Invisible Agents

Publié comme: Dousset, Laurent 2022. « Invisible Agents. Framework for a Comparative Approach to Fundamental Uncertainty », Revue des sciences sociales, 67 : 26-33.

Agents invisibles. Pour une approche comparative des incertitudes fondamentales

Résumé: Fondé sur des travaux antérieurs sur l’incertitude en tant qu’outil heuristique, cet article souhaite étendre le cadre théorique et empirique pour inclure l’analyse des agents intangibles. La certitude, qui n’est jamais absolue, est néanmoins une nécessité sociale car elle permet l’anticipation, et donc l’interaction. Elle est fondée sur des régimes de vérité spécifiques. Dans les situations d’incertitude, cependant, les institutions sociales qui auraient dû fournir la capacité à l’anticipation sont considérées comme incomplètes ou inefficaces par les acteurs eux-mêmes. De telles situations peuvent conduire à une reconfiguration des valeurs sociales et des épistémès. Cet article montre que, dans les cas où des agents intangibles sont impliqués, les principes d’appartenance sociale sont fragilisés, conduisant souvent au fractionnement sociopolitique et au rejet des régimes de vérité dominants.

Mots-clés : incertitude, appartenance, épistèmes, sorcellerie, COVID-19

Abstract: Based on previous work on uncertainty as a heuristic tool, this paper aims to extend the theoretical and empirical framework to include the analysis of intangible agents. Certainty, which is never absolute, is nevertheless a social necessity because it allows for anticipation, and thus social interaction. It is founded on specific regimes of truth. In situations of uncertainty, however, the social institutions that should have provided the capacity for anticipation are considered incomplete or inefficient by actors themselves. Such situations may lead to a reconfiguration of social values and epistemes. This paper shows that, in those cases in which intangible agents are involved, the principles of social belonging are made fragile, which often leads to socio-political fragmentation and the rejection of dominant regimes of truth.

Keywords: uncertainty, belonging, epistemes, sorcery, COVID-19

Invisible Agents: Framework for a comparative approach to fundamental uncertainty

Laurent Dousset

During work with Australian and Island Melanesian societies, I was confronted with situations, some dramatic, others more ordinary, which raised my interest in the relationship between certainty and uncertainty both as social processes and as heuristic devices[1]. Indeed, under certain conditions certainty is an expression of trust that produces a form of truth. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is not precisely a synonym of untruth, even though it is the basis, again under certain conditions, for the emergence of mistrust and social fragmentation. Both certainty and uncertainty are intimately related to the dynamics of social belonging, and it is therefore relevant and useful to examine them to contribute to a more general understanding of social processes.

This paper is based on previous work on certainty, uncertainty and belonging (Dousset 2018, 2019). The aim here is to take things further and spell out a framework for comparative analyses of the relationship between “regimes of truth” and “social belonging” that might be applied to other sociohistorical contexts. Indeed, I have previously highlighted the possibility of distinguishing systemic from existential uncertainties to account for reproductive and transformative processes. However, that distinction appears to be of insufficient analytical value in cases where the proxy of uncertainty is intangible, such as when spirits, deities or indeed viruses feature among the suspected agents. It appears that in these situations, the elaboration of epistemes or “regimes of truth” (Foucault 1966, for example) is not only essential, as in all cases of uncertainty, but also the only means by which uncertainty can be resolved to produce environments of trust.

After reviewing some of the rudiments of an anthropology of uncertainty, this paper will analyse the rationales of belonging that exist in contexts where regimes of truth emerge or are confirmed. While predominantly based on ethnographic fieldwork undertaken in Australia and Island Melanesia, I will attempt to draw uncontrolled parallels with the European, and more specifically the COVID-19 situation. As we will see, efforts made by actors on the ground to resolve uncertainties with the aim of reconstituting a form of relative trust, proceed through a re-enactment or redefinition of the criteria and means of belonging. This is rather common in situations of uncertainty. More importantly however, when invisible agents are involved, processes of resolving uncertainty also take into consideration the alteration of the very principles — and not just of the constituents — of social acceptability. Indeed, as Boltanski has shown (2009), the means of resolving uncertainty lies in the consensual emergence of a shared moral order, of norms and of values. However, situations involving invisible agents reach further than this. They contribute either to the advent of contesting forms of social belonging, or to the emergence of a concern that the potential to belong should disappear altogether. Here, consensus favours discontent, resistance, division, and fragmentation. Before we can move into this terrain, I need to recall and clarify some elementary conceptual and empirical elements that underlie the anthropology of uncertainty that I aim to propose.

