Category Archives: Culture

A Tale of Two [Unvaxed] Women

We needed to find a new plumber. I called around. The first business that seemed willing to clean our boiler and replace a problematic hose spigot had availability soon. Before settling on a date, I remembered to ask the woman answering the company’s phone–let’s call her, Mary–a non-plumbing question: Will the plumber who comes into our house to work on the boiler for a few hours be fully vaccinated?

That inquiry took us to a place I hadn’t prepared to enter while finding the right vocabulary to explain our garden issue. Indeed, Mary’s unwelcome answer brought us into one of those difficult conversations we all dread these days. Here’s my best memory of how it unfolded:

Mary: I can’t guarantee that the plumber would be fully vaccinated.

Me: Are SOME of your company’s plumbers fully vaccinated?

Mary: We don’t require our staff to be vaccinated. The owner can’t force them. We’re not legally allowed to do that.

Me: Absolutely. But, the owner doesn’t have to keep paying people’s salaries if they won’t get vaccinated. That’s not forcing, that’s just his legal right to hire whoever he wants to hire. He’s got that freedom.

Mary: He won’t require it.

Me: But, are ANY of the plumbers who work for you vaccinated?

Mary: No.

Me: Hmm. In that case, I’ll probably wait to use your services until after the pandemic is over.

Mary: [Silence.]

I sensed that Mary was struggling to refrain from going into a political tirade about how Democrats and scientists were lying to Americans, and the vaccine would make people magnetic or sterile or digitally trackable or . . .

A normal person would have ended the conversation there. But I’m not a normal person. Suddenly, this conversation offered new possibilities for engaging with someone outside my usual social circle. The anthropologist in me was activated. I forged on.

Me: My husband and I are both vaccinated, but this aggressive Delta variant is now causing some mild, breakthrough cases that people might pass on without knowing. Since we have young grandchildren who can’t yet get the vaccine, and we’ll soon see them, we’re being extra-cautious.

Mary: Hmm.

Now the citizen in me was activated. Reckless, I plunged ahead.

Me: Meanwhile, since only the unvaccinated are dying from Covid now, you might want to recommend that your plumbers get vaccinated–not only to protect themselves, but also your customers.

Mary: We won’t do that.

Re-enter the anthropologist.

Me: Ah. [Pause.] Out of curiosity, I’m wondering why you don’t urge them to get the vaccine.

Mary: All our plumbers are very healthy and have great immune systems. They won’t get sick.

Me: Oh, that’s wonderful that they’re so healthy. [Pause.] Still, I keep seeing videos of people in the hospital with Covid, on ventilators, who said exactly that. This Delta variant seems to be extra-contagious and is getting so many people sick who had strong immune systems. The vaccine is a great way to protect your plumbers.

Mary: My husband and I don’t believe in the vaccine. We’re not vaccinated, and we don’t want our employees to get the vaccine, either.

Me: Really? Why’s that?

Mary: [Hangs up.]

So much for my long-honed interviewing skills. I’d have to grade myself an “F.”

But I’m never one to take failure lightly. The anthropologist in me wanted to call back and see if I could gently persuade Mary to explain her opposition to a vaccine that has so much overwhelming scientific evidence supporting its efficacy. Exactly what unfounded fears had grabbed Mary’s imagination? Who, or what, was her source of information? Why did she trust that source?

Still, the plumbing issues beckoned. Rather than re-engaging with Mary–trying to conduct instant phone ethnography that was, undoubtedly, doomed–I sighed and returned to an inventory of plumbers recommended on a neighborhood list-serv.

Phone call #2 produced an outcome at once similar, and worlds apart.

The woman answering the phone of the second business I rung up–let’s call her, Carol–offered a complicated reply that invited a conversation. Here’s what I remember of the non-plumbing portion of our exchange.

Me: Will the plumber who comes into our house to work for a few hours be fully vaccinated?

Carol: Probably, yes.

Me: Ah, that’s great. My husband and I are, too. But since we have young grandchildren who can’t be vaccinated yet, we’re being extra-cautious. Are all your plumbers fully vaccinated, then?

