Fake times and real life during the pandemic

By Angus Bancroft

One of the effects of our arm’s length social life is that we interact with a limited range of interactional cues: our subconscious interpretation of body language, eye contact, tone of voice, is heavily truncated by the technology. There are many implications of that, not least for how we teach and engage students. They will have little sense of teachers and themselves as a classroom presence. It also has caused me to reflect on how we use these cues and others’ reactions for information verifiability. A part of my research is investigating how fake news and disinformation campaigns are produced and valued in the marketplace.

Disinformation operations are deliberate attempts to undermine trust in the public square and to create false narratives around public events. Rid (2020) outlines three key myths about them: 1. They take place in the shadows (in fact, disclosing that there is an active campaign can be useful to those running it) 2. They primarily use false information (in fact they often use real information but generate a fake context) 3. They are public (often they use ‘silent measures’ targeting people privately). Research indicates that how others respond to information is critical in deciding for us whether it is factual or not (Colliander, 2019). Social media platforms’ ability to counter the influence of fake news with verification tags and other methods are going to have a limited effect, other than enraging the US President.

Overall disinformation operations are about the intent, rather than the form, of the operation. For that reason tactical moves like disclosing an operation’s existence can be effective if the aim is to generate uncertainty. According to Rid (2020) what they do is attack the liberal epistemic order – the ground rock assumptions about shared knowledge that Western societies based public life on. That facts have their own life, independent of values and interests. Expertise should be independent of immediate political and strategic interest. That institutions should be built around those principles – a relatively impartial media, quiescent trade unions, autonomous universities, even churches and other private institutions, are part of the epistemic matrix undergirding liberalism. 

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this order has been eroded and hollowed out from multiple angles over the past decades by processes that have nothing to do with information operations. Established national, regional, and local newspapers have become uneconomic and replaced with a click-driven, rage fuelled, tribalist media. Increasingly the old institutions mimic the new. Some established newspapers evolved from staid, slightly dull, irritatingly unengaged publications to an outrage driven, highly partial, publication model. The independence universities and the professions once enjoyed has been similarly eroded by the imposition of market driven governance on higher education, the NHS, and other bodies. On the other hand Buzzfeed evolved in the opposite direction for a time. It also doesn’t take a genius to note that the liberal epistemic order was always less than it was cracked up to be, as noted by the Glasgow University Media Group among others. 

The erosion of this may be overplayed – for example, most UK citizens still get their news from the BBC. however survey data notes that there is a definite loss of trust in national media among supporters of specific political viewpoints (Brexit and Scottish Nationalism being two). The liberal epistemic order was therefore neither as robust, nor agreed, nor as liberal as it proclaimed itself to be and may have been contingent on a specific configuration of post-WW2 Bretton Woods governance. We can see plenty of examples of where this faith in the impartiality of institutions was never the case e.g. widespread support for the Communist parties in Italy and France, which had their own media, trade unions and social life.

Building an alternative reality was a key aim of progressive movements at one time. Labour movements often had their own newspapers, building societies, welfare clubs, shops and funeral services. Shopping at ‘the coppie’ (The Co-Op) said a lot about one’s belonging, social class and politics. That alternative reality can be the basis for social solidarity. That isn’t to compare the two. Fake news is inherently damaging to any effort to build a better society or understand the one we are living in. But real life and life organised independently does provide a defence and a basis for building a resilient post-pandemic society. Part of this is resisting and questioning what underlies fake news – the continuous attack on autonomous knowledge and Enlightenment values which have eroded the resilience of democratic societies.

References:

Colliander J (2019) “This is fake news”: Investigating the role of conformity to other users’ views when commenting on and spreading disinformation in social media. Computers in Human Behavior 97: 202–215. DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2019.03.032

Rid T (2020) Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

SAGE, governance & the Cummings debacle

Liz Stanley

Those following UK political developments in government handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be aware of a high-level advisory body partly composed of senior politicians at ministerial level and partly by ‘experts‘ of various kinds, called SAGE. The initials stand for Scientific Advisory Group for Emergences, with different incarnations of SAGE membership constituted around different emergences since first established as a mechanism within the framework of governance. SAGE most often comes to public attention through its main committee being invoked in political discourse as the source of the expert scientific guidance about the best courses of action to follow in containing and ‘fighting‘ the coronavirus that the government receives and through which it describes itself as ‘following the science‘ or even ‘driven by the science’.