Theoretical and heuristic background: uncertainty, truth and social values

Some of the principles necessary to analyse situations of uncertainty are, from an anthropological or sociological perspective, widely known and accepted. Nevertheless, I feel they must be discussed here to make the argument fully understandable. A preliminary statement, more philosophical than anthropological in nature, is the mere postulate that there is no absolute truth and therefore also no objective certainty. Obviously, this postulate can only be considered valid if it is a dogma, since if it is deemed true, it would also constitute the only possible certainty, and therefore point to its intrinsic contradiction. In other words, expressed or experienced certainty is supported by the existence of contextual and temporary truth, with its specific history and legitimacy, that is, “regimes of truth” (Foucault 1984). At least since Karl Popper (1963), even the so-called hard sciences assume the principle that if you cannot potentially refute a theory, it is not worth considering it as such. The potential for truth to be invalidated is to some extent built into regimes of truth. The consequence of this preliminary statement is that truth, and therefore also certainty, are provisional constructs of their time: they are social objects. Moreover, truth embodies the possibility of its own disavowal.

From a sociological perspective, the existence of certainty, which as we have just seen is never absolute, is nevertheless an existential necessity, because truth and certainty enable anticipation, which is itself indispensable for social interaction. Language is among the most elementary examples: interlocutors need to be able to anticipate that there is some form of shared understanding of the elementary constituents of a language to be able to engage in communication. Sociality is grounded on the individual capacity to foresee a range of possible, or rather “acceptable” consequences of actions. In some contexts, greeting someone with a “Good morning,” and thereby also acknowledging the existence or presence of the other, is expected to receive a similar salute in return.

The anticipation-enabling capacity of certainty is here extrapolated from the idea of idéels (Godelier 1984, 2015: 30) – a term that has been poorly translated as “the mental” in the English versions of Godelier’s work. Idéel is not simply the mental, but rather designates the nature, the history and the material and immaterial relationality of ideas or social institutions, including the norms and values they carry. It is the anthropological counterpart of Foucault’s epistemes. Indeed, both concepts embrace what, in any given historical and sociocultural context, is qualifiable. The principal difference between the two is that particular social institutions may be considered to embody specific idéels with different historical trajectories, while an episteme is holistic as it encompasses and even explains a wide range of institutions at once. It may well be that this all-encompassing holistic nature of the episteme is what led Foucault to continually redefine and finally abandon the concept (i.e. Viltard 2006).

A simple example will illustrate the range of the concept of the idéel. Standing outside a bakery one can, with a high degree of certainty, confidence, or trust (let us use these as synonyms for the moment), anticipate that this is indeed the place where one will be able buy bread. Idéel summarizes the fact that this anticipation is possible without having to reconstruct and make explicit the history of domestication (of wheat, yeast…), the origin and social value of the means of exchange (money for bread), the emergence and nature of the social division of labour (agriculture, bakery, banker…), the existence and rationales of spatial organization (a cultivated field, the bakery, its counter…), the customs according to which one is expected to behave in a particular locale (queue and wait for one’s turn, “hello, please, thank you”… and not: “could I have a train ticket?”), and so on. In other words, social institutions and their idéels constitute the foundation on which certainty can exist, and these are also the grounds on which anticipation is possible. This certainty, which, as we have just seen, is constituted by a range of acceptable consequences of actions, is “naturalised”, as past sociological schools have termed it, so that actors who embody these certainties also consider them rational and natural and are henceforth doubtful in the face of other and unknown idéels that may be deemed irrational, exotic, inefficient, immoral, or even wrong and untrue.

