Structures of Contagion and Forms of the Social Environment

The genealogies of structuralism have established that its intellectual roots should be found not in mathematics, as Jean Piaget or Michel Serres once indicated, but in biology (Descombes 1979). In many aspects, “structure” in the twentieth-century human sciences replaces the nineteenth-century notion of “organization”. Both notions aim at solving political crises by displaying the elementary conditions of social life: the French Revolution for the notion of organization, the Second World War for the notion of structure. But while organizations rely on laws of development and progress, structures rely on models to anticipate future disasters.

In his famous 1952 article on “the notion of structure in ethnology”, Lévi-Strauss (1958, 333, 342, 343) quotes three times from Kurt Goldstein’s book, Der Aufbau des Organismus (1934), which had just come out in French under the title La structure de l’organisme. In this book, Goldstein presented his diagnostic on patients suffering from aphasia—the loss of speech—to show that new forms of living can be invented after a traumatic shock such as the First World War. This book was a major source for Georges Canguilhem’s philosophy of normativity as well as for Roman Jakobson’s structural linguistics. By contrast with nineteenth-century anatomy, which relied on divine models of organization, Goldstein showed that a structure is a form of re-organization after a shock which shows that life doesn’t have a substantial basis. While organization is grounded on a center that is politically expressed in institutions, structure is decentered because it is grounded on void entities, which are politically expressed in transformations.

How can we think the biological meaning of structure at a time of pandemics, after half of the global population has been locked down by an emerging virus and recommended to wear masks covering their noses and mouths? How will life be re-organized after this collective aphasia? While the question of normativity has been forgotten in the reception of structural anthropology, this question allows one to connect the Foucaldian approach of norms and forms—an expression I borrow from Paul Rabinow (1989)—and the more Marxist approach to transformations—a notion Lévi-Strauss borrows from morphogenetics and which has recently been reappraised by Philippe Descola (2016). I want to argue that viruses are void entities whose circulation and transformation produce normativity in a way that can be described through structural analysis.

Dan Sperber has strongly suggested replacing structural anthropology with an “epidemiology of representations”. The problems with the notions of structure and symbol, in Sperber’s view, come from the fact that they rely on a strong confidence in the anthropologist’s brain as a model for what happens in the brains of other human beings.  Sperber proposes to study the cognitive mechanisms that lead humans to transmit some ideas rather than others, despite their sometimes counter-intuitive contents, for instance, in religious rituals or mythical narratives. Social representations are thus compared by Sperber to viruses invading human populations, but little is said about how representations affect human bodies. When Sperber (1996, 83) writes, “what pathology is to the epidemiology of diseases, psychology should be to the epidemiology of representations,” he leaves aside, in this analogical formula, what pathology should be for an epidemiology of representations.

How to account for the fact that social representations also make brains and bodies sick? When French citizens wear surgical masks in the public space after complaining about the lack of stockpiled masks and the failure of the State’s pandemic preparedness, this can be considered as a structural transformation of the “Muslim scarf controversy,” which took place in France in 2003-2004 and was concurrent with the time when Asian societies began to wear masks en masse in the wake of the SARS crisis (Keck 2020b). We cannot say that the practice of wearing masks or facial coverings was simply mimicked in Europe as a circulation of ideas from Asia, but rather that the experience of viral epidemics and respiratory diseases led French citizens to relate in their own new way to the use of masks in the public space. Masks are normative: they orient the way citizen perceive their bodies in the public space.

Sperber (1996, 9) borrows his concept of “epidemiology of representations” from Gabriel Tarde, a magistrate and sociologist who studied flows of imitation and innovation at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, sociology used statistics to describe the social distribution of facts about contagion that had been previously thought of as caused by environmental factors such as miasma (Wald 2007). The debate between Emile Durkheim and Gabriel Tarde turned precisely on how social facts can act as causalities that are different from biological causes. Durkheim famously showed that collective representations have a causality of their own, that is, they have their own mode of contagion and virulence which differs from natural contagion, since it can counter-act natural contagion. Institutions have a life of their own because they are separated from ordinary life and appear through the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Durkheim (1916, 325) writes that collective representations are “in a sense delirious”: they affect the bodies of individuals in such a way that they can lead them to kill themselves or to live with an enhanced form of life.

