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:

Continue reading “Constructing the virus and the defense against it in the Corona epoch”

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.


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.


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…



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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Anthropology for epidemiology (?)

I am not an epidemiologist.

Or am I, as an anthropologist concerned with production of human activity and its diffusion?

I start with the assumption that epidemiologists are, or should be, well educated into what anthropologists call “network theory,” particularly as re-imagined by Latour. Network theory is a way of looking as social action through the linkages that bring people together, and particularly on the movement of “information” through human beings, often very distant from each other. “Information” in this context includes about everything that can move through people from viruses to memes, gifts, money and other resources, health care, the knowledge that leads to school success, men and women, etc.

So, in the C19/Corona case, the New York Times taught me that one person, sometimes in 2019, got infected by C19, some place in Wuhan, China. By mid-June eight million people had been infected and 450,000 had died. The virus moved, and continues moving. Within a few weeks governors in Wuhan and Beijing “locked towns down.” Such policies, what I call “Corona,” also traveled around the world though they evolved even faster than the virus (and continue to evolve as various governors “re-open” the worlds on which they have authority).

In my earlier posts, I mostly focused on Corona, that is on the institutional responses that produce orders like “stay home.” Today, I wonder on the movement of the virus as it circulates along human networks and accelerates (air travel) and slows down (distancing) depending of the organization of the people into populations, and populations within populations (cities within states, neighborhood within cities) down to the smallest units: two or three people eating and sleeping together. Searching for renewed understandings of what was classically called “social organization” was the original task of the social sciences and, one hopes, their continuing task. Anthropologists have greatly contributed to this search. And they contributed something original because of their emphasis on conducting this search far from the beaten paths of the cities and states of their birth or adult lives. The anthropological contribution was fundamental precisely because of the limitations of ethnography: the unavoidable focus on small scale organization—where everyday life actually happens and intimate information travels. I mention infections rather than sickness among the infected as the latter is a biological matter (though possibly compounded by earlier life styles events or predispositions like diabetes or obesity).
Somewhat to my professional dismay, all the epidemiological work on C19 infections I have seen quoted proceeds in terms of black boxes aggregating millions of “data points” (e.g. matters like “size of household” or “income” or “race”). At best such research can tell us which black boxes to open. Some of that this kind of research, for example, highlighted that the virus propagates fastest in settings where small number of people are most intimately brought together so that they cannot escape each other’s breath. One of the setting and activity often mentioned is singing in choirs. The C19 aspect of singing in choirs is clear and a narrowly focused epidemiologist may not want to go further than advise governors to issue orders forbidding singing in choirs.

An anthropologist as epidemiologist would want to go further and first, investigate the organization of choirs, and then, second, attempt to generalize what their organization might tell us about other intimate situations. Choirs, anthropologists will tell anyone who will listen, are a particular form of social organization that is anything but universal in the details of the assembling of the choir (recruitment, resources, etc.), or the performance of the activities that constitute a group into a choir (style of singing, audiences, etc.). The correlation between singing in a choir and rate of infection does not tell us anything about who gets to sing, or how they get to sing on that day when one infected person sang. In other words, the issue about choirs is not that people sing, but that people are breathing hard with each other. This opens more general questions about what might also bring people together in close quarters.

Choirs are special settings and involve rather few people. But they are not the only setting where a multiplicity of people assemble together for long periods of time in small spaces where they will breathe hard on each. Funerals are often mentioned, bars, certain type of physical activities, etc. All those can be escaped. But there is one setting from which participants will not be able to escape each other: those that are generally summarized as “the family” at “home.” I said in passing in an earlier post that the order “Stay home (to stay safe)” appeared to imply a black box unit consisting of two adults of about the same age with 1.8 children. The order also appeared to operate in term of the equation: HOME = SAFE. I have not seen that equation challenged though many reports in the NY Times, when discussing why areas of the Bronx have much higher rates of infection than those in other parts of New York City, mentions “crowded households.” As far as infection is concerned many homes are at least as dangerous as choirs. At this point the anthropologist will weigh in to insist that there are many more types of households (homes, hearths, roofs) than there are of choirs. “Home” covers a multiplicity of human arrangements that cannot be imagined, but might be described by focused local research. This might stand as a kind of “definition” of the “family” (a very contentious matter).In my work here, “home” refers to a network of people whose daily activities are most likely to make a difference on each others activities. This set of people may live “under the same roof.” But they may also live under a linked set of roofs.

