You won’t want to miss reading Ibrahima Thiaw’s recently published article, “Archaeology of Two Pandemics and Teranga Aesthetic”, in the newest issue of African Archaeological Review. In the article Dr. Thiaw shows how “the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how coloniality and racism are endemic to modern society” and reveals “the relevance of the archives, including the archaeological record, as usable resources for managing the problems of our times”.
The Wenner-Gren Foundation, in collaboration with the Social Science Research Council, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is proud to announce the recipients of Rapid-Response Grants on Covid-19 and the Social Sciences. Below is a list of the projects funded by Wenner-Gren, all of which were proposed by anthropologists and scholars in closely related fields. For a full list of recipients and further information about this program, please visit the SSRC website.
Covid-19 Messaging and Youth Engagements on TikTok
Crystal Abidin, Senior Research Fellow, Internet Studies, Curtin University
Enduring Social Inequalities: Black Communities’ Responses to the “Covid-19 Crisis” in Brazil, Colombia and Kenya
Jaime Alves, Assistant Professor, Department of Black Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
Raquel de Souza, Researcher, Federal University of Bahia
Wangui Kimari, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Cape Town
Amanda Pinheiro, Doctoral Student, University of California, Santa Barbara
Terrance Wooten, Assistant Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara
Humor as a Semiotic Resource: Coping with Covid-19 Stress in Africa
Bassey Antia, Professor, Linguistics, University of the Western Cape
Sinfree Makoni, Associate Professor, Pennsylvania State University
Occupational Diseases in the Context of Pandemic: Managing Risk and Care among the Working-Class Households
Basak Can, Assistant Professor, Sociology Department, Koç University
Zeynel Gul, PhD Candidate, Johns Hopkins University
A People’s History of the Pandemic: Global Households and Covid-19 in Asia
Cathryn Clayton, Associate Professor and Chair, Asian Studies Program, University of Hawaii at Manoa
The Impacts of Covid-19 on Community-Based Maternal Health Projects
Haile Cole, Assistant Professor, University of Connecticut
Containment and Distrust: Impacts of Covid-19 responses and historical containment on city making from below in Nairobi
Anders Ese, Head of Research and Development, Urban-A
Romola Sanyal, Associate Professor of Urban Geography, London School of Economics and Political Science
Joseph Mukeku, Community Design Architect & Affordable Housing Specialist, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology
Benjamin Sidori, Research Assistant, Urban-A
Queering the Surveillance Assemblage: Covid-19 and Homophobia in South Korea
Timothy Gitzen, Postdoctoral Fellow, Society of Fellows in the Humanities, University of Hong Kong
Wonkeun Chun, Research Professor, Sookmyung Women’s University
Re/defining “Essential Work”: The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Venezuelan Migrants in Argentina
Mariya Ivancheva, School of Histories, Languages, and Cultures, University of Liverpool
Jésica Lorena Pla, Permanent Research Fellow, Research Institute Gino Germani, University of Buenos Aires
Lockdown Diaries: Pandemic Stories from the Field
Ann Laudati, Instructor of Human-Environmental Geography, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley
Charlotte Mertens, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Melbourne
Stephanie Perazzone, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Antwerp
Re-Imagining Social Futures: Lessons from Diverse Household Experiences during a Global Pandemic
Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, Professor, School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles
Well-Being in a Time of Social Distancing: Indonesian Domestic Workers in Singapore and Hong Kong
Dyah Pitaloka, Research Scholar, Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship
Frenia Nababan, Lecturer, Universitas Multimedia Nusantara
Governing the Pandemic: Relief and Resilience in Ahmedabad, Gujarat
Maya Ratnam, Assistant Professor, School of Arts and Sciences, Ahmedabad University
Stigma Syndemics and End-Stage Kidney Disease in Disenfranchised Urban Communities Fighting Covid-19
Merav Shohet, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences, Boston University
Insa Marie Schmidt, Postdoctoral Researcher, Boston University
Lauren Dana Stern, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Boston University
Mapping Daily Routines, Rituals, and Virtual Emotional Intimacies in Covid-19 Pakistan
Zujaja Wahaj, Assistant Professor, International Business and Marketing, NUST Business School, National University of Sciences and Technology
Oliver Kayas, Senior Lecturer in Business Information Systems, Manchester Metropolitan University Business School
Asfia Obaid, Assistant Professor, National University of Sciences and Technology, Islamabad
Lubaba Sadaf, Assistant Professor, National University of Sciences and Technology, Islamabad
“Invisible Monsters”: The Pandemic Imaginary of Infectious Pathogens and Infectious Bodies
Lisa Wynn, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University
Thomas Strong, Lecturer, Maynooth University
Susanna Trnka, Associate Professor, University of Auckland
On September 23rd Danilyn Rutherford, the President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, held a discussion of how to seek funding for your research in these tumultuous times. Danilyn discussed everything from changes to the application questions to the meaning and ethics of research at a moment when anthropologists and those affected by their work are facing enormous challenges. She also described some of the new programs Wenner-Gren is launching to advance anthropological knowledge, amplify the impact of anthropology, address the precarity of anthropology and anthropologists, and promote an inclusive vision of the field.
Danilyn Rutherford, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
Welcome back to our series on the future of anthropology. For the second session, we spoke with biological anthropologists and archaeologists from different countries and traditions. In the following posts, they reflect on the current moment and what it means for the future of the field. Be sure to check out the first installment in the series here.
Dispatches on “the field”
Anna Agbe Davies, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
One of my first reactions, when asked about the nature of archaeological fieldwork during the Covid-19 pandemic and looking over our prompts, was that “fieldwork” means something quite different for archaeologists than for sociocultural anthropologists. But does it, really?
I’m thinking about the ways that archaeologists have attempted (sometimes successfully) to engage with living people, the descendants of the people who occupied the sites we call our “field,” and the people who now live there. Many archaeologists will now acknowledge that they strive for a practice that is critical, meaningful, and engaged. This kind of scholarship is, as they say, “high touch.” One must talk with people, form relationships, build trust, engage in back and forth negotiations. Does a pandemic in which face-to-face conversation is complicated, if not impossible, up the complexity of this process just enough to cause archaeologists to throw up their hands and give up? Safety restrictions might give cover to those who would rather retreat into a scholarly bubble, and not concern themselves with the living.
Further considering Danilyn and Yael’s charge, I found myself wanting to trouble, or confront, its terms. If we all want to know how to do fieldwork under radically new conditions, it seems wise to spend some time thinking about what we mean by “fieldwork.” Where is “the field?” What we as anthropologists and archaeologists signify by “the field” tells us a lot about our norms and values, the techniques we consider valid, the forms of knowledge that count for us.
“The field” matters so much to us in part because it is a site of enculturation. It may be where stories of the ancestors get passed down. It may be where we form communities in which people not only learn and pursue knowledge together (as we do in a classroom), but in which people also may live side by side, perhaps at some remove from the “real” world.
Some skills and modes of knowledge production that we consider essential are thought to be best learned in “the field.” We share equipment. We pore over one another’s notes. We pass artifacts back and forth, learning to identify and analyze them literally looking over one another’s shoulders. This is not a 6-feet-apart scenario.
What it comes down to, from where I stand, is that some of the aspects of being who we as individual anthropologists, individual archaeologists, are (that is, our roles, our identities, our personae) often emerge from key moments and experiences in the field. The coronavirus pandemic is hindering our ability to inhabit those identities and to teach and learn archaeology as an embodied practice, as a part of ourselves.
And yet, John Jackson has observed, and I concur, that “an anthropologist is always on the clock.” A consequence of the above-mentioned embodiment of disciplinary identity is that we can, potentially, find “the field” anywhere and everywhere that we encounter humans and their material traces. Instead of assuming a fixed relationship between “the field” and a certain kind of site, perhaps we can accept (either because of “these times” or because ”these times” are the crisis that compels our acceptance of) a relational rather than an essentialist definition of our sites, our data, and our processes of data collection—our “fields.” Specifically, I claim that it is the presence of an anthropologist, an archaeologist, that engenders “the field.”
