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.

Mauss, Marcel   [1923-4] 1967 The gift. Tr. by I. Cunnison.. New York: W.W. Norton.

Sue, Derald  2010   Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. John Wiley and Sons.

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A message to students graduating under Corona

Our department decided to improvise a graduation Zoom event. I was asked to say something about “COVID-19” (as it appears to have gotten to be labeled) and developments in anthropology. The audience was to be mostly non-anthropologists and perhaps some significant others. The setting was both a classical ritual moment in the history of humanity in its American version, even though the staging had never been done this way. And I had to keep the comments to less than three minutes. I interpreted this charge as follows:

A most classical issue in anthropology is about the relationship between the human and the non-human, between nature and culture, between the triggers to human action and what human beings do with these triggers. This issue remains fundamental to anthropology. Many anthropologists have criticized the making of the distinction between nature and culture. Some have said that the non-human is itself something that is made up by humans. I have always resisted this critique. It seemed to deny the reality of what hurts human beings which human beings, in their every day lives, do not control. The Covid-19 virus is just one of the many things that do hurt us. It belongs to the ultimate in the non-human. It is true that none of us will actually “see” the virus but many have experienced its violence on human bodies. It is just this violence that will lead human beings to do something about what is happening to their bodies, to the bodies of their loved one, or to the bodies of those for whom they may be responsible. We have already seen that different governments react differently to the challenge. We have experienced our own attempts at finding solutions, particularly when those closest to us have different opinions about what we should do next. In these processes, the virus is transformed into that which we now experience. Culture has been made out of nature. How this is done will be a question that will trigger much new research. Some of this research will be done by some of you who are graduating today. I look forward to it.

Clearly, a challenge and not a time to be overly didactic. So I said a version of what I have been saying all my anthropological life about “culture” and “life.” I have said it in many different ways (including in my April 8 2020 post). Today, I mostly want to annotate the statement for those who may not catch the references I was making. The first sentences are direct echo of a very classical statement— and a favorite of mine. They are also an echo of what was said by an about forgotten American anthropologist I just discovered:

Man is a biological being as well as a social individual … But it is not always easy to distinguish between the two… Culture is neither simply juxtaposed to nor simply superposed over life. In a way, culture substitutes itself to life, in another way culture uses and transforms life to realise a synthesis of a higher order. (Lévi-Strauss 1969 [1949]: 4 )

Human culture, on this basis, may be defined as the process and product of the cultivation of the potentialities of human nature and the natural environment … The cultural process thus provides the instrumental means as well as the normative ends of social life; it is a process of creation and discovery by which men live as well as an ideal for which they live. (Bidney 1946: 535)

I am not going to quote the many versions of the critique I refer to. My sense is that this critique emphasize the outcome of the process of cultivation: that under which human beings live is something created (Bidney), a synthesis of a higher order (Lévi-Strauss).

Event though it may not be quite couched in this way, I take Latour’s insistence that objects have “agency” as the beginning of a return to something that must have been self-evident to both Bidney and Lévi-Strauss. Both of them (and Marx and many others before them) did say that human beings live by what they have made. But they insist that they do not make that which they then I emphasize ‘then’ to index one of my most recent themes that much of anthropology should be rewritten in terms of sequentiality: this THEN that. More on this elsewhere.
transform. Human beings do not create “ex nihilo” (as the Christian God is said to have done). They “create” with other stuff, some that they trip over, most of which they inherit, and some they have recently made.

All this is obvious to me, and perhaps to most of colleagues in anthropology.  It may appear unnecessary to find new ways of stating it.  I do not think so.  The fundamental puzzles remain.  One is the relationship between what any of us inherit, the words which we borrow (Bakhtin [1965] 1981), and that which we then say (Merleau-Ponty [1969] 1973  ). But working out this puzzle should not make us lose sight of the more fundamental puzzle: the relationship between objects (even some other humans have constructed in our past) and the work that we then have to do with these objects to make them fit in our lives. This the fundamental question that the C19/Corona event must make us, anthropologists, face again. The virus (even if it was made in a laboratory and “escaped”) is a real object that kills some of us. Orders to “Stay Home” are cultural productions that become, for most of us another real object that trips us and requires something, in some future next step.  That which is done by a local collectivity may then become another “synthesis of a higher order,” a “culture.”

