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Conversations about departmental responses to COVID-19 raise more than questions about the future of anthropology. We must ask fundamental questions about the purpose of higher education.

The upheavals of the COVID epidemic touched every part of society, academic departments included. Interested in the particularity of the problems faced by those in our own field of anthropology during the pandemic, and also the measures taken (or not taken), we embarked upon a small-scale research endeavor in spring 2021.

Reaching out to 10 colleagues working in anthropology departments in public and private universities in the United States and the United Kingdom, we engaged in conversations organized around four key questions: 1) What provisions has your department taken for faculty, adjunct faculty, and graduate students to help weather the uncertainty of the moment? And how has the emotional and additional labor for this been allocated? 2) How has the disproportionate economic and health burden of COVID on BIPOC students and faculty (in intersection with gender and class) been handled by your department? 3) Have academic goals and requirements changed during COVID? And (how) is your department preparing graduate students for a plurality of careers? and 4) Are undergraduate enrollments or majors decreasing? How does your department balance graduate and undergraduate priorities? And what do you see as the future of anthropology at your own university and beyond?

As we move further beyond the onset of the pandemic but still in the wake of the precarity it launched, we hope that some of the support systems that developed as emergency COVID responses be made permanent while the systems of domination on our campuses that became visible to more of us during the pandemic be addressed.  

COVID responses are uneven, and so is its emotional labor

Our respondents pointed out the uneven, improvised nature of many departmental and university-wide COVID responses. Given the (in some ways) unprecedented nature of this pandemic, this finding is hardly surprising. Yet departments with strong research foci and ties to communities that had weathered pandemics in the past (like the AIDS crisis) and with strong analyses of anticolonial activism, mutual aid and labor, and Black critical theory were better able to foresee the length and breadth of the COVID pandemic’s effects on students and faculty. In many places, this knowledge was held in equal parts by faculty and graduate students. At New York University, for example, an already-organized student union took a seemingly radical step of treating the COVID pandemic as an opportunity to agitate for—and win—greater protections for students. This line of reasoning was in keeping with what many of those we interviewed contended: that the pandemic exacerbated and laid bare already existing inequalities.

Two larger structural issues mitigated against acting on this foresight, however. First, graduate student teachers and adjunct faculty often became the first to register student distress and were ill-equipped by their universities to respond adequately. The uneven distribution of the emotional labor done to soften the pandemic’s effects was felt acutely over the past few years, and several respondents pointed particularly to the gendered, raced, and hierarchical nature of that labor.

Second, the transition to online teaching experienced differently across the teaching ranks. Tenured and tenure-track faculty, contingent faculty, and graduate students had to pivot extremely quickly to online teaching. Graduate students and contingent faculty often lacked the salaried and securitized margins that tenured faculty often had, though across faculty ranks women and especially women of color experienced uneven burdens of care for their students.

Such overloads extend beyond the classroom to the child and eldercare responsibilities that continue to be held by faculty members, disproportionately by women. It is not uncommon among female faculty members to speak of their male colleagues’ “COVID book projects,” while their female counterparts are often asked and take on additional duties of supporting students in office hours, after and during classes, and otherwise.  We would also like to note that both male and senior faculty also reported feeling the strain of these burdens of care at home and the workplace that cascaded during the pandemic. As Rebecca Herzig and Banu Subramaniam argue, “care” has become a calling card of the pandemic university, and it is a form of labor at once ubiquitous and made invisible.

Doubtless, the message of the caring university, designed to lure students back to campus, effects the expectations that students have of campus teachers, administrators, cooks, and custodians. As one tenured faculty member in at an R-1 university related, for the first time in her decades-long career, she was criticized in her 2022 evaluations for “not being loving enough.” Though this may be one piece of anecdotal evidence, it fits within a pattern of elevating care as a part of academic labor while at the same time obscuring the emotional and physical effort it takes to care.

Recruiting diverse graduate students and faculty means reckoning with economic precarity

Over the course of the pandemic, the relationship between increasing diversity among graduate students and economic precarity became increasingly clear. During 2020 and 2021, most universities we covered put into place relief measures to support graduate students. These efforts failed to account for the extended households that graduate students—especially first-generation graduate students and some graduate students of color—are often a part of, where their role is as much breadwinner as it is cloistered apprentice.

As the COVID pandemic wore on, the image of an ideal-typical graduate student began to change on many campuses, as administrators and faculty realized that students could no longer be thought of as temporary precariat, “able to survive on ramen and rice and beans” in sacrifice to their scholarly calling, as one of our respondents archly commented. Instead, a picture began to emerge of graduate students as workers, breadwinners, and sources of economic stability for extended families. For many of our interviewees, moving forward after the extremities of the COVID university means continuing to recognize this reality by making permanent some of the structural supports in terms of housing, wages, and healthcare, initiated during the pandemic.