Carol: All but one. But, I can make sure that the one who isn’t vaccinated isn’t the one who comes to work in your house.

Me: Thank you, I appreciate that. [Pause.] Out of curiosity, is your boss encouraging that plumber to get the vaccine, to protect himself and your customers?

Carol: Actually, he’s already gotten the first shot. He just hasn’t gotten the second one yet.

Me: Oh, great.

Carol: Yeah, our boss is very big on the vaccine. He’s encouraged everyone in the company to get it. I’m the only one who hasn’t!

Me: Oh. [Pause.] Well, since you won’t be coming to work in my house, that’s not a problem for me. [Pause.] But, would you mind me asking why you haven’t gotten it, if your boss is encouraging you?

Carol: I’ve heard there are a lot of bad side effects. Did you have any bad side effects after your shots?

Me: Well, after my second shot, I was tired for a few hours, and the spot on my arm where I got the shot hurt a lot for about a day. But, really, it was no big deal. I’d much rather have a sore arm than die from Covid!

Carol: Oh! [Giggles, pauses a few seconds.] But, I have underlying conditions, and that’s what makes me very nervous about the vaccine.

Me: Ah, I can see that would make you nervous. Have you discussed your situation with your doctor?

Carol: No, I haven’t. I’m just reading stuff on social media.

Me: Maybe your doctor might have more information about whether your condition would make you a good candidate for the vaccine — whether it would be safe for you.

Carol: I guess so. But, I had [pauses] cancer some years ago, and I wouldn’t want the vaccine to bring that back. That was a nightmare. The treatment was so awful. And, the vaccine’s so new, no one knows what it will do, years later.

Me: I hear you. My husband was actually in treatment for cancer the past year, and his oncologist urged him to get the shot as soon as possible. He got it very early. I was online every day for a few hours, starting in January, looking for an appointment for him.

Carol: Wow, really?

Me: Yes. My husband got the first shot as soon as he could. Even though he’s now completely recovered from his cancer, now that booster shots are available, he’s going to get that third shot as soon as he’s eligible. His doctor thinks that’s a good idea.

Carol: Oh, yeah?

Me: Yeah. Because all the available scientific evidence shows that if you have a history of cancer, your symptoms may be much worse if you come down with Covid.

Carol: I didn’t know that.

Me: Yes, there’s a list of underlying medical conditions that make you more vulnerable to catching Covid, and suffering more, if you do. Cancer is one of them. Diabetes and asthma and obesity are some others. That’s why people with those underlying conditions were being urged to get the vaccine early on, before other people.

Carol: Hmm. You sound very knowledgeable. [Pauses.] Maybe I should consider it.

Me: Just this morning, my husband was almost in tears when he read a profile of an ER doctor in Los Angeles who is so, so frustrated with her Covid patients. None of them was vaccinated, and now, many of them are dying. As a doctor, she wants to do everything she can to help people survive, and she can’t believe that people are refusing to get vaccinated, since the vaccine pretty much guarantees that, even if you come down with Covid, it’ll probably be mild, and you won’t end up in the hospital and won’t die from it. Just about everyone in the hospital with Covid now is unvaccinated.

Carol: Where did your husband read that story?

Me: I think he said it was in the Los Angeles Times. If you like, I can ask him and maybe send you the link.

Carol: Oh, yes, please, I’d like to read that.

Me: Sure, I’ll send that to you as soon as I can.

We scheduled our plumbing appointment and Carol dictated her e-mail address so I could send her that newspaper article link. A few minutes after ending the conversation, Carol called back to double-check our street address. But first, she said, “I haven’t gotten that link yet. Are you still going to send it?”

I reassured her I would, then told her some updated statistics about Covid’s ravages that I’d read in the past few minutes. Carol eagerly resumed our conversation.

Carol: You sound so knowledgeable. I’ve enjoyed talking with you.

Me: Thank you. Same here! I do spend a lot of time every day reading updates, since the pandemic has taken such a toll.

Carol: I think I need to stop looking at social media and stop listening to people telling me not to get the vaccine.

