Health, Harm, Habitus: Techniques of the Body in COVID-19

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Sophie Chao (Sydney)

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread at a scale and speed unprecedented in living memory. Affecting over two hundred countries and territories at the time of writing, this global health crisis has become the shared backdrop of life for people across the globe. Dwellers of pandemic hotspots, who have or are continuing to lose loved ones to the virus, are experiencing the scale and suffering of the pandemic in visceral and immediate ways. Those of us in less severely impacted parts of the world, meanwhile, know the pandemic primarily through its representation – in ever-escalating graphs, statistics, and percentages, on real-time tracking websites such as Worldometer, and in hourly news updates reporting the latest numbers of fatalities, cases, and recoveries at home and overseas.

These largely quantitative representations partake in conjuring the spectacular scale of the crisis that we inhabit – even as the cause, origins, and long-term impacts of the crisis remain opaque, and even as cases in the Global South remain disproportionately under-represented. At the same time, statistic, numbers, and graphs efface the granular textures of (extra)ordinary life in the “Covidscape”. Beyond this “big” – and therefore abstract – picture are everyday practices that, while seemingly inconsequential and minute, nonetheless reveal how COVID-19 is changing our awareness, uses, and assessments of the body – both our own and those of the people around us. These bodily practices in turn foreground the uneven distribution of risk and protection afforded to situated human communities as they grapple with the uncertain phenomenologies of pandemic living.

The emergence of new COVID-19 corporealities recently brought me to revisit what French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1973) calls the “techniques of the body.” Examined in a seminal essay by the same title, techniques of the body refer to assemblages of bodily behaviors, practices, and dispositions that individuals acquire as part of their enculturation into fully-fledged members of society (Mauss 1973, p. 70). Techniques of the body, Mauss describes, range from the sophisticated to the mundane. They include such practices as swimming, running and walking, alongside sleeping, resting, and even breathing. These techniques are at once social, biological, and psychological in form and effect. They persist over the course of time because of their perceived effectiveness and because they are either explicitly or implicitly transmitted from one generation to the next (Mauss 1973, p. 74–75). Importantly, techniques of the body manifest in individual behaviors that appear to be natural, but that are ultimately the product of social processes of upbringing, mimicry, and evaluation.

The notion of techniques of the body as a set of socially learned and physically performed practices has been deployed and developed across a range of different empirical and theoretical contexts since its first elaboration by Mauss in the mid-1930s. It is echoed, for instance, in the concept of habitus, which Pierre Bourdieu defines as “the permanent internalization of the social order in the human body” (1984, p. 170). In Bourdieu’s formulation, habitus arises from the interplay between individual agency and social structure. It is shaped in a largely unconscious way by past events and structures that in turn shape current practices and structures and our perceptions of them. Michel Foucault (1978; 2008), meanwhile, examines how social norms and governance become truly effective only when they are physically embodied and enacted by populations whose bodies become malleable objects for the exercise of disciplinary power, or “biopower.” Such practices of “discipline” operate by inscribing seemingly abstract constellations and discourses of power upon the material and subjective corporeality of populations through such techniques as hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and covert surveillance (Foucault 1979). More recently, Thomas Csordas (1990) and others have explored the body as the primary and active locus through which we experience the world and our place within it. Attending to the body through processes of embodiment foregrounds the sensory modalities, social interactions, and meaning constructions that produce relational intercorporealities (1990, p. 21). In doing so, embodiment reveals the body to be at once individually subjective and profoundly mediated by our interactions with other human and non-human bodies (1999, p. 5). Central to these and other theories is the idea that bodily behaviors are learned and developed socially, to the point that they are largely taken for granted – until, that is, a pandemic hits.

Awareness and transformation

COVID-19 has prompted a renewed awareness of how we use our bodies under “normal” circumstances. For instance, some of us have noticed when and how often we wash our hands or touch our faces. We become conscious of the everyday tactile contact we make with human others. The close ones we embrace or kiss, or the colleagues and peers we shake hands with. The cashiers who package our groceries for us at the supermarket, or the staff members who help us pick out items in the shops. The way we try out each other’s food and drinks at restaurants and bars during social gatherings. At the same time, the zoonotic origins of COVID-19 have made us cognizant of our consequential and fleshly entanglements with non-human others at a global scale, both direct and indirect – with pangolins, bats, and of course, the virus itself. The viralscape thus reveals in powerful ways the lethal permeability of our seemingly bounded bodies. It teaches us, in Anibal Arregui’s words, that “our bodies are, inevitably, the bodies of others” – both human and non-human.

