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Dossier. Imaginaires en pandémie

Tropes, arrangements and responses to the pandemic

Tropes, agencements et ripostes à la pandémie
Barbara Morovich et Monique Selim
Cet article est une traduction de :
Tropes, agencements et ripostes à la pandémie [fr]


La crise sanitaire ouverte en 2020 participe au surgissement et à la cristallisation de nouvelles représentations, formes de pensée, d’exister, d’agir et de croire hybridées, mettant leur empreinte sur les mobilisations sociales et politiques, individuelles et collectives. L’imbrication entre des visions du monde, des « croyances » et des mobilisations est à lire de manière diachronique, sans oublier comment, dans des époques précédentes, des mouvements d’inspiration proche ont pu réagir face aux prémisses dramatiques de la société industrielle qui se mettait en place. Les auteur·es de cette livraison du Journal des anthropologues nous permettent d’aborder la crise sanitaire du Covid-19 à travers des points de vue plus larges sur les épidémies présentes et passées, en lien avec des questionnements identitaires ou encore écologiques, à partir de logiques globalisées ou de réalités socioculturelles redéfinies ou ré-agencées par des crises sanitaires majeures.

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1The health crisis that has marked the last three long years since 2020 has generated a number of profound and lasting upheavals that involve as many temptations to deny them as desires to better understand them, or to put in place strategies to face them. This new issue of the Journal des Anthropologues, which testifies to a hermeneutic effort, comes shortly after the publication, under the aegis of the Association française des anthropologues, of two collective works, Anthropologie d’une pandémie and Devenir en régime pandémique ? Health crises are one of the key elements in the reordering of the global world, sharpening the poles of hegemonisation and also a capitalistic stimulus that increases inequalities on different scales in an unprecedented and dangerous way. The pandemic is also the matrix of ideological and political questioning and of unprecedented bricolage, which has only become more pronounced with the fear of contamination, the anguish of the future and the spectre of ecological disaster.

2 This context has become a catalyst for numerous questioning about more or less acquired and established social norms and participates in the emergence and crystallization of new representations. The forms of thinking, of existing, of acting, of “believing” appear renewed, hybridized, putting their mark on social and political mobilizations, individual and collective, whose nature appears immediately fragmented, fissured, complex. The imbrication between visions of the world, “beliefs” and mobilizations is to be read in a diachronic way, without forgetting how, in previous times, similar movements were able to react to the dramatic premises of the industrial society which was being set up.

3The word “belief” is to be understood here in a broad sense that goes far beyond the religious framework and refers to an “enigma”, as Paul Ricœur affirms, for example, that of “holding-for-truth”. We hope to lift the veil on some of these enigmas in the articles that compose this dossier. In particular, the authors seek to understand the “modalities of assent” in a theoretical process (the symbolic work of believing), but also in a practical one (doing), and explain the modalities of new arrangements between the subjective and the objective and the reasons for their emergence. Generally recognized forms of belief (scientific for example) are now questioned, often called “alternative”, characterized by the questioning of authorities (medical, media, political…) and their interpretations, called mainstream, of reality, which proves first of all a crisis of expertise, or its trivialization which leads to appropriations, to its democratization but also to its manipulation. Between plots and conspiracies (Multitudes, 2023, n° 90), it becomes difficult to situate oneself.

4The authors of this issue of the Journal des anthropologues allow us to approach the Covid­19 health crisis through broader points of view on present and past epidemics, in relation to questions of identity or ecology, based on globalized logics or specific socio­cultural realities, redefined or re-arranged by major health crises.

5Chimaobi Onwukwe, Godwin I.N. Emezue and Ibekwe Chinweizu, authors of the article “Neologism and Sociocultural Logics of the Interpretation of Covid-19 Information in Rural Communities in Igbo Land, Nigeria”, highlight the transmission of information on the pandemic in a local context, the Igbo country (Nigeria) and through a sociolinguistic analysis. Neologisms and metaphors are used in these rural communities, which often inscribe them in the Igbo symbolic system, while sometimes reactivating images already used for previous health crises, for example that of AIDS, which, like Covid, is a disease that ends in death.

6In a completely different context, Judith Hayem and Barbara Morovich analyze an example of the rearrangement of pre-existing cultural elements, this time in an urban disadvantaged setting in “An Urban Rastafari Garden to face Covid in South Africa”. The authors show the compatibility between pan-Africanist and anti-colonial Rastafari philosophy and post-apartheid “ubuntu” humanism in the Covid era, a system of thought that sets community as the supreme value and de facto prevents Rastafarians from choosing isolation and confinement.

