and then how does this pattern maintain (reproduce) itself in the actual life of a set of people? The first question may appear a historical question that has led many to archaeology, including archaeologies of “knowledge” (Foucault [1969] 1972). But such archaeologies only produce an infinite regression to obscure and unknowable “first conditions.” The challenge is to imagine what acts “constitute” (make, construct) that which is consequential now, at the moment of action, in the midst of what, to borrow from one area of human action that may just be an extreme in everyday interaction, the “fog of war.” We might trace the history of masks and their use during pandemics. But that would not help us much when trying to figure out what may have come to differentiate New York State from Florida that must be continually reaffirmed—if only because the governors of both states, as well as the people, know about what is happening “over there” and can use in order to challenge what is expected to be happening “over here.”

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Modeling acting bureaucracies

Balzac was one of the first writers to make bureaucracy the subject of serious fiction, notably …, where he takes the un-Kafkaesque delight in its lumbering procedures. As he shows in these bureaucratic dramas which are still enlightening today, the monster was not so much malevolent as driven by almost random interference by its futile overactivity. (Robb 1994: 106)

As I like to say, only human beings can close, and then reopen, restaurants. So far I have mostly pointed at “governors” as the humans who act. One does not have to read much Latour to realize that this sketches a reality in much too broad a stroke. In real life, governors may order restaurants closed but the one person who will tell the manager that she must close her restaurant is probably a very minor employee of a local health administration. As I told it in March 2020, my first direct encounter with the virus-as-humanized was in a busy diner, by an interstate highway somewhere in North Dakota, when I witnessed an overly self-satisfied lady telling another lady and her staff around her that the county officials might order her to close the diner following orders from higher officials. Bourdieu reminded all of us, anthropologists, to note marks of distinction. And so I admired the distinction between the well dressed, coiffed, fed official who was not losing her job, and the harassed, not so well-dressed manager, server, cook who were going to lose theirs.

As usual, I am not saying anything as to whether restaurants should have been closed (or re-opened). What I am doing is pursuing the theme I introduced in my last post about “governmentality” as a label for something anthropologists must now take into account anywhere in the world, and as a dangerous concept if it leads to gross generalizations. “The State made me do it” is not an analysis even when the State, that is some governor, set the stage (animated it, directed it, etc.) for whatever everyday encounter an anthropologist may be “participantly observing.”

What I am proposing, and suggesting to the students in their quest for research topics, is a more determined investigation of “speech acts” as they reverberate, as well as the emergence of alternate governors as a major speech act does reverberate.

“Speech act theory” was a major advance in sociolinguistics, and in fact in all the social sciences as it emphasizes that about all human activity proceeds through speaking and not simply through symbolizing, classifying, imagining. Language is also the main tool through which some people get some other people to do what must/may (or must/may not) be done—or at least try to get them to (not) do it. However, the statement by a governor (president of a country, or university) “Get vaccinated, or else” is, ethnographically, an Ur-statement .  It is the first in what can be a very long chain of such statements.  Even so, it must must have occurred within an interaction between the Over-governor and some subordinate.  Anthropologists can only very rarely be allowed to observe such interactions but we can imagine that this statement actually had the form “tell the minister to tell the under-minister to tell” ….. an employee in some Human Resources to e-mail other employees to “get vaccinated or else” and then to report to her supervisor that she had accomplished the task (who then reported it back to her supervisor…).

So that one may not simply make fun of France for its famous overactive bureaucracy, here is a text specifying when/where masks must/may be worn in an American, “Research One,” university.

This chain may be what the word “bureaucracy” indexes but, noticing this chain as chain opens all sorts of possible investigation about the many ways that chain might be broken, or by passed, or produce ever more complex sub-mandates (as happens in France as some middle governors get to specify categories, exceptions, etc.). The media of course is an alternate chain that partially short-circuits the bureaucracy so that the last human in the bureaucratic chain (say, the HR employee) may never have to utter the order: the employee may already have complied for whatever reason—or have initiated a protest.

But there are other chains.

I have been in a small village in Southern France for the past few weeks. Here, as probably everywhere else in the world, the politics of “Covid” (what I refer as the “Corona” epoch) are a major topic of conversation both idle (“do you know what ‘they’ said?!!”) and consequential (“how do I get that pass?”). In the village, and to my surprise, at least half of the people I met asserted with vigor that they were not vaccinated, did not want to get vaccinated, and were going to resist the latest order from the over-governor of France. Many of the non-vaccinators were “young” but I met one lady well into her 70s who was not going to get vaccinated even as her husband, standing by her, said he had been. One can imagine the conversations between the two… A vaccinated of the same generation told that he would not have gotten vaccinated if his daughter-in-law had not acted as a local governor and speech-acted: “Get vaccinated or get banned from family reunions.” One can also imagine the conversations between grand-father, son and daughter-in-law (and probably many more in the kin group)! As I also like to teach local “communities of practice” are not only cozy settings for learning but also fraught settings for political conflict and domination.

In other words I imagine (not to say “I hypothesize”) that local conversations that lead to (not) getting vaccinated parallel the conversations that led the President of France (or the Mayor of New York City as of August 4, 2021) to mandate showing a pass to enter various settings. The President or Mayor, with their police powers, certainly have more power than daughters-in-law. But the power of daughters-in-law (or the lack of power of a son/husband) cannot be underestimated.

