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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