Can Anthropologists Talk Back?

A Provocation from the Margins

Robyn Eversole, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology

I have always seen a key value of anthropology as the ability to ‘name the frames’ through which people see problems and solutions, then ‘flip the frames’ to reveal other ways of seeing.  Anthropologists’ awareness of how social positions, language, norms, values, traditions, and so forth shape our actions and relationships can make us uncomfortable but invaluable colleagues: uncomfortable, because we never seem to accept the company line or the simple explanation; invaluable, because we always bring a new angle or insight on the challenge at hand. 

The current global coronavirus crisis is clearly ‘framed’ by certain discourses and ways-of-seeing: medicine, epidemiology, public health, government authority, and economics. These culturally and politically dominant discourses frame the problem as a virus pandemic, and the solution as coercive control over the movement of human carriers to ‘save lives’ – with economic stimulus to counteract the negative consequences of workers staying at home.

This frame is impossible to contest from within its own logics: if life in the time of a novel virus is an epidemiologically modelled curve populated by a medically defined virus, we have no recourse but to obey the experts. If our livelihoods are taken away, we can hope for ‘stimulus’ (but not compensation), if our lives are in danger in violent or unsafe spaces, behind closed doors, we can take comfort in the fact that the government is working hard to save us (from a virus).

The costs of the crisis are mostly invisible because they lie outside the dominant framing of coronavirus as a health emergency with economic consequences. These frames are crafted in the language of pandemiccases, and control. This framing of the crisis does not show people, not even as victims, and certainly not as humans with agency. Medicalised bodies do not have voices. Bodies can be stripped of livelihoods, loved ones, rights and freedoms. They need only remain virus-free.

The dominant framing of the virus-crisis is not scientifically wrong, but it is desperately inadequate for a human future. Anthropologists are needed to flip the frame, and bring people and their stories into  view. The surge in domestic violence alone[1] should provide a cautionary tale of what realities lie beyond the ‘stay safe at home’ frame. The plight of people who are homeless or inadequately housed is another.[2] These are only a quick glimpse of the rapidly mounting costs of current ‘solutions’. Notably, the words human rights are absent, even as basic rights to association and free movement are taken away without precedent, without discussion, and with barely a voice raised in protest.

Many of us have spent our careers on the margins, helping the voiceless to have a voice and witnessing first-hand their agility and inventiveness in incredibly difficult situations. As a handful of policy makers struggle in their large, safe, well-appointed homes to do the right thing to others in a crisis, I am hoping that anthropologists can talk back to power and provide new perspectives: showing that people, given room to manoeuvre, make solutions;[3] that ‘health’ is more than virus-free bodies; and that social connections and interactions are central to being human.

[1] See e.g.

[2] See e.g.


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