Maybe current conditions mean people can’t study the thing (the location, the collection) that they wanted to, but is it really the thing that we are curious about, or is this thing simply an instantiation of an object that is more abstract? If we can accept the latter orientation, then the inaccessibility of the thing becomes less troubling.
My year of visiting English classrooms in Norway was cut short, but I learned a lot about what English means to young Norwegians (and what it does for them) by observing the use of English on placards at a Black Lives Matter protest in front of the parliament building in Oslo (Figure 1). Eventually, I anticipate analyzing these placards as material things and considering how they compare with the stickers that are widely used to spread political and ideological messages in Norway (Figure 2).
I realize that it’s easier said than done, but a great deal might be accomplished (from reassuring our junior colleagues, to reinvigorating the discipline, to discovering new “fields”) by shifting our thinking from “How can we identify new methods—especially methods of data acquisition—to continue to do the same work under the conditions of a pandemic?” to the question posed in the prompt: How will the conditions of a pandemic shape the kinds of questions anthropologists can ask?
As I walked around Oslo during the shutdown, I found myself curious about the new proxemics that was emerging. I started to observe people navigating shared spaces as the fear of contagion or the wish to protect others has changed the rules of the game. I found myself thinking about the material apparatus of social (some prefer the term “physical”) distancing: the plexiglass shields at counters; the tape on the floor telling you where to stand; and the extent to which people paid attention to these new cues for behavior—when, why, who? Passing through the liminal spaces of four international airports, I had an opportunity to reflect on the modes and materials of protection taken up by different national and intra-national social groups. Now, sitting at home in North Carolina under quarantine, I’m following with great interest the endless discussion of what a mask means.
I still wonder, though, given the structures within which we operate, even if emergent or precariously-employed scholars were willing and able to “pivot” their research, to study stickers, protest placards, and inspirational chalk art instead of ancient inscriptions, posthole patterns, and pots, would it be an act of solid mentorship to encourage them do so, knowing all of the extra value that is attributed to a business-as-usual field experience?
Because, of course, we are not perfectly autonomous actors. We are constrained by the social structures within which we work and live. Consider those for whom the sign-vehicle “the field” evokes meaning (Figure 3). How is that entity (a funding agency, a university promotion committee, a dissertation chair) situated within the structure of anthropology, of the academy? How is that entity situated in relation to the archaeologist attempting to assert that “the field” can, should, or does signify something new?
I don’t have a solution, or even answers to my many questions, but I do have a plan. It involves using whatever leverage I have to challenge the structural forces that reinforce essentialist and narrow ideas about our fields of inquiry. It involves humility and open-mindedness in the face of an anthropology that doesn’t look like mine but, because it was formed in the crucible of these troubling and troubled times, could take us all somewhere completely new.
 Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1994. Division of Signs. In The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Electronic edition.
Field Work and Futures During the Coronavirus “Anthropause” 
Anthony Di Fiore, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin
The global coronavirus pandemic is forcing people around the world to rethink almost every aspect of our daily lives, social interactions, and livelihoods. Unsurprisingly, for many academic researchers – and maybe particularly for faculty and students in Anthropology – this moment is prompting introspection about the “point” of our projects. (Is research about anything other than the virus and how it intersects with human biology and culture really that important or even relevant?) It is also challenging us to confront certain ethical issues head on. (How might my presence impact the health of people and wildlife in the regions where I am working?). On a practical level, too, we are being forced to wrestle with how to continue to make “progress” on our scholarship in the face of uncertainty about the future.
For primatologists, paleontologists, archaeologists, and human biologists whose work involves field work and field training, there is little doubt that the present crisis is going to have an outsized impact on our research programs. With travel curtailed, social distancing measures and quarantines in place around the globe, and universities and funding agencies placing restrictions on how and when even already-allocated funding can be used, many of us are now precluded from visiting research stations and excavation sites, from running or attending field schools, and from participating in any but virtual conferences. Additionally, access to many libraries and museums, both in our home countries and abroad, is suspended as those institutions grapple with their own challenges for weathering the pandemic and for keeping staff and collections safe. Even more important than these tangible, bureaucratic restrictions, though, is the fact that ethical concerns about the health and safety of our interlocuters and collaborators and of local wildlife populations demand that we pause and reevaluate any sort of field work – particularly field work taking place in remote sites or in places where the public health infrastructure is limited – as researchers are potential vectors, who could spread the virus far beyond urban centers into vulnerable populations and ecosystems.
Some forms of research in biological anthropology and archaeology might be possible to sustain, even if, as looks to be the case, much field work remains curtailed into the foreseeable future. For many of us, our research involves analyzing physical materials – bones, fossils, artifacts, biological samples, soils – that were collected in prior field seasons. In some institutions, labs that were shut down at the start of the pandemic are now beginning to “open up”, so it may be possible for work with these materials to begin again. Still, restarting “bench” research is contingent upon the development of adequate plans for safeguarding and monitoring the health of personnel (and on approvals from institutional review boards) and also requires that PPE and other lab safety supplies and consumables can be procured consistently and predictably, which may pose logistical challenges. Other kinds of non-field-based research, such as bioinformatics work or modeling studies or comparative analyses involving existing datasets, may be easier to pivot to, but only if researchers can access relevant datasets, training, and information infrastructures.
In considering how the coronavirus pandemic is likely to impact anthropological research and the discipline itself over the coming months and year, we need to acknowledge and conscientiously address two important issues. First, the ability to “restart” a research project, or to pivot a research program towards addressing questions and using methods that are viable even when we cannot travel internationally, is a privilege that is likely to extend only to select members of our community, e.g., to established researchers with existing labs and funding or to those with access to robust university supply chains for procuring PPE, reagents, and consumables. Thus, even where lab or remote research can proceed, we are likely to see many international students, visiting scholars, and undergraduates being cut off from research opportunities. Unless we find ways to push back, the situation is likely to perpetuate and exaggerate structural inequalities associated with the colonial history of academic research and narrow the diversity of experiences and scholarly approaches represented in our institutions.
Second, it is clear that the costs imposed by the current pandemic are going to be differentially experienced by folks at different stages of their careers. Unquestionably, it will be more challenging and more professionally risky for graduate students, post-docs, and junior faculty members to have their academic trajectories slowed or to have to pivot their research to embrace new topics and new methods than it will be for more senior researchers with existing labs and funding. Just as we saw with the shift to virtual instruction and remote work spurred by the pandemic, students and faculty with young children are likely to bear the brunt of disruptions to public school schedules and shrinking childcare options that limit the time that can be devoted to learning and deploying new research skills. It will be important for us to hold our departments and institutions accountable for supporting our students and junior colleagues and ensuring they are treated equitably in promotion and granting decisions.
Finally, like many others, at the height of the lockdown I was struck by reports of how much less impact humans, writ large, were having on the natural world in conspicuous ways. We saw pictures from around the globe of clearer skies over urban centers, heard about how much global CO2 admissions had fallen, and, here in the US, read accounts of wildlife running around the streets of San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin. As a wildlife biologist, it was incredibly uplifting to see these small examples of resilience during the “anthropause” (Rutz et al. 2020), though it is sad that it took humans sitting so thoroughly still and not touching the world around us to appreciate the extent to which our just being impacts the rest of the planet. As we eventually emerge from the coronavirus crisis, this effect, unfortunately, is going to fade. If there is any new direction towards which we should be turning our ethnographic research tools as a result of the pandemic, it is to the interconnectedness of humans with other organisms and actors in our ecosystem.
 I love this word… it just entered our vernacular on June 22nd in a commentary published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Rutz C, Loretto M-C, Bates AE, Davidson SC, Duarte CM, Jetz W, Johnson M, Kato A, Kays R, Mueller T, Primack RB, Ropert-Coudert Y, Tucker MA, Wikelski M, & Cagnacci F (2020). COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife. Nature Ecology & Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1237-z
Doing Archaeology in the Age of Covid
Eduardo G. Neves, Professor of Archaeology, University of São Paulo
The practice of archaeology has been changing a lot in the last years, and it is likely that the current pandemic will have major consequences that will further accelerate these changes. Archaeology is a costly endeavor, and overall in the world one sees a drastic reduction in funding from public and private non-profit agencies. Such cuts parallel changes in legislation aiming at decreasing the demand for contract or commercial archaeology, which is the larger employer in the field overall. To top this, the constant flow of young PhDs coming out of universities delivers a population of young academics that is larger than the number of teaching or research positions being opened.