To quote a Melanesian example from one of the field locations that will be discussed later in this paper, on the island of Malekula in Vanuatu people feel the need to know with absolute certainty where each member of their family, clan or village are at any one time: in the garden, fishing along such and such reef, in the house, walking to another village to visit family, and so on. People are expected to stop in front of a house when passing by and announce their spatial intentions. It is considered unacceptable to walk past someone and not tell them the reason and destination of one’s travel (even though, obviously, people can also not tell the truth, but such untruths will tend to satisfy expectations). There is a degree of certainty about each other’s whereabouts that contributes to the capacity to elaborate at any given time a dynamic mental map in which each person is approximately situated. Inversely, there is great astonishment, even distress and frantic interrogation and conversation, if someone appears not to be locatable by anyone else. I will return to the possible idéels or epistemes these normative expectations point to.

None of this may seem very remarkable, but if we consider certainty to be a system producing the capacity for anticipation or what d’Andrade (1992) called “simplified worlds”, which is necessary for social life and interaction to take place, we can in the same way consider uncertainty from a perspective that does not consider it as merely a moment of hesitation or not-knowing. Indeed, if certainty is the anticipatory capacity enabled by the existence of social institutions, then uncertainty can inversely occur in situations or conditions in which anticipation has become difficult or impossible, and where social institutions have therefore not been able to play their role in enabling the anticipatory capacity[2]. While Bronner (1997) advocates that uncertainty is foremost an individual condition, the perspective suggested here socializes it as a diagnostic of the perception, by actors themselves, of the incompleteness or inefficiency of their social norms, a situation in which people may then wish for more or different social control, more or different social rules and norms, more or different organizations and structures, and more or a different moral order.

The social character of uncertainty invites a more precise analysis. Firstly, since situations of uncertainty are the consequence of a form of deficiency of social institutions as perceived by people themselves, they are negative social facts, but social facts, nevertheless. They reveal disrupted or inexistent relationships between “objects” and “things” (Marion 2010) or between “values” and “facts” (Abbott 2020), that is, between a shared idea or concept and the actual events experienced by actors. Secondly – and this is where the anthropological analysis weighs in – uncertainty cannot endure and needs to be either forgotten, repelled or resolved. Resolution is the process that interests us here. One way of regaining the capacity to anticipate is to share the condition and interpretation of the state of uncertainty. Resolution is our anthropological anchor point because sharing and resolving uncertainty is articulated through consensus-reaching processes that objectify norms and institutions and explicitly point towards the expressed need for change. Moreover, this process of objectification reveals hierarchies of values, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, as they are evaluated and perceived by people themselves.

It is at this moment that uncertainty becomes a heuristic tool, for it allows the decentring of analysis to study people’s own critical perspective on the values they embody. The idea of value is here understood according to a long tradition which begins with Talcott Parsons, effectively paraphrased by Louis Dumont: “in other words, the human being does not just think, he [she] acts. He [she] not only has ideas, but also values. To adopt a value is to hierarchize, and a certain consensus on values, a certain hierarchy of ideas, things and people is essential to social life” (1966: 34[3]). In other words, the value of values is hierarchy. What the analysis of situations of shared uncertainty adds to this overall statement, is that they constitute empirical opportunities for understanding the process of hierarchization. Moreover, hierarchization also implies the crystallisation of the ideal-typical phenomenology of values, to which actors conform, adhere, or resemble and of which they may become exemplars (Robbins 2018). A hierarchization of values therefore eventually also produces the hierarchization of actors themselves.

To return to the Melanesian example quoted above, what is revealed and discussed in situations where a person is not locatable by anyone else, generating distress and questioning, is that such a situation creates a high degree of uncertainty regarding the potentially malicious intentions that the unlocatable person may want to hide. The characteristics of what it means to be a human being (in other words an acceptable member of the group) are enumerated and hierarchized as sets of norms and values, such as having a stable and identifiable body or being transparent about one’s intentions and actions (Dousset 2016). Anything that deviates from these values, which may be refined and redefined in detail with each case, is potentially malicious and the proof of latent acts of sorcery. It reveals that there are agents that may wish to destroy the group, and beyond it, society and the values it holds.