I have asked students to keep journals about their personal experience with Corona and I will ask them, next Fall, to pay attention to the culture that they, along with their significant others, made with what Corona has given them (orders about not entering, distancing, etc.) even as it evolves. I hope that few of those I teach will have had direct experience with C19 itself—though, as the anthropologists of science and medicine will tell them—even that experience will have been mediated by a particular medical machinery enforcing this or that advice in this or that language.

Note also, in my statement above, the sentence about “those for whom we may be responsible.” Given that I teach in a professional school, in a program in anthropology of education approached as a form of applied anthropology, my responsibility and that of our students is something that keeps concerning me: what advice would I, would you, give to a governor or mayor about allowing people to sun bathe on a beach? What advice would we give about what human beings do with orders to (not) enter this or that space? What would you say to the governor if its staff told you anthropologists are not public health experts and need not be consulted? What would you do if your understanding of collective human action was used better to control human beings?


Bakhtin, First  [1965] 1981 The dialogic imagination. Tr. by C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bidney, David   2014    1946 “The concept of cultural crisis.” American Anthropologist 48, 4:534-552.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1949] 1969  The elementary structures of kinship. Tr. by J. Bell and J. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice   [1969] 1973     The prose of the world. Tr. by J. O’Neil. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.


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on walls and the people who bump into them

April 24, 2020

I like to quote Rousseau’s origin myth for humanity:

THE first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying “This is mine,” and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor … (Discourse on the origin of inequality p. 23)

And again:

THE strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty (The social contract I.3)

For Durkheim ([1918] 1966), and then Lévi-Strauss ([1960] 1976), these statements introduce the fundamental problematics of sociology and anthropology: there is the making of an arbitrary mark among a population, and then obedience, and then duty. I tend to agree with this, but not with the exact phrasing, or its development into the more particular problematics of the social “contract” apparently entered into by adults meeting in some neutral place who come to an agreement that this would be the grounds of their relationships. And then, it is imagined, they arrange for this contract to be enforced (for example by hiring teachers to drill students into the way a language should be spoken or written).

Marx and Lenin, Bourdieu and Foucault, like many others developed this argument by pointing out that many such agreements are not quite voluntary and many among the “simple people” have to be to be convinced, often in devious ways (say by priests or, again, teachers), that they should not believe their “lying eyes.” Jargonized as “socialization” or “enculturation,” most social scientists proceed with the assumption that people consent to social contracts (social constructions, imagined communities) even when these contracts, now downsized to “habits,” hurt them. The assumption that people consent is all too rarely examined assumption as if the answer was obvious: people consent because there is something wrong with them. Rousseau started this by qualifying the people for being “assez simple,” a not-so-polite way to say, particularly in the 18th century “naive, idiot, retarded.” Too many anthropologists fell for that when they were asked what to do about poverty in the 1960s: “culture of poverty” (having encultured oneself into what keeps one in poverty). As has been argued many times, this went against everything anthropologists might observe among the poor, but it preserved the tradition that started with Rousseau.

What I keep of Rousseau is the interactional sequence: 1) someone puts a fence and says something about it (“speech acts”) while 2) others watch and 3) take the fence and the speech into account in their own future interaction with the first person. What is the exact nature of their response (consent or resistance) is what should have remained the fundamental problematics. Poetically, the best alternate take to the making of arbitrary (not functionally necessary) walls is Frost’s. Frost who understood that “good fences make good neighbors” but that they have to be rebuilt again and again because “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” even as the absence of the wall might lead to further violence. In the poem there are at least four protagonists, three of them human: the narrator who doubts even as he complies in the rebuilding, the neighbor who appears to threaten him, and the hunters who disarrange the wall. There is also one non-human actor: the frost.