Take the case [based on people I got to know recently] of an elderly woman living with her mildly disabled adult daughter. The two are being take care by her son, daughter-in-law, and one or another of four grand-children on a daily basis. In late March 2020, the woman falls sick; the son is told by physicians to “treat her at home” until, a week later she has to be hospitalized and dies a few days later from complications of her infection with C19. These eight people are also intimately linked to several others whose care (including school work at home) is not quite amenable to “distancing.”

About every human being on earth is involved in such complex arrangements of other people they cannot escape. Understanding the details of these arrangements is essential when any attempt is made to interfere with what is traveling through these intimate networks whether it is viruses or, not so distantly related, that which helps with achieving school success. Anthropologists, particularly those of my generation’s teachers, made their career documenting the complexity of “home.” This documentation appeared in their debates as “kinship” and should not be ignored even if, somewhat to my surprise, many in my cohorts moved away from this kind of research, perhaps  because they misunderstood one of my teachers’ critique (Schneider 1984). And yet, at about the same time, sociologists of class reproduction rediscovered birth privilege, that is the huge effect of “family” on school success and adult career (Coleman 1966; Bourdieu and Passeron [1970] 1977). This privilege, like the virus, moves through linkages among intimately related persons. Much of this has been brought back to life as part of the discussion of “white privilege.” There is a risk that such recent refocus will reproduce, through the aggregation of “big data” used as proof, the caricaturing of the “white” vs. the “black” family that led, in earlier years, to awful or wonderful research on the multiplicities of familial arrangements and, most importantly, the complexity of the narrowed or expanded networks of significant others whose activities impacted on one’s own by either helping or hindering them (see bibliographic footnote below).

The important thing, for an anthropologically inclined epidemiologist, should not be to classify or to model in terms of aggregations by purported types. It should be to fine tune one’s analyses and face the real complexity of any attempt to rely on “home” to mitigate the effects of traveling information.  Given what we know about “homes,” then relying on home to mitigate certain things (viruses) risks increasing other (birth privilege). In many cases, “home” is dangerous, physically and in terms of one’s future economic success. And yet it is inescapable because it is, also, where one will get the care that is also something that travels best through intimate linkages.

One question for consideration: “does continuing home base learning for public school children augment the familial privilege that comes through the organization of the home?”

Bibliographic footnote

A while ago, I wrote a summary of the anthropological literature on the linkages between “family” and “education” (mostly school achievement) in Families, education and the state in America (1977).  Among the early anthropological works on “the Black family” those that stand out are by Carol Stack (1975) and Holloman & Lewis (1978).  It is important however to take great care when generalizing about the organization of categorically “similar” families.  Even the family next door could be quite different.  And half-a-century has passed since the original fieldwork.  And yet, this work can be useful as guide to the study of familial networks, and broaden our sense of the matters that can travel across these networks.


Bourdieu, Pierre and and Jean-Claude Passeron1977 [1970] Reproduction in education, society and culture. Tr. by R. Nice.. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Coleman, James 1966 Equality of educational opportunity. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Holloman, Regina, and Fannie Lewis 1978 “The ‘Clan’: Case study of a Black extended family in Chicago.” In The extended family in Black societies, ed. by D. Shimkin, E. Shimkin and D. Frate, 201-238. The Hague: Mouton.

Schneider, David  1984 A critique of the study of kinship. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Stack, Carol 1975 All our kin. New York: Harper and Row.


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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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