The process of uncertainty resolution

In my ethnographic experience, the identification and resolution of uncertainty generally follow several phases (also see Dewey 1938: 104ff). The first is a moment of actors’ self-description (Moore 2011) and detached-decentred evaluations of the situation and of the roles and means of social institutions: why is this bakery selling train tickets and not bread? Have I misread the sign on the shopfront, am I dreaming, has something been altered since the last time I came here, is this a joke, have the rules changed…? As much as competence and knowledge allow, depending on social status, the object (the concepts and values) is re-evaluated in the face of the thing (the experiences, the facts): a bakery is the place where food, in particular food based on cereals, is produced and sold, while train tickets are available at the ticket office in the station and are not edible… When these uncertainties and resolution-driven reflections are shared, they take the form of elicitations (Dousset 2018: 95ff) or what Boltanski (2009) calls metapragmatics, i.e., theoretical and formalized objectifications of social norms and values and of the institutions that they embody.

The second phase in uncertainty resolution consists in reinterpreting observation and practice, while also extending and redefining the roles and means of social institutions to render explicit the differences between what had been anticipated and what has been experienced (between the object and the thing). This either leads to refining existing hierarchies of values, or rejecting existing institutions, bringing on the emergence of new ones with possibly new hierarchies and even new values. The former leads to strengthening existing social hierarchies and enhancing their capacity to be durable (reproduced and transmitted), the latter leads to social change and, as we will see, to socio-political fragmentation.

To recall our Melanesian example, and as I have already mentioned above, when people discuss the possible reasons for their incapacity to locate a person, they will first attempt to reinterpret their experience and identify missing information. Soon however, the next step is to explain why such behaviour is unacceptable, providing rationalities and reasons as well as eliciting the definition of ill intent and enumerating its various perceptible characteristics and signals: jealousy, a thirst for power, isolation, egoistic attitudes, a dislike of local food, not sleeping with one’s spouse, not caring for one’s children, etc. Through such elicitations, which may evolve from one case to the next, the semantic field of a moral order is not only recalled and transmitted but also adjusted and modified, as it involves defining what a social human being should look like and how they should behave, and simultaneously also establishing how the unacceptable can be characterized and identified. There seems no need to underline that following this phase of elicitation, people deemed to have transgressed the range of acceptability are in danger of being accused of sorcery and may be made responsible for having caused unexplained deaths, leading sometimes as far as them being expelled or even killed.

In some cases, however, people disagree during the elicitation process on the range of acceptability or on the evidence advanced when applying these characteristics to a particular individual. Such disagreement can lead to various degrees of fragmentation, grouping and partisanship, which makes explicit pre-existing tensions that are revealed and possibly consolidated, but were not necessarily caused by the particular situation of uncertainty at hand. Such was the case in several sorcery accusations that I analysed in Malekula, where fragmentation resulting from these accusations reflected underlying competing interpretations of local history, and of the validity of some persons’ claim to a traditional political authority. However, on a deeper level it made explicit opposed visions for the future: one which aimed to engage with the reconstruction of precolonial social organization and to concentrate efforts on “local affairs,” possibly going as far as reaching independence from the Republic of Vanuatu, the opposed view then aiming at being closely involved with the State apparatus, engaging with the national construction process, and adhering to new forms of political representation. Both obviously espoused competing sets of values as well as competing visions of social hierarchy.

In all cases, the means exposed to reach consensus during these elicitations (whether they lead to fragmentation or not), consisted in the clarification of what it takes and what it means to belong to a community, and to which community: the idea of social belonging. And social belonging is defined through what one may call principles of being-the-same and of being-together, to which I will return below. Indeed, the re-examination of social institutions by the actors themselves leads to modified, polarized or even new epistemes, which must be embodied to perdure. This process is conductive to social and political fragmentation because of the different and competing epistemes that emerge, as described above.

