How COVID-19 makes us use our bodies differently

Author: Sophie Chao, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney in Australia. She received her Ph.D. from Macquarie University, Sydney, in 2019 and previously worked for the human rights organization Forest Peoples Programme, in Indonesia, supporting the rights of forest-dwelling Indigenous peoples to their customary lands, resources, and livelihoods. Her research explores emerging multispecies relationships in West Papua in the context of oil palm expansion. You can reach her at sophie.chao@gmail.com 

A few weeks ago, my partner and I went shopping for a belated birthday gift at our local shopping centre. We had both self-isolated for the previous four weeks and were trying to limit our activities to the essential. Usually packed with people on a weekend, the mall was empty. Most of the shops were closed until further notice. A couple of security guards asked us to spray hand sanitizer at the entrance and there were just two staff members in the perfume shop that we visited. We tried several fragrances and finally picked one. I approached a sales assistant to hand over the sample and asked for the perfume’s price and availability. She told me to put the sample back on the shelf and went to get a new bottle. A sign near the cash register informed us to pay by card rather than cash and to pack our own bags. We did so and left the shop. 

After we had walked out, my partner said to me, “You know back there in the shop? You were totally not respecting social distancing.” I was surprised and disbelieving. As my partner explained, it turned out I had been standing very close to the sales assistant, followed her when she went to get the perfume bottle, and handed her a sample bottle. Apparently, I hadn’t noticed that the staff looked a bit uncomfortable throughout the encounter. My partner added, “She was probably wondering if you even knew you were not respecting social distancing, and if not, why not. Maybe she thought you were trying to stay normal, despite the whole COVID-19 situation. Or maybe she thought you were being irresponsible. She probably wanted to say something but felt she couldn’t, because it might come across as rude.” I felt embarrassed for failing to adopt the correct bodily comportment in that brief interaction. I tried to be more careful during the rest of our time in the mall and beyond. I also became interested more generally in just how COVID-19 was reconfiguring peoples’ senses and uses of the body – both their own and those of others.

Revisiting Mauss 

These thoughts brought me to revisit what French sociologist Marcel Mauss calls the “techniques of the body.” Explored in a seminal essay published in 1934, techniques of the body refers to the physical actions and behaviours that individuals must learn in order to become fully-fledged members of their society. Such techniques range from public, collective behaviours to mundane, private ones – marching, swimming, walking, eating, drinking, running, sleeping, dancing, and even breathing. Techniques of the body, Mauss argued, are culturally shaped rather than biologically given. They are transmitted over time from one generation to another. Techniques of the body are at once physiological, psychological, and sociological. They differ across cultures, and also often according to gender, age, profession, or status. 

Mauss’ concept of techniques of the body has been central to other theories concerning the relationship between the body and society. These include Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, or the collective yet often unspoken set of bodily behaviours that bind particular members of a cultural group, and Michel Foucault’s notion of discipline, or the self-governance of the body that characterizes the subject of the modern industrial age. Central to these theories is the idea that techniques of the body, while learned, often tend to appear more or less habitual, or taken for granted. In other words, we only really realize that we have learned to behave a certain way when we encounter a different way of doing the same thing.

In many ways, this is exactly what the anthropological fieldwork experience is all about. Anthropologists undertake long-term participant-observation in culturally diverse settings in order to denaturalize the behaviours expected in their own society and understand why different behaviours make sense in other societies. What we glean from this is that there is no such thing as “normal” or “abnormal” bodily comportment outside of the cultural context in which that behaviour is assessed. In fact, many anthropologists will tell you that it is precisely when they failed to get the techniques of the body right that they learned the most about what proper social and individual conduct entails among the people they study. As with other themes in our discipline, anthropologists study diverse forms of bodily behaviour in order to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

COVID-19 and a new bodily comportment 

For many anthropologists, the growing COVID-19 pandemic has pre-empted the possibility of fieldwork in faraway sites. At the same time, the pandemic is making us increasingly aware of how we use our bodies in our own everyday lives, back at home. This is largely because we are now having to change the way we behave, move, and interact, in order to keep ourselves and those around us safe from contagion. In some cases, binding government regulations and policies require that people practice physical distancing, like the 1.5-meter rule or the two-person limit on home guests in Australia*. In other cases, changes in individual behaviour are encouraged in the form of informal advice or recommendations, particularly in terms of personal hygiene, like sterilizing one’s phone regularly or taking a shower after coming home from work. Often, formal and informal changes in behaviour are mutually reinforcing. Both frame the reconfiguration of bodily techniques as part of an individual and collective process of responsibilisation – one that can keep us safe in the midst of a growing global pandemic. In the COVID-19 context, we are having to re-think and re-learn the techniques of the body.

For starters, COVID-19 has prompted a renewed awareness of how we use our bodies under “normal” circumstances. For instance, some of us have noticed when and how often we would usually wash our hands or touch our faces. We become aware of the habitual forms of tactile contact we make with others on a daily basis. The close ones we hug or kiss or the colleagues and peers we shake hands with. The cashiers who package our shopping for us at the supermarket, or the staff members who help us pick out perfumes and clothes in the shops. The way we try out each other’s food and drinks at restaurants and bars during social gatherings. Some of us have also become more aware of the virtual techniques of the body at play during increasingly common online conferencing and calls. For instance, how interpersonal connection and attention in a Zoom session differs when we don’t actually make eye-contact with our interlocutors, or how our conversations and body language change when we permanently see ourselves on the computer screen.

