Life and liminality during COVID-19: an ethnography of pandemic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus pandemic on 11 March 2020. Since then, COVID-19 has caused taken-for-granted structures of life to be suspended worldwide. Viral containment measures such as quarantines, isolation, and distancing have disrupted social relations and public discourses of stigma, danger, fear, and loss have exacerbated existing social divides. Ethnographers have been urged to study the social complexities of the pandemic (Bear et al 2020; Higgins et al 2020; Napier 2020; Pillay 2021). However, travel bans, institutional restrictions on face-to-face research, the difficulty of making plans to study an unfolding crisis and the relatively recent emergence of the coronavirus phenomenon mean that accounts of the pandemic’s social dynamics that involve extensive ethnographic engagement are relatively few. This study will add to these accounts by producing an ethnography of pandemic in an urban neighbourhood in Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam. The project is informed by ethnographic observations (Tough 2021b) from earlier fieldwork when Vietnam’s coronavirus case rates, long among the lowest in the world (Dong, Du and Gardner 2020, 533-534), rose rapidly, bringing widespread social disruption.

Liminality is characterised in the anthropological literature as the quality of ambiguity and disorientation and also by the rites and rituals of separation and re-incorporation that begin and end a liminal period (Turner [1969] 2008). As an anthropological concept liminality has been noted for its “…capacity to provide explanatory and interpretative accounts of seemingly unstructured situations” (Horvath et al 2015: 3). By applying the concept of liminality to analyse data from my study of social life during the COVID-19 crisis, this research will contribute to developing conceptual and analytical tools for understanding and engaging with reality in the COVID-19 era, as called for by Soto Bermant and Ssorin-Chaikov (2020). The scale or intensity of a liminal moment or period is an important variable. In this study, following Horvath et al (2015: 50), I delineate the COVID-19 period as one of ‘pure liminality’ - a liminal experience intensified “…as the personal, group and societal levels converge in liminality, over extended periods of time or even within several spatial entities”. Timely social analysis must address the unpredictable, so I will employ participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and life histories in a flexible way to account for the implementation of any fresh social distancing measures, potentially generating methodological insights into conducting rapid response anthropology. Responding to an appeal from Jarvis (2021) for studies relating to constructed temporalities of COVID-19 beyond UK political discourse, the enquiry will also analyse political speeches, statements, and public information materials emanating from the Vietnamese government during the liminal period of pandemic using discourse analysis.
Original languageEnglish
TypePhD Confirmation Paper
Number of pages27
Publication statusUnpublished - 2021


  • Vietnam
  • COVID-19
  • Ethnography
  • Liminality

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