Let me summarize the important points before discussing the notion of belonging, which is, I suggest, central in empirically understanding the relationship between uncertainty and regimes of truth. The sharing, and thus the recognition of a situation of uncertainty leads to the objectification of social institutions because these were (implicitly) expected to have provided the grounds for an anticipation that has become impossible. The notion of social institution is of course not limited to social bodies, but includes modes of living, moral precepts, material culture, tastes and aesthetic values, etc., which are the basis on which daily certainties, and thus interactions, are grounded. Processes of resolution of uncertainty therefore question not only what is considered to have been their immediate cause (the missing person in our Melanesian example, the particular shop that was supposed to be a bakery) but objectify and question culture and social form more generally (what it means to be a member of the community, what the definition and role of a bakery is). What usually does not need to be said or thought is made explicit. In other words, a situation of uncertainty that is shared (communicated) and thus socialized inevitably lead to an evaluation of social values, their hierarchies, and the regimes of truth that underlie them. Moreover, because different and even competing epistemes may emerge in these contexts, uncertainty often leads to social fragmentation, or at least to their discernibility and consolidation. Such fragmentation is the tangible consequence of a specific dynamics that leads people to (re)consider belonging.

Belonging: being-the-same and being-together

We may assume, possibly inaccurately, that the analysis of the means and modes through which shared identities appear and disappear is amongst the most inspiring ambition in which anthropology could engage. However, these means and modes are among the most neglected analytical objects, for in so many cases, the existence of collectives is simply taken as an initial assumption through the black box of socialisation, which is thought to construct entities of belonging. The study of the resolution of uncertainty as discussed above reveals, however, how fragile these collectives are, and how difficult the emergence of forms of shared identities can be. Rather than talking of collectives, groups, or societies, I will here privilege the notion of belonging, since, instead of stipulating the existence of more or less bounded and more or less durable social entities, it focuses on the complexities and dynamics of (contextually) identifying oneself with some while simultaneously distinguishing oneself from others[4]. In contrast to the idea of truth, for which I have taken an external perspective to situate it in its sociohistorical context and consider it as being part of a “regime,” I here adopt the internal perspective of the actor for whom belonging is not lived as an entity but as processes that attempt to continuously enact it.

One of the most significant and revealing situations of uncertainty I have come across and that produced new forms of belonging has, unfortunately, only been a second-hand experience. It has been reconstructed from testimonies and recollections, and as such constitutes a metapragmatic exercise. The explicit nature of its consequences makes it a textbook case, of which I will recall a few parts to illustrate the idea of belonging that emerges during uncertainty resolutions.

The event of interest takes place in the central part of the Australian Western Desert in 1958. This huge area is inhabited by various Aboriginal groups who were defined loosely as constituting “societies” rather than “tribes” (Berndt 1959), which is rather unusual for Australia. Linguists talk of 40 and more dialectal groups. These hunter-gatherers had no collective names and were organized in small, interconnected family groups scattered around large areas of desert, identifying themselves individually through their connection with particularly important religious sites, and coming together, when environmental conditions allowed, for ceremonies and exchanges. Until 1957, only the fringes of the Western Desert had had relationships with the colonial powers and the Western World. However, in the context of nuclear testing and the launching of continental missiles, the Weapons Research Establishment controlled by British and Australian authorities decided to establish a launch-control and meteorological station half-way on the missiles’ trajectory, that is, in the centre of the Western Desert.

An expedition was organized to decide on a suitable location for the station, and a few months later, graders, trucks and workmen reached the south of the Rawlinson Ranges, an area the authorities thought to be uninhabited. Soon thereafter, however, Aboriginal families converged and remained for months around the construction site, establishing themselves, to the despair of the patrol officers, around the new station. The recently dug well, from which water could be pulled in apparent unlimited quantities, as well as the rubbish and other leftovers of the crew, undoubtedly contributed to people being able to camp for prolonged periods around the site. The discussions I had from the early 1990s onwards over years with people who had experienced this first contact, however, revealed less materialistic reasons for the congregation (Dousset 2011).