Me: I know there’s a lot of claims out there about how the vaccine is unproven or dangerous. But, there’s definitely a lot of scientific evidence now that shows that the vaccine is super-safe and super-effective to keep you from dying from Covid. So far, something like 200 million Americans have gotten the vaccine, and no one has died from it. But we’ve had over 600,000 deaths from Covid.

Carol: Wow, really? [Pauses.] I think I’ll get it soon.

Me: That sounds like a good decision for you.

Carol: Yeah, I’m sure I’ll get it, now.

On the surface, the two women I spoke with share a lot of demographic characteristics. They’re both white. They both sounded within about 10-15 years of each other (I’d say, in their 40s to 50s). They’re both part of the working class. From a variety of speech styles and other markers, I’d guess they both stopped their formal education after high school. They’re both native English speakers. They’re both American. And they’ve both resisted getting the vaccine to protect themselves, their families, and their communities against Covid-19.

But, that’s where the similarities end. Together, Mary and Carol occupy two distinct points on the non-vaccinated spectrum in the U.S.

To put the contrast at its starkest . . .

Mary opposes the vaccine for political reasons; Carol opposes it for personal reasons.

Mary is angry about the vaccine; Carol is afraid of it.

Mary is sure in her decision; Carol is uncertain about hers.

Mary refuses to listen to counter-evidence that would challenge her decision; Carol is willing, even eager to listen to counter-evidence that might impel her to rethink her decision.

What does this tale of two women tell us about the people who have yet to get a free vaccine in the U.S. against COVID-19, despite incredible effectiveness and widespread availability? True, they’re only a sample of two. I can hardly claim that’s a scientifically representative group. But between them, these two women cover a lot of fascinating territory that I think is important, and instructive.

I draw some admittedly big lessons from my conversations with those two plumbing company receptionists. At the ethnographic level:

  1. The “vaccine-hesitant” are not a single, homogeneous block. They include a variety of people who have arrived at their caution–or refusal–from a variety of subject positions.
  2. If Mary and Carol offer strikingly different reasons for rejecting the Covid vaccine, they still do not represent the full range of reasons. Notably . . .
    • Some undocumented immigrants remain nervous about deportation, in case they have to show an ID at a vaccine clinic (as with some in the Cape Verdean community I research in Rhode Island);
    • Some blue-collar laborers work such long hours that they don’t find time or energy to go get a shot (as with the Stanley Steemer employee who came to clean our carpet earlier this spring, pre-Delta);
    • Some young people find it impossible to imagine that they could die (who among us hasn’t been there?);
    • Some “gig economy” workers live so precariously, from paycheck to paycheck, that they can’t risk missing a single unpaid day or two of work (why can’t the federal government address this with direct compensation?);
    • Some people of color retain such deep distrust of a medical system steeped in racism that they see no reason to let down their guard now (happily, physicians and nurses of color are starting to effectively address these concerns).
  3. At the pragmatic (or, should I write, methodological?) level: Because “vaccine hesitancy” has many, diverse foundations, addressing it requires a multi-pronged approach.
    • “Meeting people where they are” has recently become a catch phrase among some in the medical community. That pithy motto is really just a simple way of signaling that what’s needed is an army of anthropologists. Who better to plumb people’s hidden, implicit values?
    • If the Biden administration were on the ball, they’d be recruiting anthropologists left and right for their medical team.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Help-Wanted-Anthropologist.jpg

At the truly big-picture level: Education matters. Without research skills training us to evaluate the clearly false from the potentially true from the absolutely true, we are at the mercy of anything passing for “fact” that crosses our screen. Whatever the grade level, whatever the class subject, whatever the instructor’s expertise, every teacher’s first task should be to teach basic skills to evaluate evidence. The story of Mary and Carol makes it clear: our lives depend on those skills.

Meanwhile, here’s a rash prediction. This Monday, the F.D.A. is said to announce full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine. For some of the under-informed and mis-led Carols of the world ruled by a troubling combination of fear, misinformation, and eagerness for reliable advice founded in facts that regularly evade them, that authorization should provide some assurance that may motivate them to roll up their sleeves for their first shot. In short, I anticipate an enormous wave of new vaccine doses in the coming week or two, as several dams of hesitation break.

