Originally published on the British Sociological Association’s Everyday Society website. Susan Halford is the BSA president.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to emerge, the sociological dimensions of the crisis become increasingly apparent. From the global mobilities of people and the underlying goods, services and markets that have hastened the spread of the virus – as well as our knowledge of it – to the framing and practice of state responses around the world and the everyday practices of individuals, families and communities in these strange times, it is clear that we cannot understand the shape and dynamics of this crisis without thinking beyond biomedical expertise.
Assumptions about what – and who – counts are woven into government policies along with recommendations (e.g. to self-isolate) that make little sense for those in precarious employment or housing, or those on the streets, in prison or working in vital services. The social determinants of health take on a new dimension. Meanwhile, the differences between nation states in policy response indicate, at least, controversies in scientific evidence and more obviously how evidence is mediated through particular political regimes.
Nonetheless, as the everyday practices of living in an unprecedented public health crisis evolve, we have the opportunity to learn more about social divisions, social cohesion and social change. We will learn the resilience, or otherwise, of existing forms of capitalism, about consumption practices under pressure – panic buying but also perhaps new forms of self-provisioning and collaborative consumption – about working practice, work-life balance and communities both in place and online. In my own area of research – on the politics of digital transformation – inherent tensions have been thrown into sharp relief. Whilst for some the current conditions turbo-charge convictions that technology will save us, others are there to remind us that technologies on their own cause nothing.
There is no doubt that we will not make the most of technical possibilities without deep understanding of the inextricable and deeply uneven intersections of technologies with social life and social change. As Universities and colleges move towards online provision, we have the opportunity to see if and how a swift transition towards digital education works. It could be the step-change that some have been working towards for a long time, but without additional funding and training the burden on teaching colleagues will be great, even with the best will in the world that is clearly present.
Last weekend, I was struck by a call from Italian colleagues for a collective social science response to the crisis – ‘Social sciences during the outbreak: an invitation to take a critical stance’ (copied below). Whilst the Observer called for a widening in the expertise applied to the current situation, this turned out to be little more than behavioural insights for nudge policies. Whilst these may have an effect, they will only scratch the surface in terms of dealing with the virus and its consequences over the coming months. There is no doubt that a concerted sociological and wider social science effort towards this would make a difference to how this is managed; and that how we manage, or fail to do so will tell us a lot about the societies that we live in.
As sociologists around the world adjust to a pandemic society, now more than ever, we need to use our sociological insight to make a difference. I call on the sociological community to write about the COVID-19 outbreak on the BSA’s news platform, Everyday Society in the hope this makes a difference in the weeks/months ahead of us. We’ll also be creating a page signposting COVID19 resources and opportunities from the across the discipline.
Social sciences during the outbreak: an invitation to take a critical stance
15 March 2020
Anita Lavorgna (Associate Professor of Criminology, University of Southampton)
Anna Sergi (Senior Lecturer of Criminology, University of Essex)
Anna Di Ronco (Senior Lecturer of Criminology, University of Essex)
In the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, in both traditional and social media, a flurry of (at times conflicting) information has been recently published, building up a pile of relevant information alongside potentially misleading news, with the potential of increasing confusion and anxiety. What is certain is that, at the time of writing, many countries are facing the harsh reality of a virus whose mortality rate might be relatively low, but that is likely to lead to a progressive breakdown of many healthcare systems because of the number of patients likely to require critical care.
As scholars of Italian origins living and working in the UK, we are following closely the very difficult situation currently in place in our home country, while witnessing the diversity of responses suggested or taken, over the last few days, by other countries, first and foremost our country of adoption. The UK, at least until now, has been an outlier in setting its “coronavirus strategy”. As we are not epidemiologists, we do not want to enter a debate outside the area of our expertise. However, as social scientists, we cannot but reflect critically on the political and institutional statements issued over the last few days. Even accepting that “necessary and reasonable steps” are being taken as promised, the problem remains in establishing the line between what is acceptable and what is not, what is reasonable and what not.
In times like these, it is not a surprise that economic considerations are taken alongside health-based considerations in high level decision-making on the COVID-19 pandemic. A fundamental question, however, seem to be ignored in public debates: to what extent, as a society, can we accept the risk of ignoring or underestimating the potentially extreme negative impact of a policy on those more vulnerable? The vulnerable ones are not only the elderly or people with pre-existing health conditions, but also those with limited access to healthcare services because of social inequalities, or because they are on the frontline, as in the case of health professionals. In criminological terms, these people are likely to become the designated victims of what increasingly appears to be a gamble on people’s health, capable of causing great human suffering. The actions taken, or not taken, by the government may be legitimate, but this does not mean that they are not likely to provoke great, and possibly unnecessary, social harms – ranging from lack of care and psychological suffering to long-term economic hardship, to name only a few
In this scenario, we recently urged our colleagues and relevant social sciences associations to remain vigilant, and critical, through a call on social media. But this is not enough.
So far, with the very notable exception of a few voices raising awareness on the negative effects of this outbreak on refugees, inmates, sex workers and the homeless (e.g., Associazione Antigone in Italy, the international network of researchers and practitioners Border Criminologies, and some collectives and charities such as SWARM and Homeless Link in the UK), the social science community has not taken yet a strong stance on the foreseeable social harms caused by governmental responses to the pandemic.
Should the current governmental approach go ahead, as social scientists we will have soon to give voice to those who might become the hidden causalities. Should the “social isolation” approach become prevalent also in the UK (as it did in an increasing number of European countries and around the world), we will have to carefully consider the impact this measure might have on those that are already socially isolated, on the victims of domestic violence, and students’ for whom schools and campuses are a safe place among others. In either case, we will have to reflect on why the governmental reaction in the UK has been such diverse from the one of neighbouring countries (as if in a sort of “health exceptionalism”), with British media, institutions, and society at large being particularly reluctant in accepting criticisms and calls to action coming from immunologists and other experts from the health sciences (who have been voicing significant questions on the governmental strategy through open letters and digital activism), especially from countries ahead of the UK in the epidemiological curve.
It is, and will be a matter of social responsibility.
COVID-19 and Sociology: Resources & Opportunities
Karen Kendrick – Is this What Sociology is for?
Deborah Lupton –Digitised Quarantine
Funda Ustek-Spilda et al – The Untenable Luxury of Self-Isolation
Call for rapid response papers –Special Issue of The European Sociologist: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities
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