Even though they had heard from distant family members that white men had arrived on the continent, when faced with these beings, their trucks and tools, the Aboriginal people were taken by great fear and uncertainty. Different lifeways were suddenly visible, different bodies imaginable, and obligations and customs were not identical for all talking creatures. Moreover, these white people did not suffer the consequences expected from misbehaviour and from transgressing religious or social prohibitions, even though they were human, which their Aboriginal observers established through the observation of their habits of sleeping, eating and grooming, and in particular that of urinating and defecating.

More importantly, people remember having enjoyed being able to live close to each other for prolonged periods, something that had been uncommon “in the old days” in the desert. They recalled having spent a lot of time observing the white man, discussing his conduct, and describing precisely in what way he differed from them. Elicitations and self-descriptive objectifications seem to have been a regular, if not constant intellectual and social activity. Gradually, the differences crystallized as explicit and enumerable bodies of knowledge, and the idea of “culture” (although not worded as such), embracing and differentiating these corpuses, emerged. Finally, and before being chased or deported by patrol officers to distant stations and missions, people gave themselves a collective name which they would use from now on: Ngaatjatjarra. And Ngaanyatjarra would be the people that had congregated around the Warburton mission to the west, while the Pitjantjatjarra were those at the Docker River government station to the east.

The Western Desert case illustrates the objectification and solidification of the criteria of belonging that emerge in the context of the unknown, producing uncertainties which are followed by their resolution through elicitation and the subsequent crystallization of epistemes. The latter become the ground for specifying and enumerating features that allow for inclusion or exclusion into a body of belonging, but more importantly also exemplify the principles of belonging themselves. These can be, at least rhetorically, distinguished into two constituents which I call being-the-same and being-together, the former identifying principles of shared being, or what Pitt-Rivers (1973) described as forms of consubstantiality, the latter identifying the potential for shared action or practice. Commensality (e.g. Bloch 1998) is a notion that has long been used to label the processes in which eating or drinking together with recognizable (and to some extent ritualized) gestures from common receptacles contributes not only to forming identical bodies but is also a social vector that allows for the extension or contraction of the scope of mutual trust. Indeed, as is also the case in the example of sorcery accusations in Melanesia, eating food prepared by someone else enacts a relationship of confidence in the other’s goodwill and social proximity, because one expresses the confidence in the food being void of poisons, and because the act is accompanied by the identification of shared localities in which collective action can take place and where mutual belonging is made explicit: the family united around the Christmas turkey.

The yellow vest[5] movement in France can be cited as another illustration of criteria of belonging being objectified and solidified, as it established a similarity and recognition of bodies through a uniform, and spatialized belonging through the occupation of particular roundabouts and the construction of headquarter huts in their middle, through cooking, eating and drinking shared foods together, through the elicitation of rather severe criteria for the integration of new group members, and through the emergence of deep mistrust towards aspiring participants who prowled around the yellow-vest spaces. At the same time, in a context of generalized uncertainty in the lower middle-class, which was at the origin of the movement but also accompanied it all along, various contradicting epistemes emerged, each represented by its own identifiable sub-symbol and having specific conducts and values attached to it, leading to the fragmentation of the movement into sub-groups that mistrusted each other as much as they suspected outsiders[6].

One last but crucial methodological question remains. If situations of uncertainty are heuristic opportunities to reveal the processes of hierarchisation of values, of the emergence of epistemes and of the constitution of new forms of belonging, how are we to identify the type of situations of uncertainty that indeed merit our attention?  The answer to this problem is straightforward. If one assists moments in which actors switch to an eliciting mode of interlocution, by which they attempt to reach a consensus that allows transformed or new interpretations and epistemes to emerge, then we are most likely faced with a negative social fact that takes the shape of a situation where the autochthonous perception of a deficiency of social institutions leads to restoration, rejection or transformation. The approach of uncertainty I herewith suggest is one of pragmatic anthropology.

Invisible agents

There is hardly any need to underline that I have taken a path that deviates, at least to some extent, from Mauss and Durkheim, and therefore also from many anthropological approaches which – explicitly or implicitly – are continuations of these two foundations. As Tcherkézoff writes (2012: 313), for Mauss and Durkheim, “in any social group, collective representations – the unconscious materialization of the feeling of belonging to a group that each individual has – create the notion of an external force which is permanent. This offers a guarantee of the fact (indeed, the belief) that the group will go on forever [the sacred]. This level is thus far above any individual consciousness”.

