Quaran-Teens 2020: Materiality and Production in Pandemic: A High School Perspective

Quaran-Teens 2020: Materiality and Production in Pandemic: A High School Perspective

[The following students are high school seniors at “KTH School” taking International Baccalaureate Social and Cultural Anthropology. After their final IB exams were cancelled, they decided they would like to do an auto-ethnography of their life in coronavirus quarantine. They have collected data for three weeks (including photographs, screenshots of social media and virtual school, interviews, and personal reflections) and written anthropological analyses focused on different terms (communication, society, belonging, materiality, classification, the body, health, and conflict).]

By Trip Magdovitz, Bobbie Burnham, and Ibrahim Farooq, Class of 2020

During our time in quarantine, the excess time available to us, as both school and extracurricular activities change and stop altogether, gives more time to collect our thoughts. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves wondering about the outside world as well as take a closer look at our own lives and combine it with our understanding of anthropology to sharpen our anthropological skills.

Employment Through Boundaries

Unemployment rates and wage cuts for essential workers due to the absence of people interacting with companies and other individuals have skyrocketed over the course of the spread of the Coronavirus. Buildings once lively and full of workers now stand empty and many of their former employees without a source of income. I do not speak from personal experience when it comes to unemployment, but I have friends as well as family that are unable to work directly after the quarantine both because their employers couldn’t afford to keep paying them or the business was too slow. One member of my family is an essential worker, being a physician. Two weeks after the quarantine began, my family member was still working as and could still make an income. However, after a couple of days, she began to discuss with others in the family about how she as well as everyone else was having their wages cut in half due to the falling economy. Economic production is going downhill quickly due to both formal and informal boundaries established by either legislature or the fear of contracting and/or spreading the Coronavirus.

Photo by Author

Boundaries can be defined as the furthest extent of something, which can be physical or imagined, and most boundaries have both physical and imagined aspects. In this case, my interpretation of the effect that Coronavirus has had on economic production is through the lens of formally and informally set and maintained boundaries. A formal boundary is one that is set and maintained through legislative processes such as the stay at home order, and an informal boundary is one that is set and maintained by those without recognized power of enforcement. Along with our city shutting down, many cities and even country governments gave a stay at home order, which attempts to make residents stay separated from each other to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. Physically, people are separated, and there is official documentation of legislative orders, but people are also separated emotionally and intangibly. In an informal manner, people are oftentimes taking it into their own hands to enforce their own rules. While browsing Snapchat, I came across an article in which a couple in India was harassed and ordered to leave a shop because they were not wearing face masks. Even in homes themselves, if parents still work and may be exposed, they establish harsh rules and even isolate themselves from the family because of these new boundaries. This is both an example of how formal and informal boundaries can clash and how the fear of Coronavirus, which is possibly a show of Mary Douglas’s theory of Purity and Danger, is affecting global economic production. When people are no longer spending time in stores or at doctor’s offices because of fear and legislation, these businesses can no longer support themselves or their employees and must cut back wages and spending. This reminded me of the theory of Purity and Danger, established through Mary Douglas’s ethnography, “Purity and Danger” in 1966, describes how people can have a fear of encroaching boundaries because what is within a boundary is considered “pure” and what is outside of that boundary is considered “dangerous” or “dirty”. In the case of Coronavirus, people are so afraid of becoming afflicted that many create their own rules to stay even more isolated than legislative presences order. Coronavirus is associated with any encroaching boundary, including the ideas and presences of other people, forcing people to stop interacting with the people and businesses with which they would normally interact.

Economic Production

Looking on the news daily, it is clear that society as well as the material culture has changed drastically due to the virus. When I first started looking up information and searching through the news, everyone was in a panic. My friends and even distant family were forced to stop coming to work in order to follow the stay at home order. However, many of these people live paycheck to paycheck and so need to be able to work to maintain themselves. Only those that are considered essential workers are able to stay up and running. The unique situation present in society right now is that the idea of what is essential and what is not as well as how people will survive in a society focused on the material culture of money. The problem is that most people cannot work, especially large factory workers who produce products that are not deemed necessary by society. Products such as cars and airplanes are not able to be sold and produced to meet a non-existent need for them. With most people unable to afford a commodity such as a car or already have one, there is little reason to be car shopping during the pandemic. With this, the economy plummets as people lose jobs, companies lose money, and the gross domestic profit of the country drops drastically.

Considering money, there are still necessities to buy and people with money to spend even during the pandemic. However, how they use their money varies greatly depending on their ideas of materiality. This matters because after having found an article about what is known as “panic buying” we grew very interested in the materiality behind the pandemic and how it has been affected. As I was sitting at home in my kitchen on March 26, my parents rushed into the side door as fast as they could carrying as many grocery bags as I thought humanly possible. They told my siblings and I to go help unload everything they had bought, and only after having walked back and forth between the car and the fridge did I question the amount of food we had bought. I asked my parents about this, all I got was a shrugging shoulder from one and a short response from another. They said that they bought so much food to stock up for the quarantine, while everything else was “because everyone else was doing it”. This particular statement of a sort of herd mentality piqued my interest. Thus, I dove into trying to understand what this sort of event was called and how it happens. That’s when I found the article on panic buying a week into the stay at home order for my area. In it, I found that Panic buying is the idea of buying to give the illusion of control of the situation. However, when the stocks of food and water were running low and were not available, people began panic buying other materials. One particular object that really caught my attention was the overbuying of toilet paper. I found this part out as I wandered about on social media. Many people who have heard of the toilet paper event have begun to make jokes about it. Using sarcasm to portray their confusion and to point out the flaws in buying so much. People even go so far as to humorously use toilet paper as a currency. Which very much points out the changes in material culture around the world.

