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The charisma of the coronavirus

Ryan Schram
May 24, 2020

This is the full text of a lecture given in ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology. For an outline, see The charisma of the coronavirus.

Not a normal semester

Usually at this point in the semester, I ask students to think back to how they defined anthropology at the beginning of the term, and then see for themselves how their own ideas have changed. For me, learning is something students do on their own as they react to and reflect on new information. Learning is not acquiring knowledge. To learn means to change. Hence, there is no “right” answer to this question. The learning is in how you have come to see anthropology and its core ideas.

I still think this is something you should do now. Yet, we have not had the semester any of us would have planned. So I think we have to think about how this semester went if we want to understand what we have learned about anthropology.

The change in the semester also changed how you learned about anthropology. It may not have been what you wanted or expected, but it happened and so we have to take stock of what happened in order for you to appreciate what you did learn. And I have no doubt that you have learned a lot about anthropology, because you have all changed.

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

Anthropology is strangely challenged by the global coronavirus pandemic. The challenge leads anthropology to reveal itself for what it is.

For one, the global coronavirus pandemic makes you stop and think: What is the point of studying cultural anthropology?

Seriously, why bother? Can I ever go to Auhelawa again? Can anyone really do immersive, participant-observation fieldwork again?

The global coronavirus pandemic seems to just say PHLBBT! to the whole idea of anthropology.

  • 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? This is millions of people, and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Anthropologists seem to be phobic about math, statistics, and big numbers.
  • It is caused by a coronavirus, a microscopic organism (barely even!) which spreads among humans, but also among pigs, bats, and possibly pangolins. The coronavirus does not discriminate between pigs and humans; to it, It treats pigs and humans the same way. So much for a scientific study of what makes us human. We should just stick with biology.
  • Covid-19 is a deadly disease. This is life and death, and it makes one think that maybe the big questions of human existence and its diverse expressions aren’t all as complicated as anthropology makes them out to be. Nobody wants to be sick; everyone wants a long, healthy life. Medicine matters more.
  • It is a global phenomenon, and as such it highlights that human societies do not exist in isolation. People travel around the world, and that’s how we got in this mess.

For all of these reasons, we might just say that anthropology has nothing to say about this moment. If anthropology mainly sees human lives in terms of particular cultures, then anthropology has nothing it can offer to explain the contemporary world.

The biggest possible challenge is that this is not normal. Everything about my own life feels completely abnormal, and I guess that’s what it is like for everyone else. It is entirely possible that we will not go “back to normal.” It is entirely possible that things will keep changing. There will never be a “new normal”—a catchphrase that always makes me cringe a bit. Anthropology is the study of what people think is normal. When an anthropologist studies another way of life, they aren’t interested in what is different, exciting, or exotic about it. They are interested in what people assume is the only way there is to live. They are interested in stepping into the shoes of another person and seeing what that person takes for granted and does not even think about consciously. I feel like we have all had to think very consciously about everything all the time because everything is new and unprecedented. It is, by definition, not part of my or anyone’s culture.

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

Yet, anthropology has much that it can say to help people understand this global pandemic. Anthropology, I argue, is still relevant even at a time when it feels like everything is changing.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is global, and so it also affects people in diverse ways because of people’s diverse ways of life. The virus spreads from person to person, but it affects each person in the context of their everyday life, in which they are part of a larger community based on a shared system of thought, a culture.

Indeed, to date, there have only been 5 million cases recorded, which is a very small portion of the global population. A viral pandemic is something we have to assume is present because we can’t actually see it. The real effect of the pandemic has been the precautionary response by whole communities. Epidemiologists have been preparing an emergency plan for this kind of situation for years, based on years of observation and analysis of disease. To successfully carry out the plan, they need the cooperation of everyone, and this means cooperation among people who see the world in fundamentally different ways.

At a more basic level, though, the coronavirus pandemic is a social phenomenon. The virus spreads through social spaces, and quickly dies outside of a host. It spreads from person to person, and thus is conveyed through social relationships. If you needed to trace someone’s contacts, who do you think they would list? There are no Covid-19 patients who rattle off a random list of people. They say the name of their spouse, their kids, their parents, their neighbors, their coworkers… People in the same store or on the same bus are strangers to each other, but they also have that in common. We are now moving to a stage in which the virus lingers, but only in certain places. Nursing homes, for instance, are where we will find clusters of cases for some time. You may say, well, that’s obvious. There are concentrations of vulnerable people in nursing homes. But why is there this concentration there and not elsewhere? The distribution of people is an outcome of social factors. The coronavirus thrives in environments and dies in others; society creates the environments in which it thrives. Being elderly is a social role, and an expression of this society’s culture. The coronavirus dies in hostile social environments, and this too is an expression of a culture. Service work is intrinsically more risky, and yet this society also links this kind of work to a social classification of people. This culture labels some people as permanent and some people as temporary members of the community. This division also creates conditions in which coronavirus can spread.