Changes to tenure requirements should not be forgotten

Our interview partners also emphasized the various measures put in place to extend time to tenure review and qualifications for tenure among junior faculty on the one hand, and the time to graduation and the nature of dissertations in anthropology for PhD candidates on the other. Most departments in our survey quickly moved to extend tenure clocks and find bridge funding for graduate students who had to delay their fieldwork. Our respondents noted that these changes threaten to be reversed or simply forgotten beneath a return to academic life as business as usual. While extending time was a good immediate tactic, the larger issues of the kind of work graduate students and junior faculty now do, and how to evaluate that work, clearly remain.

In keeping with several long-standing trends emergent in ethnography around the imperfect, the embodied, and the relational, anthropology departments should recognize the value of patchwork ethnographies, radical care, and the histories of feminist and decolonizing practices that center ethnography in the body and in relationality. These trends are not just scholarly: the way our students will be evaluated, what work will “count” as good (or good enough) ethnography, and how these evaluations will affect livelihoods for graduates and junior faculty are at stake in how the COVID pandemic is remembered or forgotten by hiring, promotion and tenure, and graduate dissertation committees. Our respondents raised a warning about the effects of COVID on research over the next seven years and beyond, with several pointing out the need for departments to resist comparing the output of those with significant care duties or health concerns to those who used the COVID closures to accelerate their research output. How to enact these necessary changes remains underdiscussed within the discipline.

The future of anthropology, again

Threading through these themes are questions about the past and the future of the discipline of anthropology. Anthropology has continued to reckon with its whiteness and its colonial legacies, and the COVID pandemic might be part of this ongoing process of opening anthropology and the social sciences more generally to critique. Each nominal crisis, from pandemic to climate change, seems to produce significant handwringing about what the future of anthropology, might, should, or could be. Our respondents shared some attempts to think through this problem at a practical level. For instance, in some departments, leadership was already encouraging what they termed an “open” approach to the discipline, where anthropological tools are taught toward a number of different ends, and a career as an academic anthropologist is accordingly deemphasized. In other departments, leadership continues to focus on attracting undergraduates to the discipline through its connections with the fields of medicine and digital technologies. For some of our interview partners, these pragmatic developments need to be brought into conversation with a larger and ongoing historical critique of the disciplines in general, which includes, but is not reducible to, anthropology and its future. 

In other words, the crisis of anthropology (yet again) might itself be a sign of a failure of the discipline to move beyond its myopic focus on its own futures, even when those futures are expressed as a desire to jettison the discipline altogether. The almost obsessive concern with anthropology-in-crisis can sever connections between the discipline and the larger field of power within which it operates, cutting off critique prematurely and directing critical attention away from these larger stories. Crisis talk sometimes serves the purpose of reinvention that leaves existing power structures in place. One rather ironic effect of the constant reevaluation of anthropology’s future is that the discipline becomes increasingly US-focused, drawing its analysis of crisis and prognosticative powers from the North American academy. But discussions about the COVID university and the future of education more broadly are widespread, and there is much to learn from what the members of the Sri Lankan collective Kuppi talk call “embracing the margins.” Rather than revisiting an anthropology in crisis and ruminating on the crisis of anthropology, a more productive way forward might be encouraging critique beyond the existance of the discipline and toward more fundamental questions of what a university education currently is and what it could be.

Authors’ note: We would like to acknowledge our interlocutors for their time. They took more than a few moments to reflect with us during the heat of rethinking their programs, this discipline, their responses, and our responsibilities. For their candid reflections in media res, we are grateful.


Sareeta Amrute

Sareeta Amrute is associate professor of strategic design at Parsons, The New School. Trained as an anthropologist, Sareeta focuses on the relationship between digital technologies, formations of capitalism, and legacies of race, caste, and class. Her first book, Encoding Race, Encoding Class, published by Duke University Press, is an ethnographic study of Indian IT workers living in Berlin. It was the winner of the Diana Forsythe Prize in Anthropology and the International Convention of Asian Studies Book Prize.

Anne Allison

Anne Allison is professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University. She works on contemporary social issues in Japan, ranging from nightlife, labor, and popular culture to Pokémon, capitalism, and precarity. Her recent book, Being Dead Otherwise, takes on new death practices in an era of downsizing sociality in Japan.

Cite as

Amrute, Sareeta and Anne Allison. 2023. “The Response to Pandemic Precarity.” Anthropology News website, March 31, 2023.