SAGE is usually mentioned just in passing in comment about government policy, with the details of what it is and does rarely mentioned. It exists in a taken for granted way as part of the apparatus of governance. But a closer look indicates some interesting things. Basic information about its composition and formal activities can be found on the UK government website here. It is described as a body that “provides scientific and technical advice to support government decision-makers“, with its two leading members names that often appear in press conferences and media reports: Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser from the Department of Health and Social Care. It has 53 other members, listed complete with titles and their formal honours, as are Vallance and Whitty, plus two who requested anonymity. The indications are, then, that SAGE’s role is to provide informed advice; and political decision-making, if not separate of this, is not in the position of either ‘following‘ or being ‘driven by‘ the scientific and technical advice provided.

More detail is also given on a link from the main page on the coronavirus and SAGE, and can be accessed here. Its opening statement is worth considering:

“The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is responsible for providing Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) meetings with coherent, coordinated advice and to interpret complex or uncertain scientific evidence in non-technical language.
Typically, SAGE meets in advance of COBR and the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) subsequently represents SAGE at COBR. SAGE provides COBR with science advice at the UK level.
In relation to COVID-19, SAGE brings together expertise from across the scientific spectrum, including epidemiologists, clinicians, therapeutics and vaccine expertise, public health experts, virologists, environmental scientists, data scientists, mathematical modellers and statisticians, genomic experts, and behavioural and social scientists who feed analysis, research and data into SAGE.
SAGE’s role is to provide unified scientific advice on all the key issues, based on the body of scientific evidence presented by its expert participants. This includes everything from latest knowledge of the virus to modelling the disease course, understanding the clinical picture, and effects of and compliance with interventions. This advice together with a descriptor of uncertainties is then passed onto government ministers. The advice is used by Ministers to allow them to make decisions and inform the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The government, naturally, also considers a range of other evidence including economic, social, and broader environmental factors when making its decisions.”

Some useful pointers can be drawn from this about the role of SAGE, and which throw interesting light on governmental claims that it follows or is driven by ‘the science’:

• SAGE through its key team member advises COBR, so it exists at a high level within the structures of governance.
• It is multidisciplinary and has membership across the sciences, humanities and social sciences.
• It provides unified advice, which given the size and constitution of its membership implies reaching a broad consensus.
• This advice is ‘passed on‘ to government, which ministers use together with other advice.
• Government also considers other sources of evidence in making decisions.

There appears something of a divorce between government pronouncements about following or being driven by scientific evidence, and the formal role of SAGE and its sub-groups, which is to reach a broad consensus of opinion and pass this on in a framework in which government draws on a range of sources. The question arises as to whether custom and practice differs and there is ‘following’, although recent events suggest otherwise when political expediency dictates, something returned to below.

Among other questions that arise is, where are the social scientists located within this? That is, the statement in the quotation above indicates that social scientists are there, but where, and who are they in disciplinary or interdisciplinary terms?

Going through the list of those on the main SAGE committee and exploring the qualifications and positions of its non-governmental members indicates that the clear majority are not social scientists but include epidemiologists, medics, mathematicians and modellers. The most familiar name in social science terms is that of Ian Diamond, the UK’s National Statistician in the Office for National Statistics, and formerly head of the ESRC. There are, however, important sub-groups. The same more detailed document quoted from above states:

“In a highly complex crisis such as COVID-19, a lot of work is done by sub-groups and de-facto sub-groups – covering for instance epidemiological modelling, clinical questions and behavioural science. For COVID-19 SAGE has two main subgroups:
• Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) (40-45 Participants)
• Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behavioural Science (SPI-B) (18 participants)”

Clearly the sub-group on modelling is much larger (40+ v. 18), which could be taken as an indication of perceived importance, and there are ‘de facto’ advisory groups as well, which the document provides some more information about. Turning attention to the Behavioural Science sub-group and its members suggests the majority are economists and psychologists of different kinds with at least one ethics specialist. However, it appears no sociologists or anthropologists of relevant specialisms are involved.