Beyond awareness, COVID-19 is also demanding that we change our bodily behaviors in what Elizabeth Behnke calls the tacit “choreography” of everyday life, or the routine kinaesthetic patterns that we experience from within and observe from outside (1997, p. 181). Such patterns may be dictated by government regulations and policies of social distancing, such as the 1.5-meter rule or the two-person limit on home guests in Australia, violation of which incurs fines and penalties. In other cases, changes in individual behavior are encouraged in the form of informal advice, catchy or humorous slogans, and gentle recommendations pertaining to personal hygiene, such as sterilizing one’s phone regularly, taking a shower after coming home from work, or singing a song to accompany the twenty-second handwashing routine. Often, formal and informal changes in behavior are mutually reinforcing. Both frame the reconfiguration of bodily techniques as part of an individual and collective process of responsibilization (Rose 1992) – one that can keep us and others safe in the midst of the growing global pandemic.

Bodily techniques in the Covidscape often prompt and are prompted by the slightest of micro-movements: how we stand, breathe, look, touch, retreat, advance, or otherwise adjust our bodies to those of people in our proximity (Behnke 1997, pp. 181–82). They entail both transforming existing techniques and learning new ones. For instance, instructional videos on the internet teach us the correct sequence of steps involved in washing our hands properly. We learn to keep a suitable distance from others in public places, which sometimes requires stopping, taking another path, or crossing the pavement. We start to wear masks and use hand sanitizer. Comprehensive lists inform us of hygienic measures to take when we come home, like showering, changing clothes, and disinfecting keys and wallets.

We also begin to keep track of and limit what we touch – other people, elevator buttons, our own face. Some of us might use our knees, feet, elbows and knuckles instead of our fingertips in mundane activities – for instance, to tap out a PIN code, make a selection on a digital screen, push open a door, or flip on a light switch. We learn how to cough and sneeze in our elbows rather than hands or try to avoid doing so entirely when in the public gaze. These hygienic practices are all part of a particular set of bodily techniques that Marcel Mauss called “care of the body,” or prescribed, everyday physical acts that serve to maintain the well-being of individuals and to affirm their belonging within broader social communities (1973, p. 84).

Many of us are also attuning to virtual techniques of the body that manifest during increasingly common online conferences and calls. We may notice, for instance, that our sense of interpersonal connection and our attention span differs in a Zoom session because we look at the screen and therefore don’t make eye-contact with our interlocutors. Our discussions and body language change when we permanently see our own faces on the computer screen. The reluctance to pick up a conversation with any one particular participant when we know everyone else can hear leads to awkward silence. Meanwhile, parallel conversations, both public and private, unfold in the Zoom chatroom. Varying sound quality, background noise, mutual interruptions, and silence become more noticeable and disruptive to our chains of thought during online conferences. The absence of face-to-face presence (and accountability) leads to distraction and more-or-less detectable multi-tasking. It demands more energy and concentration of us, which eventually leads to the newly coined folk pathology of “Zoom fatigue,” an emergent and characteristic experience of dis-ease in COVID-19 times. And finally, let’s not forget that strange sense of disembodiment and solitude that hits when a three-hour call with dozens or hundreds of participants suddenly ends, and we are left singularly alone – even though we were never technically with any “body” in the first place.

Judgment and failure

The ways we adapt our bodily techniques in the COVID-19 pandemic also shapes the way our behavior is interpreted by others. In some contexts, maintaining “normal” bodily behavior is seen in a positive light because it seems to suggest sustained social intimacy despite the pandemic conditions. This is often the case with close friends or family members, whom we might continue to kiss or hug, rather than adopt the Wuhan-shake with. In other less amicable instances, the body itself is weaponized or deployed as an instrument of resistance, empowerment, and offence – think of the dozen or so policemen in Australia who have been spat or coughed on while patrolling public spaces to monitor social distancing, or the demonstrators symbolically reclaiming their bodies and bodily rights in anti-isolation protests in the United States.