The colonialist history and the colonialist-embedded practices of archaeology have never been so visible as they are today. As a consequence, archaeologists’ monopoly on producing narratives about the past has been challenged by other interest groups that include Indigenous people, local communities, and local governments. This movement is forcing the discipline to move from within the limits of academia and to establish critical dialogues with these groups. As a consequence, albeit still a valid pursuit, the goal of knowing the past from its own sake is becoming harder to sustain, especially in contexts where archaeologists work among impoverished, politically silenced, and marginal communities.
The irony is that archaeology has never been so interesting as a discipline at it is today. The contribution of techniques from areas such as genomics, isotope chemistry, air-born digital imagery, and big data analyzes has been producing a small revolution in the understanding of the past through the material record. Together with the influence of innovative social theories, these advances confer to archaeology a powerful voice to propose alternative narratives about the past that challenge long-held but never-tested hypotheses. Such power derives also from the position that archaeology occupies between the social and the natural sciences. Long seen as a source of epistemological insecurity, this sometimes ambiguous place gives archaeology a privileged window on the deep history of the relationship among people, other beings, and the environment, making it well prepared to participate in the current debate on the socioenvironmental crises the world faces today.
In light of these ideas, these are the reflections I have to offer on the topics raised by Danilyn and Yael:
Methods and Questions
Restrictions on travel and lack of funding will likely render the practice of archaeology even more virtual and removed from fieldwork, particularly in graduate programs that place strict time limits on the completion of dissertations (probably more common in places such as UK than in the US). Remote analyses will become more frequent and so will approaches such as modelling or big-data analyzes. These are welcome developments but they run the risk of widening ever more the gap between the centers of production of knowledge in the global north and south, in contexts in which the north provides the syntheses (“the goods”) and the south the data (“the raw materials”). Funding for these approaches should somehow encourage stronger and more organic forms of collaboration among scholars and students, financing, for instance the travelling of students from the south to the north to enhance part of their training while remote research is done.
Methods and Ethics
The high costs involved in funding archaeology have always meant that the capacity to ask research questions and define research agendas rests with those in positions of power and reflects asymmetries in archaeology. The context of the pandemic forces one even more to question those who establish research questions and to what extent these questions contribute to making the practice of archaeology more socially relevant. In many places, such as in the Amazon where I work, local populations are the ones being hit hardest by Covid-19, and one should question the relevance of doing traditional fieldwork in places that have been devastated by the pandemic. That means opening the discipline even more to honest and practical dialogues about who benefits from archaeology and allowing for greater flexibility to modify proposed research goals once one is in the field.
Ethics and Questions
The most important question an archaeologist should always ask is, why am I doing this? This question should perhaps be the first one addressed by people applying for grants, and the answer should not be only scientific or academic. Once more, the practice of archaeology involves high costs, long distance trips, and, in many cases, literally messing around in people’s backyards. The transportation of samples to laboratories or museums, sometimes far away from the places where they were uncovered, is another complicated and costly ordeal. Archaeology must find a way to somehow be relevant in addressing the political and social problems the world faces today. Doing this will force the discipline more self-critical and interesting.
A final suggestion. The practice of archaeology is a collective endeavor and historically highly dependent on fieldwork. Although the frequency and opportunities may get more restricted due to limitations on travelling and funding, fieldwork will remain a basic pillar of the discipline. Over twenty years, my experience teaching free-of-charge field schools in the Brazilian Amazon has shown me that these are wonderful opportunities to form networks of students, build a sense of comradery, and empower local archaeologists and other people interested in the past. I think that opportunities for funding multi-year field schools or field workshops could have an important impact on the further development of the discipline in these critical times.
COVID-19 and the “New World” Order
Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, University of Pretoria
It is “normal” to live in a world facing challenges of various kinds as a result of social injustice, colonialism, climate change, conflict, or medical inadequacies. Such challenges are often geographically defined and do not necessarily affect the whole globe at once. I always consider these occurrences to be short-term disturbances of the equilibrium to which we have become accustomed as humans living in specific geographical locations around the world. As human beings, we all have experienced challenges that somehow disturb our “normality.” But a significant majority of the world population has not experienced a phenomenon in our living memory that has caused as much disruption as COVID-19. We, therefore, do not have any experience to guide us in adapting to the world in which we find ourselves. As we reflect on how COVID-19 is affecting our lives, personally and professionally, a number of issues come to the fore. I focus on three factors to review how the pandemic is challenging us to rethink our approach in terms of how we conduct our research activities. These are (i) research questions and methods, (ii) research methods and ethics, and (iii) ethics and research questions.
Research Questions and Methods
My view is that COVID-19 has significantly affected research activities, and this shall continue to be the case for some time. I am not convinced that any anthropological or archaeological research can take place under the prevailing circumstances. This is the case even though the COVID-19’s impact differs across the world, with some countries significantly less affected than others.
While there might be research questions that explore how people, especially indigenous communities, are responding to life under the pandemic, I am not convinced the situation allows for anthropological and archaeological research activities. It is very insensitive to be “throwing” research questions at people who are faced with the most difficult circumstances in their living memory. It is my considered view that those who insist on undertaking any research activity under the pandemic are simply interested in their “academic” output, in churning out “quick” publications. I do not attach much regard to anthropological COVID-19-related research because of the circumstances under which it is gathered and the methods applied. Those who continue insisting on research activities do so without being considerate of the societies within which they collect research data.
In discussion with colleagues, it emerged that the presence of outsiders can be viewed as a threat through which people from the “cities” are bringing the pandemic closer to their study areas, which are largely in rural localities. As we know, the major economic hubs around the world are ravaged by COVID-19. Our thinking was that our “foreignness” would affect how people interact with us, resulting in a discomfort that would directly affect research outcomes. To stand in solidarity with the most affected communities, it is my view that we should not conduct any anthropological and archaeological research activities, whatever our research methods may be. This is my view even where our methods dictate that the data is to be collected by various local members of the societies we are researching. This is not an ideal time for research. Instead, we must be compassionate with the most affected people from the various areas where we conduct our research projects.
Research Methods and Ethics
Our research context, even before the outbreak of COVID-19, was already defined by a number of concerns expressed especially by scholars based in so-called developing nations. Some researchers have “silently” argued against the increasing presence of foreign teams in their countries. Their charge is that such teams do not apply the same ethical standards they always promise to abide by. In addition, foreign research teams are accused of not investing in developing local collaborators so that they can themselves become active researchers who can stand on their own. These local collaborators exist only in the shadows of their “barons.” It could be argued, therefore, that local collaborators are simply involved to fulfill a “political” mandate and satisfy government administrative requirements for research permits. What this illustrates, therefore, is that the major intention behind these collaborations is not to significantly develop research capacity in so-called developing countries. The unspoken goal, instead, is to keep the status quo in place so that the area involved can remain “continuously fertile” for research by foreigners. This says a lot about who is actually producing knowledge, with others left to consume knowledge produced within their areas by outsiders.
The outbreak of the pandemic gives us a moment of “pause” in which to reflect upon and revise such relationships, which are abusive of local collaborators who are used only to get research funding and research permits within specific localities. I even have had foreign-based colleagues use my name as a collaborator without ever contacting me. Even to this day, these colleagues have not had the decency to say anything to me about these research projects (in which I was supposedly involved). It gets even worse than this, and yet the greater majority of my African colleagues would not have the courage to speak out and challenge these kinds of relationships.
