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The charisma of the coronavirus

The charisma of the coronavirus

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Monday, May 25, 2020 (Week 13)

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1001/2020/5.1.1

For the full text of this lecture, see The charisma of the coronavirus.

Not a normal semester

At the end of a normal semester, I usually ask students to

  • think back on what they thought the study of anthropology was in Week 1
  • consider what they think it is now.

That’s still a good idea in this abnormal semester. Learning is a process of change. Learning is not simply acquiring facts. Hence there is no “right answer” to the question of what is anthropology. Your learning is the changes you see in your own thinking.

This semester there were a lot of changes, most of which were unplanned. There was a lot of learning going on that we did not expect. Let’s take stock of this learning.

The global coronavirus pandemic poses a challenge to anthropology: No one has a normal life anymore

In the face of a global catastrophe, you might wonder whether anthropology matters at all anymore.

  • It is a pan-demic. It affects all people all at once all the time. So who cares about your qualitative descriptions of individual case studies of single communities?
  • It is caused by a coronavirus, a microscopic organism (barely even!). The coronavirus does not discriminate between pigs and humans; to it, It treats pigs and humans the same way.
  • Covid-19 is a deadly disease. We may reasonably assume that this transcends cultural differences. Nobody wants to be sick; everyone wants a long, healthy life.
  • It is a global phenomenon, and as such it highlights that human societies do not exist in isolation.

Anthropology studies the normal patterns of life in specific communities; nothing about the pandemic is normal!

The relevance of anthropology: Covid-19 is a social disease

I would still say that anthropology can tell us a lot about the global pandemic

  • A global pandemic, by definition, affects people in multiple cultures, and each person will experience this global phenomenon in the context of their own specific way of seeing the world.
  • To respond to a global emergency, everyone needs to cooperate, and that means people need to learn to work together with other people who perceive the world very differently.
  • Contagious diseases are not random; they are only able to spread by moving along people’s existing social relationships. People get sick because they are playing a specific role defined by their society for them.
  • Risk of infection is variable but it is not random variation. Society makes certain places more risky than other, and that means the people who are more involved in some social institutions will be more at risk
    • Everyone loves the schadenfreude of stories of people who get sick after going to a forbidden barbecue but there are in fact many kinds of social gatherings that are low risk.
    • The sad thing is that there will probably clusters of infection for years in nursing homes, and for the most part the people who live and work in nursing homes don’t have a choice about being there.

The charismatic pandemic

Max Weber argues that society is a system of patterns of action, each of which has a specific meaning for the people—the actors—who perform them (Weber [1922] 1972).

For Weber, people are rational and are capable of seeing the consequences of what they do. Patterns of action can be distinguished based on how much and what kind of rational thinking they involve (Weber [1919] 1946).

This is how Weber distinguishes among the kinds of authority people will obey (Weber [1921] 1946):

  • Traditional authority is obeyed because people don’t actively consider alternatives. It’s like a habit; people don’t think about why a traditional authority is in charge.
  • Bureaucratic authority—police, bosses, government officials—is obeyed because we believe that society has already done the rational thinking about what the best kind of organization is.
  • Charismatic authority comes from the power to make stop and think about why they live the way they do.
    • Weber looks to religious leaders, like prophets, as his chief example.
    • Charisma is not just being nice, charming, or persuasive.

The coronavirus has a charismatic authority over us

  • The presence of a new, completely unknown virus demands that we pay attention to everything around us and to step out of every routine.
    • Social distance means learning to see personal space.
    • Washing your hands means consciously thinking about what “clean” means.
    • Self-isolation at “home” in your “bubble” means defining your household explicitly.
  • The open-ended and unpredictable nature of a pandemic means that all your schedules and all your plans are on hold indefinitely. This is a whole new calendar.
    • As Anthony Fauci says, “You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline” (Budryk 2020).
    • We are Shakers and Millerites waiting for a new millennium to begin.

