Viral Ethnographies

This collection of ethnographic snapshots from the Department of Anthropology’s graduate students reveals how the COVID-19 pandemic is both a shared global experience altering the daily routines of billions of people around the world while also generating distinct understandings, affects, and responses rooted in unique social and cultural contexts. Central to this project is the insistence that no singular or overarching narrative will define this crisis, that instead multiple, and perhaps even conflicting, narratives will emerge. Global health crises, such as this one, carry the potential to both exacerbate pre-existing relations of social inequality, making entrenched social fault lines more apparent. Yet, they can also generate new social practices of care and solidarity that continue even after the crisis has subsided. Attending to these different worlds-in-the-making may help to anticipate life after the pandemic.

The ethnographic sketches featured here emerge from anthropologists both “in” and “outside” the field. Necessary changes to human subjects research designed to reduce both researchers and subjects’ exposure to the virus, now require anthropologists to deploy new ethnographic methods that allow social communication to continue while respecting physical distancing requirements. Such constraints place new challenges on ethnographers, pushing anthropologists to make full use of a slate of communicative technology available. Expanded and globalized telecommunications infrastructures means that our interlocutors are often connected to us via digital text messaging services like WhatsApp as well as through social media platforms like Facebook and Instragram. Devising methods for interpreting the sociality that happens within digital platforms raises fundamental methodological challenges that should be viewed as an opportunity to adapt and hone the ethnographer’s craft. Within this collection are examples of how that might be done, cuing us to both the limitations of this new research terrain as well as its potential benefits.

Amidst vague calls for a “return to normal,” these snapshots may help us to think about the temporal politics that undergird relief efforts and the stakes of returning to the past versus charting a path towards a future. Ultimately, these snapshots are an entry point both to experiences and ways of living not captured by the media, as well as a starting place for considering the multiple and different ways this crisis is unfolding in peoples’ lives.


A Virus Podcast Goes Viral

By Thalia Gigerenzer - 5/14/2020 - In the early days of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, a relatively obscure virology podcast called “This Week in Virology” suddenly gained thousands of new listeners.

Berlin | Risk, Blame and Cultural Isolation

By Jagat Sohail - 4/24/2020 - A day after the news of the implementation of a national lockdown in Germany, I received a message from a refugee-run social club based in my neighborhood in Berlin, letting me know that all planned events would be postponed until further notice.

Flipping the Script of the Disaster Flick | Somatosphere

by Elizabeth Durham - 4/19/2020 - For Cameroonians faced with the realities and stereotypes of their country’s armed conflict, watching COVID-19 hit New York City before Yaoundé is cinematic catharsis.

Introduction | Anthropology and Epidemics, a Quarantine Reading List

By Grace Carey - 4/16/2020 - The current pandemic landscape is of unprecedented global scale, ushering in what is being called “a new normal,” and bringing with it new social organization, living strategies, and a hypervisibility to structures of inequality.

I’m an Asian American doctor on the front lines of two wars: Coronavirus and racism

The Lily, Published by the Washington Post, Op-ed by Alumna Sojung Yi '12 - 4/21/20 - ‘I’m not racist, I just don’t want to get the virus,’ one patient told me.

Russia | A Calm Panic

By Kamal Kariem - 3/27/2020 - I arrived in Vladivostok wearing a face mask. Daily life seemed to continue as usual in this city that I have come to know. I was not put in quarantine, but rather was expected to wear a face mask until a two week period ended. I thought that this would be the main shift in my fieldwork: a two week “delay” that would...

Solidarity and Tourism in the Time of COVID

By Brandon Hunter-Pazzara - 4/16/2020 - It was in the second day of what was supposed to be a five-day trip to Cartagena when I was accosted by a police officer in the early evening demanding that I return to my hotel. In light of several new cases of COVID-19, the city established a mandatory curfew for the tourist heavy “old city” that would...