In following the idea of the idéel which reflects the shared nature and origin of social institutions (Godelier, 2015: 30), and while suggesting that situations of uncertainty are moments in which the fragility of these social institutions is tangible and their historical change possible, we also bring the “sacred” and its potential fragility closer to individual consciousness, and in fact even within its perimeter, and thus considerably depart from Mauss’ holistic approach. In this perspective, and in these situations, there is no guarantee that the group will go on forever, and there is no overarching sacredness, but only forms of action and ritualization, concepts and ideas, symbols and metaphors that aim to reproduce or fabricate a shared semantic field, the adherence to which contribute to produce a sense of belonging.

These moments and situations in which the actor becomes conscious of the possibly non-permanent nature of belonging, I will call fundamental uncertainties. This notion should not be confused with Edgar Morin’s (1993) use of “metaphysical uncertainties” or his “grand philosophical uncertainties,” which, according to the author, should be the aim of human thought[7]. To consider that certain uncertainties are grand or metaphysical for humanity as whole is an ethnocentric, not a scientific position. I therefore define fundamental uncertainties not through their substance or nature, but through the identification of the conditions of their manifestation: the context-driven emergence of a feeling that there is a danger that all forms of belonging may vanish.

There are possibly many kinds of such situations, like the rising consciousness about potential annihilation that may develop during genocides, for example. But there are also less dramatic or less totalizing events in which the limitations of belonging — of the “sacred” in Mauss’ terms — become palpable. Among others these emerge for very good reasons in contexts where intangible or invisible agents are involved, such as in the case of Melanesian sorcery where the fatal agents are always imperceptible. Indeed, the implication of the intangible reminds us of what Marion (2010) labels “negative certainties” or of what Godelier (2015: 81, 123ff) calls the “sur-real” or “over-real” (not to be confused with the surreal), that is, objects of thought that do not need any direct material counterpart (the thing) to be considered true: divinities, spirits, acts of sorcery, and viruses for those who don’t have a microscope at hand.

The microscope is not simply mentioned in jest here, but because it is rather relevant in the current COVID-19 situation. What materializes the sur-real is the belief in the interpretation of specific signs as being the sufficient manifestation of intangible agents: the Melanesian person who has become unlocatable and thus suspicious. However, it is not the belief in the abstract object or concept alone that is needed (belief in sorcery, for example, which in Malekula always takes the form of invisible actions and substances), but the trust in those categories of actors that mediate between the object and the lived experiences: exorcists and shamans, chiefs and other leaders, and, in other contexts, priests, scientists and various kinds of experts who manipulate the material means (instruments, symbols, metaphors, signals) that reveal the sur-real to be more than real because it determines reality. Fundamental uncertainty which, as I suggest, involves questioning (aspects of) the sur-real, is not characteristic of mistrust in social institutions alone, but lead to mistrusting the very existence and goodwill of those categories of actors that have obtained, taken or received the power to see and define the intangible, and that are supposed to mediate its existence and nature with the non-expert population. Fundamental uncertainty thus not only leads to refining epistemes, but more directly brings about social tension and crisis.

Denying the existence or reinterpreting the nature of the intangible reflects above all a resistance to and rejection of the expert or expert community, and of those who control the episteme, who represent what is true and what is not, and who were thought to have the legitimacy of defining the truth. Unsurprisingly, at least from my perspective, the interviews I held in the first half of 2020 showed that those people who did not believe in the reality of the Coronavirus, or who thought it was purposely created, were also convinced that the earth is flat or that the human being has never stepped on the moon. What is often called “conspiracy theory” assembles various ideas on the most diverse topics, but usually centres around a common drive for resistance to established mediators and representatives, the experts, and the political system as a whole: those who are accused of controlling and manipulating the regime of truth[8].