More importantly, I believe COVID-19 has clearly illustrated how we have failed to transform our disciplines. It is evident that while we have researched and over-researched some communities around the world for many years, we have not done enough for these communities for them to have any of their own become trained specialists who can stand by themselves and run big research projects. I am not necessarily arguing there are no such instances within the African continent, but my view is that they are too few considering how much anthropological research has been conducted on the continent. How many indigenous professionals are actively producing knowledge in our research fields such that we can say that a meaningful transformation, and not just a smokescreen, is taking place? I have seen other colleagues beginning to add their informants as co-authors in research publications, but for me, this is not enough of a transformation nor can I even begin to consider it as such. COVID-19 is thus highlighting the growing gap of inequality not only in our broader societies but within our very own academic disciplines. It is ethically clear to me, therefore, that we need to transform the production of knowledge. The equality that researchers are supposedly aiming for is still only a pipe dream. Researchers make politically correct statements, but it simply ends there. Foreign researchers have always led the game and played it with their research subjects by their rules.
Ethics and Research Questions
The greatest challenge is that our training of students has not really changed over the years. As a result, researchers and their students are not as compassionate as they ought to be. Indeed, we have adapted our language to a certain extent. It is now common to talk of community archeology, public archaeology, postcolonial archaeology, and so on. I would argue that, to a large extent, this is enforced upon us by the need to be politically correct as well as what I call the “feel good factor.” This is a good approach for pleasing potential funders, but the reality is that our practice is very different. We need to step back and reflect on the manner in which we have been dealing with our research subjects and the nature of the knowledge we have produced over the years.
In addition, anthropological and archaeological researchers have, in my view, become “victims” of the expectation that their research must be both objective and considerate of their informants. The two goals are contradictory in my opinion. Being considerate means being biased, and that is not objectivity. It has never been my view that objectivity is achievable under any research circumstances. As researchers, our identity plays an active role in our research projects, and we should accept that. My thinking is that we should stop trying to achieve the impossible, since we cannot distance ourselves from who we are, which is shaped by our various social, economic, religious, and political experiences. Researchers must begin seeing themselves in their projects, and this begins with them taking ownership of the voice in which they write their publications. It has been academic tendency for researchers to hide their subjectivity behind the use of the third person when they write up their research findings.
Reflecting back on these three factors (research questions and methods, research methods and ethics, and ethics and research questions), it is evident that anthropological and archaeological disciplines must still continue with their transformative efforts. The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to stop and reflect on the road traveled thus far before some “normality” returns. It is my expectation that it will take another year or so for this to happen. What is most important is that our research projects must be meaningful to the communities within which we work. Our research questions, therefore, should always not just be informed by our project’s intentions, but also by the difference our findings are likely to make in the lives of our respondents. We need to throw away the unachievable goal of objectivity and actively embrace subjectivity. That will not necessarily mean that we are unethical, but it will go a long way towards enabling us to be successful in making our research projects relevant.
What does an Ethical Physical Anthropology Look Like in a Global Pandemic?
Sheela Athreya, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Texas A&M University
Recently my senior graduate student Brittany reminded me that I once told her: “one of the most powerful contributions anthropologists can make is to dictate the narrative of human history.” This was said as a cautionary statement—an acknowledgement that we exercise a privilege, power, and voice with whatever we publish and thus we have to do so mindfully. Brittany’s reminder came at an especially poignant time. Just days after Danilyn invited me to consider anthropological ethics in a post-pandemic world, George Floyd was murdered. The African-American community was burdened to call on us yet again, for the nth time, to acknowledge and at least start to repair the centuries of pain and damage inflicted by slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. So when our roundtable group finally met, we inevitably could not disentangle our discussion from the bigger-picture ethics of anthropology in a world where institutional structures that have already shifted once because of COVID-19 need to shift again.
So here I share my thoughts on what an ethical Physical Anthropology would look like that accounts for the changes we all face due to the pandemic, but that goes beyond focusing on the immediate issues of travel restrictions, precautions when visiting museums or research collections, and lost training opportunities for students. Our work takes place within a historically mediated global power structure. Physical anthropology (in the strict sense) was built on the violent acquisition of human bodies, on their objectification and dehumanization, and on using them to rationalize colonialist and genocidal policies. I, my students and my closest colleagues work primarily with skeletal collections housed in museums around the world and derived from this violent history. There have always been ethical issues surrounding the study of these materials, so the need for new ways to conduct research in a world transformed by the pandemic dovetails well with the opportunity to implement more ethical practices using these data.
Before the roundtable discussion I asked my junior colleague Cody Prang, and my three graduate students Brittany Moody, Harshita Jain, and Missy Gandarilla to share their perspectives, fears for the future, and ideas for moving forward. Many of us recognize that we are not faced with the massive and possibly permanent losses in data collection methods that other anthropologists face. Our work can proceed despite the many restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to remote technology. While there is no substitute for physically handling bones for a comparative anatomist or morphologist, we can still address many of our questions using some form of online data such as 3D surface scans, CT scans, and/or existing datasets (à la Howells and Hanihara). Students are still stressed out about how to revise their projects, but they are not completely abandoning them in large numbers the way that many of our colleagues in other sub-fields—and even within Biological Anthropology broadly— are.
I paint the cup for Physical Anthropologists as half full out of respect to our colleagues whose work simply cannot be done remotely. But the reality is that we are in no way ready to pivot to this “simple” solution of online data. Our community knows this, and it will be a long road for us to get there. But failing to do that will be a massive failure of our generation to future generations of scholars.
The biggest obstacle we face is that physical anthropologists (and I am not innocent in this) are notorious for our resistance to providing access to our data, and our tendency to monopolize it indefinitely in the name of “ongoing study.” This unintentionally but unforgivably reproduces a premise at the origins of our subfield: the idea that we “own” the bodies we study. Indeed, John Hawks points out that the term “sharing” invokes an act of charity as opposed to a healthy and even essential scientific practice that allows for replication and repeatability.
The resistance to providing public access to data in my subspecialty of paleoanthropology has also created clubs of “haves” and “have nots.” Eager new graduate students with creative projects often struggle with implementing their ideas and getting funding because they are at the wrong institution or work with the wrong advisor to get access to data that they should rightfully have. This usually correlates directly with access to economic resources. It is impossible to diversify our field when data access exists along these axes of privilege which are reinforced in such deep structural ways.
Requiring the deposition of data into a public database, as is done by the National Institutes of Health, would be an important step forward for our subfield, and many senior scholars have been calling for this for a while (e.g., Turner 2005; Turner and Mulligan 2020). Our field has been discussing the ethics, practicalities, and considerations of such practices (e.g. Weber 2001, 2015) for over a decade, but without significant change. Funding agencies such as Wenner-Gren and NSF could play a major role in forcing a cultural shift by implementing strict accountability mechanisms such as requiring a detailed timeline for data deposition into a public repository, constructing and overseeing data repositories, denying additional funding, or even revoking funding, as is done by other organizations. These requirements would serve to signal the massive importance of data sharing, particularly in a post-pandemic research landscape, and begin to dismantle the tradition of Western scientific ownership over biological data derived from human bodies.
But on the flip side, as powerfully noted by Rick Smith and Jess Kolopenuk (forthcoming), requiring data sharing has its own colonial overtones. All people, but especially historically marginalized populations, are entitled to sovereignty over their biological data and their ancestor’s bodies. In that respect, our Black, Indigenous, and international partners require consultation on this matter; it is not as simple as a field-wide mandate.
Relying heavily on virtual data would also impact our museum and university partners because it would shift how we fund infrastructure and capacity building, particularly within international institutions. Many museums and universities charge bench fees, which are critical to the financial health of their staff’s own research and ability to curate the materials safely. If we emphasize data collection using online databases, funding agencies and scholars could incorporate budgetary line items that provide support for the personnel and technology needed to scan collections and construct/oversee online databases, perhaps replacing bench fees with the payment of comparable fees to access these virtual collections
It may be inevitable for us to default to focusing on lab-based research (such as genomics) when we are restricted for ethical reasons from doing fieldwork. But as one of our roundtable participants, Eduardo Neves, pointed out beautifully, if we shift our focus too much in this direction we are in a sense re-colonizing our field. If poor countries are not provided the capacity building support that is required to participate in these remote discussions, then we are inevitably shifting the power of narrating our past to a few predominantly White researchers. This ties back into what I told Brittany. If we do indeed have the power to narrate human history, I hope we can use this transformational period to shift resources, and authorship, to historically marginalized voices.
