X Close

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog

Home

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

Menu

Anthropology in times of COVID-19. Auto-ethnographies of the pandemic in Chile

Alfonso Otaegui30 September 2020

This post can also be read in Spanish.

Figure 1. Don Francisco (78) reporting on the empty streets of Santiago

The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented event due to its scale, to the extent that the French anthropologist Philippe Descola describes it as being, in certain respects, a ‘total social fact’ at a global level (Truong, 2020). This phenomenon, due to its both global and local nature, and its imposing urgency is an invitation for anthropologists to study it. However, the characteristics of the pandemic impose certain methodological challenges. How do we account for local experiences of the pandemic from an ethnographic perspective when both the researchers and the participants must comply with social isolation?

The Chilean government declared a state of catastrophe on March the 18th, 2020, imposing a strict lockdown in various areas of the country. Together with a team of four researchers from the Catholic University of Chile (1), we then started wondering –through Zoom meetings, of course– how we could study the experience of the pandemic in Chile. By then, the lockdown had just begun in the Metropolitan Region, and we were unaware that it would last at least four months in its strictest phase. We decided to try a participatory methodology and invite people we knew from previous research projects, and who had smartphones, to collaborate. This is how the ‘Auto-ethnographies of the pandemic in Chile’ project started. Week by week, we asked participants to send us audio messages, videos, photos of their experiences and their impressions of the pandemic – and its corollary, the national lockdown. In addition, we regularly called them and did informal interviews through Zoom or WhatsApp. This three-month project was intended to be a sort of guided auto-ethnography, but it was only so at first.

The participants come from different areas of this vast country: a Mapuche family from the Araucanía region, a family from the rural area of ​​Chiloé, and others from urban areas. In my case, I worked with three families in Santiago: two older adults, former students of my smartphone workshops, and a Peruvian worker that I knew from my previous fieldwork among migrants.

Over time, the participants developed different styles of communication when sharing their experiences. Directed auto-ethnographies mutated into travel logs of sorts. For Joaquín, a migrant who lost his job at the beginning of the lockdown, and whose experience is a testimony to the job insecurity exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, the auto-ethnography gradually became a shared personal diary, almost with the intimacy of confession. Anthropologist Daniel Miller recounted a very similar case in his tutorial on conducting ethnography during social isolation.

Figure 2. Communal meal during lockdown. ‘Here we are, making a communal meal to eat as a group, as everything has got too expensive. Now, more than ever, all unemployed, all united’.

Francisco, a 78-year-old widower who lives alone, developed two channels of communication over time. There was, on the one hand, the ‘official’ channel, through which he would send audio and video messages, and do the interviews as expected. On the other hand, there was the ‘unofficial’ channel: in personal conversations off the record, Francisco discussed with me what he planned to say in the messages since he was very wary about the image of him that such messages could elicit. The lockdown, for Francisco, was a gradual reduction of his everyday spaces of sociality.

Muriel, a 73-year-old woman, gradually became more discouraged as the weeks went by and her usual social activities were suspended. For her, the auto-ethnography was an opportunity to organise her feelings and thoughts, a space for conscious reflection. In a style opposite to the other two, Muriel would first focus on reflection every week, and then she would organise her ideas, write a rough draft on paper, and then read them in her messages. Her stories show the descriptive vocation of the chronicler, combined with major reflections about these dystopian times. In the first weeks of her story, the pandemic is the main figure, occupying the entire stage. Over time, it shifts into the background and the difficulties of being confined, the tension with other people in the house, boredom and uncertainty come to the fore.

You can listen to one of Muriel’s voice messages below:

 

The following is a translation of Muriel’s voice message: It feels like I am living in a new world, full of risks and uncertainties. As if everything I had learned was neither real nor valid. That is the most difficult thing for me. Not the confinement, but not knowing how life will go on. (translated by Alfonso Otaegui)

After three months of staying in continuous contact with these families, and one month of analysis, we want to bring these experiences to a wider audience. Perhaps such stories may inspire in the audience a sensitivity to the experiences of others. Such sensitivity is the basis for solidarity that, according to philosopher Richard Rorty, “has to be constructed out of little pieces” (1989: 94). To do so we partnered with the Visual Anthropology Lab of the university, to put together a multimedia website that would communicate such rich experiences. We may use illustrations, like fellow ASSA team member Laura Haapio-Kirk did, or perhaps develop short stories constructed around words and sounds.

Despite the various difficulties, in all the stories there are glimpses of hope. Perhaps Joaquín’s is the most illustrative. This migrant worker, whose family was stranded in Lima, was always longing for his loved ones during his pilgrimage from one precarious job to the next. He got closer to his young son through Whatsapp. With lockdown enforced in both countries, Joaquín helped him do his homework through a video call. It was during these strange times that his son, 4.000 km away, learned how to write. In a Zoom conversation, Joaquín shared with me the following, visibly moved: “his first text message was ‘Dad, I love you’.