And, a wish. Maybe, just maybe, as the Marys of the world watch more people they know and even love die needlessly of Covid, at least a few of them may find some face-saving cover in the F.D.A. move and finally decide to go for a shot. After all, joining the pro-life camp of the vaccinated will confer the ultimate freedom.

Weed or Not Weed?

Weeding is an exercise in anthropology.

How do we know what’s a weed?

The great French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, organized his nearly-80-year-long career around a single, foundational principle: “culture” basically comes down to classification. If something is “this” (whatever “this” is), then it’s not “that.” Reciprocally, if something is “that,” then it’s not “this.”

If that observation seems banal, we rarely dwell on it precisely because it seems so obvious that it becomes invisible, like the air we breathe. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful lesson that summarizes quite a lot about the human condition. In a nutshell, our relentless urge to classify the world is one of the most important (if not first-that-comes-to-mind) features that distinguishes us from other intelligent species.

Perhaps nowhere is this species marker more sensorily evident than in an ordinary space that seems far removed from deep philosophical tenets — a garden.

True, what we choose to plant depends a great deal on soil composition and rainfall patterns. But it also reveals our values, as well as the power structures buttressing those values.

Planting a flower garden? That requires the rare privilege of having enough leisure time to value labor expended for no economically useful payoff, just sensory and aesthetic pleasure.

And, not just any flowers. A riotous garden crammed full of mixed wild flowers produces one effect.

These wild flowers scattered hither and thither create a carefree look signaling cheerful creativity

A clearly delimited plot of begonias or rose bushes neatly lined up next to a carefully trimmed lawn produces quite another.

These red creeping sedum arranged neatly as a border create a manicured look signaling control

As for a vegetable garden — that project may result from a careful calculation to provide dinner ingredients for a small fraction of the cost of supermarket prices. Or it may derive from a busy, weekend gardener’s passion . . . or a bored retiree’s new hobby.

Likewise, the selection of exactly which seeds to sow rests on whole worlds of cultural values, conjoined with economo-political structures. Pierre Bourdieu might as well have devoted a whole chapter in his book, Distinction, to analyzing what a rare breed of Japanese eggplant versus a common variety of iceberg lettuce signals about a gardener’s educational level, financial resources, and social network expectations — all of which shape our (seemingly) personal palates.

Not only that — we like to think about gardening as a paean to life. But, to be honest, we should acknowledge the reality of the euphemism we politely term “weeding.” Gardening relies on at least as much destruction as nurturance.

Trowels double as tools of promoting — and destroying — life

All those gardens (whether filled with dinner-worthy tomatoes or vase-worthy hydrangeas) require regular “weeding” — clearing space for “this” plant to derive enough nutrients from the soil to thrive, while “that” plant sacrifices its existence for its neighbor. The decision of what to “weed” announces our values about what we consider worthy of life, and what we feel justified to kill.

All of which is to say: Today, when I decide to spend half an hour “weeding“ our backyard, every plant I choose to uproot will also make a cultural statement. Indeed, in my (culturally influenced) classificatory calculus, perfectly lovely plants meriting space in the garden take on another identity when they invade the narrow gap between cobblestones lining our driveway. That, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas would have termed it in her magnum opus, Purity and Danger, is clearly “matter out of place,” and won’t evade my trowel’s ruthless digging.

Perfectly healthy plant doomed by suburban U.S. aesthetics

We can take the cultural foundations to gardening (suburban U.S. style) even further, seeing in it a veritable political parable. The delicate blades of Kentucky bluegrass count (for me) as worthy of life; those tall, thick stalks of “crabgrass” that threaten to crowd out their frailer neighbors merit death. In our garden, the never-ending drama of colonial domination and resistance plays itself out, one blade of grass at a time.

Kentucky bluegrass fighting for its life against the invasion of the imperialist Crab grass (photo by Alma Gottlieb)

Does “Reasonable” = Racist?

What can anthropology contribute to the critical conversation about race in America, following the welcome jury decision in the Derek Chauvin trial?

After they amassed and presented a week’s worth of technical details–medical, anatomical, temporal, legal–in the end, the prosecuting attorneys’ case against Derek Chauvin rested on a simple claim: A “reasonable” police officer would have removed his knee from George Floyd’s neck well before the excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took to kill him.


