More than arm’s length: reimagining rituals in a technologically mediated pandemic-centric era

More than arm’s length: reimagining rituals in a technologically mediated pandemic-centric era

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Dr. Caitlin E. McDonald, a digital anthropologist at Leading Edge Forum, a technology industry research organization, and a trustee for Ellpha Citizen, a charity leveraging the power of data science and AI to create a more gender balanced world, faster. Caitlin earned her PhD following dancers around the world and across the internet, understanding how information flows for cultural bodies of knowledge like dance are impacted by technoscapes (the digital world around us). @cmcd_phd on Twitter.

More than arm’s length: reimagining rituals in a technologically mediated pandemic-centric era

by Caitlin E. McDonald

From your own experience, you already know that the global pandemic is disrupting many of the most meaningful activities of our everyday lives. All around the planet, the habits, cultural norms and rituals which define our life patterns are changing. Cliffort Geertz posited that rituals are not ornaments that adorn power and institutions; rather, our rituals create us as much as we create them (1). Without the rituals to which we have become accustomed, our lives lose some of the meaning we inhabit through those patterns. Though the crisis is far from over, we’re already starting to see some new rituals take shape. But what new normative expectations are we creating through them? Are we building the right patterns for our post-handshake lives?

Food is essential not only for our bodily sustenance but also for our cultural narratives: the way we prepare it, distribute it, and consume it is extremely revealing of cultural expectations. These differences stem from more than just the availability of ingredients in different parts of the planet; they are part of enacting who we are. The interruptions to our supply chains we’ve been experiencing during the pandemic are not merely functional, they are also intrusions into our symbolic lives: no available flour means no birthday cake. The passage of time in this strange year is bent out of shape from our unrealized ritual lives. 

Death is another example of something every individual on earth must learn to live with, but which we honour differently depending on our cultural expectations. All around the world we’re confronting a reality of increased mortality rates due to the current global pandemic. Mourning in many cultures involves a collective gathering. Now, many who have been unable to mourn in the usual way feel suspended in their grief, in a process that remains unfinished. We are separated in grieving, with virtual mourning that does not allow us the comfort of a handshake, a hug, a shoulder to cry on. Grieving, too, typically involves food, often made in batches and given to a family to sustain them through a challenging time. One example would be ‘funeral potatoes’ common across the American midwest and inter-mountain regions (2). Now we have care packages left on doorsteps, sanitized before bringing indoors. 

Even the common greeting patterns of Western cultures (and by extension globalized business culture), handshakes or hugs, are small everyday rituals to which we may have unwittingly said our last goodbye. There are many existing alternatives to choose from across cultures and time periods: different forms of bowing, elbow bumps, touching shoes instead of hands, shaking one’s own hands together, a simple wave. But for now all these still feel strange, something remarkable where something unnoticed should be. Eventually one pattern will become common, something that feels natural even though it’s a learned behaviour. Perhaps a ritual proffering of hand sanitizer, or even a symbolic rubbing of the hands to denote cleanliness. Many of our current common gestures are commonly believed to originate from the desire to show (or perhaps to ascertain) an intention of no harm: the handshake demonstrating an open hand that did not contain a weapon, the clinking of glasses to mix liquid between them for confidence that neither had been poisoned. 

In many parts of the world, people are participating in a weekly or even daily ritual to ‘clap for our carers’ or in some cases to applaud all key workers. Yet while this performative display of public appreciation happens, most of the people working in those positions remain underpaid and under-equipped with protective gear relative to the greater risks they face. Given the greater proportion of minorities and immigrants in those roles in Western countries, they’ve been exposed to a hostile environment, whether that be a deliberate government policy (3) or simply the ravages of racism and sexism pervasive in our times which has treated migrants and women as unskilled and undesirable even as their work now has shown the tasks of care work, ‘unskilled’ farming, and logistics to be essential to our way of life. We may look back with bemusement or even disgust at the Roman habit of watching people kill one another for sport (4), or grisly Aztec and Mayan rituals of human bloodletting, scarification and sacrifice (5), but what would the Mayans or the Romans say to us about our habit of treating the essential fabric of our society, those who care for us in our final moments, those who get food to our tables, as disposable? I fear that by shifting the narrative from unskilled and undesirable to angelic ministers of grace, we are still denying the humanity of our key workers: they remain mythical, inhuman figures worthy of lyrical tributes like flags and applause, but not the prosaic realities of pay rises and protective equipment.  

There are future rituals that we must anticipate as we begin to resume the activities which those of us who were lucky enough to stay at home suspended for a time. With the ongoing guidance in many countries to maintain greater distance than we normally would in social settings, we must grow accustomed to interacting with one another at greater than arm’s length. We’ve already seen a massive change to our social, professional and civic ways of being together through digital technologies, a change accelerated through our enforced periods sheltering at home. But there are other technologically-mediated rituals we must also anticipate, ones more aligned to the panopticon than the public meeting house: regular temperature checks at boundaries from country borders to building doors. Contact tracing apps that tell us who we saw when and whether that means we were exposed to risk. Immunity passports; documentation checks. With these new rituals come new risks: in particular I am concerned with a future of surveillance-based discrimination that might result from a combination of these technologies. Temperature checks are merely the latest innovation in security theatre: they might reveal a symptomatic person who is knowingly putting others at risk but it does nothing to prevent those who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic from moving about. There are many causes for temperature variation, so the checks are also an invasion of privacy. Accuracy and reliability are other considerations for all these technologies: we’ve seen many challenges to facial recognition technology failing due to racial bias. And anyone who is currently willing to voluntarily download a contact tracing app should read this article on the intrusiveness and inaccuracy of a mandatory parolee location tracking app that caused devastation in the lives of those forced to use it. We may say “this virus does not discriminate” but unsurprisingly it turns out that death rates from this pandemic are highest among groups who are disproportionately represented in jobs with economic precarity and low wages—many of the jobs that form the essential care and logistics work discussed above. These are also populations most likely to face the highest rates of incarceration as well as being disproportionately affected by gaps in access to digital services due to the closure of community services like libraries. We already live with systemic inequality. Will digital surveillance narrow these gaps, or widen them?  

But there is still time to change the story. As Geertz tells us, we use ritual to display, to reinforce, and to create meaning both in our day-to-day lives and across the years. All of us have the power to shape the patterns of our futures through the rituals we choose. How are you planning to shape that future, and most importantly, whose voices are you listening to as you create these new patterns?


1. Geertz, C. (1967). Politics Past, Politics Present Some notes on the uses of anthropology in understanding the new states. European Journal of Sociology, 8(1), 1–14.

2. Jordan, J. A. (2017). Forgotten Plums and Funeral Potatoes. Contexts, 16(1), 64–66.

  1. Hiam, L., Steele, S., & McKee, M. (2018, April 1). Creating a “hostile environment for migrants”: The British government’s use of health service data to restrict immigration is a very bad idea. Health Economics, Policy and Law. Cambridge University Press.

  2. Dunkle, R. (2013). Gladiators: Violence and spectacle in ancient Rome. Gladiators: Violence and Spectacle in Ancient Rome (pp. 1–398). Taylor and Francis.

5. Pennock, C. D. (2012). Mass murder or religious homicide? Rethinking human sacrifice and interpersonal violence in Aztec society. Historical Social Research, 37(3), 276–302.

One Reply to “More than arm’s length: reimagining rituals in a technologically mediated pandemic-centric era”

  1. as churches in America and other secularized cultures are discovering Geertz had it backwards it’s the accumulation of everyday doings that make the rituals what they are, the less we are in commons the less common meaning in public displays…