Lévi-Strauss formalizes this aspect of Durkheim’s conception of the social. From Robertson Smith, Durkheim had borrowed the idea of a site within the social where the sacred is produced and symbolic representations are made, the crucial difference being that Durkheim replaced Smith’s holy shrine with a tribunal, or the State as operator of justice through social categories (Keck 2019). After meeting Roman Jakobson, who turns him into a resolute structuralist thinker, Lévi-Strauss talks about a symbolic function, which combines the signifier and the signified in various societies. Lévi-Strauss replaces the idea, common to both Robertson Smith and Durkheim, that “the sacred is contagious” with Jakobson’s observation that associations in language are much more metaphoric than metonymic: much more ruled by displacement than by contact.   

This shift may have been due to the influence of Franz Boas. It has often been argued that Lévi-Strauss borrowed Boas’s model of cultural relativism, which separated cultural from natural determinisms in the context of the debate on racism in the United States. But Boas was also trained in the German school of biological anthropology, which, under the leadership of Rudolf Virchow, stressed the unity of living forms, particularly when looking at human and animal diseases—so much that Virchow is considered as a founder of the “One Health” approach connecting humans, animals and the environment (Bresalier, Cassiday and Woods 2015). Boas is regarded as advocating a diffusionist approach in American anthropology, which, rather than looking for the origins of a cultural trait and describing its development in stages of evolution, follows its transformations as it mutates from one society to another. What Lévi-Strauss borrows from Boas—through complex discussions on the distinction between form and structure through human history (Lévi-Strauss 1958, 15-24)—is the idea that social forms can be studied over geographical processes of transformation. To this idea he adds the Marxian notion of dialectic as a movement through which structure unfolds itself by critical reflexivity.

Today, as we follow the mutations of pandemic viruses across species barriers and political frontiers (Keck 2020a), we may still use the Lévi-Straussian notion of transformation to think about how social forms of contagion reveal changing relations between humans and their environments. Mathematical models are not used to map the diversity of structures of the human mind within kinship systems, but to simulate the mutations of viruses and prepare for the next pandemic, or to predict the degrees of global warming and mitigate its effects. A structuralist account of contagion may be used to describe how mythical narratives about the origins of viruses are transformed when pathogens circulate globally. The “way of the masks” is now a story of stockpiling emergency goods and scarce resources to mitigate the consequences of environmental disasters. The criticisms that are addressed to nation states when they fail to stockpile masks or vaccines must be integrated into this story, as it is told differently in the environments in which viruses are tracked, collected, attenuated and stored. Preparing for pandemics has transformed the imaginary through which we relate to each other in a potentially contagious environment.


Works Cited

Bresalier, Michael, Angela Cassidy, Abigail Woods. 2015. “One Health in History.” In One Health: The Theory and Practice of Integrated Health Approaches, edited by Jakob Zinsstag, et al., 1-15. Wallingsford: CABI.

Descola, Philippe. 2016. “Transformation transformed.“ HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (3): 33-44.

Descombes, Vincent. 1979. Le même et l’autre. Quarante-cinq ans de philosophie française (1933-1978). Paris: Minuit.

Durkheim, Émile. 1998 (1916). Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. Paris: PUF.

Keck, Frédéric. 2019. “A Genealogy of Animal Diseases and Social Anthropology (1870–2000)”, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 33 (1): 24-41.

Keck, Frédéric. 2020a. Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts. Durham NC, Duke University Press.

Keck, Frédéric. 2020b. “Wearing a Mask in France Would Be a Revolution.” The Hedgehog Review Blog, April 17 2020.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Anthropologie structurale. Paris: Plon.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 2016. We Are All Cannibals: And Other Essays. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. New York, Columbia University Press.

Rabinow, Paul. 1989. French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sperber, Dan. 1968. Le structuralisme en anthropologie. Paris: Seuil.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. La contagion des idées. Théorie naturaliste de la culture. Paris: Odile Jacob.

Wald, Priscilla. 2007. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke University Press.

Zimmerman, Andrew. 2010. Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Special Focus: Structures

In the course of the twentieth century, structure became a central category of thought across a wide array of sciences. From linguistics to anthropology, psychoanalysis and history, the epistemic aim of analyzing structures guided a diverse range of research programs. And yet, the quest for immaterial or timeless structures that might underlie, order, organize—let alone determine—more readily perceptible domains of reality today appears strange, even suspicious, to most cultural anthropologists and historians of science. To grapple with these changes in the epistemic virtues guiding the work of anthropologists and their historians, as well as structures’ many afterlives outside of the academy, this Special Focus Section aims to adopt a broader historical view of the phenomenon by shifting analytic attention away from specific structuralist texts, intellectuals, and institutions toward structures as epistemic things in the history of anthropology and adjacent domains of inquiry.

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