Rousseau was wrong: people are never “simple enough” as to believe someone who puts up a wall. And, for many, fear of raw power is a sensible response particularly when the mysterious unknown non-human (a virus) is compounded by a sign (wall) saying “STOP! Do not enter!” because “Stay home! Save lives!” (good distancing makes good neighbors).


Durkheim, Emile  [1918, 1937] 1966     Montesquieu et Rousseau: Précurseurs de la sociologie. Paris: Librairie Marcel Riviere et Cie.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1962] 1976     “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, founder of the sciences of man” in Structural Anthropology, 33-43. Tr. by M. Layton. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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On Responding to Corona: modeling consent and resistance

My earlier posts were mostly about ways to analyze the evolution and spread of Corona as what Mauss called a “total social fact” ([1923] 1967).

I will now focus on the moments of encounter with Corona that are but an instance of any encounter requiring further action by those made to participate. What is it that can happen, next?

Most simply, to any statement requesting action the response can be:

  • . Yes!
  • . No!
  • . Let me think about it! (Play with it, dissemble about it, undermine it or build it up outside the box set up by the statement)

The classical case I generally use when teaching about what makes a classroom a classroom (building on Mehan 1979) involves the question “what time is it?” To this question, human beings have been documented to respond with such statements as:

  • . “it’s 5 o’clock”
  • . “it’s my watch, man!”
  • . “it’s not time yet.”
  • . “time to go to bed”

These responses are themselves statements allowing for, or requiring, a further response. All sorts of these second responses (in a third step) have been documented. Famously, the first response can lead, in a third step, to such statements as “Thank you!” or “Good (for being able to read a watch)!” In each case, the statement reveals and constitutes broader constraints, whether polite encounters with strangers in the street, routine encounters between teacher and student in a classroom, or possibly tense interactions when some decide that one has “screwed around” and need specific “instruction” (Garfinkel 2002: 257).

Yes/No/Perhaps to a request for action can be considered here as a model that can guide further investigation into what can happen when one is told “close your restaurant”

Three ethnographic vignettes (about closing restaurants):

March 16, 2020: I drove off US2 in North Dakota for lunch. Near the highway, I found the kind of dinner in which parking lot pick-up trucks predominate. I had the usual meal. I overhead men talking about Corona: “I heard that they did in … “ “Trump said….” “I read somewhere ….” As I was getting ready to leave, a lady entered the restaurant whom I recognized not only phenotypically, but through dress, hair style, etc., as a “nice” professional woman of the American Middle West. She started explaining to the dinner’s manager what changes needed to be made to the tables, what steps needed to be taken to sanitize the restaurant, and other matters related to the “virus.” She was pleasant, smiled, while the manager, the servers, and the cook, looked worried. Eventually the manager asked “are they going to close us?” To which the woman responded “not yet but we expect the decision to close to be made later today. We take our orders from above.”

[comments: what I overheard triggered what I eventually wrote in my post about education into Corona]
[comments: note the ‘they’ and the ‘we’]

March 17, 2020: Lunch in Montana: restaurants are open but, at some point during the meal, I heard a conversation between a worried manager and someone on the phone. She was explaining that she had spread out the tables and was leaving one empty table between the people she seated.

[comments: this conversation implies earlier conversations about steps to take]

March 18th, 2020: I entered Jackson, Wyoming, and found that all restaurants had been closed.

[comments; If the same decision had been taken in North Dakota and Montana, then all the people I saw were laid off and had lost their salary.]

In middle March, Corona was spreading through the Middle West. People worried as they had to face a radically transformed economic landscape. They had to sort out what to do next and particularly whether to consent or resist (perhaps, in the United States by asking a judge whether the order to close was constitutional).

I have not interviewed any one about the sequences of what conversation analysts might call “turns” that might be investigated as “life histories” of encounters with Corona. I have participated in conversations. Some about what to do next (“Is it really necessary to wear a mask in this particular situation?”). Many were interpretative (“what do you think of this newly published statistic?” “Aren’t you sick of this shit that’s going on”). On this basis, I’d say that my main interlocutors (via email and some Zoom) appear to consent to the restrictions. They say ‘yes’ to confinement. Almost all of them, particularly university professors, are secure financially, as well as their kin. I do have some kin whose response might be summarized as “Yes, but … maybe things are not so bad as ‘they’ say…” or “closing cemeteries is strange.” In recent days, it has been reported that there may be many people who say “no” publicly. This public resistance may even lead to further responses by governors. It may also lead to some who said ‘Yes’ to move to ‘No’.