There is a more general sense in which anthropology is relevant. It is not in the knowledge or expertise that anthropologists possess and a person can learn. Rather, anthropology is one specific version of a deeper and more fundamental intellectual skill. This skill is what we need right now in a moment of crisis.

The charismatic pandemic

Max Weber is a sociologist whose work has had a great influence on anthropology. Weber argued that we can explain the patterns we find in a society by looking to the values held by people of that society, and so in that way, his way of thinking resonates with anthropology’s concept of culture.

Yet, Weber’s idea of a value is somewhat different than the way we have used the term. For Weber, a society is a set of patterns of action. For people in a society, following these patterns has meaning, and people are aware of what their actions mean (Weber [1922] 1972). Weber was much more interested in seeing people’s actions for the messages they give. He was less interested in what people’s actions give off, and believed that the unintentional meaning of action was less important to people’s social relationships and membership in a community. Weber starts from the position that the social actor is rational. Rationality means that a person is aware of their own actions and their consequences, and is able to consciously and deliberately choose to what to do based on its social meaning (Weber [1919] 1946). Weberian rationality is more than saying people always do what is best for themselves as individuals. Weber says that the most significant kind of rationality is when people perform social actions because they believe that they will be valuable to the whole society.

Rationality is always part of people’s thinking, but Weber also says that there are times and situations in which people will be more rational than others. Weber argues that there are three main types of authority that people obey (Weber [1921] 1946). Sometimes people obey out of habit, and because in that situation, they can only see one option. The people they obey have a traditional authority. Their authority rests on the fact that everyone adheres to the same rules for no special reason. This is different than the reasons why people obey the authority of the police or government authorities. The rules that say that these people have authority are explicit, formal, and public. The rationality of these rules is much greater, but it does not involve people’s thinking. The thinking has already been done collectively by the government and recorded in law. Weber argues that there is another kind of authority that rests on another kind of rationality. He calls this charismatic authority. Charisma is a word from the Christian Bible and its theology. It means a gift from God. Weber says that many people can claim authority and get people to obey their authority through personal charisma. They don’t have to be religious leaders, although Weber said that religious leaders are the best example of charismatic authority. Charisma is not just being charming or eloquent. Charisma is the ability to make people stop and think. For Weber, charisma compels people to step outside of their everyday life and the social roles they usually perform without thinking. In this moment, they see themselves and their actions in a new light, and can consciously and rationally deliberate over them in terms of the values they represent. Charismatic authority, Weber says, drives social change. This is why Weber argues that religious movements have led to greater social changes than other kinds of social movements.

It is not just people who have charismatic authority. Things, places, and times can be charged with charisma as well: These things also compel attention, demand a new rational evaluation of ourselves and our lives, and drive people to make new choices.

The coronavirus has this charisma. Its charisma comes from the way we conceptualize it. It is totally new and unknown. No one has any experience with it, or immunity to it. Thus, we are told, no one can or should take anything for granted about it, or about its spread around the world. It is potentially a mortal threat to everyone. When we think about it in this way, it demands that we pay attention to everything.

Because we think about the coronavirus as something that can be present anywhere at any time, it calls on us to rupture every pattern and suspend normal life. We must adopt a constant watchfulness of ourselves. Maintaining social distance means suddenly noticing one’s own unconscious ideas of personal space. Washing hands means thinking consciously about what counts as clean. Self-isolation in a “bubble” means thinking about who is included in one’s household. Even something as boring as grocery shopping is now subject to detailed and explicit rational planning.

The time scale of the pandemic is also part of its charisma. Right now, we think of the pandemic as having its own tempo and its own schedule which we cannot know. As Anthony Fauci says, “You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline” (Budryk 2020). Our job is not only to watch ourselves but to wait. We also look for signs of next stage of the pandemic. These will be read as clues, as if the virus has a plan and we only see it as it is carried out. Wasn’t something like this in the Book of Revelation? Is this a microbiological rapture? Because we conceptualize the coronavirus as new and unknown, we believe it displaces everything we expect about the future. 2020 is Year Zero. We are waiting for Year 1 to start.

