Anthropology Made at Home
Towards a Perspective on Psychological Anthropology During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Text by Jan-Henrik Seifert (Freie Universität Berlin)
© Pablo Dohms
“The banalities and distractions of the way we live now lead us, often enough, to lose sight of how much it matters just where we are and what it is like to be there.” (Geertz 1996, 262)
In March 2020, the rapid increase in the number of cases of the COVID-19 virus prompted the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to officially classify the outbreak as a pandemic. Following this declaration as well as international reports of case numbers outside of China, numerous countries implemented lockdown measures to contain the spread of the virus within international borders. Although necessary and inevitable, the multiple lockdowns and restrictions have profound effects on every aspect of social life, especially with regard to mental health and the wellbeing of individuals and groups. This paper seeks to explore notions of psychological anthropology and discusses ways in which the subdiscipline may provide insight into the everyday life from an anthropological student perspective during the current pandemic. Besides myself, countless students around the world have spent a large part of their academic education at their desks at home or a comparable location during a lockdown rather than in seminar rooms, libraries and public learning spaces. The outlook on psychological anthropology is intended to serve as a starting point for possible questions that the social and cultural sciences will have to address in the near future.
Productivity from Home
Psychological anthropology as a subdiscipline seems promising for providing insight into how individuals and societies are affected by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, since the discipline “refers to the study of human behaviour, development, and experience in the context of the ideologies and institutions of the sociocultural environment” (Pillay 2021, 326). As the pandemic is experienced globally, every human being will have a story about how they perceive this specific time and the impact the pandemic and its consequences has had on their lives. Given the fact of not being able to present an insight into each and every background story of the current situation, I focus on a student's view of everyday life at the university during lockdown periods in the pandemic. This everyday life has been fairly routine since March 2020 but had to be adapted to the circumstances so that a transition could become a habit. As I scroll through literature on a computer at a desk in an apartment I call home, I realise this is one of the main occupations I pursue these days. I might even consider that the space around the desk at home is where I spent most of the time during the multiple lockdowns in Germany. In this space, I follow university lectures via the Zoom or WebEx video conferencing programs, endeavour to socialise with friends and family, work for my job as a student assistant, prepare research papers related to the university, try to keep fit by training with YouTube videos, and perform various other daily tasks. Thereby, I doubt to be the only student whose day-to-day routine looks similar and wonder about alternative implementations of everyday life in the lockdown.
Rebecca Hendershott and Shamin Homayun (Roth et al. 2021) from the Australian National University offered their first-year anthropology students a rather unconventional approach to gain an initial insight into an academic’s work. Their course attempted to undo structural hierarchies between students and lecturers and proposed to undertake ethnographic research as fellow anthropologists. Since Hendershott and Homayun had to shift from an in-person to Zoom format due to lockdown regulations, the researchers experienced different intimacies while learning and teaching via a video conferencing program. Zoom operated as a window into the private space of its users and “effectively remarked on a participant’s habitus and status” (ibid., 68). Computer screens thus offer new insights into the intimate private lives of others and can even force users to rearrange their living space, so it appears exquisitely tuned for the camera perspective and the eyes of other participants. In a nutshell, this means that users of the program can consciously stage their own person by picturing themselves sitting in front of a bookshelf rather than an untidy bed. Furthermore, the program provides the host of a meeting with new powers they would not possess if lecturing in person. The power to “lower someone’s hand” and to “mute and unmute students voices” (ibid.) needs to be discussed in more detail, as it implies an alternative distribution of power and hierarchical differences. The researchers of Hendershott and Homayun’s course have even gone so far as to say COVID-19 threatens “the apparent safety of the home” (ibid., 70).
Anthropologist and sociologist Suchismita Chattopadhyay (2021, 49) also fears for the apparent safety of the home. She emphasises that the idea of home as a space of intimacy and privacy appears as a matter of luxury and privilege. While examining the home as a space of leisure, intimacy, caste, and gender privilege during the lockdowns in India, she problematises that the pandemic “contributed to a discourse of individual productivity and discipline” (ibid., 47). Specifically, Chattopadhyay refers to the lifeworlds of women in India, who are expected to have a perfectly managed household and fulfil care work in addition to their professional career. The pandemic thus conflates work-life balance with the notion of home and social labour and stereotypes Indian women as traditional caregivers. The author elaborates two different approaches that characterise working from home: “the labour that goes into maintaining a home and the work we are doing from the confines of our home”, and classifies this phenomenon as the “new ‘work from home’ culture” (ibid.) which is to be considered as the new normal. The approach in general has parallels with those who do professional labour from home. I do not wish to compare the maintenance of an exemplary one-room student apartment with the care work of the study participants of Chattopadhyay. Equally, however, the phenomenon of stress she describes appears to be transferable to some extent if one examines further studies in psychological anthropology and her question of a new idea of normality and how it relates to past ways of life will certainly receive attention.