We need many more reports and I hope anthropologists will soon start reporting more systematically what some people, here or there, did, with what resources, and with what consequences on themselves, their kin, and others around them. I imagine that both consent and resistance took many forms and keep evolving as the people face new information, new instructions, new forms of discipline.

In brief, all encounters with a constraint (statement, decree, remnant of earlier statements and decrees) will involve some sort of bricolage.


Garfinkel, Harold   2002     Ethnomethodology’s program: Working out Durkheim’s aphorism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Mauss, Marcel   [1923] 1967     The gift.. Tr. by I. Cunnison. New York: W.W. Norton.

Mehan, First   1979     Learning lessons: Social organization in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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Modeling Corona pathways

This post is an exercise in imagining what social scientists need to do in order to learn about the spread of Corona, from the point of view of an anthropology steeped in the epistemology of ethnography. The appearance of Corona in all our lives is also an opportunity to understand better how real (not imagined) worlds are constructed by human beings, as well as what are the consequences of the particular worlds actually constructed on the everyday lives of people in the populations caught in that world, whether they bend to the new constraints, resist them, or (deep) play with them. In other words, for those who work off Foucault: how does governmentality actually work?

I introduced what I am exploring here in my earlier post about the speech acts which, as I drove west, closed restaurants (March 28, 2020). These speech acts traveled down pathways from some source to a local establishment where it will be experienced, say by a restaurant manager, and then lead to some response, or, rather, many responses. I first “felt” Corona on March 9, when it was announced that classes at Teachers College would be “online” only starting two days later. By the 12th, I, along with everyone else at Teachers College received a message from our president, forwarding the message that the president of Columbia had sent to all on some enormous mailing list (the “Columbia community” as it was deemed). I know less about the Corona pathways in France, I imagine that university presidents there did not have to deal with trustees, lawyers or insurers. What they had to deal with, and how they had to announce local decrees is worth investigating, particularly for those still interested in the culturing of human action
The message mentioned the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and it made it appear as if the “University” was the acting subject. No mention of any internal mechanism was indicated in the key sentence “we now need to take further steps.” Who is “we” here, ethnographically? Given that the conversations that led to the decision are “privileged” (i.e. secret except to a few), I imagine that the participants included trustees, lawyers, insurers. I imagine conversations among the presidents of New York University, Cornell and perhaps others. And I imagine calls to the state governor or his staff.

The conversations that led to the announcement of what “we” would do next will remain secret for 30 years at least. But they must have been all the more intense that the WHO or CDC or NY state suggestions and decrees left some matter to local interpretation and improvisation on the overall Corona theme. It is a matter of public information that universities of Columbia’s standing did speech act with different consequences for their students. On March 9th, talking with some colleagues at Indiana University we wondered about Harvard’s decision to abruptly close all student residences, with apparently little concern with whether students actually had a “home” to go back to. Eventually Columbia went a different way, “strongly urging” students to go home, but accommodating those who could not (for example the many students from China).

It will however be possible to get a sense of who and who is involved in local decisions by reading public statements such as this one from Columbia that mentions an “Infectious Disease working group” that makes local decisions about what to sanitize when and how often.

Ethnographers will rarely be given permission to take notes when speech acts affecting millions if not billions are being performed. Few of us can study “up” so we will have to find settings that will allow us to observe, collect, take notes, etc. among people relatively “down” from our status. In particular anthropologists will be able to document what some people did as they responded to decrees by governors (presidents, first ministers, superintendents, chiefs—whatever they may be called in this or that world). For a few days for example, some of us at Teachers College imagined (hoped?) that the “closure” was not an absolute one. We exchanged e-mails about whether someone could water the plants in my office. As we did, we came to understand the depth of the closure and the not-at-all symbolic strength of Corona. I do not know whether my plants are surviving though it may be that one of the few human beings who can still enter the building is watering them.