Photo by Author

The origin behind this economic struggle stems from the change in material culture that causes a massive domino effect in that people lose their jobs that surround a seemingly irrelevant industry. Thus, they cannot further provide the necessities such as food, water, and housing. Following Janet Hoskins’ (1998) ideas, she argues that objects are given biographical significance entangled in different aspects of society such as a sense of self and identity. Before the Pandemic, a car was considered a necessity in some cultures and was a highly valued object. After the events following the discovery of COVID-19, that necessity has shifted to almost irrelevancy as objects deemed more important such as hand sanitizer and food take much higher precedence over an automobile. This growing need does not always follow the same social construction, however, as some objects such as toilet paper have also gained importance much to the confusion of society. This change in material culture stems from the idea of panic buying.

Digital and Changing Materiality

Screenshot of author in “class”

Are digital objects material? Interpersonal communication takes place in a digital place and space, with its own set of rules and relationships. Digital-material online meeting spaces are used to organize and shape cultures. Certain cultures, such as those in relation to schools or workplaces, have experienced a kind of diaspora- the mass involuntary dispersal of a population from a center to multiple areas- due to the coronavirus. In response, those cultures have migrated- or moved from one locality to another- to online meeting spaces. Even schools like mine migrated to online meeting spaces to try and keep the classroom feeling. Which then caused a need for microphones if our computers did not have them and headphones so that our families didn’t always have to hear our classes. Because of the change in scenery, students and adults alike had to change their work space as well as their work supplies. Offices turned into living rooms, and classrooms turned into bedrooms. The regular school supplies we usually used were now replaced with electronic copies of everything as our entire school life shifted entirely to digital. We asked students just like us about their experiences and each one gave their part. Some said that school was a lot less difficult and easier to manage because they needed less material and supplies to do their work and could do so without even leaving their home. Others complained that their computers and electronics could not keep up with the growing emphasis on technology and resorted to using phones or apple products rather than their computers to be in classes. No matter who we asked, however, everything could be connected or even explained by the changing material culture.

Material culture examines how “things” have meaning, where social reality is grounded in objects. In digital space, physical objects are shown through the unique framing of a person’s digital camera. Material objects relating to technology shapes these interactions. This includes microphones, cameras, processors, memory storage, and more. These physical objects are all key to the ways that digital expression is possible. For example, on the online meeting platform Zoom, two kinds of material objects have an impact on how symbolic expression is possible, with a green-screen effect that we can use to have a physical green-screen run a green-screen effect without a physical green-screen. Alone, these material objects have little meaning. However, in the digital context and space of Zoom, they gain new meaning as objects through which we are told how people think about the world around them and about culture and people’s lives. These objects are tools that take on meaning when used and are also shaped by human action. When virtual ‘objects’ are shared via online mediums, they are symbolic of the meanings given to them through the broader culture of those who share and receive it.

The material objects that surround using newly popular online meeting platforms have shifted in value immensely as the need for them rose exponentially. This linear relationship between digitally focused material objects and their value can be explained thoroughly by Arjun Appadurai’s (1986) interpretivist approach. He argues that objects are given their value by the people that use it and how they are circulated in society. By applying that, we understand that material cultures surrounding currency or valuables such as jewelry are based upon the interpretation of their value and are maintained by the social acceptance of that value. The same can be said about digitally focused materials such as an electronic display and a microphone. Due to the global pandemic, objects such as these are in increased demand and popularity.

Many of us would have never thought that a virus could do so much, changing our ways of thinking about money and material culture alike. With the idea that cultures will always change over time, it is clear that even our understanding of materiality as well as what is important can change drastically. From the new-found importance of toilet paper to the irrelevance of cars now, the materiality behind our society as well as the production that is driven by this materiality has all changed for better or for worse.


Appadurai, Arjun. The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Cox, Jeff. “ Coronavirus Job Losses Could Total 47 Million, Unemployment Rate May Hit 32 Percent, Fed Estimates.” NBC News, 30 Mar. 2020, www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/coronavirus-job-losses-could-total-47-million-unemployment-rate-may-n1172111.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966. Print.

Hoskins, Janet. Agency, Biography and Objects. London: Sage, 1998.

Jones, Lora. “Coronavirus: What’s Behind the Great Toilet Paper Grab?” BBC News, 26 Mar. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/business-52040532.

Koenig, Bill. “Manufacturing in the Middle of COVID-19 Pandemic.” SME Media, 18 Mar. 2020, www.sme.org/technologies/articles/2020/march/manufacturing-in-the-middle-of-covid-19-pandemic/.

O’Flaherty, Kate. “Zoom’s 200 Million Users Are Facing A Serious New Threat.” Forbes, 20 Apr. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/2020/04/20/zooms-200-million-users-are-facing-a-new-threat-heres-what-to-do/#4f914d42b83d.

Pountney, Laura & Tomislav Maric. “Introducing Anthropology”. Polity Press, 2015.