On the other hand, violating requisite bodily comportments can lead to criticism and dobbing, which again speaks to the ethos of “responsibilization” that Nikolas Rose (1992) identifies as the primary valued trait of persons in contemporary neoliberal societies and one that resurfaces in vivid ways in COVID-19 times. In such times, the “enterprising self” becomes one who responsibly chooses to guard their body from others and vice versa in a reflexive and conscious exercise of self-mastery (1992, p. 149) – or, in pandemic parlance, one who faithfully abides by, and promotes, the famous hashtag-turned-motto #Staythefuckhome. Conversely, the failure to adapt the body to pandemic conditions may not just be assessed as strange or abnormal, but rather as irresponsible, dangerous, or selfish. But most often, failing to adopt pandemic-appropriate comportment, or what might be called committing “COVID-19 faux-pas” (literal ones included), results in more or less visible discomfort, embarrassment, or annoyance on the part of those around us. People may feel uncomfortable asking us to take some distance or moving themselves further away to signal that such distance is needed, because although it is necessary, it feels unnatural and potentially rude. These particular techniques of the body are not part of our habitual social enculturation, yet we must learn to accept and practice them.

I have witnessed several such awkward situations over the last few weeks. In malls, forest trails, and supermarkets, for instance, paths or corridors are sometimes too narrow for two people to cross them at the same time. Often, there would be an awkward pause, a shared hesitation, and tentative eye-contact. Both parties would move away at the same time, but in the same direction. Eventually, one person would change the aisle, cross the road, or wait for the other to cross. Our incapacity to read each other’s bodies and adequately deploy our own would sometimes lead to a shared smile, laugh, or understanding headshake. In other cases, we were left feeling a bit embarrassed and doubtful as to whether we had done the right thing. Take a recent interaction at my local shopping center. Two young Asian girls were walking ahead of me and accidentally dropped two of their grocery items. My own hands being free, I immediately and unconsciously picked up the goods and handed them over to them, only to realize that this might not have been the proper thing to do, given COVID-19 times. I apologized light-heartedly, “I probably shouldn’t have done that, should I? But I assure you I’m not sick!” The young girls thanked me and laughed, but then looked embarrassed themselves, and immediately added, “We’re not sick either, we promise! We’ve been distancing too.” As I walked away from the encounter, I was left with mixed feelings. Was my act of civility a mistake? In indirectly bringing up the pandemic, had I unwittingly forced the young girls to clarify their own state of health and precautionary measures? Were our mutual assurances of good health purely symbolic? Given the viral incubation period of two weeks, and the fact that fifty percent of COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic, did any of us really know if we carried the virus in and within our bodies? 

In these and many other instances, people are having to figure out and learn what techniques of the body to deploy in different places and circumstances – the mall, supermarket, park, or bushland. Health is the primary motive for these bodily behaviors, but the ways in which these behaviors are assessed by others matters too. In the world of COVID-19, individual bodies must be cut off from the social body in order to maintain public health. In this world, to not touch is to care (cf. Puig de la Bellacasa 2017). And yet many of us struggle to remain “tactful” without touch – to develop new skills, sensitivities, and discernment in our actions and conduct, and to find a balance between maintaining social civility and sustaining collective health.

Vulnerability and privilege

Finally, it is important to remember that even if we know what bodily techniques we should adopt, for many people, actually putting this into practice can be difficult, dangerous, and sometimes impossible. African American men in New York City, for instance, have expressed concerns that following the CDC advice to cover their faces could expose them to harassment from the police and entrench racial stigma. Physical distancing is quasi-impossible for residents of the already over-populated slums of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Strict quarantine measures in India have caused migrant workers to have to walk hundreds of miles home in groups of hundreds and thousands, and face the very real possibility of starvation. Migrants and refugees find their hopes for safe asylum dashed as borders are locked, search and rescue missions abandoned, and ports closed indefinitely.

The danger of equating “staying home” with “staying safe” comes to stark light in contexts of domestic violence and abuse, where the home is a place of danger rather than comfort. Meanwhile, many homeless people simply have no home to seek shelter in. COVID-19 corporealities are also deeply racialized, as the many instances of discriminatory treatment against Asian populations starkly demonstrate. Racialized bodies are not only often perceived as inherently threatening disease-carriers – they are also attacked by means of the body itself, as exemplified by the many and growing instances of Chinese people being spat on, yelled at, and physically abused.

Such experiences of uneven bodily privilege and vulnerability challenge the prevalent motto encouraging responsible social and physical distancing: “We are all in this together.” In one sense, reconfigured techniques of the body speak to the fact that COVID-19 has indeed become what Irving Goffman (1974) might call the shared “frame” of our everyday micro-social interactions, or the collective reality that allows people to make sense of everyday objects, behaviors, and events. But even as we inhabit a shared COVID-19 culture and the virus itself might not discriminate, reading this shared culture through peoples’ physical practices and exposures highlights the unequal distribution of threat and protection afforded to different human bodies and communities within the global world system (see Guterres 2020; Manderson and Levine 2020). Such attention reveals that we are also decidedly not all in this together. Competing frames of reference profoundly shape situated communities’ vulnerability to both viral and racial forms of exposure and threat.