As with all ethnography, this little vignette does not seem to mean much. And yet it can be the grounds on which one can model the Corona pathways and the activity of human beings when caught anywhere in what is essentially a daedalus.

So, in summary, and in a very preliminary fashion:

— A consists of some human beings who can decree what B, C, D, n…. must do or else some punishment may ensue. The people of A meet, deliberate and then they decree.

— B (C, D, n…. ) consists of some other human beings who receive the decree and translate it so that it makes sense for them. In the process, after meetings, deliberations, etc. they come up with further decrees to those over which they have more focused authority Ba, Bb, Bc, Bn….

–Ba (Bb, Bc, Bn…) then, meet, translate, deliberate and, perhaps come up with still further specific decrees on Ba1, Ba2, Ban…


— (A) the governor of NY state decrees that all non-essential businesses should close;

— (B) university presidents decree that all teaching would be online using Zoom (rather than Skype)

— (Ba) individual faculty members on sabbatical and traveling to give lectures must decide whether to continue driving, etc. This response is made in collaboration with children, in-laws, etc.

(Ba) is where ethnographers will be enter to the world of Corona and give evidence as to what people who had no voice in the making of some policy do as they translate the particular mandate they received into their own lives among their most significant others.

The point is that people, everywhere and everywhen, when the recipient of a decree that makes a very real world for them, will make something else with the decree that those who made the decree cannot predict or control. As I argued in Educating in Life (2019), building on Rancière, a powerful event in one’s life will lead to a whole set of “next” steps sensitive to the actual practical character of the event, the resources available, the more or less significant others with whom one will try to construct a next, and then the response to the responses by those who produced the event in the first place.

Remember Alice and the flamingo!

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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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Corona as culture

Corona is neither simply juxtaposed to nor simply superposed over COVID-19. In a way, Corona substitutes itself to COVID-19, in another way Corona uses and transforms COVID-19 to realize a synthesis of a higher order.

The above is a translation of the best two sentences about culture and humanity ever written by an anthropologists. In the original Lévi-Strauss ([1949] 1969: 4)) possibly meant it optimistically (Boon 1982: Chapter 4). Translated into the Corona epoch, it may or may not be so. In any event it is essential for an anthropologist to keep the virus (that is the material and biological — C19 here) distinct from the human response (that is the social and cultural—Corona here). The response to C19 produced a “synthesis of a higher order,” Corona that has caught about all 7.8 billion human beings on the planet. For the million and a half who have been identified as carrying the virus, for their kin, and for those who treated them, C19 may be a matter of direct experience. For everybody else, what is experienced is Corona in the reports by the media, in the regulations by government, in conversations among kin, friends, colleagues. As an individual, I am lucky that noone in my first degree network has experienced C19. But we all have experienced, and continue to experience, Corona.

In an earlier post (March 28, 2020) I wrote that C19 might kill you and but it cannot close a restaurant. That is, and against some who wrote that illness is a metaphor (Sontag 1977), C19 is a “thing with agency” (in Latour’s sense). Actually it is a thing that is alive and will change as human responses begin affecting it (through vaccines, etc.). The naming of the virus “Crown,” in Latin, by whomever is, of course, a metaphor based on its appearance under an electron microscope.
C19 is not a metaphor though it will remain something about which metaphor will be made—along with much else in discourse, through speech acts and other means that will much more consequential than metaphors.

media image of the C19 virus
This is not a virus

The anthropological response to Corona will have to focus minimally on two aspects of the human response: how do humans get to “see” C19 and act directly on it. Most humans will never see it or act on it except for the few whom we can gloss as “scientists.” They will work mightily on that front. Anthropologists of science may or may not be helpful there. Where anthropologists will be useful is in the analysis of the spread of Corona, its consequences, and its evolution as it will morph given what will have been done earlier, and what was done elsewhere.