Miraculously, a jury of 12 peers unanimously agreed with that argument.

Every Black American (and probably every U.S. historian) knows how unlikely that verdict was. Indeed, on average, only one or two killings of a civilian out of a hundred by a police officer even goes to trial in the U.S. Why? Because, at base, the general assumption goes that a “reasonable” police officer would have acted the same way, given the challenging circumstances, so there’s no need to put him (or her) on trial.

And, until now, that argument–both its racist assumptions, and its racist implications–won out.

But what does it mean to invoke the “reasonable man [or woman]” as a model for a jury’s decision?

Back in 1955, the eminent social anthropologist, Max Gluckman, pointed out that the notion of the “reasonable man”–which lies beneath all Anglo-Saxon as well as many other systems of jurisprudence–is, at base, founded on cultural values.

He didn’t put it in quite that way. In analyzing the legal system of the Barotse or Lozi people of Zambia, he wrote:

“as Barotse judges define the reasonable man, they bring into their definitions many facets of Barotse life which are not ostensibly part of the law. These facets include a variety of social and personal prejudices. I believe the same process can be detected in the decisions of our own judges and juries.”

From: Max Gluckman, “The Reasonable Man in Barotse Law,” in Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa (New York: Free Press, 1963)

Those “prejudices”–which we might as well consider equivalent to “values”–dictate what members of particular societies consider what is, and is not, “reasonable.” Like most cultural values, these cultural models are neither universal nor unchanging.

Before the Derek Chauvin verdict, police departments across the U.S. judged it “reasonable” for 98-99 police officers out of 100 (likely, a white officer) to kill a civilian ( likely, a Black civilian), because of the particular context. Even in the rare cases that police officers killing civilians are formally charged, it is unlikely that the trial will result in a conviction–and, especially, a conviction of murder.

Last week, a jury in Minneapolis gave America a gift. Suddenly, the racist justification for (white) police officers easily killing (Black) civilians is no longer a basis for a “reasonable” decision.

As Black commentators have been pointing out since the moments after the verdict was handed down in court, it will take far more than one trial to change cultural values. For, in the end, cultural values are at stake–and such values do not change quickly or easily.

Yet, thanks to the past year of BLM events remaining front and center around the country (even the globe), racism is one cultural value that no longer holds primacy in the white American imagination. Now that the eyes of the nation were trained on the Minneapolis courtroom, there is no going back to assuming that a white officer killing a Black civilian is, automatically, “reasonable.”

We must, of course, keep pushing for accountability in all police killings. Even more importantly, we must keep pressing for structural change not only to put murderous police officers on trial, but to retrain all police officers in de-escalation tactics. Re-labeling them as “peace officers” or “safety officers”–emphasizing their potential for nurturing rather than violence–might be a good, discursive start. Incorporating mental health professionals and social workers into their departments–as the city of Santa Fe did last week with their new “Alternative Response Unit”–would be a great, more tactical start.

Meanwhile, I remain proud of my discipline. The late Max Gluckman fundamentally got it right when he argued that, ultimately, legal systems rest on cultural values.

But, community standards of “reasonableness” hold sway–until they don’t. If he’d been around to hear last week’s verdict, I’d like to imagine Gluckman breathing his own sigh of anthropological relief as he nodded approvingly.


What Anthropology Teaches Us about COVID-19, Part 3: A Few Thoughts about Culture, and What We Can Learn from Artists . . . and the Homeless

What is “culture”?

Early generations of anthropologists offered all sorts of definitions. No matter what their specifics, the various definitions inevitably shared one feature: “culture” is identifiable. Above all, it encompasses a set of beliefs and behaviors that, together, are premised on an enduring set of values.

Or something like that.

And, as such, culture (it was thought) offers a source of stability. It occupies broad swaths of time and space: associated with a delimited place, and occupying long patches of history. For these reasons, culture makes for a certain level of predictability in the lives of community members.

Source here.

Or does it?