This is not to question the relevance of the disciplines and people involved, simply to point out there are notable omissions. Perhaps sociology and anthropology are seen as the ‘soft’ end of the social sciences and absent because of this, but it is impossible not to be shocked about what is excluded. In the case of sociology (and leaving anthropology to fight its own corner), there is highly relevant specialist sociological knowledge that could have been represented, concerning such things as crowds and disasters, social movements in relation to large-scale social events and changes, comparative and historical work on pandemics and epidemics, and narrative inquiries regarding how people behave in exceptional circumstances. And this doesn’t even mention appropriate contributions from risk sociology, sociological work on sustainability and environment, and ‘the biggy’ of medical sociology.

But it seems that social scientists of any persuasion will be social scientists and act accordingly. Thus commentary and debate around the debacle concerning Boris Johnson’s political advisor Dominic Cummings and his ‘one lockdown rule for me and another for the rest‘ has led to at least three members of the SAGE Behavioural Science sub-group breaking silence to specify the advice given, and accepted by government. Among other things, this advice focused on how to ensure trust in government-instituted lockdown rules.

This advice was that trust in UK pandemic governance requires that lockdown and the related rules instituted must apply to all, there should be no special exemptions, no ‘us and them’, and this is key in controlling the virus and ensuing deaths. There was clearly the assumption this had been accepted by government and would be followed. It is now clear the advice, seemingly fully accepted, was subsequently ignored by Cummings as a senior advisor deciding, a prime minister accepting, and senior ministers supporting, that special circumstances applied to him.

As present circumstances indicate, political expediency trumps expert advice. And ironically it also trumps the trust in good faith about trust that sub-group members had seemingly assumed, from comments by those who have spoken about the Cummings matter. Will more of the sub-group speak out? Or will hope of further placements hold their tongues? And what of pandemic governance from now on? The latter is clearly the key question. Will the fallout – which as of late morning on 26 May includes resignation of a junior minister – continue and increase, or will the gamble that people’s anger at being treated as stupid will subside pay off?

Strange, Strange Times: Methods and Stuff During COVID-19

Amy Andrada

These are some strange, strange times. (My God, the emails over the past several weeks that’ve opened with that tired-ass line. Ugh.) I’ll admit. This sucks. All of it. There’s no way around it. Yes, COVID-19 has turned our lives upside-down and with it all of our half-baked, wonderfully (and painfully) crafted projects. But I implore you to believe me—all is not lost. This is the chance to rethink old (and sometimes tired) notions. As researchers, we’re in a bind. How do we collect data if we can’t actually. Go. Collect. Data? What do we do with our projects, half-finished and half-thought? What happens to all the ‘meanings’ we meant to find, once we got into the field? And how do we find the people we hoped to speak with? Well, if you’re a researcher you just gotta know where to look. (I mean, that is our job. Right?). And the best place to start is by looking at who’s looked in hard-to-reach places, with unconventional tools and in unique ways.

Two words: Deviance. Research.

Ta-dah! Yeah, I know. I know. Very anti-climatic. (But a gurl can dream, can’t she?) Anyways, I’m that researcher. As such, I’m familiar with researching people that don’t want to be reached and in ways that aren’t always *ahem* legal. Just kidding! (Maybe). Thus, being in the field taught me a crapload more about methodological ‘expectations’ verses any theoretical approaches. Now, how do I know this might work when my data wasn’t collected during COVID-19? Because most of my participants were already limited in time and resources, making in-person/physical meetings less likely—hence, the alternative creative approaches to methods. So, from one researcher to another, here are some real life tips on what to consider when trying to figure out how to sample (or strategize getting) participants in these very, very strange times.

