Purity, Danger, and Handwashing

Author: Michael Dunford is currently a PhD Candidate at the School of Culture History and Language. His research asks how how agrarian economies and agrarian ecologies intersect with the politics of ethno-racial difference in mainland Southeast Asia. Prior to his time at ANU, Michael was a social science instructor at the Parami Institute in Yangon, Myanmar, where he taught a range of anthropology courses and led three undergraduate research teams on topics related to economic anthropology. For a detailed CV and list of publications, please see his personal website.

Everyone who uses a men’s bathroom will recognize the following pattern; people who have never used a men’s bathroom will be horrified by it. It is admittedly a gendered story, and a temporally situated one—it mainly pertains to the period before the COVID-19 pandemic, and applies primarily to men who go to rowdy public restrooms. For lack of a better term, I will call this phenomenon the “man wash.” (It may also happen in women’s bathrooms, but I suspect that it does not). This is the man wash: having finished doing whatever else they came into the bathroom to do, men walk up to the sink, squirt a tiny amount of cold water on their hands, and then simply leave. A few might dry off their hands. That’s it. No soap, no careful attention to the different surfaces of the hand, just three to five seconds of cold water and (at most) a quick dry-off with a paper towel. I saw this countless times, especially in places like bars (alcohol probably playing a role in reducing men’s attentiveness to hygiene) and other busy, crowded public bathrooms.

It is my suspicion that men who perpetrated the man wash felt particularly called-out by the handwashing discourse that exploded in the early days of the pandemic. Proper hand-washing technique, it turned out, was critical to stopping the spread of the coronavirus. Hand-washing with soap is even better at stopping coronavirus transmission that hand sanitizer; YouTube videos demonstrating correct handwashing technique and explaining how soap destroys viruses flooded the internet. Hand-washing advice suddenly appeared in all of the most obvious places (e.g., on the walls of bathrooms), and even in some surprising places (for example: in early 2020, I took a taxi to the airport in Mandalay, Myanmar, that had quarilingual [English, Burmese, Chinese, Thai] handwashing instructions taped to the dashboard and the back of both front seats). I certainly took the new handwashing injunctions to heart, and started carrying liquid soap everywhere with me, in case I encountered soapless water sources. I also added hand lotion to my bag for the first time in my life, to help repair my hands from all of the furious washing.

In my struggle to make sense of this sudden intense focus on hand hygiene, I decided to revisit Mary Douglas’ 1966 classic, Purity and Danger. Although I had read it carefully early on in my training as a student of anthropology, I struggled to find applications for its arguments in my daily life. At its core, Purity and Danger is a book about the efficacy of ritual, and especially the complicated relationship between ritual, religion, magic, and modernity. One of the key insights is about the way that “hygiene”—a technoscientific term—relates to “purity,” in the sense of ritual purification. For Douglas, religious purification practices like Wudu in Islam and food preparation rules in Indian religions should be considered typologically identical to post-COVID handwashing norms. They are the same kind of thing, for Douglas. The difference, for her, is that traditional (Douglas uses the dated term “primitive”) religious notions of purity “work with greater force” (Douglas 1966, p. 41) than modern notions of hygiene, because they have not been separated from the symbolic order that governs other domains of life: the injunction to be charitable and the injunction to be clean come from the same symbolic source. Cleaning can be an act of prayer. The post-COVID injunction to engage in scrupulous handwashing, by contrast, has little concrete relation to any specific moral schema, apart from vague appeals to civic responsibility (e.g., “it is your duty to keep others safe”).

Still, the intense focus on handwashing revealed that even modern norms of hygiene are not universal, and that a lively debate can be had about the “wrong way” and “right way” to “do hygiene.” I’ve witnessed, for the first time ever, men lining up for soap at the bathroom sink; I’ve eschewed hand sanitizer in all cases except for emergencies, convinced by scientific media that soap and water is more effective at killing the virus. I now find myself in the bizarre position of partially agreeing with the right wing’s claim that “COVID is the new religion,” and adherence to prevention measures is akin to a form of religious belief—but unlike the Sky News pundits, I don’t think this is a bad thing. There is absolutely a religious aspect to COVID prevention measures. From mask-wearing to hand-washing to social distancing, they can all take on ritual aspects, and they are all performed in public to communicate one’s moral alignments. Although I cannot wait to stop worrying about the novel coronavirus as a particular affliction, I will be glad if the man wash also goes away forever, replaced by thoroughly soaped and virus-free hands.

[Image by Daveyimage. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.]

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