The contemporary health crisis is exacerbated by realities of poverty, inequality, and structural violence and demands changes in human behaviour and society as multiple recent studies already show (see Bell 2021, Chattopadhyay 2021, Madrigal 2021, Pillay 2021). It “has turned people’s lives upside down, not only posing a danger to their health, but also affecting their social relationships and financial situations“ (Góralska 2020, 47). Visser and Law-van Wyk’s (2021) research displays exclusively the emotional and mental wellbeing of 5074 South African students during the first three months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Serious discomfort during the lockdown, difficulties of adjusting academically as well as feeling isolated contributed to emotional difficulties for the students. Further reasons included declining physical health and fitness, feelings of being lonely, a discomfort with spiritual life, and worries about financial and academic futures, which influenced participants’ wellbeing. “Wellbeing is thus harmony and balance between work and play, health and sickness, and is easily upset. It is fragile in its individuality and dependence upon others“ (Skinner 2020, 88). The fragility of notions of wellbeing as well as the already recorded discomfort of students show that emotional and affective impacts might be greater than we realise at this point of the pandemic. Pillay (2021, 327), therefore, recommends that the role of the social sciences should not be undervalued, as anthropology and psychology have much insight to contribute to the understanding of human nature. Traditional ethnographic methods of being in the field provide rich and deep insights into diverse lifeworlds. But how can these be adapted to conditions of social distancing during a pandemic to contribute to a fuller view of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its enactments and lockdowns? In the following section, I discuss the value of digital ethnography in this context. The near future of the social sciences or, more specifically, psychological anthropology will reveal the extent to which its qualitative research methods have insights into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Shift to Digital Ethnography?
In addition to myriad limitations on social life, healthcare, and the way we habitually function as a society, the COVID-19 pandemic has had just as great an impact on the way anthropological research can currently take place. The traditional approach of the ethnographer conducting fieldwork around the globe in person fails because of the limitations of mobility and physical contact, as well as concerns about spreading the virus any further. This process can be referred to as physical distancing rather than social distancing, as social media platforms or video conferencing programs still allow one to stay in touch socially (Pillay 2021, 327). Anthropologist Magdalena Góralska provides a solution to the issue of not being able to conduct fieldwork in other places and to physical distancing. Anthropology must adjust itself to the current circumstances and pursue digital ethnographies through “anthropology from home” (Góralska 2020, 50). This is by no means an easy task to do since the digital space also creates new challenges researchers have to overcome. Questions of handling digital data ethically, managing time control when working from home, or building a reciprocal relationship through digital communication need to be addressed and vividly discussed. However, the “desk-field is actually a window onto a whole universe of human sociality and cultural creativity” (ibid., 49) researchers can gain access and travel to another geographical location without the need to leave their own desk. Since the interpretations of COVID-19 realms should take place within a dialogic process that can take place in different spaces and places, an examination of notions of space and place and their possible interpretations seems necessary to mirror these realms in an accessible way. Or as Pauline McKenzie Aucoin (2017, 397) quotes Hugh Raffles in stating that places and space are always “in that flow of becoming [...] [t]here is no point of stasis: people are in motion, the tide turns, the banks crumble”.
This essay investigated ways in which psychological anthropology might provide insight into the everyday life during the COVID-19 pandemic. From a graduate student’s perspective, I discussed various studies that took place during the pandemic and broadly dealt with the topic of transforming living conditions due to COVID-19. The approach of digital ethnography was presented as a solution to be able to conduct psychological anthropology studies even during phases of lockdown, which still requires a deeper examination of the respective methodology in its implementation.
Aucoin, Pauline McKenzie. 2017. “Toward an Anthropological Understanding of Space and Place.” In Place, Space and Hermeneutics: Contributions to Hermeneutics, edited by Bruce B. Janz, 395-412. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Bell, Genevieve. 2021. “Pandemic Passages: An Anthropological Account of Life and Liminality during COVID-19.” Anthropology in Action 28(1), 79-84.
Chattopadhyay, Suchismita. 2021. “The Pandemic of Productivity: The Work of Home and the Work from Home.” Anthropology in Action 28(1), 47-51.
Geertz, Clifford. 1996. “Afterword.” In Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso, 259-262. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
Góralska, Magdalena. 2020. “Anthropology from Home.” Anthropology in Action 27(1), 46-52.
Madrigal, Luisa. 2021. “Caring for Home: The Failures of Vaccine Nationalism, or, Why the Pandemic will not be over soon.” Somatosphere. http://somatosphere.net/2021/caring-for-home.html/ (9. August 2021).
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Skinner, Jonathan. 2020. “Intimacy, Zoom Tango and the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Anthropology in Action 27(2), 87-92.
Visser, Maretha and Eloise Law-van Wyk. 2021. “University Students’ Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Ensuing Lockdown.” South African Journal of Psychology 51(2), 229-243.
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