Pandemic Productivity

Pandemic Productivity

by Hanna Pickwell

(Fieldwork in a Time of Coronavirus series)

There were two moments when it became clear that the dissertation project I had developed for four years was not going to happen in the way I had planned. The first came at the beginning of February, when I received notice that, out of concern for our safety in the wake of the first outbreak of COVID-19, the granting agency supporting my work was ordering all grantees to leave China and curtailing our funding. The second came at the end of March, after I had returned to the U.S., when China’s Ministry of Foreign affairs announced a travel ban preventing foreigners from entering the country. Between these announcements came increments of acceptance that, when I could return to fieldwork, the places, the people, social life, and my place in it all would not be the same. As weeks and months passed, however, the all-but-certain when gave way to a dreaded if—if I could resume on-site fieldwork at all.

A 1970s ping-pong clock in Beijing, commemorating ping-pong diplomacy between the U.S. and China. Photographed in a Beijing community center where I began fieldwork in November. Image by the author, November 2019.

As I coped with the vicissitudes of my when/if temporality, friends, colleagues, and professional contacts circulated advice and resources for conducting socially distant fieldwork, solicitations for COVID-themed writing that could become a speedy publication, and articles that advised grad students to “buck up,” embrace our privilege and get our research and dissertations done because it’s “literally [our] job right now.” Most of these communications were well-meaning attempts to offer support, but it was difficult to experience them as such. Instead, I felt guilt and anxiety for not efficiently and resourcefully finding ways to continue fieldwork remotely—in short, for not being more “productive” in a way that corresponded with my personal and institutional timelines, and that was legible to the academy.

Asking my friends and interlocutors to work on my project with me in the early days of the outbreak in China would have been insensitive, especially since I had flown home to a presumably virus-free United States. Initially, life here went on as usual while all of my friends in China rode out the outbreak strictly shut into their homes. It was not the time to impose on people for the sake of research on used goods and retro aesthetics. Instead, like most of us, I started checking in on people I care about. 

In late March, coronavirus cases in the U.S. were about to exceed the total number reported in China, and an alarmed friend in Beijing had messaged me to find out what it was like on the ground. After we checked in, she signed off our conversation using what had become a conventional farewell: “Remember to wear your facemask!” 

Knowing that she was referencing N95s, and perhaps taking her farewell too literally, I replied “Over here, we don’t have facemasks.” 

“But how will you protect yourself when you go out?” 

Sadness and anxiety washed over me. Both of my parents are essential workers, and at the time of this conversation, one had been experiencing flu symptoms (thankfully, both are currently healthy). Although I have been privileged in many ways facing this crisis, my return to the United States was hardly an escape. I was (am) in this thing as much as my interlocutors were, and because of where I was standing when the music stopped, in some ways more vulnerable. In the coming weeks, friends in China, disturbed and incredulous about the news and numbers reported from the U.S., would continue to check on me and offer to help.

An interlocutor at the community center holds a 1980s Marilyn Monroe signature clock in front of a 1960s mirror featuring Mao Zedong’s likeness and quote. He chuckled at the juxtaposition we staged in this photo. Image by the author, December 2019.

Instead of producing research or writing, I spent most of February and March doing what I’ve been calling “administrative scrambling”—trying to recover lost funding, applying for everything I was eligible for, handling all of my belongings and research materials that were locked in an unoccupied apartment during Beijing’s strict lockdown, negotiating a lower rent for that unoccupied apartment, attempting to secure a new long-term visa, and sending daily health updates to my affiliate school in China that I will likely never return to as a student. All of this work is necessary so that I can return to my field site in good standing and with the resources and permissions to complete research—when and if that possibility opens up.  

For a while I was preoccupied by my apartment—paid for and left behind in Beijing as if I would return after two weeks—and an SD card containing all of the photos I had taken during my short time in the field that seemed to be lost in the mail. A friend also displaced by international movement restrictions due to the virus took the words out of my mouth as he reflected on his separation from his journals while in quarantine: “it’s like losing my memory.” All of it made me think of several anthropologists’ writing on materiality and personhood: Annette Weiner’s descriptions of affective intentionalities embedded in moving artifacts (1976), Marilyn Strathern’s resonant notion of “partibilities” that extend the person beyond the body and into the social world (1988), and especially Alfred Gell’s distributed objects, which are intention-invested extensions of personhood “spread around” in space and time (1998). 

In Gell’s sense, I could think of my collection of ethnographic fieldnotes, things stored or mailed back from the field, photos stored on an SD card, and an essay posted on anthro{dendum}, as extensions of my own slow process of cognition outside my body. Or as Gell might put it, “a movement of memory reaching down into the past and a movement of aspiration, probing towards an unrealized, and perhaps unrealizable futurity”—like completing this project and earning a Ph.D. (1998, 258).  Perhaps this is why my separation from my things was so painful; they manifested years of accreted experience, thinking, reflecting, and planning. 