The present moment is, for me, the closest I have ever been to being part of a millennarian movement, or what has often been called in PNG a “cargo cult” (Lindstrom 1993). Starting in the colonial period, in many parts of PNG, prophets arose predicting that the white Australian colonial officials and settlers would soon be swept away, and that boats and planes would arrive from distant lands with the ancestors of the living (Burridge 1954; Worsley 1974). The whole world would be transformed and the people of PNG would live in a paradise. These prophets called on people to leave their villages and sometimes to destroy their food gardens, to create new villages and gardens for the people of their movement where they would wait for the coming of the ancestors and the end of the colonial order. The colonial administration was horrified at this. They saw it as an example of hysteria brought on by the shock of encountering the advanced technology of Australians (Williams 1923; Lindstrom 2000). Ironically enough, they feared that this kind of hysteria would spread much like a disease through rumor (Lawrence [1964] 1989). Some feared that the cargo cults were either spurred by Soviet propaganda or could be exploited by Communists (Morauta 1974, 13:44–45). The government’s concern for cargo cults, though misdirected, was reasonable. Cargo cults were political movements, though they appeared to be religious. The prophetic expectation of a total transformation of the world of Melanesians was perhaps the best and only way people had to critique the world they lived in, and the relationship of colonial domination between black Melanesians and white Australians (Burridge 1954; Jebens 2004). We are living in a state of expectation of a new millennium. By orienting ourselves to the future horizon, we also gain distance from the normal patterns of everyday life in the present. These were imponderable but are now visible, and thus also able to be critiqued.

In this sense, the coronavirus pandemic gives us the same kind of opportunity that anthropology also tries to give its own culture. The coronavirus moves through the spaces defined by the culture of those it infects, and as it moves it illuminates what is otherwise invisible in that community. Several weeks ago a video segment produced by NHK, a broadcaster in Japan, was making the rounds on social media (日本放送協会 [NHK] 2020). In the video, a person’s hands were daubed with invisible ink, and then he and others served themselves from a buffet. At the end of the meal, an ultraviolet light was used to how the dye had spread from one person’s hands to nearly every person and every surface in the room, plates, tables, hands, arms, and faces. Ethnography tries to have the same effect. An anthropologist enters an unfamiliar environment in which she does not know the rules. She reacts to this experience, and other people react to her. These reactions at unexpected actions and interactions are what reveal what is invisibly present in the situation, the tacitly shared knowledge and assumptions which members of a community acquire through their socialization. The anthropologist sees things that others ignore, but not because the anthropologist is an expert or because she has special insight into other people. Likewise, the people she observes are experts on themselves, but they can only see part of their own shared worldview. They need the anthropologist to induce a new consciousness of their reality. This pandemic mirrors anthropology; both of them are devices for shifting our consciousness of ourselves.

If the way we experience this pandemic is a mirror of anthropology, then it is also its evil twin. While we are in a heightened state of self-consciousness, we are also more subject to the bureacratic authority of the state. This is not charismatic authority. It is the authority of the police and the government. It is established in law, policy, and official rules. The rational thinking is done for us, by society, and written down. We cannot subject society to critique by obeying this authority. The coronavirus is also an object of scientific knowledge, and so we rely on scientific expertise to know what it is and what to do about it. This is also a denial of the charisma the coronavirus. Scientific rationality supports an authority which is conservative in that it wants to establish a new normal, a stable state with clear rules. This authority wants to control how change happens.

We need to retain the critical consciousness of anthropology to respond to the ways that bureaucratic authority will use the pandemic to determine the way our society changes. Many of the responses in many societies has been based on the individual. When we see the pandemic the way scientists do, we see it in terms of numbers of individual cases. It is taken for granted that the goal is to have the lowest numbers overall, and to decrease the rate of growth in individual cases, so that each individual can be treated. As many societies declare that the growth rate has peaked, we now move to a new framework in which individuals are responsible for managing their own personal risk of infection, disease, and death. This specific way of rationally knowing the pandemic is baked into everything we do, and it is reinforced by the authority of scientific rationality. They do the rational thinking for us. Yet, we have to remember what the fluorescent dye is showing us about our society: We are connected. The bureaucratic management of the pandemic only sees individuals, it needs to see communities. In this community, people do not have the same resources with which they can protect themselves from risk. My ability to isolate myself at home depends on other people taking additional risk for me, by for instance driving buses and delivering packages. I want to be rationally conscious of this reality no matter what other people say, and I always want it to be part of the decision making about what comes next.


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.

Lawrence, Peter. (1964) 1989. Road Belong Cargo: A Study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District, New Guinea. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

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

———. 2000. “Cargo Cult Horror.” Oceania 70 (4):294–303. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1834-4461.2000.tb03068.x.

Morauta, Louise. 1974. Beyond the Village: Local Politics in Madang, Papua New Guinea. Vol. 13. Canberra: Australian National University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2801100?origin=crossref.

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.

Williams, F. E. 1923. The Vailala Madness and the Destruction of Native Ceremonies in the Gulf Division. Port Moresby: E.G. Baker, Govt. Printer.

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.

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