Starting in the 1960s, anthropologists started questioning those assumptions. Marxists pointed out that ever since, oh, the advent of capitalism, or feudalism, or agriculture (pick your favorite starting point), “culture” has been perpetuated by the ruling class. Once the poor get fed up enough, they protest; eventually, they revolt. Then, suddenly, what passed for an enduring model of “culture” turns into a set of values to be challenged, and “culture” — or, one particular version of it — doesn’t seem so reliable or inevitable.

This “Occupy Everything” poster featured on Day 14 of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 summed up a great deal of diverse social justice perspectives that sheltered under the umbrella of the global social movement. Source here.

Around the same time, feminists began pointing out that “culture” has been perpetuated by men-in-power. Once women get fed up enough, they protest; eventually, they revolt. See above.

One can repeat similar arguments focusing on many other oppressed groups: racialized minorities, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, citizenship minorities, language minorities . . .

Nor is oppression the only reason for change. “Culture” also mutates when people from different backgrounds meet up, live near each other, work with each other, eat each other’s foods, dance with each other at street fairs, marry each other, have children with each other.

This ethnic-restaurant map of Queens, NY–an area of 109 square miles/52 square kilometers–hints at the extent to which large numbers of people from diverse cultural backgrounds (21,000 of whom live in every square mile) encounter each other daily.
Source here.

You get the point. “Culture” turns out to be way less permanent, less bounded, less intractable than early anthropologists claimed.

Unlikely neighbors enjoy dancing together at a street fair in the Mountain View section of Anchorage, Alaska — which is currently America’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood. Source here.

Not that the idea of culture is worthless. Contra some serious critics (Lila Abu-Lughod famously urged anthropologists to “write against culture“), I still find plenty of value in the notion. That’s because I see a lot of space between worthless and intractable. Culture can be malleable, adaptable, dynamic, while still remaining rooted in something. And, although the values that buttress culture can change, while they are active, they are powerful. They lie behind many (perhaps, for the privileged few, most) of our decisions.

Still, in pop culture, the current generation of anthropologists’ critiques of what culture is, and isn’t, hasn’t taken hold. Instead, in texts ranging from newspaper articles to corporations’ reports, we easily read disturbingly essentializing claims about “the Chinese” and “the French” and “the Muslims” as if all Chinese people, all French people, and all Muslims were easily interchangeable, eagerly sharing all values and forever speaking with one voice.

Or we read simplistic assertions about “corporate culture” in the halls of this or that company, as if all employees endorsed and enacted daily the corporation’s stated idealistic goals.

Along comes COVID-19.

The maddening “organism at the edge of life” (as virologist E. P. Rybicki describes viruses) that is far too dangerous to appear this beautiful

Of course, the most poignant takeaway of COVID-19 is the tragic demise of its most vulnerable targets.

But alongside the wrenching announcement of the day’s latest mortality statistics, as a cultural anthropologist, I find myself fascinated to read “culture” changing before our eyes — weekly, daily, even hourly. What we took as immutable practices grounded in deep-seated values are turning out to be far more pliable than most of us imagined.

Take the case of exercise. For the first few days of their local “lockdown,” people who got their workout in gyms despaired. How could they stay fit with health clubs closed?

Enter human ingenuity. Gyms have figured out ways to run “live” classes online. The acronym du jour — WFH for work from home — is expanded by some clubs to WFHBT: work from home better together. Buttressing that conceptual adaption is a simple technical one. Don’t have weights at home? How about using any heavy-ish household item you have lying around that you can hold? Say, pasta sauce jars, six-packs . . . or suitcases.

Coach Andrew Samuels of New York’s Mile High Run Club models creativity in suggesting the “suitcase squat.” Source here.

In such cases, people substitute one space for another. The exercise formerly done in the gym is now done in one’s living room.

But for some urbanites, studios may prove way too tiny to offer space for exercise. City-dwelling coaches are undaunted. Some suggest finding new purpose in a balcony.

Coach Marni W. of New York’s Mile High Run Club demonstrates lunges on her tiny balcony. Source here.

For fitness enthusiasts, daily habits of organizing one’s life around outings to the gym morph into organizing one’s life around coaches’ new online classes. That may entail switching work and sleep schedules to accommodate new class times. But the stable source, here, remains the commitment to “fitness,” no matter where, when, and how. That part of local culture and its underlying values remains stable.