Consider: on April 6, as I write this, Euro-America is days into “isolation” and “social distancing.” When the regulations for this started depends on the nation-state under which one lives. Similarly, the exact nature of these regulations and their enforcement vary here and there, even though all governors (that is those involved in making the regulations) know what others are doing. In the US itself, resistance can take many public forms: compare the Hasidic in Queens to sheriffs in Idaho
In France, for example, all are required not to move more than 3/4 mile from their house and hand the police, when asked, a written, signed, document explaining why they are out. In New York City, one can still walk or drive to a grocery store or park. In France one can be fined and even arrested for transgressing the boundaries. In New York the policy will break groups of people larger than a few. There are now reports about some governors discussing what will be the modalities of de-distancing. One can be sure that these discussions will be acrimonious, with much disagreement, and that they will produce different measures here rather than there.

In other words, as with everything else that resist human beings, human beings will make culture and will live with what they have made. That is they will make some (many) things that will materially resist them. When Lévi-Strauss wrote about “synthesis of a higher order,” he was not writing about “interpretations” that live solely in the imagination. The synthesis is not a psychological event (though it may have psychological consequences) it is a social one. It takes shape in interaction, through conversation, instruction, punishment if necessary.

The challenge, in the anthropological study of Corona, will consist in figuring out who, in any particular place and at any particular moment, is involved in producing what aspect of Corona. To take the one example of the closing of a restaurant in a ski resort of Wyoming, one would need to trace the acts of the restaurant managers and the consequences for the managers and employees. To take another example, on March 28, I was told by the desk person at my hotel that I had either to leave or stay in my room for 30 days starting on March 30th. I did not investigate whether this was an accurate translation of the town council resolution, nor was I present when the regulation was passed down to the hotel. But, on the basis of the statement, I decided to leave the following day.

Many anthropologists might be interested in “why” I took this decision (or “why” is was in Jackson, Wyoming, of all places). They might look into my early childhood, into my personality or character, or into my identity. Some might emphasized that I had a good car, and that I was healthy enough to make the 4 days trip back to New York. Some might wonder why I decided to go back to New York at a time when everyone was being told that things were terrible there.

All that may be interesting if you are concerned with me. However, as an anthropologists, I am concerned with particular conditions that others make for me in my peculiar conditions.

That is the problem on which cultural anthropologists must continue to work.



Boon, James   1982     Other tribes, other scribes: Symbolic anthropology in the comparative study of cultures, histories, religions, and texts.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lévi-strauss, Claude   [1949] 1969     The elementary structures of kinship. Tr. by J. Bell and J. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sontag, Susan   1978     Illness as metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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On the speech acts that are making Corona

Let’s settle one thing first. A virus can kill a body but cannot close a restaurant. Only some people can do the latter. To close a restaurant some one must speak, with authority so that the consequences follow (restaurants to close, restaurant owners to speech act to potential customers).

At some point, say in February 2020, Corona was something one read about in the media. And then it became consequential in my everyday life as the President of Teachers College told the faculty that classes would be suspended and would continue online. I was struck about his exercising an authority that is vested in him—though I was also struck that he was following what had been done by the President of Columbia. For those who do not know the peculiar organization of Columbia, the fact that Teachers College is a separate corporation means that acts like “suspending classes” must be performed twice, first by the President of Columbia, and then by the one of Teachers College. As I was driving on a lecture tour that had not yet been interrupted I mused about who these Presidents consulted and who was involved in making the closing a sensible one, as well as one that could not be contested through the usual channels. Actually, I suspect that it was not simply a sensible response, it was one they had no particular choice making. I mused about lawyers and insurance companies. But mostly I mused about de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, and Cuomo, the governor of New York State as they exercised their own authorities as the responsible governing agents.

By the time I reached my first stop at Indiana University, everything was still “pre-Corona” though it had become a subject of anxious conversations as everyone expected Indiana to also close (go on line, stop such events as lectures by outsiders, etc.). We discussed Harvard shutting its dorms. We wondered about Columbia (which decided not to, though it encouraged students to leave). And we waited for the next shoes to drop.

