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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