But, for a stronger challenge to “culture,” let’s look at a different physical practice common to most of us: that of ordinary walking. For those who learn to walk competently some time in the second year of life, walking becomes a rote activity by the third year. As adults, we rarely contemplate our gait, pace, or stride. No matter where in the world we live, we have a sense of exactly how much distance we should put between us and the next person in order to avoid being judged creepy or reported as criminal. In a New York City subway, that space might be just an inch or two; in rural Sweden, it might be quite a few feet.

Whatever the interpersonal space bubble that feels “natural” to us while out in the world, we must all now confront our unconscious body awareness as we constantly re-calibrate distance. Keeping six feet from the nearest person may now require crossing the street to avoid being too close to the person approaching you on a narrow sidewalk.

Previously, such an action might have seemed, at best, rude; in some contexts, it could have been deemed racist. (As a short film by Cydney Cort called “Passing” once suggested, even speeding up while walking on the same side of the sidewalk can be motivated by racialized fear). Now, not crossing the street to avoid someone approaching you might be assessed as thoughtless, selfish, even potentially murderous.

Normally, producing such a 180-degree turn in what constitutes proper etiquette doesn’t happen overnight. Anthropologists and sociologists from Erving Goffman on have chronicled the deep-seated values that lie behind bodily practices as basic as walking styles. Those values tend to make somatic habits relatively resistant to quick or arbitrary changes.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed such practices, habitus. He spent much of his celebrated career studying how we experience and embody entrenched assumptions about the world and our place in it, and how these assumptions shape everything from architectural styles to taste in dinnerware.

But with COVID-19, much of what heretofore passed for habitus has suddenly become its evil twin. An attempt at a friendly hug might as well be a curse.

If maintaining a span of two meters from the nearest human may require doing a sort of dance down the sidewalk, suddenly, we are all turning into novice choreographers, performing an awkward solo tango across the street. What was heretofore a routine somatic movement becomes a basis for uncomfortable improvisation.

Perhaps the professional dancer, actor, and jazz musician can teach us a thing or two. All these artists learn the art of improvisation as part of their training. It may seem odd to think of improvisation as something to be learned. But improvisation is actually a discipline that students practice in dance, theater, and music classes. Ironically, it turns out that the art of improvisation is, indeed, a teachable skill, and the rest of us non-artists are suddenly being required to master it. If you’ve got an artist friend or relative, ask them for some tips.

Gwendolyn Baum is one of many dancers now offering online classes — including how to plan for a dance audition. Source here.

Artists are now designing striking face masks, teaching us to find beauty in even this new health requirement while enjoining others to do the same.

Abiquiú, NM-based artist, Suzie Fowler-Tutt, showing off her hand-sewn face mask color-coordinated with her hair adornments. Source here.

Powerful new works of art, such as this one by performance artist, Miles Greenberg, may speak to how many people feel these days — alone, awkward, defenseless, shackled.

This short but moving work of performance art by Miles Greenberg is part of a COVID-19-themed series for Document Journal. Source and video here.

But artists no longer have a monopoly on improvising new ways to cope with unprecedented challenges. Many who never considered themselves especially creative are finding themselves inventing new ways to cope with challenges and celebrate what remains noteworthy.

Neighborhoods are now organizing weekly shout-outs to thank those who risk their own health daily to care for the sick.

Every Friday night at 7 pm, residents up and down the street of this suburban neighborhood in RI stand outside their houses to clap, bellow, and bang their gratitude for local health care workers. Source here.

And those whose jobs put them daily in harm’s way are, themselves, figuring out the life-saving art of improvisation. In the U.S., thanks to an infuriating two months of inattention to the looming pandemic on the part of the Trump administration, medical professionals at risk of infection because of inadequate supplies are actually making their own masks.

In the U.S., lack of preparation for COVID-19 by the Trump administration propels hospital workers to sew masks. Unsurprisingly, this is feminized labor. Source here.

Workers in plenty of private businesses are also digging deep to find new modalities.

