A common statement we hear in the media these days argues that after the coronavirus pandemic things will not be the same. While conditions always change, and we have experienced the most rapid change in human history since World War II, it is unlikely we will all be living in caves in 2021. As someone who has lived through two pandemics already (polio and AIDS), I think we will adapt and largely return to familiar patterns. I am not arguing that we are all creatures of habit in a behaviorist sense, but that cultural patterns do present a degree of sensibility and comfort.
I can recall the fear of polio from my childhood and the images of children in the “iron lungs” that allowed them to survive the disease. The disease caused a break in school, in the habit of work and going to church and movies, yet we did return to what had been familiar. The AIDS epidemic, in contrast, brought to light problems of homophobia and racism that needed change. At the same time, I will never forget, as I see now, the dedication of medical staff facing an unknown disease.
Another social crisis confronts us: racism and violence against our fellow citizens. Can the United States overcome the disasters it now faces?
As Joseph A. Tainter concluded in his definitive book on the subject of social disaster, The Collapse of Complex Societies, even the most unstable of complex social systems usually require several substantial challenges for major change to take place. Michael Dols argues in his book The Black Death in the Middle East that the combination of the Mongol conquests and the Bubonic Plague disorganized the Islamic society of the time. Continuity is balanced with the need for change, and human society responds in creative ways to such threats.
Societal institutions, organized to create stability and renewal, usually possess substantial resilience. Disintegration and catastrophic failure is rare in history. Rather, institutions are continued, even by conquerors. The persistence of the Khmer civilization is just one example. We also have to realize that colonialism created barriers across generations, smashing societies and exterminating civilizations and languages. It destroyed culture, libraries, and great cities. Colonizers then tried to convince those they conquered that their rule was justified. To embark on the dismantlement of the colonial enterprise is a challenge, but it is one worth accepting.
We face a significant challenge with both the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it is creating, though structural conditions are producing disproportionate suffering on minority populations and the poor. We see Indigenous peoples from the Navajo Nation to the Yanomami hit particularly hard because of failed economic assistance and racism. This should put a focus on long overdue structural changes and programs to reduce inequality.
Yet overall we are undergoing the type of containment and adaptation that is the usual response of developed social systems. Our institutions are working to balance stress on many levels, especially economic stress. From China to Sweden to Kenya, families and communities are undergoing elastic reintegration and as the economic sphere accumulates momentum, people will find profitable things to do in many ways as they did before.
Ralph Linton found that in the short term, most innovations result in increased inequality, destabilization, and conflict. How new technology is used and how its effects are structured are the essential components that need to be addressed. While we often are dazzled by the fetish of the new, of disruption and technological spectacle, the hum of the hive and regularity beckon, and a return of habit will resume. No return will be normal, however, nor relationships, as they were. Perhaps the combination of COVID-19 and these enduring protests will bring lasting social change
Niccolo Caldararo is a professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University.
Cite as: Caldararo, Niccolo. 2020. “The Hum of the Hive.” Anthropology News website, September 10, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1482