Beyond the usual conspiracy theories, the uncertainty triggered by COVID-19 leads to other interpretations and elicitations that nonetheless situate the question of power at the core of the discussion about invisible agents. An elderly lady told me (working class, retired), for example, that “governments don’t like us old people; I know that the virus was created to get rid of us, because they don’t want to use the money to look after us.” Or yet another example from a lower middle-class man, who explained that “it’s the Russians who created the virus in order to undermine the Chinese economy, but then it got out of control; it’s all about power and money anyway, and we just have to play the game they decide to play; it’s all fake.” As these examples and many others illustrate, the elicitations associated with uncertainty in relation to intangible agents reflect notions of exclusion and inclusion, and thus the fragility of belonging. It is about the emergence or confirmation of a consciousness of people becoming aware that they are not able to obtain the status and power of intervention in what should or shouldn’t constitute their criteria of identity. It is a fear of not being able to control belonging and even of losing belonging altogether. It translates a sentiment of disempowerment and the illusion that the social group would go on forever… or worse, maybe it will go on forever, but without them. When uncertainty rises and intangible or uncontrollable agents are at stake, the sacred which lies beyond individual consciousness, as Mauss wanted it, fades away to make place for what really matters, namely who decides what is true and which legitimacy comes to confirm that decision.


Within the limited space available, this paper was an attempt to give an overview of the reasons why the analysis of situations of uncertainty constitutes opportunities — heuristic devices — for understanding social processes more generally. Uncertainties, when elicited and therefore shared and possibly resolved and absorbed, allow for social values to be made explicit and to be hierarchized, a process that fabricates “truth” and thus the criteria for social acceptability and belonging. What seems relevant in situations in which the responsible agent is intangible is that, beyond the criteria of belonging, it is the principle of belonging itself that is reconsidered and made fragile. It is the “sacred,” in Mauss’ and Durkheim’s terms, that disappears, and this is what fundamental uncertainty is all about.

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[1]                      I am most grateful to my doctoral students François-Xavier Faucounau, Aurélien Esgonnière du Thibeuf and David Glory for the discussions we had around the manuscript. My acknowledgements also go to James Leach, Mitchell Low, Deborah Pope, Katie Glaskin, Nick Harney, Maurice Godelier and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

[2]                      A similar idea has been expressed through the notion of “breaching experiment” (Garfinkel, 1967) or “situation of trial” (e.g. Lemieux, 2018: 37ff).

[3]                      My translation:  « En d’autres termes, l’homme ne fait pas que penser, il agit. Il n’a pas seulement des idées, mais des valeurs. Adopter une valeur, c’est hiérarchiser, et un certain consensus sur les valeurs, une certaine hiérarchie des idées, des choses et des gens est indispensable à la vie sociale ».

[4]                      I significantly differ here from Zask (2017), who suggests that privileging the notion of belonging confers the individual too much autonomy in the constitution of their “cultural identity”. I take a different and more pragmatic, also more predominant stance: every individual has multiple and overlapping, sometimes opposing identities. Belonging defines moments and situations in which some of these “identities” overlap with those of others and are thus recognized as being shared. Belonging to a family, a school, a club, a place, a village, a nation… simply implies that certain criteria for inclusion (and exclusion) are expected or have been met. I am thus, in this paper, not dealing with the “politics of belonging” (Antonsich, 2010).

[5]                            This decentralized populist movement began in November 2018 as a protest against the rise of petrol prices. Principally organized through social networks, it materialized through the occupation of round-abouts, cross-roads and other strategic places as well as through weekly manifestations. The request was initially for more economic justice, but it increasingly also incorporated the demand for political reforms.

[6]                      This summary description of some of the characteristics of the French yellow vest movement is inspired from the work of a student I co-supervised (Planche 2020).

[7]          Morin does not provide examples of what he thinks are these grand uncertainties, but one can confidently extrapolate that what is insinuated are questions such as what is knowledge, truth, life and death, etc.

[8]                           See the various investigations coordinated by the Fondation Jean Jaurès and available on their website: For example, only 43% of those individuals believing in at least five of the major conspiracy theories consider that democracy is important.