Distilleries that otherwise produce vodka have found a new use for excess alcohol: they are re-purposing that newly-hyper-valued substance into one of the rarest commodities of the day, sanitizing wipes.

Source with video clip here.

Inside supermarkets, managers are getting creative about indicating six-foot intervals delimiting where people should wait on the checkout line.

Meanwhile, gig-economy musicians position themselves outside those supermarkets, where they entertain customers awaiting their turn to enter at safely-spaced intervals.

With all this creativity occurring in the economy, I find all the more reason for us to take another look at the homeless.

And, no, I don’t mean because they are especially vulnerable. They are, but we already know that. We’ve known that for a long time. Too many books have been written about their vulnerability, with not nearly enough done to address it. Here, I’d like to point out something we rarely think about when we consider the situation of those who live on the streets.

By necessity, the homeless are masters of improvisation. From whatever tragedies led to their plight, they must scrounge anew for food and safe spaces daily. As if that weren’t enough, they must often manage these demanding tasks while being stigmatized, mocked, even arrested or assaulted. Although the homeless are more frequently the object of derision than admiration, their life skills in the face of almost unimaginable obstacles are extraordinary. Along with artists, they, too, could teach the rest of us some important life lessons.

As an anthropologist who researches the lives of homeless people in Leipzig, Germany, Luisa Schneider writes in a new poem:

while you wait it out at home

part of an expanding digital universe

connected to those you love

millions of us

have no doors to close behind us

or doors behind which

violence waits

or loneliness

or emptiness

or fear

(Source here.)

Even as many in the middle class (and beyond) are now coming to appreciate for the first time the low-paid workers who (often, invisibly) make their privileged world work — producing payroll checks, bagging groceries, cooking restaurant meals, packing and delivering packages, cleaning houses, teaching children — the one group that remains invisible for their life skills is the homeless. When this COVID-19 state of emergency finally passes, might this moment of global reflection produce new policies of compassion for helping the homeless to find new living quarters, while also helping them adapt their formidable survival skills to new careers?

What levels of grit and ingenuity are required to amass and transport daily this collection of necessary life goods as an impoverished, homeless urban nomad across the streets of NYC? Source here.

*

At the biomedical level, the most urgent lesson of this COVID-19 moment, of course, remains: isolate, isolate, isolate. For understanding the epidemiological challenges of this infectious disease emergency, we can turn to readable digests and thoughtful analyses of the week’s scientific COVID-19 findings such as this one, by the brilliant infectious disease specialist, Dr. Bill Rodriguez.

But that biomedical level has its counterpart in sociological factors — inevitably, given that humans are, above all, a social species.

The new catch-phrase guiding our lives is “social distancing.” For some, the required new habits of isolation are causing great loneliness and worse. For others, the phrase couldn’t be more of a misnomer, as people with access to advanced technology forge ingenious ways to stay in touch with those they hold near and dear. In the global North, Zoom is making geeks of technophobes.

I do not mean to underplay the suffering that the most vulnerable are enduring. Of course, that group includes not just the homeless but also the incarcerated and the medically compromised — the elderly, and those with the now-famous list of “underlying medical conditions” that, especially, stress the heart (diabetes, cancer, obesity, serious organ issues) as well as the lungs (asthma and respiratory conditions).

But it also includes the sociologically most vulnerable — the poor. And, in most parts of the world, that means, especially — for historical reasons having everything to do with the past half-millenium of European colonial expansion — people of color. Maps plotting those five groups — the homeless, the incarcerated, the medically vulnerable, the poor, and Black and Brown populations — are disturbingly close to isomorphic.

In a future post, I will explore these sorts of social vulnerabilities in this COVID-19 moment. Here, I want to end on a different note.

COVID-19 is forcing us to do no less than not only reinvent ourselves as individuals, but reinvent components of who we are as communities. For those who fear change but recognize the suddenly urgent need to embrace it, artists and the homeless alike offer powerful models of inspiration.

The transformations now occurring at every level of society will offer anthropologists research topics for years to come — starting with reëvaluating some unexpected benefits of what we might have formerly dismissed as fragility, and what we mean by “culture.”

Source here.