7The founding, refounding, or strengthening of a social group in the pandemic era is a paradoxical element, yet one that is highlighted in several articles. In “The Prison Experience in a Pandemic Regime. Daily life and Interactional Economy in French Prisons during the Health Crisis”, Vincent Rubio, Léo Farcy-Callon and Lara Mahiqui show the emergence of new solidarities and a new relational dynamic between the prison administration and health professionals. Lucie Dubois’ article on “Ecofeminist Practices in a Pandemic: the Daily Anti­nuclear Struggle at Bure” goes in the same direction: practices that are a criticism in action of the dominant system become the sign of an acceleration of contestation during the health crisis. This critique is translated on the one hand by a self-management division of labor with a feminist aim, and on the other by an acceleration of the mobilization, reinforced in the questioning of a patriarchal society that exploits sexual and racial minorities.

8But “how do we talk” about the pandemic and how do we communicate this reality?

9The importance of the digital in the movements claiming to be against vaccination is mentioned by Jeremy Ward in the interview he gave us, which allows us to return to a crucial element: because it has provoked an exceptional leap forward in the use of digital communication tools, the pandemic has led to a generalized digitization of the private and public worlds, with an accelerated dematerialization of a number of services, which leaves masses of people out in the cold (Judith Hayem, Louis Moreau de Bellaing & Wenjing Guo, 2023).

10“Translation” (traducere: to transport), that is, in the broad sense, communication and/or information about the epidemic, beyond the Igbo example already cited, are questions also explored in the article on “The Prison Experience in a Pandemic Regime”. According to the authors, the irruption of the virus in prisons is done through an unbearable media bombardment but also thanks to the invention of new communication tools and initiatives that allow to hold in this trying situation (We were confined in the confinement!). Of course, “conspiracy” attitudes may eventually arise, but the authors insist rather on pragmatic reactions to the epidemic in prison. And it is on the limits of terms such as “antivaccine” or “conspiracy theory” and on the analysis of what they hide that Jeremy Ward examines in the interview on “Vaccines Between Science and Politics”. These terms are constructed (by journalists, scientists, etc.) in such a way as to delegitimize groups and individuals who have complex views on vaccination. The term “vaccine hesitation” highlights the plural connections between what is scientific and what is political. In the interview, J. Ward shows that the 2009 A-H1N1 avian flu epidemic favored the emergence, belated in France, of a public debate on the vaccine. He points out the governmental paternalism in vaccine communication and the legitimization of a political voice through vaccine criticism.

11A comparison with other, more distant epidemics sheds light on how they have contributed to forging the imaginary of the present. In “From Inevitable Contagion to Deliberate Contagion: Greasers, Information Flows and Administrative Know-how in Lyon During the Wars of Religion”, Aurélien Roulet shows the etiology of an epidemic in the sixteenth century: if the primary origin is divine, the epidemic’s anchorage comes through the air and miasmas. An urban prophylaxis was then deployed (street cleaning, removal of stagnant water sources, improvement of intra-urban traffic) and, at the same time, the populations through which the epidemic spreads were identified, bad citizens were to be monitored, framed and punished. This link between epidemics and political tensions is also enlightened by J. Ward: it is essential, he tells us, to look at the way vaccines are treated politically. Vaccines, after all, are really not just science. Political criticism also characterizes the Rastafarian community of Drill Hall (Johannesburg), in resonance with the culture of resistance to apartheid, but we also recognize the mark of social networks and the circulation of certain so-called “conspiracy theories”.

12To stay with this example, the Rastafarians reinvent ways of doing that are both forms of symbolic work and practices that express complex relations to nature in the city, as shown by their urban garden, which becomes an element of purification and interfere with the disease. Finally, the relation to the health crisis also plays on postcolonial foundations: whether in Bure (France), Johannesburg (South Africa) or Igbo (Nigeria), the Western world is seen as colonizer and extractivist, whereas these groups express a desire to reappropriate their roots, particularly in terms of food. The pandemic then provides opportunities to erode the dominant system and acts as a gas pedal of the desertion of the capitalist world, as Lucie Dubois writes.

13Finally, the authors show us that the health crisis inscribes individuals and groups in new relations to urban and rural space, according to the principles of self-subsistence and solidarity: the resistance at the time of the Covid in Bure is the sign of attachment to a territory, a paradigm of radical change where feminist involvement echoes previous ecofeminist and antinuclear mobilizations.

