Macquarie University (Australia)


The Covid-19 pandemic has created a generation of amateur epidemiologists, as people try to understand how a microscopic threat circulates through society. As they imagine the spread of this “invisible monster,” they project their fears of the virus onto groups in society that they imagine are spreading it, whose bodies or actions become the visible face of an invisible pathogen. Superstition and science share a common language and symbol system, and racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, and other forms of bias against social others are couched in the language of care (“we need to contain those people to protect Grandma”). Government lockdown laws make assumptions about “typical” households that exclude other social configurations and forms of intimacy, and they have been energetically enforced by citizens via social media shaming and police tip lines, creating new forms of social surveillance, state-citizen alliances, and interventions into intimate lives. Contagion thus forces values, morals, and the ethics of conduct into the debate about how we should live together during a pandemic. This project will use a mix of digital ethnography, citizen science, interviews and participant observation in Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand to generate comparative data on pandemic imaginaries and state-society configurations in three countries. It seeks to understand how beliefs about infectious disease inform people’s health-protective behavior, how they inform imaginations of otherness, and how people envision the relationship between state and citizens in protecting society during the pandemic.

Principal Investigators

Lisa Wynn

Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University

Lisa L. Wynn is associate professor in the Anthropology Department at Macquarie University in Sydney. She is the author of Pyramids and Nightclubs(University of Texas Press, 2007) and Love, Sex, and Desire in Modern Egypt: Navigating the Margins of Respectability (University of Texas Press, 2018). She has also coedited two books including, most recently, Abortion Pills, Test Tube Babies, and Sex Toys: Exploring Reproductive and Sexual Technologies in the Middle East and North Africa (Vanderbilt University Press, 2017). She received her PhD in anthropology from Princeton University. In Australia, her research on reproductive health technologies and on research ethics bureaucracies has been supported by the Australian Research Council and the Office of Learning and Teaching, and her teaching has been recognized with a national teaching award. She is the president of the Australian Anthropological Society in 2020.

Thomas Strong

Lecturer, Maynooth University

Thomas Strong lectures in the Department of Anthropology at Maynooth University (Ireland). He received a BA in anthropology from Reed College in 1994; his BA thesis analyzed the sociocultural significance of blood supplies, focusing especially on HIV risk. As a staff researcher at the University of California in the 1990s, he conducted two years of fieldwork with gay youth on San Francisco streets. An abiding interest in the sociocultural symbolism of blood and body drew him to the ethnography of Melanesia. Fieldwork between 2000 and 2003 in highland Papua New Guinea yielded a dissertation about the disappointed promises of modernity and a PhD in anthropology at Princeton University in 2004. After two years at the University of Helsinki, he joined Maynooth in 2008, where initially he worked with a consortium of scholars in East Africa to build capacity for social research on health in the developing world. From 2013, he returned to a focus on highland Papua New Guinea, conducting major fieldwork on contemporary witchcraft violence. His current project is funded by the Irish Research Council’s COALESCE initiative, and is entitled “Culture and Sexual Risk: An Ethnographic Analysis of Gay Male Sexual Worlds Today.”

Susanna Trnka

Associate Professor, University of Auckland

Susanna Trnka is an associate professor in social and medical anthropology at the University of Auckland. Her work examines embodiment through a variety of lenses, including pain, political violence, children’s respiratory health, movement, and (most recently) youth mental well-being. She spent over a decade examining states of emergency, political violence, pain, and trauma in Fiji, as encapsulated in her book, State of Suffering: Political Violence and Community Survival in Fiji (Cornell University Press, 2008). She then conducted a comparison of the politics of respiratory health in New Zealand and Central Europe. She has contributed to new theories of (personal, collective, state, and corporate) responsibility through her work on asthma in her monograph, One Blue Child: Asthma, Responsibility, and the Politics of Global Health (Stanford University Press, 2017), and, more broadly, her coedited volume, Competing Responsibilities: The Politics and Ethics of Contemporary Life (with Catherine Trundle, Duke University Press, 2017). She is currently the principal investigator on a multidisciplinary Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden project examining youth mental health and digital technology use in New Zealand. Her most recent book—Traversing: Embodied Lifeworlds in the Czech Republic (Cornell University Press, 2020)—is a phenomenological examination of movement.