An anthropologist explains how conspiracy theories and recent protests in the U.S. over COVID-19 vaccines can’t be untangled from American dreams of freedom and prosperity.

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Protestors gather outside Dodger Stadium, a mass vaccination site in Los Angeles, in January. Photo: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

By Elisa Sobo

On January 30, protesters disrupted a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, a city hard-hit by the pandemic. Around 50 picketers attempted to pass out pamphlets and used bullhorns to share messages such as “You’re a lab rat” with people trying to get vaccinated. “Save Your Soul TURN BACK NOW” read a sign featured in that evening’s Los Angeles Times reportage.

The intrusion put older people and others who qualified for vaccination based on their vulnerability to COVID-19 into proximity with unmasked and censorious demonstrators. …

Arranged marriages and love marriages are sometimes seen as cultural opposites, but it’s far more complicated. Anthropology shows how love and marriage are entwined in many different ways.

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Thousands of couples were wed in a mass ceremony in South Korea on February 7, 2020. Some of them had only met a few weeks earlier, after being matched by the Unification Church. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

By William Jankowiak and Alex Nelson

Love and marriage aren’t the same thing: Passionate love is a feeling, and marriage is a social contract. But over time and around the world, the two have been intertwined in fascinating ways — not always with romance coming first.

The concept of partnering up in some kind of marriage-like arrangement is virtually universal in human societies. But the notion that romantic love should direct such partnerships has not been a constant. …

News headlines suggest that the problems of 2020 were unprecedented, but the collision of a pandemic and racial violence is nothing new under imperialism.

A crowd of pro-BLM protesters holding signs as they march down Pennsylvania Avenue away from the Capitol building in Washington, DC.
A crowd of pro-BLM protesters holding signs as they march down Pennsylvania Avenue away from the Capitol building in Washington, DC.
Violence and disease have long been intertwined in the Americas. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

By Rick W.A. Smith

The world is caught in the grip of a deadly pandemic and yet another wave of sickness is hitting the Americas hard. At the same time, Black, Indigenous, migrant, and other historically marginalized peoples are facing disproportionate levels of disease and state-mediated violence.

It may seem like I am only writing about current events, but these could just as easily be the opening lines of a story about the 1918 flu pandemic and the Jim Crow era in the U.S. …

The ways in which Andean villagers have adapted to a neighboring volcano could offer lessons to other communities in reframing risks and responding to disasters.

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Tungurahua, an active volcano in Ecuador, sits amid farming communities that have dwelled alongside it for generations. Photo: A.J. Faas

By Amber Dance

As the Andes mountain range curves through Ecuador, it rises to the peak Tungurahua. The name comes from the Kichwa language, spoken by some of the Indigenous communities of Ecuador, and means “Throat of Fire,” which is fitting for a volcano that towers more than 5,000 meters into the sky. It’s been active over the past 20 years or so, resulting in spectacular displays of flying lava and ash.

But some residents of Penipe Canton, the territorial district that borders the volcano, give Tungurahua another name: abuela, Spanish for “grandmother.” They see the volcano as a familiar…

An anthropologist — and identical twin — grapples with different cultural understandings of twinship.

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Identical twins Stephen and Peter Nash, pictured here as babies. Courtesy of Stephen Nash

By Stephen E. Nash

I have a clone.

He’s an identical twin brother, really. But as monozygotic twins derived from one fertilized egg, we share the exact same genome.

Since birth, we have been engaged in an inadvertent experiment to test whether nature (genetics) or nurture (culture) is more important in an individual’s development. As with any dichotomy, the reality lies not in the extremes but somewhere in the middle: Nature and nurture are important to an individual’s development.

That said, if nature were the more important force, we’d expect identical twins to be really similar people — physically, socially…

When public health protocols disrupt normal funeral and mourning practices, such as in Cameroon, alternative approaches need to be engaged to keep people safe while respecting the dead and their loved ones.

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Bamileke community members typically mourn the deaths of loved ones through drumming, singing, and other collective rituals. Photo: Bobyphoto via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

By Ivo Ngade

A few months into the pandemic, a friend from Cameroon, where I’m from, sent me a video of a news clip. The video starts with shaky footage of a small crowd of people yelling and running out of a drab building onto a city street. They’re carrying what appears to be a human body.

A voiceover in French explains that the body, wrapped in white cloth and carried on a green mattress, belongs to a man in his 70s named Nyamsi Maurice, who died after several days in the hospital. …

As Americans stand on the footbridge to the future, an anthropologist advises people to take a deep breath, seek wisdom from their elders, and be patient for cultural change.

A person, seen from behind, standing on an open woven wooden bridge suspended over a river.
A person, seen from behind, standing on an open woven wooden bridge suspended over a river.
Photo: Jondave Libiran via Pexels

By Paul Stoller

The Sufi mystics like to tell a story about an old man crossing a rickety footbridge that spans a deep gorge. When he reaches the wind-whipped middle of the bridge, he looks down and is filled with anxiety and fear. Behind him is his known and comfortable past. In front of him lies an uncertain future. Should he go back to what is familiar or move forward toward the unknown? Gradually, his fear dissipates, and he realizes that in order to continue on his journey he must cross the bridge.

In the United States, we have also…

Some people are wary of or may refuse vaccines. Social scientists are part of a movement to encourage self-empowerment to end the current pandemic.

Close up of doctor preparing injection for vaccination in clinic.
Close up of doctor preparing injection for vaccination in clinic.
Photo: Luis Alvarez/DigitalVision/Getty Images

By Emily Brunson and Monica Schoch-Spana

Now is a pressing time for vaccinating the U.S. population (and the world) against COVID-19. But there are social hurdles that need to be addressed.

As of this writing, more than 380,000 people have died from SARS-CoV-2 in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, more than 92 million people have been infected, and while many of these individuals have recovered completely, some are experiencing long-term health problems.

In combination with this, millions in the U.S. and around the world have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, leading to economic insecurity and food and housing crises…

Sickness is not just biological­­ — it’s social. That’s why social science should be central to controlling and preventing diseases.

Scientists working in a medical tent.
Scientists working in a medical tent.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

By Robert A. Hahn

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as the primary agency in the United States that monitors, predicts, and responds to chronic disease, injury, outbreaks, and pandemics, should have social science at its heart. It does not. Despite decades of trying to get the agency to take the social sciences more seriously, and some movement on its part, insights from anthropology, along with other social sciences, have yet to penetrate the soul of the CDC.

I am a medical anthropologist and epidemiologist. I first started working with the CDC back in 1986 and stayed with…

The SAPIENS editors review the year’s events with anthropology in mind.

A crowd of overlapping people of different skin tones wearing N-95-style face masks. Illustration.
A crowd of overlapping people of different skin tones wearing N-95-style face masks. Illustration.
Credit: Ada daSilva/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

By Nicola Jones

The Coronavirus Pandemic

2020 will be remembered as the year that COVID-19 swept the globe. This highly contagious virus moves from person to person, so its spread depends on human behavior. When and why we gather, and how often we wash our hands or wear masks can all make a difference. Social scientists have created virtual networks to apply their knowledge of human behavior to aid public health efforts.

The virus has clearly affected some groups more than others; tracking these outcomes has illuminated disparities in suffering. Anthropologists have helped untangle how racism — not race — is a factor…


SAPIENS is a digital magazine about the human world.

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