The SD card did arrive, much to my relief, after about a month in the mail, and because it did I am able to share some of these photos with you.

Mao’s golden mango and a 1970s plastic goose clock. These two objects, dear to me and entwined with an important friendship, have been safely stowed away indefinitely. I showed the friend who packed up my apartment what to move into storage by circling objects in green. Image by the author (and a friend who wishes to remain anonymous), April 2020.

These mundane concerns about distant, inaccessible, and lost research materials and property pale in comparison to the suffering and hardship many are experiencing in the face of this virus and the social and political crises it has accelerated. But I imagine that many others have found themselves similarly exhausted and overwhelmed by practical contingencies, and emotionally immobilized by the loss of best-laid plans. So many of us are dealing with separation from and loss of places and things in addition to separation from (and loss of) people. The conditions of global pandemic seem to have surfaced dynamics, affects, attachments, and dependencies that undergirded our lives before but now are painfully palpable. My research interests turned out not to be so easily avoidable after all; they too were re-emerging as part of the way I was coping with virus fallout in my own life. 

Instead of thinking about when or if I would return to fieldwork (or avoiding thinking about it altogether), I have shifted to reflecting on what of the original plan I really want to get back to, and why I want to do so. It is going to take more work and will power, more energy and resources to make a return to fieldwork happen. Why is it worthwhile, not only in general, but to me personally, to complete this project?

From even the earliest days of the discipline, anthropologists and theorists influential to the field have recognized that our work is inextricably bound up with the dispositions, interests, and care of its practitioners. In an 1887 paper, Franz Boas described our work as fundamentally “affective” in nature. Max Weber made similar observations: whether they know it or not, social scientists’ values drive them to make choices about what they study, and how they define their objects (1949).  Gramsci managed to translate these affective dimensions into an image that feels suited to my anxieties of the moment: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. The first thing to do is to make such an inventory” (1999, 628).

A visitor examines clocks and other household goods in the 1970s room at Beijing’s Shijia Hutong Museum. Image by the author, taken during MA research, July 2017.

In the absence of the ability to meaningfully plan out the coming months, it seems to me that these lines of inquiry might point us toward a different kind of “productivity” for those of us whose early-phase fieldwork has been unexpectedly and indefinitely put on hold. What are the matters of concern that we wish to work on? As Joel Robbins has argued, anthropology would do well to reconnect with its utopian impulse: “the promise of the discovery of other ways of living might teach us the limits of our own, and might lead us to a vision of a world that was much better than ours in ways we could not on our own imagine” (2013, 456; see also Trouillot 1991). Robbins thus encourages anthropologists to focus on what we and those we work with see as “good.” It is surely a challenge, in a time like this, to try to do anthropologies of the good. Perhaps, at least, we can pull a mushroom out of Anna Tsing’s patch, and strive to notice interstices where an otherwise might be possible, while acknowledging the indeterminacy and precarity of this moment, and the future (Tsing 2015). 

Busts of Lenin and Engles mingle with outmoded clocks in a Beijing vintage shop. Image by the author, July 2017.

There is a particular quote that comes to mind when I reflect on what I count as a productive engagement with this prolonged moment of uncertainty and anxiety. It comes not from anthropology or social theory, but from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a novel I read shortly before beginning my graduate training. The book ends with this quote (spoiler alert):

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space (1974, 165).

As we redesign our research and methodologies, work through past notes and writing, and evaluate our aspirations within and beyond the academy, we might ask ourselves: What do we and the people around us find to be good or important, and how will we make space for these in our work, in our lives, and in our futures; how will we make them endure? Prioritizing our most cherished concerns will help us to deal with constricted timelines, tighter budgets, and limited face-to-face or on-site research opportunities. Revisiting the values that remind us why we care about doing what we’re doing might allow us to work towards something, even as we operate on a murky when/if timeline. 

A clock collection in a Beijing bar. Though the T-shirts and tote bags hanging below are bought and sold, I was assured the clocks are not for sale. Image by the author, taken during language study, July 2019.

Thanks to Josh Babcock for initiating and editing this series; to Eléonore Rimbault, Briel Kobak, Yukun Zeng, Ben Thevathasan, and Rachel Howard for their feedback on iterations of this piece; and to the friends in Beijing who helped me deal with the stuff I left behind.

Boas, Franz. 1887. “The Study of Geography.” Science 9(210): 137–141.

Calvino, Italo. 1974[1972]. Invisible Cities. Translated by William Weaver. London: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Gell, Alfred. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press • Oxford University Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1999. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: ElecBook.

Robbins, Joel. 2013. “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3): 447–462.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1988. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1991. “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.” In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by Richard G. Fox, pp. 17–44. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Tsing, Anna. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Weber, M. 1949. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Edited and translated by E. A. Shils and H. A. Finch. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press.

Weiner, Annette. 1976. Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press. 


Hanna Pickwell is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She is currently studying social relations with used and outmoded things in Beijing. Hanna co-edits the Society for East Asian Anthropology column in Anthropology News.