Anthropology in times of COVID-19. Auto-ethnographies of the pandemic in Chile
By Alfonso Otaegui, on 30 September 2020
This post can also be read in Spanish.
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.
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’.
- The team is formed by Jaime Coquelet (CIIR-UC), Rosario Palacios (CIIR-UC), Iniley Iturriaga Vilches (UC), and Alfonso Otaegui (CIIR-UC).
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.