Turner, Trudy R., ed. Biological anthropology and ethics: From repatriation to genetic identity. SUNY Press, 2005.
Turner, Trudy R., and Connie J. Mulligan. “Data sharing in biological anthropology: Guiding principles and best practices.” American journal of physical anthropology 170, no. 1 (2019): 3-4.
Weber, Gerhard W. “Virtual anthropology (VA): a call for glasnost in paleoanthropology.” The Anatomical Record: An Official Publication of the American Association of Anatomists 265, no. 4 (2001): 193-201.
Weber, Gerhard W. “Virtual anthropology.” American journal of physical anthropology 156 (2015): 22-42.
Danilyn Rutherford, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
Anthropology, as a discipline, is not going to escape the pandemic unscathed. Never has the discipline seen such a sudden transformation in the conditions that make our research possible. The kinds of field methods for which we’re famous have become largely impossible. The relevance of the kinds of questions we were in the midst of asking has been cast into doubt. Running like a thread through these quandaries are questions of ethics: given the scale of the crisis, and its impact on those who participate in our research, what’s the point of anthropological work?
Now more than ever, the world needs anthropology; now more than ever, anthropologists, especially those new to the field, need support. But to meet the challenge of the current moment, anthropologists are going to have to think hard about issues that are no less ethical and intellectual than they are practical. It would be better if we found ways to do this thinking together. Towards this end, Wenner-Gren has opened a conversation about the future of anthropological research in the years and months to come.
We have asked participants to focus on these three areas:
1. Methods and Questions. There are resources circulating on how to do research in a pandemic. Interesting, many of the proposed approaches come from disciplines outside of anthropology. Is there a specifically anthropological approach and suite of methods we might want to explore?
On the one hand, the challenge is logistical. How might anthropologists borrow from, adapt, or completely reconfigure virtual approaches born in different disciplines? What can we learn from our own traditions of virtual research? What will we need to invent anew?
On the other hand, the challenge is conceptual. How will the conditions under which anthropologists are now working change the kinds of questions they are able to ask?
2. Methods and Ethics. The methods being proposed for fieldwork in a pandemic often involve a heavier commitment of time and energy on the part of research partners and participants than might otherwise have been the case. Are there ethical ways to do research under these conditions? How will we need to rethink not simply how researchers compensate those who participate in their projects, but how they formulate their projects from the start?
3. Ethics and Questions. The question is not simply how anthropologists should do their research in the age of COVID-19, but whether they should do their research. How is the current moment going to force anthropologists to think more intentionally about the purpose of their work?
In the following weeks, we’ll be publishing brief blog pieces from the scholars who are taking part in this discussion. For the first session, we spoke with sociocultural anthropologists from different countries and traditions of anthropology with deep experience training students. Here’s what they had to say.
Bearing Witness in a Pandemic
Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology, Western Ontario University
Billions of people are, in a very short period of time, engaging in or resisting radical behavioral change. There are massive changes in social structures of education, employment, and health. Our ways of thinking about our lives and our futures have been altered, perhaps permanently. We are in a liminal state with no idea of when or how it will end, nor of what life will look like on the other side. It is an opportunity of a lifetime for anthropologists to observe what is unfolding – to observe the practice and ideologies developed to sustain (or resist) social distancing.
In my own recent blog (Block 2020), I wrote: “In times when I am helpless and have no other choices, I remind myself that the very least I can do is bear witness. So I do.”
I believe that not only should we be doing this, but we have a responsibility to do this. We have a responsibility to bear witness to how people work to “flatten the curve” or perform the risky tasks required of essential workers, to how people resist social isolation. As I write this there have been more cases on Long Island, where I recently lived, than in the whole of Canada. As someone who just recently stopped working for a health science center linked to a hospital in what is now the epicenter of the pandemic, I bear witness to the risks that my friends and former students are choosing to take or are pressured to take. Health professionals are suddenly finding themselves on the front lines, and then falling ill themselves. I bear witness to all the people falling ill, and their families. I bear witness to the people in congregate living settings, including prisons, nursing homes, and other long-term care settings. I bear witness to my sister Hope in her community-based residence with its shifting staff, and to my cousin Michael, who lived 63 of his 70 years in institutions. To the staff, (many people of color), showing up for work. To the prisoners (largely Black people and people of color) making protective equipment, which they may not have personal access to unless they are digging graves, and coffins, which they might. To the youth whose rites of passage have been disrupted, who have been slammed unwillingly back into the nest, and to the loneliness of those facing this while living alone. I bear witness.
Of course there is a time for witnessing and a time for action, and we definitely in one of those periods now as this is published during protests against police brutality against Black people. I’ve often told students and colleagues that, as a disability studies scholar who has worked, until recently, in clinical education settings, my role is to be like the grass in Malvina Reynold’s song “God Bless the Grass” – find the cracks in the cement and make them bigger. This is a such a moment, where we can be finding those cracks for sustainability, climate justice, disability justice, racial justice, justice for exploited (and now essential) workers – farm workers, front-line health staff, people in food service and delivery. It is a time to push back against those who think Black, disabled or elderly people don’t have lives worth saving. How easily we fall back into the same moral ambiguities: Useless eaters. Lives not worthy of life. Work makes you free. Anthropologists contested such discourses before, so should we now.
Notes from the Great Quarantine: Reflections on Ethnography after COVID-19
Tom Boellstorff, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine
These reflections on ethnography after COVID-19 are deeply shaped by their time: May 2020, in the midst of what I will term the “Great Quarantine.” (There will be other COVID-19 quarantines, but none so unanticipated and extensive.) For you, dear reader, coming to these words months or years later, understand that I write from a time when the disease was new, its modes of transmission, symptoms, and treatments poorly understood. Arriving at anthropology through HIV/AIDS activism in the early 1990s, I recall that bewildering social destruction, so well captured by Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time (Monette 1988). At that point the disease had still recently been termed GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency: as with COVID-19 now, a disease of the “general population” began to follow the fault lines of inequality in terms of who was infected or stigmatized, who lived or died.
Writing from the Great Quarantine, I offer three reflections on ethnography after COVID-19, centering on design, theory, and the digital. By “after COVID-19” I do not mean the virus will no longer exist, but that as with HIV/AIDS, it will become part of the social fabric. See these reflections, then, as messages in a bottle to a near future of my colleagues planning ethnographic work in pandemic times.
In this time that I write, most ethnographic research projects have been suddenly suspended: those preparing for research have postponed or greatly modified their projects. Funders made swift decisions without the benefit of established protocols from peer organizations, universities, or institutional review boards. All this has been distressingly disruptive, particularly for graduate students whose timelines have been thrown into disarray.
However, the challenges of this time do not offer a strong model. The research projects disrupted by the Great Quarantine were designed without knowledge of COVID-19; nor did funding and pedagogical structures account for the pandemic. What will emerge after COVID-19 are methodological, conceptual, ethical, and political tools to respond to pandemic realities. For instance, proposals may include multiple timelines, so that disruption of physical-world participant observation does not mean postponing ethnographic research altogether, but shifting, say, to archival work for the first phase.
It may prove helpful to recall that while the challenge of COVID-19 is unprecedented, ethnographers have contended with disruption before. This has included global events like World War II, which resulted in the “culture at a distance” framework best known from Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). It has also included more individualized events like the loss of one’s fieldnotes due to arson, as in the case of M. N. Srinivas’s The Remembered Village (1976). These disruptions presented opportunities for innovation—for instance, the “culture at a distance” framework is recognized for helping establish the anthropology of mass media. Ethnography after COVID-19 will differ from what came before, but that difference will not solely take the form of loss.
