Anthropological Implications of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the lives of many including anthropologists. Many anthropologists’ work centers around field work and observation, and with the COVID-19 pandemic ethnographic research can be extremely difficult. Ethnographers have been forced to reevaluate their research and field work strategies. Despite the inability to conduct field work, cultural anthropologists have been able to observe drastic social and cultural behavior and patterns as a result of social distancing, quarantine, insecurities of income, fear for health, and rise in social media communication. Some anthropologists have moved towards “distance ethnography” as they strive to observe and study humans during the pandemic. The New Ethnographer is an organization founded by researchers focused on conducting ethnographic fieldwork in conflict-like conditions. They advocate for a strong focus on mental health throughout research to maintain the ethical standards of the research. Furthermore, they stress the importance prioritizing safety and health of both the researcher and participants through cooperative practices.

Despite ethical and safety concerns, the ability to study other cultures is still available through distance ethnography. The reaction of societies to a global pandemic has been very educational and ethnographic data has shown the importance of ritual and kinship during uncertain times. Students in a Social and Cultural Anthropology program conducted an auto-ethnography of their life in coronavirus quarantine. They collected data and analyzed their findings surrounding communication, society, belonging, materiality, classification, the body, health, and conflict. Each student found that routines and family connection provided the most emotional support and respite from the abnormality. The social aspect and isolation of social distancing has led to the rise in daily rituals to maintain social and moral order among many. However, the use of rituals is not unexpected, and Anthropologists have long observed the prevalence of rituals during times of uncertainty. For example, war and natural disasters have sparked ritual activity in the past, because rituals are predictable events during unpredictable times and provide control. Anthropologists have observed rituals used during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide connection, alleviate anxiety, and increase normality. Aside from increased rituals, Anthropologists have observed the changing of many cultural norms across the world during this pandemic. For example, the common greeting of a handshake is no longer acceptable for fear of COVID-19 transmission. This leads to the question of whether or not this will continue after the pandemic and what other “normal” aspects of life will change. Another recent change has been the adoption of digital technologies which have changed professional, social, and cultural ways of life. By studying these changes and studying past behaviors across societies, Anthropologists can use their knowledge to aid in future world emergencies and disasters.  

Common rituals to reduce stress and anxiety include cooking and working out.

In general, Anthropological studies of the COVID-19 pandemic and research on the effects of it on people’s lives and their coping mechanisms can be valuable in strengthening health systems and preparing for future health crises. Furthermore, past studies on the anthropology of epidemic control can aid in future disease control and prevention. Anthropologists are integral in studying the social and cultural implications of COVID-19 to the benefit of world health and safety.


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