  • Although this is a bit more directed towards deviance research, the perspective still applies. Deviant members don’t particularly want to be found and most are uninterested in an academic’s ‘research’. If you want any hope of contacting them—much less collecting data from/with them—you have to work within their constraints, not yours. Now, I understand researchers have their own issues atm. I get it. But the access points to potential participants have now (thanks, COVID) become extremely limited. So, you’ve got to start from that vantage point. Or you’ll lose sight of a main project goal—getting actual participants. Be realistic and set realistic goals. Period.
  • Next, consider the usual ‘face-to-face interview-based’ data collection strategies. Yup. Those approaches are not gonna work—at least not in their traditional designs—but they are still strong starting points. So think of them in practical terms. Where are people most likely to be accessible now? Online. Now, let’s be frank. What do you think the return rate is for online interaction? Yeah, bro… it’s low AF. Ok. That’s settled. You’ve got a clear idea of a significant limitation. Great. Moving on. It’s still an access point. Use it and maximize the hell outta it. But remember, it’s never about the thing itself. It is how the thing is used. Use the platforms you’re familiar with and find new ones. Reach out to your own networks and ask for recruitment help. Many people are usually happy to help—(I stress, usually). More importantly, use the platforms your potential participants may use. This isn’t an ‘if you build it, they will come’ motif BS. This is real life. You gotta go to where the action is. So, figure out where these groups congregate online, their apps, etc. and target those spaces. If you’ve got peeps in those hoods, even better. Reach out. If not, learn their spaces real quick. (I mean, we’re all PI’s underneath it all. Act like it.)
  • Now, looking for diversity in your sample? That’s still possible with online recruitment, you just gotta work harder. Post your project on Facebook, MeetUp (there’s still ‘interactions’), etc. Create an online space for your project so people have the opportunity to take initiative when you’re not chasing down potential leads. Most people respond well to this form of transparency. Think of it like a ‘home base’—both you and them can always circle back here. Tbh, any online forum/chatrooms where people with similar interests may interact—start there. There are literally endless platforms and networks within every community, so make the most out of them. And remember, it usually takes a particular type of person to be open to talking to a researcher in the first place (aka selection bias). If they’re interested or you find them, either can develop that initial interaction. Don’t push it. Just keep putting it out there and be open-minded. Keep in mind that other avenues eventually evolve from your initial steps. You’ll find them if you work at developing them. Be patient.
  • And ya know that ‘originally’ planned in-person interview? Yeah. That’s not happening. So, think of how else can you conduct interviews. Zoom? Skype? Facebook video messenger? WeChat? Use them. And how about those focus groups? HouseParty, etc. Whatever. Find some tool and use it. Pronto. Will some ‘authenticity’ be lost? Yeah, but getting participants is like going on dates. Not every date is the same, right? That’s what happens with every forum and method—something is ‘lost’ based on context. But, it’s still data. Beggars can’t be choosers (and you ain’t Bey). Attend to this in your design and manage any shortcomings. Best way to do this? Mixed-methods or triangulation (i.e. use more than one strategy and method. They offset each other and can complement the overall design/methods, if used appropriately).
  • If your research is focused on intimate knowledge, interview for longer periods. People tend to open up the longer the interaction (it’s a non-verbal cue, look it up). If you want more general (and perhaps superficial) interactions—Keep. It. Short. Also, being an in-group member helps with intimate or deviant data collection. Why? People tend to trust people that are ‘like’ them. If you’re not in da club, figure out how to get in or get someone to vouch for you (i.e. gatekeepers). If your project doesn’t require this type of nitty-gritty, just bounce. Either way, don’t stress.
  • And finally, all those bazillion roadblocks you’ll come across while doing all these? Yeah, that’s gonna be really significant data, in itself, at the end of the project (talk to an ethnographer if you don’t believe me).

Now, remember my outreach to out-group participants? Yeah, only one-third of them were met in-person, and of those I had to go out of my way (60-90 miles to be exact) to sit down in front of each one. Overwhelmingly, most interviews were done with tech, via Skype/Zoom, FaceTime, phone, etc.—any electronic means actually. Yet, all of them were contacted through some technical forum. And that part where I mentioned the roadblocks being part of your data? Yeah, those were key reasons I couldn’t recruit people in-person, or physically meet most of them. Why? They were either in-between projects or work, were too far away, or simply not available to meet with some random researcher, i.e. me (hence, I had to work within their constraints). And what did I find? I found out what their spaces were and lit those babies up. So guess what happened? They either enlisted themselves or showed interest in the project. Like, literally. It blew my mind. And none of this was ever mentioned in ‘traditional methods’.

Now, was it all rainbows and butterflies? Hell no. I mean, I even gained ONE damn troll in the process of this crap. (Honored, though I am *happy tear*). Still, cycling through ‘traditional methods’ just didn’t work. In fact, they blew up in my face. Royally. But, once I started realizing how those methods only worked for traditional people and ‘normal’ times (and my target groups were anything but traditional despite ‘normal’ times), I quickly realized I had to get creative. Fast. So, I pounced on their movements. I learned to listen to these groups and their interests. And I quickly learned to step to their pace. And what came outta it? A design I couldn’t be more proud of and an understanding I couldn’t have ever predicted. Now, the books were a decent start, I’ll give them that. But the real methods came from maneuvering within participants. In fact, had I not taken heed of their needs and constraints, I don’t think I could have collected the data I did. And that’s the honest truth.

