Opening the Blind Box: A multimodal account of access to the restricted field China during COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic returned the politics of ‘access’ to the forefront of anthropological discussion. This article offers a multimodal, autoethnographic account of ‘access’ across axes, foregrounding the biomedical, digital, bureaucratic and citizenship contingencies of arriving in China, a process which was for two of the authors, a process also of returning ‘home’. We employ the metaphor of the ‘blind box’, colloquially and commercially meaning a box containing mysterious toys, to unfold questions of power and uncertainty over one’s fate during pandemic travel. The article’s co-created comics, read alongside written narratives, convey affective environments, and aid our analysis of the changed and charged conditions of access. We therefore frame access through shifts in technological affordances, the affects they produce, and the risks and responsibilities that fieldworkers carry. We argue that in these stories, access becomes an experience to be lived through, saturated with the contingencies of technology as researchers find themselves subject to the fluid landscape of policy, shifting perceptions of ‘home’ and newly resonant parallels with earlier eras of ethnographic research in China.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCommoning Ethnography
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • ethnography
  • access
  • China
  • COVID-19
  • digitalization


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