Three days later, all my other scheduled lectures at Minnesota, Arizona, California State, Stanford were cancelled and Corona started to directly affect my everyday life. On some matters I still had some control. So I decided to continue westward. North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, the states I was going to cross had not performed any Corona related speech acts (and New York was starting to possibly be a bad place to be—as was discussed among my extended kin). By the time I reached Wyoming, this had changed as the state closed restaurants, etc. Within these State strictures I could still make certain decisions so that, three weeks into Corona, I am settled in a beautiful place and in a hotel I can afford.

I am expanding on the original speech act theorists (Austin 1962; Searle 1965) by taking into account all that conversational analysis and linguistic anthropology has taught us: speaking that has consequences, that is “speech” that “acts,” always involves a set of earlier utterances to which the speaking respond, including a pre-figuration of what future speakers might then do.

To do this, I performed many more or less consequential quasi speech acts, from those I made to myself, to those I made when I asked for a room, etc. All of these were, at the time, sensible responses to many strictures including the new constraints imposed by various agencies, from state governors to local health authorities. These responses were performed under my own authority over myself and could thus be deemed “voluntary.” However, having to respond is not something under my control so I would, as actor, deem the whole process involuntary. In Foucault’s terms ([1975] 1978), I am now imagining myself in a panopticon, disciplining myself so that I might not be punished.



Austin, J. L.   1962     How to do things with words. London: Oxford University Press.

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

Searle, John   1965     “What is a speech act.” In Philosophy in America, ed by Max Black. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 221–239

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Ignorant School Teachers

Rancière is altogether optimistic about “ignorant school masters” ([1987] 1999 ). He advocates for a radically “democratic,” non stultifying education that is not about students repeating what they are told by some teacher. As Joseph Jacotot has demonstrated, anyone can teach anything they do not know… as long as they do not invoke knowledge. The best school master is the one who is ignorant of what the students under his authority are trying to learn through exercising their intelligence in community with others also doing it. Rancière is tempted by Jacotot’s radical revolutionary democracy as it was dreamed up by the young French of 1789 (who also produced the Terror). He is tempted to doubt any claim to knowledge, expertise, etc. from philosophers, particularly when they are also placed at the service of some political cause or State.

One can seriously doubt whether this is something that is to be “applied” in the case of anything that involves the medical care of our bodies by modern medicine (vaccines, viruses, traumas, etc.). In such cases it would be hard to claim that we do not need expert teachers, who were taught by fully knowledgeable teachers, and who keep learning from such. We might also hope that some of them will think beyond the various boundaries set by their teachers so that they can actually find something no one else could have taught them. But that is a boundary case.

But one should not doubt the importance of Rancière’s major point: that people continually teach each other what they do not know as well as exercise their intelligence to figure out what to do next given their conditions, including all the advice others, and particularly experts, give them. This is something everyone should take into account, and particularly people with power and authority leaning on experts. “Official” education is always going to be challenged by the non-official.

This is very general, and, as I teach it, completely in line with the most classical forms of cultural anthropology. Humans would not be where they are, anywhere in the world, if they had not continually been involved in challenges to any order established earlier.

Now, in the particular case of Corona, we have a different kind of “ignorant school masters.” As I argued in my earlier post, most of the population of the United States (France, Italy, etc.) learned about COVID-19 from the media, that is from announcers or journalists translating what others had said, including politicians and experts. They continually invoke authoritative knowledge (as well as play on the emotions of their audience). “Stories” generally include reference to the “CDC,” a Dr. X “expert from [famous] hospital,” etc. How these stories are written, by whom, under what kind of control is something that specialist in media studies might teach me. But I strongly suspect that the experts themselves do not control the final wording (that is the curriculum) or the manner of the delivery (that is the pedagogy) of the education dispensed by the media. And I am about certain that the journalists themselves are not expert, or have any decision making authority such as those of governmental officials. The media people are teachers, but they are of the most ignorant type.