Notes

  1. The team is formed by Jaime Coquelet (CIIR-UC), Rosario Palacios (CIIR-UC), Iniley Iturriaga Vilches (UC), and Alfonso Otaegui (CIIR-UC).

References

Truong, N. (May 22, 2020). ‘Philippe Descola : « Nous sommes devenus des virus pour la planète »’. Le Monde. Retrieved from https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/05/20/philippe-descola-nous-sommes-devenus-des-virus-pour-la-planete_6040207_3232.html

Rorty, R. 1989. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge University Press.

 

Wild swimming during lockdown

paulinegarvey9 September 2020

A swimmer enjoying the water on the Dublin coast. Photo by Pauline Garvey

For some time, researchers have written about the possible benefits that come with wild swimming. This activity has been growing for some time, according to John Leech, chief executive of Irish Water Safety[i],  who said his organisation has witnessed a “huge increase” in the number of people delving into open water swimming in the last decade. The benefits of open-water swimming are manifold, he suggests, and he particularly emphasises the benefits to mental health.[ii]

However, although swimming has been a popular activity along Dublin’s coastline for some time, this summer  – during the Covid-19 lockdown months – it seems like it has spread in numbers and enthusiasm.  With warm evenings throughout this summer, ever-larger groups of people of all ages could be spotted in bathing shelters and beaches, or along rivers. Bathing shelters along the coast were hives of activity and individuals who had never been in the habit of swimming before have taken to the water.  Parents of primary school children who were on lockdown and distanced from friends were meeting up at popular bathing spots and socialising through swimming. Other sports enthusiasts took to the water too, particularly those whose activities had suspended during the lockdown. But it was not just about health: seaside parties started to spring up on the water’s edge, particularly after pubs and restaurants were locked down. ‘Outdoor swimming’  fell under the Government of Ireland’s Roadmap to reopening society on 18th May 2020, and more than ever, the Dublin coastline was a hive of activity. WhatsApp was integral in organising and coordinating these events, and men and women, parents and children and different age groups could meet in socially distanced ways.

Geographer Ronan Foley has carried out research on sea swimming along the Dublin coast, as well as inland spaces. His research was focussed not only in the activities but in the blue spaces where swimming takes place and he discovered that swimming places are significant in ‘building up personal and communal resilience and emerge as important public health assets’. Not only are they important for personal histories and identity, but they are an ingredient in creating spaces for communities of shared care and physical activity especially for older people or people with differences”[iii].

One striking feature of all this is the number of people who have taken to swimming for the first time.  One 60-year-woman who had never swum in the sea on a regular basis before not only embraced the sea but wrote into a national newspaper in July stating:

‘…as a confirmed scaredy-cat when it comes to water, I took the plunge during lockdown. What an amazing new experience.  […] …a surprising positive experience during this pandemic’.

Now, she calculates the tide times around her Zoom calls. [iv]  She is not alone.  A local 67-year-old politician made national headlines diving into the sea along the north coast of Dublin, prompting the deputy prime minister  Leo Varadkar (Tanaiste) to tweet about his ‘beach bod’, while members of the public commented on his great shape and one person wryly noted that it fits well with the government’s plans to raise the pension age.  These items, which appeared in newspapers and social media, swiftly circulated on countless WhatsApp groups both in the local area but also amongst groups that were set up to encourage people to meet safely outdoors, and swimming was one go-to.

These findings have particular relevance for older people in Ireland. A 2018 paper published by Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) argues that proximity to the sea had an impact on depression scores for older people. Linking the research with data from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) they found that those with sea views were found to have a “significantly” lower risk of depression[v]. But besides the views, and the activity, is there more to this new interest that is associated with the lockdown? Foley makes an additional point about the water’s edge. These places are ‘are public, open, free and shared, where people of all generations, shapes, sizes and capabilities all meet up in ways they might rarely do otherwise’[vi].  Health and wellbeing might differ but the swimming might well outlast this lockdown.

References

[i] https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/the-addictive-magic-of-swimming-in-the-sea-in-winter-it-s-life-affirming-1.4074180

[ii] Kelleher, Patrick 23/11/2019 The addictive magic of swimming in the sea in winter: ‘It’s life affirming’. The Irish Times

[iii] Foley, Ronan 30/12/19 The joys of outdoor swimming, RTE Brainstorm, https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/0102/1019936-into-the-blue-space-the-joys-of-outdoor-swimming/

[iv] Making a Splash, letter submitted to the Irish Times 25/7/20

[v] See Foley

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/older-people-with-sea-views-may-have-significantly-lower-risk-of-depression-1.3726672

[vi] Foley, Ronan 30/12/19 The joys of outdoor swimming, RTE Brainstorm, https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/0102/1019936-into-the-blue-space-the-joys-of-outdoor-swimming/