As mentioned earlier I came to anthropology through HIV/AIDS activism in the 1990s, and I wish to return to this time of pandemic for further inspiration. It was a time of mobilization, activism, and witnessing—but also a time of literature, art, and theory. Paula Treichler explored “how to have theory in an epidemic” (1999), while in Saint Foucault David Halperin asked “What did gay activists see in Foucault… that his straight-liberal critics missed, and why?” (1995: 27).
This insistence on activism and theory as complementary has value for ethnography after COVID-19. We must not define “relevance” to denigrate analysis, and this extends to the early phases of research design and grant writing. So often the most powerful ethnographic insights are not present in a proposal, or even known while conducting research—they emerge through the work of analysis itself. Something that appears to be research for research’s sake might produce interventions of more lasting relevance than a hundred proposals crafted around a response to the immediacy of the pandemic. If we stick with the horizon of the known, many powerful insights will remain hidden. Ethnography’s contribution will remain both empirical and conceptual, witnessing and theory—indeed, it emerges most powerfully in their imbrication.
Data and theory are also imbricated in the crucial horizon of the digital. We must challenge any tendency to frame the digital as a universal solution to the pandemic. Some communities have little or no internet access; digital technologies can involve state or corporate surveillance. Yet there is a vital need to advance digital anthropology after COVID-19. In March and April 2020, the sociologist Deborah Lupton edited “Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic,” which contains a wealth of helpful ideas, mostly involving online research (2020). It is striking that this extensive document (and others like it) contain few contributions from anthropologists, relying instead on sociology, communications, and media studies. The relative absence of anthropology speaks to the discipline’s relative weakness in advancing digital theories and methods. It is, frankly, shocking to see how many anthropologists still refer to the physical world as the “real world,” denying the reality of the online (and by implication, conflating the real and the physical: see Boellstorff 2016). Anthropologists must move beyond treating the digital as a necessary evil or inauthentic substitute, not least because such prejudice flies in the face of how billions of persons engage with digital socialities. Such dismissals threaten the relevance of anthropology after COVID-19 and deny ethnographers outside anthropology the contributions we have to offer.
Before the Great Quarantine we were already in a world were a few ethnographic projects were primarily online (for argument’s sake, let us say 5%), but where the vast majority of projects (let us say 95%) had some digital component. Most of our interlocutors were already messaging their families, posting on Facebook, using digital technologies for banking, and so on. After COVID-19 we will not see a world where that 5% becomes 99% or even 50%: at the risk of stating the obvious, the offline is here to stay. Yet it is true that a greater share of human sociality will move online, that this will reshape offline socialities, and that anthropology must take this into account. Digital anthropology is a methodological resource but it is also a domain of inquiry like medical anthropology, legal anthropology, or economic anthropology, and this should be recognized in our disciplinary frameworks. We should steer a ground between either valorizing the digital as a magical solution to ethnography in a time of pandemic, or dismissing the digital as an intimidating, unpleasant thing we address as minimally as possible so that we can “get back to the real.”
Ethnography after COVID-19 will thus involve the digital in new ways; anthropology should be at the forefront of these conversations. To take just one example, “social distancing” is actually physical distancing. Going online creates new social intimacies. It is not necessarily a last resort: it is often a familiar space, even a new frontier. It is not always a second-best substitute for the physical, and digital socialities have their own meanings and implications. Anthropologists excel in the study of particularity, and there is a real need for digital ethnographic work that explores the similarities and differences between online games, virtual worlds, social network sites, texting and message, memes and image-based socialities, and so on. Additionally, in many cases digital socialities allow for greater anonymity than in the physical world, and less surveillance as well. Questions of ethics, responsibility to interlocutors, and advocacy shift rather than simply increase or decrease.
Concluding these reflections from the midst of the Great Quarantine seems an impossible task. What I know is that even in the uncertainty, economic collapse, and social trauma that surrounds me, in the pain of illness, the loss of death, and the violence of bigotries old and new, I like many see the value in thinking better futures. Life with COVID-19 will still involve cultural worlds, selfhoods and social relations in the context of environments simultaneously human and natural. Ethnography can play a valuable role in charting these worlds and paths toward their improvement: paths toward health, justice, and care of the earth we share.
Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Boellstorff, Tom. J27. 2016. For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real. CurrentAnthropology 57 (4): 387–407. doi:10.1086/687362.
Halperin, David M. 1995. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press.
Monette, Paul. 1988. Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Srinivas, M. N. 1976. The Remembered Village. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Treichler, Paula A. 1999. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Durham: Duke University Press.
Doing Anthropology in the Time of COVID: Questions, Methods, and Ethics
Nolwazi Mkhwanazi, Associate Professor in Anthropology at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), University of the Witwatersrand
For students and academics in anthropology departments in South Africa, as we watch the pandemic unfold before our eyes, there is a sense of urgency in how to document this whilst acknowledging the entrenched injustices that COVID-19 lays bare and the new inequalities the situation reveals. The strict measures that have been enforced during lockdown in South Africa have disproportionately affected the poor and marginalised and are increasing the numbers of people who are vulnerable. Initiatives such as the Corona Times hosted by the University of Cape Town and the student project co-ordinated by Lenore Manderson are some examples of the first attempts at documenting and making sense of the impact of COVID 19 by anthropologists. In South Africa, anthropology has a history of activism and has, in the past, spoken out about injustices especially racial, health, gender inequalities. The current generation of scholars is being faced with an unprecedented moment as well as overwhelming uncertainty and with the enormous task of adapting – adapting to teaching, conducting research, thinking and communicating digitally. For some this has been easier than for others.
A number of South African based scholars have reflected on the era of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa to compare and understand responses at the individual, community and national level. In terms of research, what I find striking is that despite the growing popularity of medical anthropology as a university course and the increasing number of African students selecting this course, very few student dissertations have, over the last two decades, focused on HIV. Indeed, while the majority of students conduct research in communities or with interlocutors they are familiar with, there was and continues to be a reluctance to work on HIV/AIDS. This is in part due to the stigma that continues to surround the disease and the care (and respect) that local anthropologists and students want to display in not exposing anyone to any harm or to making death, disease and hardship the only worthy topic of anthropological research in Africa.
I think the care and caution that we have observed around HIV/AIDS will be important with regard to the questions we ask and methods we use to do research in the time of the coronavirus. This will depend on responses to COVID-19 and the stories that emerge about its spread – who gets infected and how they become infected. At the moment, vulnerability to infection is not, at least in the popular imaginary, about socio-economic status, race, and gender but rather about compromised immune systems, which highlight issues of age and of health (nutrition, comorbidities, sanitation, housing- all of which are major issues for the majority of South Africa’s population and are differently experienced in relation to race and class).
With regard to how to do research, the idea of knowledge co-production is not new in anthropology and many scholars have tried to make it central to the research they do, but it remains an idea that many just pay lip service to. Until there is a vaccine developed, we have to rely on working with people who are already in the field as interlocutors as well as co-researchers and/or as research assistants.
It is impossible to do ethnographic research without the help of others. We often hear interlocutors complain that researchers (not only anthropologists) take from them in order to build their careers but never give anything back in return. This is something we need to address more seriously and this is a good time, more than any other, to begin to do this. Starting with funding proposals, we can ask direct and concrete questions about the unfolding of the project and the afterlife of the research.
What are researchers’ thoughts on a variety of issues relating to power dynamics in the field, inequality, and knowledge production? How do researchers imagine their presence in the field and their relationship to others? Will they practice an ethics of care? How and why? What do they want to communicate about anthropology to the people around them in the field? Such questions are especially important for research in contexts where there are stark inequalities, especially between researchers and their interlocutors. And as I was reminded recently, our attempts to engage digitally can exasperate those inequalities.
Perhaps we need to begin by asking the basic questions. Why do we do research? Should we be doing research at all? Where do we conduct research (and why)? These are important questions that we need to consider in relation to our environmental and planetary situation, and with regard to how anthropology is represented in the general public.