So, go forth young sprites! There’s new knowledge to be found—and new ways to get there. Be the researcher you came to university to be.

<3,
A.

Amy Andrada is a PhD Sociology candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on deviance, family, and gender studies. She is currently writing up her mammoth of a PhD while simultaneously raising her precocious 16-year old son. (Wish her luck in both.) She may be reached at aandrada@ed.ac.uk.

In it together? Important event on how families organise time, labour & home schooling

IFS event, 27 May, 9.30 – 10.30

The Institute of Fiscal Studies is about to publish the results of its research on how UK families spend their time and who does what under lockdown. From preliminary releases there will be few surprises – women hold up most of the sky and still do most of everything else as well. But there will be important detail and discussion.

All in this together? What impact is lockdown having on how families spend their time?
Date – Weds 27 May 2020 | 09:30 – 10:30
Location – Online via the IFS website, access here
Availability – Places available

What impact is lockdown having on how families spend their time and who does what? At this event, IFS researchers will present their findings on how families are managing day to day to balance old and new demands on their time, as well as whether and how this differs by socio-economic status and gender.

On neighbourliness, a letter from Melbourne

Ashley Barnwell

Unable to visit, I speak to my favourite four-year old via video-chat. She exhibits her latest crayon portraits. I ask her if she has been to the park. Her brow furrows with confusion – surely this adult knows about …?  Just in case, she breaks the news, “Have you heard about the virus? You can’t go anywhere.” Later she sends a whatsapp voice-recording on her mother’s phone that says, “I want to go”. The word stretches out. Go somewhere, go anywhere.

People are using space differently. With the walls closing in, home blurs into the street. Neighbours I’ve never seen are outside. A young woman, two houses down, drags her desk out to the footpath and reads a textbook with her back to the sun. On the corner at night a man jumps rope under the streetlight, like a strange apparition. The lads across the road leave their blinds open and our living rooms look into each other, the glow of lights and the flicker of televisions assure that life is still living beyond the walls.

In the absence of my daily routine, I find myself missing people I don’t know. The people who also catch the 8.38am tram. The always-chipper barista at the stop who knows all their names and preferred milks. I see these people more often than I see my family. In another way, they are familiar to me. Suddenly it feels meaningful that we show up each morning and signify for one another the start of a day going to plan so far, same crew, no surprises yet.

Habits are hard to break. In the fruit market a mother reminds her two boys to “practice keeping their hands in their pockets”. Upon hearing this, I have already picked up and squeezed and put back several too-ripe avocados. Hands touching things touching hands.

Over the summer I was thinking about hands (for pre-corona reasons). I made a little zine about them, and showed it to an old friend. He said he almost wrote a book about hands being the very end of us, the part that touches the world. We sat in the bar and watched what people do with their hands. Always reaching out, tipping a glass, offering a light, acting out a story, and then closing the circuit, bringing the hand back to the self, to clasp, rub a shoulder, pick a tooth.

The news app says medics are ‘tracing contacts’. If infected, we’ll be asked to remember all the tiny touches and transfers that happen every hour. We tap the same buttons, open the same doors, exchange the same coins, breathe the same air. To forget this, we stage ‘personal space’ with collaborative acts and cues. Standing so close we feel the heat of each other’s bodies during commuter hour, we gaze down, put bags between us, listen to headphones. Now the trams roll by empty.

During lockdown, the state permits a daily walk in the local neighbourhood for exercise. Usually (in the old normal) I walk to get somewhere. I dash from the office to buy a sandwich. I race to a committee meeting at 7 minutes past the hour. I roam the aisles of the supermarket hungry to get home. A to B. B to A. Now (in the new normal) I walk to walk.

It feels properly solitary to walk for the sake of walking. But on these walks I have been thinking about intimacy, albeit of an impersonal kind. What is our ethical duty to people we’ve never met? The social ground that is now a figure.

I have been mulling on this because the question newly envelops us. It is the small print on all government bulletins, ‘how-to-handwash’ signs, graphs of available respirators, in each political speech and on every absurd protest banner. But my thoughts have also been sparked by the signs of neighbourliness that punctuate the path.

