‘Conveying affection’ – Summaries of Responses

Question Five: Conveying affection – social relations under lockdown

‘Anthropological Responses to COVID-19’ comprises six questions, each lasting a fortnight.

The responses to this fourth topic can be found by clicking on the map here.

Some of the key points and themes emerging from these posts are as follows:

  • Lockdown can have a profound implication on people’s social relations. As the established routines of interaction are replaced by the online, it may mean that, rather than taking these for granted, people more consciously consider which relationships matter to them. The situation may also expose shallow commitments, such as when men no longer provide expected support for example, as in Uganda.
  • Lockdown may also have profound consequences for gender relations. Living together 24/7 may put severe strains on partners. On the other hand, online communication can provide opportunities for both platonic and flirtatious communication between men and women, secure from the potential consequences of direct physical proximity.
  • Certain relationships are particularly hit hard by separation, such as the informal street-based friendships of young Indian men, affairs, or being able to hug relatives. Older people in Israel (but people more broadly) both bemoan the poverty of online compared to offline contact while simultaneously surprised by how much can be expressed online.
  • Lockdown also provides new possibilities for support and the expression of care. This can include initiatives that we develop such as the WhatsApp Angels initiative in Brazil. There can also be cases of new offline support, such as the gifting of masks in Japan as an expression of care.
  • A common theme is the way people transfer forms of care and concern onto digital platforms. A local term, mawa, helps us to understand how people in Kinshasa find new ways to express the interconnectivity and compassion of people, while Instagram hashtags help normalise the anxieties created by the pandemic through online sharing of experiences in Israel.

Anthropological posts that are not directed to these questions can also be found at https://anthrocovid.com/digital-ethnographies/ and from posts from UCL Medical Anthropology at https://medanthucl.com/.

What are individual contributions telling us about education online following social isolation?

ArgentinaXimena Díaz Alarcón looks at how people coped with not being able to meet up with the people they care about. Zoom became everything – from parties to chats. Having to focus just on these online forms of communication forced people to prioritise who they most cared to remain in touch with. The term ‘in touch’ is pertinent since everyone recognised that physical connection was one of the most important aspects of what was lost.

Brazil Marilia Duque reports on an initiative that she developed – the creation of an ‘Angels on WhatsApp’ scheme to support older people living on their own. Her ethnography had taught her the importance of daily routines of care and also of just being available or possibly performing helpful tasks through the messaging app. She reports also on the problems of putting this scheme into practice because of the potential exploitation of older people by swindlers or scammers but her initiative also shows what she had learnt about working with WhatsApp as the platform which people have become comfortable with.

Brazil (2) – Marina Frid, who has been working with 18 informants, notes that some had to decide which would be their quarantine home. One paused but then reactivated Tinder to get back into dating. Much effort is put into gestures of support and friendship such as for birthdays or gifts for Easter. Sometimes, informants use online services to send presents to people they care about but others deliver gifts themselves. They may also organise supportive WhatsApp groups.

The Democratic Republic of Congo Katrien Pype examines the implication of the term mawa, a term which incorporates people’s feelings for themselves and in relation to others, including spiritual agents. It thereby captures a sense of the interconnectedness of people. Under lockdown, mawa finds its digital expression as emotional proximity through social media, using care as a legitimation for contact. What concepts and analogies allow people to understand the dead time and dead places of lockdown? Online may allow for new cross-gender neighbourliness protected from the connotations of physical proximity and for new forms of sharing that express the compassion within mawa.

IndiaRahul Advani talks about his fieldsite in Pune and the loss of the spontaneity and spirit of street-based friendships amongst lower-income Indian men. This contrasted with the careful crafting of Facebook communication. So instead of increasing social media use, they have focused on near-neighbours they can chat to, if at a distance. This is difficult because male friendship traditionally involved much physical contact. He asks whether the pandemic will reinforce the distance between these groups and the middle-class.

Ireland – Daniel Miller examines the problem of couples having to be together 24/7 while in lockdown. He compares this to his ethnography of the impact of retirement, when one partner now intrudes on the established domestic routines of the other. Sometimes this causes unbearable tensions which are joked about in memes, while others manage to create a close and compatible bonding, either through engaging in complementary or collaborative tasks around the home.

Israel (1) – Yeela Zafrani and Sivan Ziv discuss the problems faced by older people but also the increasing dependence that lockdown creates on their ability to use digital media. In turn, this leads to a dependence upon support from younger people. Which also brings out the primary sense of loss which is communication with family. Finally, the pandemic and the governments sequestering of older people made them more conscious of now being considered elderly, though online does provide new activities and knowledge.

Israel (2) – Yael Kushner examined hashtags on Instagram related to mental health such as #covidanxiety focusing on the relationship between these and the visual content of the posting. The point of such posts is to share and acknowledge that others are going through similar experiences, to show empathy but also helpful tips. The result is also a greater appreciation of the virtues of social media in facilitating such communication.

Japan –  Julia Nagai reports how while most interaction is now virtual, gifting masks became one expression of care.  Masks had become more essential but also scarce. People were quite resourceful in both finding and making masks. Wearing masks was seen as a civic duty. Giving masks then became a much-considered practice expressing kindness or affection, which also was an excuse for socialising. The provision of masks was also seen as a measure of how much or little the government cared.

Uganda Anna Baral shows how lockdown hugely increased the centrality of phones to sociality, especially in urban areas, though their expense is a burden for people now cut off from any means of earning a living. At the very least, they want to keep checking up on how everyone is, though this exposes their inability to then help them. Men may disappear from view altogether, though lack of material support is interpreted as an absence of love.  Sexual innuendo and flirting by phone alleviate boredom, but otherwise, there may be less to talk about.

For more information about this project, please contact g.murariu@ucl.ac.uk

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