For some, anthropology is an attractive discipline because it allows one to travel, learn a new language, and document the diversity of lives lived. For many, this exotic lure has largely disappeared. Unfortunately, this has not coincided with a change in how anthropologists are perceived. In many African countries, anthropology and anthropologists are treated with suspicion, jokingly tolerated, or regarded with disdain. In an era of calls for the decolonisation of scholarship, anthropologists are seen as the last bastion of a colonial legacy. It is hard to argue against this image when the majority of anthropologists that are visible often come from outside the country, often from a different continent, and are there to observe.
The question that is often asked of anthropologists (especially foreign anthropologists) is: How can you help us? The answer often is: I can’t. While this is true and is what students are taught – to not make false promises – it takes us back to an observation I encounter a lot, even among colleagues in South Africa from other disciplines, which is that anthropology is about writing stories that only matter to other anthropologists. This is obviously a much bigger issue than I can address here, which we can approach from different perspectives. The point I want to make is that, from where I sit on the African continent, there is a need to advocate for the value of anthropology and to practice our craft with care.
 Please note that anthropology in South Africa is very differently perceived, practiced and positioned as compared to other countries on the continent. Unlike in other African countries, anthropology is a course that still exists independently although many of the departments are no longer free standing and have been merged with other disciplines as, for example, anthropology and sociology departments, or anthropology and development studies departments. Most colleagues on the continent are not in such a privileged position . To survive they increasingly have to turn to teaching qualitative research methods and taking on development consultancy work in order to raise money to retain promising students.
Methods and Social Reflexivity in the Time of Covid-19
Yael Navaro, Reader in Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge
Daniel Miller, an anthropologist who is well-known for his work on the internet, Facebook, and digital ethnography, recently posted a YouTube video on fieldwork under social isolation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSiTrYB-0so). This video is mainly intended to offer advice to PhD students who were preparing for fieldwork when the coronavirus crisis unfolded. Miller has a “can do” approach to fieldwork during the pandemic, having developed a pragmatic toolbox for ethnography with and through online resources. His goal is to assist whoever is watching this video, and particularly PhD students, in deploying technology in an imaginative way and in refiguring how they will do their research. He suggests, for example, that some interactions with one’s interlocutors might potentially reach greater depth because they will be undertaken online, rather than being interrupted by everyday chores and other activities on site. These suggestions, while helpful and important, also have certain limitations in that they don’t quite tackle the issues that a lot of PhD students and post-docs, as well as any other anthropological researcher, really will be facing. So I would like us to think about another, what could perhaps be called a “can’t do” framework for research methods under a pandemic, as well (also see Navaro 2020). This framework could potentially make us methodologically consider and conceptually address the issues that the pandemic has thrown up more realistically.
Most of our interlocutors will be in a “can’t do” mode or situation. Some will be ill. Some will have firsthand caring responsibilities and will be unable or unwilling to go online. Many will not have access to technology, or the means, including financial, to operate it. There will be many people so preoccupied with the coronavirus crisis that they will be unable to discuss, show interest, or concentrate on any other aspect of life that the anthropologist might want to draw attention to. A lot of our interlocutors will be facing serious financial hardship. They will have lost their jobs and become unemployed. They will be trying to pay rent, incurring debt, and paying or trying to pay bills and in need of actual, practical help from the anthropologist, including, where possible, financial assistance. Many will be displaced as migrant laborers or refugees, and as people who are experiencing domestic violence. Having a disability may make it impossible for many to use online resources. I know Tom Boelstorff’s work on disabilities and virtual worlds, of course (Boelstorff 2020). But for some, this technology might not be accessible. Those living under politically repressive regimes will have reasonable and rational reasons to worry about suffering repercussions for views they share online. Given widespread government and police surveillance, the safety and security of online connections is scarcely assured.
There will also be questions in situations in which a researcher is intending to embark upon a new research project in which they don’t know the people they are intending to interview. Consider the point of view of interlocutors assessing the reliability or trustworthiness of the anthropologist. They may not be sure they want to have a conversation with somebody they haven’t met in person or known for a considerable length of time. Some interlocutors will worry about being recorded during their interviews even if they haven’t given consent, because they’re not able to observe what is happening in the Zoom room the anthropologist is working from. And some might feel intruded upon by the technology and may have ethical misgivings about being researched in this way.
This is just to somehow draw attention to some of the real and realistic issues that we need to attend to before jumping towards what I thought Daniel Miller was doing in his YouTube video – that is, telling researchers that they can do it, that actually interviews online work better, and that they can do what they do in participant observation, but that it just takes a bit of a different form. I think it won’t be that easy and certainly not straightforward. It will require deep consideration and thought on the part of the anthropologist.
Beyond turning online resources into an instrument for research, an engagement with online methods will also need to take on board the forms of conceptualization that have emerged from work in digital ethnography. Some of this work has contributed to a re-imagining of intimacy and a re-theorizing of social relations. Rather than just trying to boost our technological adeptness and get to grips with technology as if it were simply a tool for research under extraordinary circumstances, we will also need to think about the changes that the use of Zoom, Skype, and Whatsapp is bringing to social relations across the board. This situation poses challenges to the ways in which anthropologists have conceptualized the social, pushing us to further consider how relations are being reconfigured by and among our interlocutors (eg. Strathern 2020).
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a layer of social reflexivity that was perhaps unprecedented at this scale. A whole lot of questions about how we constitute our sociality, gender relations, intimacy, and sexuality have been revived and are being revisited. Going on lockdown, being furloughed from work or working from home, taking care of one’s children 24/7 without relying on supporting institutions such as schools, or being unable to attend the funerals of family members in person has brought ‘the social’ under a magnifying glass. The pandemic has introduced such a contrast to the ways we used to previously relate that it has turned everyone into theorists of their social relations. It is not just anthropologists, therefore, who are reflecting analytically on how people are relating with one another at a time like this. Such social theorising has now become a component of everyday reflection all across the board.
There is a proliferation of discourse, in Foucault’s sense, then, on the way we now have to relate with one another and about how that differs from how we used to engage prior to the pandemic. Such second-order thoughts include reflections on the intrusion of screens between people, the impossibility of eye contact on Zoom, the difficulty of deciphering the meaning of what has been said because of its mediation by online technology, and the inaccessibility of affective and tactile clues that make conversations robust and understandable at a deeper, embodied, perhaps non- discursive level. People are considering how they are to take care of their loved ones when barriers have been placed between them with the impossibility of physical contact between grandparents and grandchildren, the limitations on house visits, and the travel bans between families relying on international flights. Likewise, reflections on intimacy have exploded: what is friendship at a time of Covid-19? what is love? how will one live one’s sexuality? As fundamentally differentiated as the answers to these questions would be, reflections on them have come hand in hand, as well, with gender, class, and race theory. The deeply uneven way in which the pandemic has hit people by reference to their social differences has elevated critical reflections on inequality to a level unforeseen. People have become anthropologists of themselves and their own societies.
Hand-in-hand with such widespread reflections on the reconstitution of sociality and entrenchment of inequality, have been commentaries on the nature of politics. The pandemic has been addressed at the level of nation-states who follow (or don’t) the directives of international organisations such as the WHO. And, as the case and death statistics are compared between countries, commentaries have also abounded on their relative systems of governance. What kind of political body favours the health of its public over that of its economy? Can public health and the economy be treated in distinction from one another, or are they co-dependent? What kind of prime minister or president has better mobilised his country’s resources to assist those afflicted by the disease? What is the gender of better governance? Are democracies prone to failure vis-a-vis the spread of the pandemic? Are authoritarian regimes more likely to succeed? What sorts of restrictions will be introduced to mobility and travel with the introduction of new forms of surveillance that employ tracing techniques? How will such intensified forms of governmentality impact people differentially? In tandem, then, with reflections on ‘the social,’ the last few months have also witnessed a proliferation of talk on the nature of ‘the political.’ Is control over the pandemic going to bring about regime change? Are political orders going to implode? For better, or for worse?
As anthropologists engaging with our interlocutors now, we will come across such reflections on ‘the social’ and ‘the political,’ reflexively considered (and perhaps analytically objectified as such) due to an artificial distance the pandemic has brought between everyone’s previous practices, modes of relating, and everyday habits, and their current ones. Much further than taking a technological toolkit on board, then, anthropological research in the time of Covid-19 will need to address these fundamental transformations in the societies we study through the interpretation and reflections of our interlocutors.