I walk alongside the Moonee Ponds Creek, one of the main tributaries of the Yarra River. A rich source of life and culture for the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations, the waterway flows from the mountains to the sea. In the colonial construction of Melbourne the creek was diverted and its marshlands filled with refuse and then concrete. On the stretch that winds through the inner north of the city, people jog and cycle along what is now a vast concrete stormwater-drain, funnelling the waters under and around the Tullamarine Freeway and down to the Docks. Graffiti and water-logged litter line the trail. It is urban, but in its expanse also feels scenic. As you cross under the shadowy 8-lane overpass, the echo of cars speeding above is damp and booming.

Most people walk alone or with dogs, but all around there are flashes of community. Old tyres bridge the muddy dips in the path. A donated dining chair sits under the rungs of the overpass surveying the bend. Teddy bears peer down from windows backing onto the creek, as part of a crowd-sourced bear hunt to entertain isolated kids. The way is furnished with the care of strangers.

Walking north, you come to a little library made for passers-by. Named the Waxman Lockdown Library (or WLL) for the street, it is housed in an old bedside cabinet, and decorated with love-hearts and bookish quotes from the likes of Frank Zappa and Anon. The shelf is stocked with scandi-noirs and half-read classics. In faithful charity, the top drawer offers necessities which are now scarce due to panic buying – toilet rolls and sachets of hand-sanitiser. The little library is a beacon in pandemic times. It feels fragile in its risk of transfer yet defiant in its ethos of trust and sharing.

Returning south, the concrete gullies are blazoned with graffiti. I notice a new piece this week, simple in line style and bold in proclamation – “I will not take dictation from you”.  It recalls a famous retort from a former cabinet minister to a conservative radio shock-jock. It’s a reminder of the toxic tangle of media and politics. It’s a reminder of all the toxic tangles we have been struggling to break from, all the battles that go on neglected while we pour our attention into this crisis – the violence of gender binaries; neo-colonial rule; climate injustice. The red letters reach out like someone shaking me from sleep.

Perhaps it is the isolation, the break from routine, the halt of busyness, that allows me to feel these impersonal intimacies more sharply. In staying home to save lives we’ve assumed a responsibility for the wellbeing of people we don’t know and will never meet. As I walk, hands in pockets, I wonder what we will make of this chance to see the usually unseen ties that bind us?

Ashley Barnwell is a Sociologist at the University of Melbourne. In 2019 she was a visiting scholar in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.

On the backs of the working class

Elsie Greenwood

Photo by Eric Parker

The past two months have been like no other in my life, the way society has disintegrated and changed has been remarkable. In many respects these developments are a sociologist’s dream – humanity, our systems of rule and particularly our political “harmony” has been exposed for what it is: impermanent.

When I watched the PM’s recent coronavirus update I sat in disbelief, the government line was both bewildering yet blatant in its ambition. It seemed non-sensical, never explaining what it actually meant to “stay alert”, yet brazenly saying those who cannot work from home are “actively encouraged” to return to employment before any workplace safety guidance had been released. To me, this read as: “we are succumbing to the desires of the liberal middle classes and will let them sunbathe and see friends in the park whilst we will keep the economy trudging along on the backs of the working class”. Because who are those unable to work from home? It’s the cleaners, factory workers, delivery drivers and builders.

The PM’s class-less analysis of his new policy didn’t stop there, he also gave recommendation to not use public transport to travel to work. 70% of working-class people in London use public transport to get to work, most Glaswegians don’t have a car, it was no surprise the news headlines following the PM’s updates were vilifying workers “pilling onto tubes”- as if no one could have predicted such an outcome. It’s hard to understand if the government is feckless or if they genuinely see working lives as dispensable?

When contemplating such a question as the one above, we should question why we use the use of the terms “key worker” and “hero” when referring to front line workers. Whilst I am obviously in awe of the working people risking their lives during this crisis, I find issue with these terms for particular reason. I worry they are a form of comfort blanket to help those of us sat at home moralise and justify people dying for us. When a key worker dies, it is tragic, but for some reason isn’t shocking. Whilst I will note we have been doing this since the war, it’s time we stop glorifying the deaths (of frequently working-class people) in times of crisis instead of asking the government why they aren’t doing more to protect working lives.

