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VIDEO DOI: https://doi.org/10.48448/f872-mb85


AAA Annual Meeting 2021

November 18, 2021

Baltimore, United States

People vs. the Plague: Social Movements and their Ethnography after Covid-19


social movements

global health


The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted the possibilities and priorities of autonomous social movements around the globe and the ethnographers working with them. This debate brings together scholars immersed in this shifting landscape of political action from diverse European, North- and Latin American contexts, who research housing activism, social policy and welfare, domestic work, “mutual aid”, conspiracy theory, and anarchist solidarity movements. Our work spans multiple transnational sites, evidencing parallels and disjunctures of political and scholarly significance, and raising important methodological questions for ethnographic social movements research during and beyond the pandemic. Our focal point will be the relationship between social movements and the state in providing pandemic relief, asking whether grassroots movements can succeed where states have failed, or whether government calls for ‘mutual aid’ simply constitute a new phase of neoliberal accumulation. In the chaos of global Lockdowns, border closures and the partial or complete breakdown of formal support networks, local activist networks have found themselves cast into the role of first responders, addressing vital gaps in meeting the material and social needs of ‘disadvantaged’ populations. While this has generated new possibilities for organising, it has also exposed the strategy of the neoliberal state to replace hard-won welfare rights with unspecific calls for private ‘mutual aid’ and charity. Thinking together with the social movements in our studies, we will discuss the synergies and trade-offs between state withdrawal and activism: how did pandemic regulations at various levels of government create protections for some whilst leaving others exposed? How were ‘vulnerability’ and ‘deservingness’ constructed and negotiated in the context of pandemic responses, and what was the effect of public health considerations on marginalised populations such as homeless persons, documented and undocumented migrants, low-wage ‘gig economy’ workers, women domestic labourers and sex workers? How did classed constructions of the ‘essential worker’ and stipulations to ‘work from home’ affect embodied experiences of risk and exposure, and exacerbate existing spatial- and housing inequalities? Taking the lead from the movements we study, we will debate the emerging fault lines between activists working to hold states accountable for their abandonment of vulnerable populations, and those who see state withdrawal as an opportunity for renewed pushes for systemic change. Our conversation will touch upon the emergence of a new classed enthusiasm for biopolitical surveillance, the construction of whole populations (especially migrants) as ‘public health risks’, and shifts in housing activism given changing meanings of ‘home’, including both safety and imprisonment. We will also address new ethical questions facing activist ethnographers involved in political action: the contradictory role of the activist-anthropologist takes on a new urgency when protocols meant to protect human subjects from infection coincide with (or contradict) affective and material relationships formed within the field. Finally we will consider the vagaries of activism at a historical juncture where radical critiques of authority and the state are read through historically specific constructions of ‘conspiracy theory’, and thus struggle to distinguish themselves from reactionary populist movements.


Transcript English (automatic)

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