Boellstorff, Tom, 2020. ”The Ability of Place: Digital Topographies of the Virtual Human on Ethnographia Island.” Current Anthropology 61:21, pp.109-122.
Navaro, Yael, 2020. “The Aftermath of Mass Violence: A Negative Methodology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 49.
Strathern, Marilyn, 2020. Relations: An Anthropological Account. Durham: Duke University Press.
Preliminary Thoughts on Ethics, Purpose, and Anthropology Beyond Covid-19
Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas, Professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, American Studies, and Anthropology, Yale University
One of the things I’ve noticed with my graduate students, that is the ones who are going to “the field” or are supposed to start their ethnographic work right now, is that eventually they will be able to go back to do research in the way they were taught. But for now, what they are doing is not necessarily going to the technology. They’re going to the archives. I was expecting them to start thinking, “I’m going to interview people on Zoom or analyze social media.” But instead they are focusing on gaining historical insight into spaces or the communities where they will be conducting fieldwork eventually. They are identifying primary sources that may have been digitized or that they may have access to. Among graduate students about to start fieldwork, there is still that sense of “it’s only a matter of time before we’re able to do that, so we just need to switch things around and figure things out in a different order.”
I’m actually very optimistic and reassured by this reengagement with grounded research. There is something to be learned from anthropologists who are ethnohistorians, anthropologists who have taught us how we can engage with archives. I appreciate this turn on the students’ part. Because sometimes graduate students tend to be drawn by unencumbered theory. They associate this with being a “true scholar” or a sophisticated thinker, as if this were incompatible with having a historical and political economic grounding. One thing that may come out of this critical engagement with the archives is that ethically, not only methodologically, but also ethically, these young ethnographers can reconnect with the ground.
Among Latinx and African American anthropologists, and certainly among ethnographers in Latin America and the Caribbean, there has been a strong tradition of community-academy collaborations that require such connections to the ground. Although many of the same issues that Covid-19 has exacerbated existed before the pandemic, it may be interesting to think about how the current era highlights the difference between things that were interesting versus things that are relevant in the context of anthropological work. This is a tough conversation to have. Oftentimes we just want to do things we’re interested in. And those may or may not be relevant. I think this is an ethical issue that will become increasingly central for anthropology at all levels, from the work that gets funded to the work that gets published. And of course, the ability to choose research based on individual interest, rather than collective relevance, is an element of privilege — of geopolitical, institutional, racial, gendered, and certainly socioeconomic privilege. Despite the occasional exception, as anthropologists we are frequently situated in positions of privilege. That privilege emerges very forcefully when we insist that we should be able to choose whatever we want to do because we want to do it and it’s of personal interest to us. I’ve seen this throughout my twenty years in academic institutions. The current era may be a good moment to rethink how we orient ourselves and our research, to discover what is really needed, rather than being self-indulgent, and to focus on what is relevant. I am not necessarily suggesting that relevance is exclusively determined by the choice of research topic. But relevance cannot only be determined by random individual interest. Its assessment requires a greater social orientation and outlook.
Ethics, Methods, and Questions in the Age of Covid-19
Aparecida Vilaça, Professor of Social Anthropology, National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
I would like to talk about these issues from the standpoint of a Brazilian teacher and researcher of Indigenous Amazonian peoples, who also supervises students working in the same ethnographic area.
Methods and Questions
I think it will be impossible to adapt virtual inquiries and research to the work with Indigenous peoples. First, because most of them do not have internet resources at their villages. When they do, elders won’t feel comfortable with these methods, and elders are usually our main collaborators. We could ask younger people to record myths and histories with them and send them to us via internet, in case they have it. But then we might lose the whole context of production.
What we are planning to do at the moment is to wait until researchers might be able to enter the Indigenous lands with all health precautions taken. If it would not be possible within a year, then we will have to choose the possibilities cited above: recordings and even translations by the internet. But what about the “observant participation” that characterizes our work and that we all know changes our understanding of oral narratives?
On conceptual questions, I think the pandemic will be the center of ours and Indigenous interests should they get contaminated and survive. But I also feel that if they do, they will try to get back to normal life as soon as possible and then we will have to face traditional issues, like social organization, cosmology, etc. My experience with the Wari’ takes me to this direction.
Methods and Ethics
The main ethical problem we face in Brazil involving Indigenous peoples is much wider than the pandemic. The Brazilian government supports the invasion of indigenous territory, illegal mining, lumbering, and land expropriation. At the moment, all of us anthropologists are concentrating on publicizing what is happening and trying to work against it, via legal ways through the Federal Public Ministery (MPF). We are all in contact with the people we work with through phone calls, Whatsapp, and Facebook (their favorite platforms) to talk about the virus and the epidemics. We are asking them to stay in the villages, but as their subsistence now involves manufactured goods, they do not have enough food from their gardens and forests to sustain themselves. They need to buy it. For this reason, we are sending messages to scholars from all over the world asking for financial support.
In fact, we are all so concerned about the survival of the people we work with that we did not have time to think about research. Today, on the 20th of May, people from forty-four different Indigenous groups are infected with the virus, with 103 deaths. They all have very poor access to medical care, and many are dying at home. In Manaus, the Brazilian city with the largest Indigenous population, the hospitals and cemeteries are overloaded, as in many other Brazilian cities, and people are digging communal burial digs to dispose of the corpses. We are expecting a wave of extermination only comparable to what happened centuries ago with the epidemics of smallpox, measles, and flu brought by the European invaders.
Indigenous people’s reaction to the pandemic is linked to their way of life and their conception of what kinship means. Relatives, by definition, have to care to each other and can not leave sick loved ones alone. They should be close to them and take care of them, which always involves feeding and touching the body. From that point of view the idea of “social distancing” can not be applied to individuals, although families and small groups can spend time apart to escape from the illness. They have done this historically with more or less success.
We are now totally focused on the crisis and do not have any clear ideas about future research.
Ethics and Questions
I believe I already touched these issues above. One thing that occurs to me now is that, just as I myself can count on my research materials collected through the last thirty years, many anthropologists can also do the same. Students can also try to gain access to these materials, which are sometimes available in museums and other institutions. They can also do historical and archival research. If so, we will be back to studying subjects that are mainly “traditional” and, of course, to an emphasis on historical issues, on cultural change, on contact etc. But all that will come with a drastic loss of first hand experience.
As anthropologists, now more than ever, we have an obligation to make our work available to a larger audience, so that people can turn their eyes to Indigenous life ways, philosophies, and also survival problems. In 2018, I published a literary essay on the life of my Indigenous father, Paletó (Paletó e eu, editora Todavia, São Paulo). I have come to realize that talking to a wider public is one of the most important political acts we can do. We must make people admire Indigenous life, or we won’t be able to keep them safe. I am also writing for newspapers and literary magazines about Indigenous peoples, not just denouncing what is happening in the political arena, but also talking about the beauty of their thinking and of their lives. I’ve been getting a wonderful feedback for this work.
On April 20th The New York Academy of Sciences will be hosting a webinar entitled “COVID-19 and Anthropology: Disease, Social Justice, and Well Being” featuring the following panelists:
James H. Jones
Tonya Taylor, Assistant Professor, PhD/MS, College of Medicine, SUNY Downstate will serve as moderator.
The lecture will begin at 6:30pm (ET). Webinar access via RSVP, live stream on Facebook.
Join us for a webinar focused on our current pandemic (COVID-19), contextualizing the global comparative, disease and treatment, issues of social and economic inequity, immigrant health, questions of stigma, and policy.
Shirley Lindenbaum (Professor Emerita, Department of Anthropology, The Graduate Center, CUNY), Merrill Singer (Professor Emeritus of Medical Anthropology, The University of Connecticut and in Community Medicine at The University of Connecticut Health Center), James H. Jones (Associate Professor of Earth System Science & Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University), Thurka Sangaramoorthy (Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Maryland), and Amber Wutich (President’s Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Global Health in Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change).
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