Health, Harm, Habitus

Mauss’ insights into the ways we learn to use our bodies remain useful to think within the context of the COVID-19 climate. This climate is not just making us more aware of habitual bodily comportments – it is making us have to adapt to new ones, quickly and responsibly. Reconfigured bodily techniques in the Covidscape thus speak to necessity of articulating a different relationship to the world and to others within it. Such transformations (or their absence) are in turn subject to different social assessments. What was once “normal” behaviour can be re-classified as strange or reckless. The weight of these assessments are both heightened and undermined by the fact that COVID-19 is not just around us but may very well already be inside us. Even if we do not experience the early symptoms of tiredness, fever, and dry cough, we cannot know for sure that the virus is not already acting upon us through our respiratory and cardiovascular systems, alongside other sensorially and phenomenologically inaccessible organic realms, or what Drew Leder (1990) calls our “recessive body.”

Akin to Jacques Derrida’s (1981) pharmakon, the body in COVID-19 times thus reveals itself both an instrument for the protection of self and others and the very site of dangerous exposures. In adapting our bodies to pre-empt viral proliferation, we are also in many ways embodying the pandemic itself (cf. Biehl and Moran-Thomas 2009).At the same time, bodies in COVID-19 times continue to act as potent sites where social relations are constantly being made, remade, and negotiated, or what Foucault might term “dense transfer points of power” (1978, p. 103; see also Stewart 2007, p. 5). In this context, changing our techniques of the body is as much about avoiding being infected as it is about avoiding transmission. As with every form of enculturation, re-educating our bodies in contextually appropriate ways is a learning process – one that encompasses both individual actions and decisions, and the ways they are socially assessed and evaluated. This learning process is central to our emergent socialization as situated inhabitants of a COVID-19 culture – a process that, to torque Mauss’ words, involves finding ways to continue living in common, albeit not in contact.

COVID-19 corporealities, both fleshly and virtual, reveal the conjoined articulation of the social, biological, and psychological in our bodily movements and expressions. At the same time, they depart from Mauss’ analysis in several important respects. First, these techniques are not primarily learned through imitation or education. There are no previous models, events, or structures that we can draw from in learning these techniques – nor are they the object of intergenerational cultural transmission. Rather, techniques of the body in the Covidscape are often new, contextual, shifting, and improvised. Their efficacy, too, remains subject to debate. There is only so much we can do as individuals and individual bodies in countering the rise and spread of pandemics, COVID-19 or other.

The interplay of bodies in COVID-19 times in turn raises speculative questions about what everyday life will feel like in the aftermath of the pandemic – what bodily techniques will continue, for instance, which will be abandoned, and with what biological, social, and psychological consequences. Such questions are all the more important given the uncertainty over when (and whether) the pandemic will end. With the World Health Organization warning that the virus is likely to become embedded within certain human populations, COVID-19 and its attendant corporealities “may never go away”. The impact of COVID-19 on phenomenally experienced individual body-selves in turn brings into the picture the other kinds of bodies these selves are entangled with – the non-human bodies of animals and viruses, but also the body politic of democracy at national, regional, and international scales (cf. Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987). As highlighted in a recent speech by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the pandemic is already being instrumentalized by governments to justify the subjection of individual and collective fleshly bodies to increasingly repressive and invasive regimes of biopower – albeit in the name of health and well-being. Like so many other dimensions of the post-Covidscape, just how individual, social, and political bodies will come to co-constitute each other in the wake of the pandemic remains largely to be seen. These co-constitutions will manifest in political processes, worldly forces, and media representations. But they will also manifest in the minute and mundane practices of everyday life, through which macro-level processes and forces are at once experienced, embodied, and evaluated. 


Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. Her anthropological research explores the intersections of capitalism, ecology, indigeneity, and health in Southeast Asia. For more information, please visit Email:  T: @Sophie_MH_Chao

The feature image used for this article is part of a collage by Nathalie Karagiannis. Nathalie’s collages feature in a here as a part of the Living and Thinking Crisis project.


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One thought on “Health, Harm, Habitus: Techniques of the Body in COVID-19

  1. Pingback: Sydney University Historians Respond to the Pandemic – History Matters

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