Thus the chain from Over-governors to local enactments is “fractal” in the sense that, in any setting, the relationship between however local a governor and their subordinate is going to be the trigger of a chain of sub-mandates each of which susceptible to being expanded or resisted in imaginative ways the initial governor could not … imagine.  This model of bureaucratic “overactivity” will have to be merged with Lave’s model of movement through social structural positions also must involve such speech acts as a “full” member tell another (possibly not so full member…) “let this person work in our shop as an apprentice” and so that persons becomes, analytically, a “legitimate peripheral participant.”

References

Robb, Graham   1994     Balzac: a biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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A coda on Corona and governmentality

A while ago I mused about the ending of the Corona epoch. Many parts of the world are now in transition towards this ending. As usual various governments, and subgovernments, are moving in different ways. Some remove various mandates, keep others, and make it necessary for the governed to figure out what is allowed where and when. In all cases one can observe “governmentality” at work and ponder the responses.

Continuing with my concern with sociability as sequences of triggers and responses that make conditions (facts) for the future, I keep wondering today on what people do after governors have acted to declare the end of this or that mandate. Most responses to such declarations occur behind doors that are not easily opened. But one thing is quite public: the wearing of masks. As many keep noticing, many many people continue to wear masks even after the mandates that they be worn here or there have been lifted. Walking down Broadway on June 10th, one could see people with masks, people with masks that did not cover their nose or with masks around their chins, or with no masks at all. One grocery store had a sign that “under further notices masks are required.” Down the street another store had a sign saying “those fully vaccinated to not need to wear masks.” And another had no signs at all. In another store a sign about the order to wear masks was on the door, most of the employees were not wearing masks, a customer asked, in a joking tone, “where is your mask?” to which another employee responded “it’s not required by the State anymore, we have forgotten to take the sign down.” A month later, the New York Times mused about the distinction between workers in restaurants (who wear masks) and patrons (who do not).

What is a social scientist to next? I imagine, and I may be caricaturing, that a sociologist or social psychologist would look for the “causes” of what appears a personal decisions and ask: “why do you (not) wear a mask here and now?” In designing the study one would first pick up from the literature various matters that are usually “causes” for variations in individual behavior. One could imagine that one does (not) wear a mask “because”:
. of lack of faith in governments
. to make a political statement about government mandates
. for fear of the unvaccinated
. PTSD
. of peer or familial pressure
. of fesistance to peer or familial pressure
. of habit
. Etc.
One might then design a questionaire. The questionaire would include the usual demographic information about the individual responder (sex, gender, race, ethnicity, location, education, age, language spoken at home, etc.) that would eventually allow for various forms of regression analyses. I imagine that the “findings” of such studies would be reported in the New York Times under a title like “White liberal men and women in Manhattan will continue to wear masks while others in the South refuse to wear them.”

All this will interest many and confirm much that is generally known. But those who analyze, critique, and contribute to government should notice that it does not actually tell us much about that to which individuals respond. (Not) wearing a mask only makes sense in a world where governments mandate such things and so social scientists must also investigate governments, their relationships to the governed, and all mechanisms through which “orders” (as acts) produce (dis-)orders (as historical conditions). As I like to say, the virus does not care what humans do. But those humans in government (and in all ordering positions), let’s call them “governors,” do—whatever they end up doing (and that is very diverse indeed!). Some of us, say “applied anthropologists,” might want to help. What might we point out?

To develop something I mentioned earlier, a governor (and that could be a 10 year old…) can put up a sign on a door stating “Do Not Enter!” with a guard or warden enforcing the order so that the governor can be about sure that the order will do what it is expected to do (as long as back doors are also locked or guarded). However, when the same governor puts a sign stating “Do Enter!” (get vaccinated, eat healthy foods) this governor may not get the expected results as people continue not to enter, get vaccinated, or eat unhealthy foods.

The observable difficulties governors have in enforcing what might be labeled “positive” mandates is worth exploring as a possibly fundamental limit on governmentality. It may even be more fundamental than the impossibility of governors to prevent people from resisting negative mandates (whether the people are or are not successful in their resistance).  James Scott has kept emphasizing this limit on negative mandates (2009).   The very need to post guards or wardens (school administrators, nurses, social workers) is testimony to the governors’ awareness of this limit. But the other limit may be more difficult to overcome.

Going back to mask wearing can help us notice further matters that are usually hidden by a simple reference to “governmentality” as sketched by Foucault and others. In the United States, it is well known, governing is quite divided. Simplified, on matters like mask wearing, the Federal government advises (and possibly dangles sticks and carrots), State Governors get emergency powers allowing to mandate and enforce negative mandates. These can be trumped, challenged, or amplified by local governments and also, very significantly, by non-governmental entities like, say, a private university, or a church that may require behaviors (like wearing masks or getting tested) even after the governmental mandates have been lifted. There is more: self-organizing groups within these institutions may themselves act out, if not mandate, a behavior otherwise allowed. In a church I know, about everyone continued to wear masks even after all other governmental and non-governmental entities announced that they were not necessary. Strictly speaking, in such a setting, there is no actual governor but the effect is about the same as if someone had mandated masks. I also know of extended families that remain consequential to each other even as various sub-parts impose on themselves various mandates about vaccines, masks, meetings, etc—and dispute among them what to do next

In abstract terms, I’d say that governmentality, as a aspect of sociability, is fractal rather than hierarchical. More on that another time.

References

Scott, James   2009     The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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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)

References

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
Work.
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 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.

References

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.

References

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, justify authoritative acts through a form of what my generation of anthropologists called “functionalism.” They keep telling us that the new order or regulation is the best, and sometime even only, act that will 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. As Lévi-Strauss once put it in his usual pithy way, for functionalists “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…

REFERENCES

References

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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