Now contrary to the opinion of many leftist men I encounter on twitter the working class isn’t just white men and thus we mustn’t white wash the problems Coronavirus has exposed. The virus is having a devastating impact amongst the working class BAME community – who have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Black men and women are dying at 4 times the rate of their white contemporaries, and 72% of our “key” NHS workers and carer deaths are BAME. The government needs to recognise they continually fail these communities: whether it’s Grenfell or Coronavirus, BAME communities are being hurt by the negligence of the British state.

Truthfully, the outcomes of this pandemic could have been predicted. The way the world works is unsurprising, class inequality permeates every corner of society, if austerity hurts the working classes the most, why wouldn’t a global pandemic?

But, we aren’t without hope.

If the coronavirus has done anything it has thrown societies biggest issues on to the front page of every newspaper, it has made the low skilled worker the key worker. The governments ability to change policy overnight has shown us it doesn’t have to be this way. This could be the time we actually start valuing those workers who are the backbone of this country, not just with an applause but with decent pay. I believe the system is shaking in its foundations, and time is up for those who think society has to be this way.

Elsie Greenwood is a undergraduate sociology student going into her third year at Edinburgh. She has been an active member of the Labour Party for 5 years and is co-chair of LGBT Labour in Scotland. She is a member of GMB the trade union and is on the Scottish Trade Union Youth Committee as the GMB representative. Some of her academic interests include: racial and class inequalities in the justice system, policing and social housing.

Armchair sociology 5, Experts, science & pandemic sociology

The fifth in the Armchair Sociology series of informal conversations facilitated by Liz Stanley is with Gil Viry and explores themes concerning experts, science & pandemic sociology. In the UK coronavirus context, ‘expertise’ is closely associated with people who produce ‘the numbers’, and these constitute ‘the science’ that politicians say they are following. And are there differences when compared with Switzerland and other countries? Also, what kind of experts are they, and what issues exist concerning ‘the facts’ produced, the assumptions they rest on, the kind of discourse they are located in, the claims they make about certainties? And how does this pan out regarding such things as vulnerability and shielding? 

The video of this conversation can be accessed on The Armchair Sociologist YouTube channel here.

Gil Viry is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the role of space and spatial mobilities on family and personal relationships, social inclusion and the life course. His approach to family life in space and time includes the spatiality of personal networks and mobility biographies using social network and sequence analysis. He is currently working on some interdisciplinary projects using advanced methods of social network analysis for analysing the geography of personal networks. Since 2013, he has been leading the Social Network Analysis in Scotland (SNAS) Research Group.

‘The science’: some sociological reflections

Liz Stanley

Among repeated buzz terms about coronavirus and UK government responses are ‘following the science’ and the much stronger ‘driven by the science’. Their main use has been to present political policies as embedded in or even required by scientific evidence and advice, thereby giving greater authority to political decision-making through associating it with the assumption of expertise conveyed in references to ‘the science’. ‘The science’ is another of these frequently used buzz terms. It exists in a family-group with the ‘following’ and ‘driven’ ones and is homogenised as single and indivisible and having a kind of absolute authority. Such usages disregard the range of professional expertises involved and not only the differences and sometimes clashes between them but also divergences within particular scientific networks.

In the Covid-19 pandemic context, while there has been public attention rightfully given to political decision-making and its frequent ineptitude, there has been surprisingly little critical reflection upon what is claimed or simply assumed to be scientific expertise, including its use by politicians to justify political expediency. So far as can be discerned from the relatively few public-facing sociological responses currently visible, this includes its absence from sociological attention too, although this may change. It is all the more refreshing then that some political journalists are now turning their gaze in the direction of ‘the science‘ and the political work it is doing.

The Coronavirus News is an online part of the BBC’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic with a magazine format, one aspect of which is ‘The Coronavirus Newscast’ series of podcasts. The high-profile journalists involved are Adam Fleming and Laura Kuenssberg, Fergus Walsh and Chris Mason. On 21 May, the podcast of an interview by Fleming and Kuenssberg with Sir Ian Boyd, a zoologist and polar scientist who was chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 2012-19, was published on the Newscast webpage. Boyd is presently a member of the Sage advisory group, which combines high-level members of the scientific community with government politicians, and it is in this capacity he was interviewed.