14The emergence of these new holistic cosmogonies, although variegated, leads to new desires to be in the world. The importance given to signs, symbols, and bricolages is striking and invites us to better understand the semantic richness of these movements that make abundant use of performance and media images. The scattering of the movements, their heterogeneous composition in terms of social classes, their internal contradictions that have led to talk of “confusionism”, and the absence of a strong hierarchy are obvious. How does social science research deal with these issues?

15Jeremy Ward points out an element to which we would like to give a particular resonance: he raises the question of the relationship of the “scientific community” to the vaccine and to research on vaccine reactions; by the term “scientific community” he means above all the medical community, which has difficulty in considering vaccination in relation to politics and, more broadly, to value systems. In this sense, the “science” is unable to structure and influence public debate and is largely instrumentalized by politics. But what is the place of social science in this debate? According to Ward, most often there is an absence of debate between these two research communities or there is a risk that social science research will be subordinated to the medical world, except where projects are led by social science researchers. It seems clear to us that researchers should not be epistemologically isolated from the rest of society, because there are symptomatic social logics to be seen in this mirror.

16Let us now consider the internal changes in the field of social science research in relation to the pandemic. The Covid period, accompanied by a heightened ecological awareness of the risks facing the planet, has generated a new impetus for the ideas of co­production of knowledge, collaborative, cooperative and participatory research with a host of actors who therefore have knowledge and expertise to be promoted, with women and indigenous people at the forefront. Applied, engaged, emancipatory social intervention research, this perspective considerably reshapes the methodologies in use, making the researcher a mobiliser and the research a device for social transformation.

17If this type of posture was very much in vogue at different periods of the 20th century — the 1960s and 1970s in particular, when it was generally based on political representations associated with the revolution — its renewal is all the more successful because feelings of urgency with regard to the climate, the environment and the disappearance of multiple species are giving rise to eco-anxiety, solastalgia and psychological distress. In the face of these current methodological orientations, which establish different forms of collaboration with the subjects studied as an ethical and social necessity — and which concern anthropologists to the utmost — some approaches have taken on a new aura with the pandemic, the so-called ontological turn (Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro & Tim Ingold) in anthropology deserves particular attention; indeed, its success must be understood on two levels: the internal level of the academic field as a scientific orientation, but also its dimension as a shelter for all kinds of beliefs that penetrate researchers as well as all citizens. By placing itself at the interface of commitments to the environment and new practices and forms of life that are more respectful of “nature”, the ontological turn can be thought of as a reconciliation between civil society and science, putting an end to a rupture between these two universes, which are perceived as a dominant relation. Without going into the critical reflection of the ontology invoked, let us emphasise that there is a real epistemological shift in which questions of social, economic, political and hierarchical organisation and power — central to anthropology — are abandoned in favour of questions about personal relations with the living, including under the appearance of the invisible entities that inhabit it in the revisited symbolic representations.

18During the last three years of the pandemic, perhaps because of the time of confinement, some researchers embarked on the writing of their autobiography at the end of their career, choosing to publish it, to reserve it — with a self-published edition — for small dozens of friends, or to fictionalise it in order to render unrecognisable all those they were going to quote (Jean-Pierre Digard, Daniel Welzer-Lang, Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun, Djallal G. Heuzé, Rose-Marie Lagrave, etc.). These documents, which in their diversity imply a more or less critical return on oneself, are material that contributes a great deal to a diachronic reflection on the methodological choices of the researcher’s position and on the way in which social, economic and political times, as well as global crises — such as the one we have just gone through — disrupt, reinitiate and reshape them. These self-narratives of life thus allow us to think reflexively about the pandemic and the beliefs it has triggered in our own professional community, which is both a mirror and a specific analyser of global society.

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HAYEM J., MOREAU DE BELLAING L. & GUO W., 2023. « Pandémies : quels comptes pour les laissés-pour-compte ? », L’Homme et la société, 217.

HOURS B., SELIM M., 2022. « Pandémie, séparation des corps et État », Chimères, 99 : 239‑255.

SELIM M., PHELINAS P. (eds), 2023. Devenir en régime pandémique ? Paris, L’Harmattan.

SELIM M. (ed), 2020. Anthropologie d’une pandémie. Paris, L’Harmattan.

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Barbara Morovich et Monique Selim, « Tropes, arrangements and responses to the pandemic »Journal des anthropologues [En ligne], 172-173 | 2023, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2023, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Barbara Morovich

Ifra-Nigeria – AMUP

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Monique Selim


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