Beyond awareness, COVID-19 is also demanding that we change our bodily behaviours to prevent the spread of the pandemic. This entails both transforming existing techniques and learning new ones. For instance, instructional videos on the internet teach us the correct sequence of steps involved in washing our hands properly. We learn to keep a 1.5-meter distance from others in public places, which sometimes requires stopping, taking another path, or crossing the pavement. We start to wear masks and use hand sanitizer. Comprehensive lists inform us of hygienic measures to take when we come home, like showering, changing clothes, and disinfecting keys and wallets. We also begin to keep track of and limit what we touch – other people, elevator buttons, our own face.

Some of us might use our knees, feet, elbows and knuckles instead of our fingertips in mundane activities – for instance, to tap out a PIN code, make a selection on a digital screen, push open a door, or flip on a light switch. We learn how to cough and sneeze in our elbows rather than hands, or try to avoid doing so entirely when in the public gaze. These hygienic practices are all part of a particular set of bodily techniques that Marcel Mauss called “care of the body,” or prescribed, everyday physical acts that serve to maintain the well-being of individuals and to affirm their belonging within broader social communities.

Interpreting new behaviours

The ways we adapt our bodily techniques in the COVID-19 pandemic also shapes the way our behaviour is interpreted. In some contexts, maintaining “normal” bodily behaviour is seen in a positive light because it seems to suggest sustained social intimacy despite the pandemic conditions. This is often the case with close friends or family members, whom we might continue to kiss or hug, rather than adopt the Wuhan-shake with. On the other hand, violating requisite bodily comportments can lead to criticism and dobbing, which again speaks to the ethos of responsibilisation that shapes COVID-19 times. Here, the failure to adapt the body to pandemic conditions may not just be assessed as strange or abnormal, but rather as irresponsible, dangerous, or selfish. 

Most often, failing to adopt pandemic-appropriate comportment, as exemplified by my COVID-19 faux-pas in the perfume shop, seems to result in more or less visible discomfort, embarrassment, or annoyance on the part of those around us. People may feel uncomfortable asking us to take some distance or moving themselves further away to signal that such distance is needed, because although it is necessary, it feels unnatural and potentially rude. These particular techniques of the body are not part of our habitual social enculturation, yet we must learn to accept and practice them. 

I have witnessed several such awkward situations over the last few weeks. In malls, forest trails, and supermarkets, for instance, paths or corridors are sometimes too narrow for two people to cross them at the same time. Often, there would be an awkward pause, a shared hesitation, and tentative eye-contact. Both parties would move away at the same time, but in the same direction. Eventually, one person would change the aisle, cross the road, or wait for the other to cross. Our incapacity to read each other’s bodies and adequately deploy our own would sometimes lead to a shared smile or laugh. In other cases, we were left feeling a bit embarrassed and doubtful as to whether we had done the right thing. In these and many other instances, people are having to figure out and learn what techniques of the body to deploy in different places and circumstances – the mall, supermarket, park, or bushland. Health is the primary motive for these bodily behaviours, but the ways in which these behaviours are assessed by others matters too.

Privileges and impossibilities 

Finally, it’s important to remember that even if we know what bodily techniques we should adopt, for many people, actually putting this into practice can be difficult, dangerous, and sometimes impossible. African-American men in New York City, for instance, have expressed concerns that following the CDC advice to cover their faces could expose them to harassment from the police and entrench racial stigma. Physical distancing is quasi-impossible for residents of the already over-populated slums of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Strict quarantine measures in India have caused migrant workers to have to walk hundreds of miles home in groups of hundreds and thousands. The danger of equating “staying home” with “staying safe” comes to stark light in contexts of domestic violence and abuse, where the home is a place of danger rather than comfort. Meanwhile, many homeless people simply have no home to seek shelter in. We might all inhabit a shared COVID-19 culture – but reading this culture through peoples’ physical practices and exposures highlights the unequal distribution of threat and protection afforded to different human bodies and communities across the world. 

Mauss’ insights into the ways we learn to use our bodies remain useful to think with in the context of the COVID-19 climate. This climate is not just making us more aware of habitual bodily comportments – it is making us have to adapt to new ones, quickly and responsibly. Such transformations (or their absence) are subject to different social assessments. What was once “normal” behaviour can be re-classified as strange or reckless in light of the fact that COVID-19 is not just around us but may very well already be inside us. Changing our techniques of the body is as much about avoiding being infected as it is about avoiding transmission. As with every form of enculturation, re-educating our bodies in contextually appropriate ways is a learning process – one that encompasses both individual actions and decisions, and the ways they are socially assessed and evaluated. This learning process is central to our emergent socialisation as situated inhabitants of a COVID-19 “culture” – a process that, to torque Mauss’ words, involves finding ways to continue living in common, albeit not in contact.

*Make sure to stay up to date on your local restrictions and guidelines as they might change and/or be different to those cited in this blog, which – just like ethnography – captures a moment in time.

[Image of the elbowbump is not the author’s and is by Noah Matteo on Unsplash]

[The social distancing sign at David Jones is by Kgbo  (CC BY-SA 4.0)]

[The social distancing sign in a bottle shop is by Kgbo  (CC BY-SA 4.0)]

[The image of cleaning keyboard is by Erik Mclean on Unsplash]

[The Foot Shake image is created by Lívia Koreeda on Unsplash, submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19]

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