on “Corona”

Again, C19 may kill you, Corona closes restaurant. (March 28, 2020)

So, what is “Corona”? In my younger days, I might have meant it as the word (Saussurian signifier) pointing to an object (Saussurian signified). This may still be common sense, even after the “ontological turn” in anthropology which, as I understand it, is meant to make us consider the “thing-ness” of a possible entity such as “Corona.” The question is actually a classical one in anthropology: when talking about something social (“social structure”) are we talking about an object or about a model built by observers to manipulate? This was the core of the debate between Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss (1953). For Radcliffe-Brown, the matter was common sensical. He had made it simple in a foundational text:

If I visit a relatively stable community and revisit it after an interval of ten years, I shall find that many of its members have died and others have been born; the members who still survive are now ten years older and their relations to one another may have changed in many ways. Yet I may find that the kinds of relations that I can observe are very little different from those observed ten years before. The structural form had changed little. ([1940] 1965: 192-3)

We could translate it into Corona (from my experiences in Wyoming and New York City:

As I drove 2100 miles, none of the people that I met, directly or indirectly in Jackson, Wyoming moved with me. In a small Jackson grocery story, a table had been put between the cashier and the customers to increase the distance between them. In New Rochelle, another such table had been set up in a small bakery. The structural form was the same.

The problem, as Lévi-Strauss saw it, is that the “structural form,” what we might now call the product of a social construction of reality, is actually not accessible to the anthropologist’s senses. Quite before Geertz told us that what anthropologists actually do is “write,” Lévi-Strauss told us that what they must do is make a model (a form of writing) based on observations (including observations of the models participants might have themselves made of their relations). That is the anthropologist-as-scientist must do something similar to what the biologists investigating C19 are doing, that is transform what they get to see using a massively cultural machinery (electron microscope and all that they entail) into something they can manipulate (for example by coloring various parts). In other words, biologists must ‘write’ C19 to manipulate it.

Given all this, what is to be modeled by an anthropologist investigating the social response to C19 that made a total institution (in Goffman’s sense) for 6.8 billion people, and its consequences?

The simple, negative, answer is: I am not going to model a “social structure” or “system.”

Anthropologists of my generation suspected that this was the case and, to a large extent, nobody writes about “social structures” any more, though some are tempted to re-introduce the concept, for example those investigating “structural racism.” Those who know my work also know that I always resisted Geertz’s pessimism (encouraged by Derrida’s ‘deconstructionism’): it is NOT all words. If something is a “social construction,” then it is VERY real, an object that stands in the way of the human beings who bump into it. In my work with McDermott we traced what makes schooling a problem by focusing on the consequences that something made to serve all children so that “none are left behind” actually identifies 50% of all children as “below average,” in need of identification, help and remediation (Successful Failure 1998). Schools in the United States and around the world are determinedly made up (cultural, artificial, arbitrary). McDermott and I summarized all this by writing about the  “School” (capitalized) as a “thing,” made up of ongoing events of some sort, for example the School is set up to weigh human beings on all sorts of statistical scales. How could that be? McDermott and I responded that it had to do with “America” in the School that it made over the past centuries.

Ten years later, Jill Koyama (2010), quite rightly criticized Successful Failure  for not tracing the mechanisms that keep re-producing the School. Pointing at America without specifying the mechanisms is insufficient, and possibly dangerous if it leads some to assume that America is made by … encultured, habituated, Americans.

To make her point, Koyama followed a subset of another one of the major pieces of the many legislations which, over the past centuries were aimed at revitalizing the public school. She looked at the life of “Supplemental Educational Services,” a small part of an act to ensure that “No Child [is] Left Behind.” Rather than “deconstructing” the act, she followed its life for some of those who could not escape it: corporate chiefs, mayors, principals, teachers, parents for whom the act was either resource to use (particularly for the large corporations that were contracted to “deliver” the services) or obstacle to navigate. Koyama was inspired in this analysis by Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory, and particularly by that aspect of the theory that insists that a “network” is never closed. A network is not a system or a structure. A network is not even really a “thing” so much as a set of pathways through which the stuff that happens, particularly government decrees, travel though a population and activate something in them.

In that perspective, “America” is an actor-network. So is Corona in my writing. That is, when I write “Corona can close restaurants,” I am asking social scientists to look for the linkages along which a governor’s decree move, as well as all the sub-decrees that various people in the network have to enact so that this restaurant here at this time is indeed closed.

Modeling Corona (in one or another of its instances) can then allow us to compare it to other such events in human history—say the School.

More on that in another post.


Koyama, Jill   2010     Making failure pay: For-profit tutoring, high-stake testing, and public schools.. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1952] 1963     in Structural anthropology, pp. .277-323 Tr. by C. Jacobson and B. Schoepf. New York: Basic Books.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.   [1940] 1965     “On Social structure.” in Structure and Function in Primitive Society, pp.188-204 . New York: The Free Press.

1963 .. (First published in 1952)

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