Covid-19 is “our very own cargo cult”

(with apologies to Roy Wagner 2000.)

At several times during the colonial period in Papua New Guinea, a number of prophets arose who predicted the immanent end of the rule by white Australians, and the arrival of boats and planes from far-off places with the ancestors. Followers left their villages to live together to await the new era.

Colonial officials thought that people were experiencing mass hysteria, or that they had become brainwashed by a cult that promised to magically create wealth (cargo, hence “cargo cult”). Actually, these were as much political movements as they were religious movements (Burridge 1954; Worsley 1974; Lindstrom 1993). Either way, this was Weberian charisma in action.

Specifically, this is an excellent example of the potential for charismatic authority to compel people to critique their everyday existence. It’s not crazy to think that colonial rule should end and cargo should be redistributed. It is very critical of colonialism, though (Burridge 1954; Jebens 2004). The colonial government of PNG was right to be worried.

cargo : culture :: prophets : anthropologists (Wagner 2000)

The charisma of the coronavirus gives us the same critical insight into our own everyday lives. The pandemic gives us the same opportunities to critique our own cultures that anthropology gives us.

Our consciousness of contagion is making us aware of the social fabric that is normally invisible. It’s like the video of the guy with invisible ink who eats at a buffet (日本放送協会 [NHK] 2020). When the black light is turned on, suddenly everyone can see that his ink has spread all over the room.

When an anthropologist enters a new situation, she reacts to everything that is unfamiliar, and people react to the anthropologist’s strange behavior too. These reactions are the clues to the imponderabilia of everyday life.

The anthropologist sees things that others ignore, but not because the anthropologist is an expert or because she has special insight into other people. Through anthropology’s methods of observation, we can induce in ourselves a new state of consciousness. (In this respect, anthropologists are also like shamans.)

Anthropology’s critical consciousness is a necessary antidote to the power of scientific authority

During this pandemic, we have been made subject to the authority of the state bureaucracy and its rationality. This authority is not charismatic; it tells us that it will do the rational thinking for us.

Because a coronavirus is an object of scientific knowledge, we are dependent on experts to tell us what to think about it and what to do about it.

The science being used by governments only sees individual cases, and now is moving to a framework based on individual responsibility for risk.

Anthropology teaches us to see things under an ultraviolet light in which our social connections and our intrinsic interdependencies are visible.


Budryk, Zack. 2020. “Fauci: ’You Don’t Make the Timeline. The Virus Makes the Timeline’.” Text. The Hill. March 26, 2020. https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/489636-fauci-you-dont-make-the-timeline-the-virus-makes-the-timeline.

Burridge, K. O. L. 1954. “Cargo Cult Activity in Tangu.” Oceania 24 (4):241–54.

Jebens, Holger, ed. 2004. Cargo, Cult, and Culture Critique. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. http://books.google.com?id=F5v7UD4FOigC.

Lindstrom, Lamont. 1993. Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Wagner, Roy. 2000. “Our Very Own Cargo Cult.” Oceania 70 (4):362–72. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/docview/222380627.

Weber, Max. (1921) 1946. “Politics as a Vocation.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 77–128. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. (1919) 1946. “Science as a Vocation.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by C. Wright Mills and H. H. Gerth, 129–56. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. (1922) 1972. “On the Concept of Sociology and the Meaning of Social Conduct & Characteristic Forms of Social Conduct [Selections from Economy and Society].” In Max Weber: Basic Concepts in Sociology, translated by H. P. Secher, 29–62. Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press.

Worsley, Peter. 1974. The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of “Cargo” Cults in Melanesia. New York: Schocken Books.

日本放送協会 [NHK]. 2020. “クルーズ船の接触感染 実験で検証 新型コロナウイルス.” NHKニュース. May 8, 2020. https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20200508/k10012422171000.html.

A guide to the unit

1001/2020/5.1.1.txt · Last modified: 2020/05/23 22:44 by Ryan Schram (admin)