1st Edition

Masking in Pandemic U.S. Beliefs and Practices of Containment and Connection

By Urmila Mohan Copyright 2023
    138 Pages 18 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    138 Pages 18 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This anthropological study explores the beliefs and practices that emerged around masking in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans responded to this illness as unique subjects navigating the flux of social and corporeal boundaries, supporting certain beliefs and acting to shape them as compelling realities. Debates over health and safety mandates indicated that responses were fractured with varied subjectivities in play—people lived in different worlds and bodies were central in conflicts over breathing, masking and social distancing. Contrasting approaches to practices marked the limits and possibilities of imaginaries, signaling differences and similarities between groups, and how actions could be passageways between people and possibilities. During a time of uncertainty and loss, the "efficacious intimacy" of bodies and materials embedded beliefs, values, and emotions of care in mask sewing and usage. By exploring these practices, the author reflects on how American subjects became relational selves and sustained response-able communities, helping people protect each other from mutating viruses as well as moving forward in a shifting terrain of intimacy and distance, connection, and containment.

    Introduction: Imaginaries, embodiment and the U.S. Covidscape; 1 Practices of containment and connection; 2 Sewing cloth masks and making do with uncertainty; 3 Performing care and worldmaking; 4 Response-ability and transformation of religious subjects; 5 Conclusion: Imaginaries of masking and unmasking


    Urmila Mohan is an anthropologist of material culture and religion with a focus on bodily practices. She is associated with the Matière à Penser group, is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University College London, UK, and is the founder/editor of the open-access digital journal The Jugaad Project. She has researched and theorized materiality, praxis, and aesthetics in diverse contexts including religious communities and maker groups in India, Indonesia, and the U.S.

    "Only two years after the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic, Urmila Mohan produces a compelling account of the emotional, religious and subjective implications of this event. She investigates facial masks as micro-technologies of the self, revealing their imaginary dimension in sewing and making do geared to care, labor, religious practice, activism, loss, intimacy, boundaries. Bodies and materials in motion provide the rationale for a rich and striking iconography, expanding the scope of description and analysis of a crisis that is still unfolding."

    Jean-Pierre Warnier, Professor of Anthropology (retired), University Paris-Descartes, France

    "In this well written and exquisitely illustrated book on masks in motion, Urmila Mohan offers fascinating layers of insights into how people sew and use masks, and how the imperative to mask under the COVID-19 pandemic unmasked a myriad of vulnerabilities, tensions and cracks in the delicate and sensitive body of American society and politics."

    Francis B. Nyamnjoh, Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town, South Africa