In the past few days, I have gotten further teaching documents that many if not most will never get. I have statements from university presidents, some colleagues, and such. They are statements by people outside the media that the media people may translate into their stories. The anthropologist Mica Pollock, for example, sent anthropologists of education these links from Ariadne Labs at Harvard: This is Not a Snow Day and #KidsHomeSafe: Advice on Social Distancing for Families. Here is expertise over expertise reiterating, or being the source of, action by the State.  Again, education from beyond the school

But the social reality remains the same, and is sometimes hinted at in these documents. If one has to be told that this is NOT a snow day, then it is probably because the author of this title is aware that many do take the current regulations as equivalent as snow days, vacations from school or work during which one should also have some fun with friends and family. Most medical doctors know well that many patients do not follow their advice, leading to a huge literature on the matter.

For an anthropologist of education/knowledge, the questions remain. Outside to the realm of experts, and the politicians who listen to them, what becomes accepted knowledge among a certain group? That is a social question since, as an anthropologist, I am less interested in individual knowledge than about communal one. I am interested even more in the establishing of (probably very temporary) agreements about what to do next. I can imagine some mother reading the texts produced by Ariadne Labs and then trying to establish what to do over the next day that husband, children, neighbors, etc. will actually implement.

It is about these processes that cultural anthropologists may have some expertise.  On the basis of this expertise, we can criticize another story from Ariadne Lab titled “Resistance and change” (about some surgical procedure). The post starts with “ Humans resist change. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism from our evolutionary past.” The reality is, of course, that humans continually change, that their conditions and resources for survival change, so that, actually and eventually, modern medicine does evolve over its past and towards some uncertain future.



[1987] 1999 The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


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Educating into Corona, in life

In my case, and while on the road, about everything I have learned about the virus I learned through the media, mostly from the “traditional” media (New York Times, Le Figaro, etc.) and somewhat less traditional (Yahoo summaries, etc.). I have watched some television, mostly in restaurants where it was on. I hope that people in the medical profession, as well as various politicians and “officials” with power and authority, are learning from other sources—though we will never quite know where Trump or Pelosi, Cuomo or de Blasio, etc., are getting the information on which they base their decisions.

Obviously, no one among all those (except perhaps the medical people) learned any of all this at school, though some may remember some high school class, taken decades ago about viruses and the like.

So, this virus has not (yet) been taught in school. More interestingly, whatever one learns about it is not verified by a more knowledgeable person (say, a school teacher). There are no tests. And one receives no diploma for whatever knowledge one has gotten. The “media” (journalists, TV announcers and such) are the main teachers. But they are not school teachers. Not only can they not give tests, they have no way to control what their “students” are learning. It is not even clear to me where their “curriculum about the virus today” comes from and who vets it (producers? lawyers? “officials”?). They are all very much “distance teachers” with little feedback about their impact.

Most importantly, the students are not isolated from each other as they might be in a test-driven classroom where their knowledge is supposed to be assessed independently so that they can be sorted into more or less knowledgeable. The students (me, my family, my peers, people I briefly encountered in stores or hotels) talk to each other, and they teach each other. As soon as they hear or read something presented as “knowledge about the virus,” they start discussing this knowledge in all sorts of forums with different co-participants, etc. They dispute, disagree, criticize, suggest, cajole, enforce, etc.

All this could be said to be “Cremin 101″ (1976) as I and my students developed it recently (2019). I will be using “teaching/learning Corona” for the rest of my career. I strongly encourage students who might be reading this as the event still unfolds to keep an “educational journal” focusing not only on themselves but on the others with whom they engage (very significant others, parents, friends, etc.).

[Note that this is the first of a series of posts I will be making over the near future in my role as senior anthropologist of education. This will be accompanied by a developing web site with notes and further elaboration. Note also that everything said here is under my own responsibility and does not in any way represent the position of Columbia University, Teachers College, or my colleagues and peers]


Cremin, Larry   1975     “Public Education and the Education of the Public.” Teachers College Record 77:1-12

Varenne, Herve et al.   2019     Educating in life. Routledge


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Musings about possibilities in the scholarly life of a professor of education and anthropologist