Interviewers Fleming and Kuenssberg asked Ian Boyd thoughtful questions about vaccine development, ‘test, track and trace’, and in particular ‘the science‘ comments that UK government politicians have frequently made in justifying their decisions and policies. The point was made that divergences and uncertainties and not uniform certainty exist within the scientific community, which anyway is not one and indivisible. However, politicians nonetheless lay claim to ‘the science‘ as justification for decisions that actually include many other factors too. This was an amiable discussion and raised interesting points but did not pursue them in any great depth. Given the practical importance of ‘the science‘, perhaps the interviewers felt they could not push this further, but clearly wider issues about the character of science, its political uses and notions of expertise more generally were hovering, but were not picked up.

At the point this might have been pursued, the interview format gave way to addressing questions from listeners and largely lost its Fleming and Kuenssberg provided critical edge. The questions covered included why taste and smell took so long to be included as indications of COVID-19, when more detail would be given about a ‘social bubble’ approach, shielding, and with hindsight what political actions Boyd wished had been taken earlier. On this latter, however, the journalists did press him harder. Responding rightly that hindsight knowledge is easy but acting at the time in unfolding circumstances is not, Boyd discussed in a careful way whether lockdown policies could have been introduced earlier. In this respect, Fleming mentioned a 17 February official document recognising that infections were even then increasing rapidly, but only significantly later did the political landscape change.

Not named by Boyd nor Fleming or Kuenssberg, at this juncture the mind leapt to earlier ideas about ‘herd immunity’ and permitting deaths to increase to a level where the majority of the population would become immune, for that at that stage scientific and political ideas seemed to combine to see an increase in deaths as not entirely undesirable. It appears to have been the unanticipated scale of the deaths and rapidity of the increase, rather than ‘the science’, that changed the political landscape. Or was something different going on behind-the-scenes?

The podcast is well worth listening to as seriously questioning ‘the science‘ and its political uses; it can be accessed online via the BBC’s The Coronavirus News pages. For those interested specifically in the Ian Boyd segment, this started at 10:42 minutes in and finished at 33:16. The interview was also reported on the BBC news app on 22 May, ‘Coronavirus: acting earlier would have save lives, says Sage member’.

But what of ‘the science‘ and what might the social sciences and in particular sociology be doing regarding it? Or do we just throw our hands up and leave it to perspicacious journalists to offer an analysis?

There is a wealth of excellent sociological theory and research concerned with science, scientific networks and practices. Time for its proponents and other sociologists influenced by this work to step forward. Which kinds of scientists are proposing ‘the facts‘, what variations are there, and how are these changing over time? are there divergences and fault-lines that are not appearing in the public domain? what networks exist to enable such work to be picked up and used by policymakers at all levels of governance? how is ‘science’ being characterised? These and related questions are important for understanding not only to how policy-makers operate, but also how the general run of people respond to unfolding events. If nothing else, the hordes of British people over the last few days crowding onto sunlit beaches and into country beauty-spots indicates that there is widespread doubt about or even straightforward rejection of both political pronouncements and invocations of ‘the science‘ regarding social distancing, indeed regarding the coronavirus as such.

How to explain this? At the least it opens up the ground beneath hallowed science as providing ‘the facts’ that everyone can be expected to act on, and shows that assessments of ‘risk‘ are part of individual/group decision-making. And here another set of sociological thinking and research comes into frame, the interactional sociologies and taking seriously that people are proficient theorisers of their own lives and therefore the how and why of what they do need to be taken seriously in understanding why social life turns out as it does.

Sociological work of these and related kinds need to be embarked upon now, if not already underway; and to appear widely in public fora as circumstances are unfolding, not just three or four years down the line in funded research projects of the kind being badged as ‘opportunities‘ (an ethically dubious term given the scale of deaths worldwide) on numerous sociology websites. Sociology asks complicated questions about why things are as they are and people do as they do, using the lively curiosity about ‘the facts’ of social life that characterises the sociological imagination and its concern with biography, time and social structure. This needs putting into practice now in a new way, given present circumstances, in thinking hard about the changes occurring and the likely reverberations over time.

Please share examples by leaving comments on the Edinburgh Decameron website.

Are students customers?

Mary Holmes

Classrooms by Felipe Gavronski https://www.flickr.com/photos/35251551@N06

Many of our students pay a lot of money for their education. The current pandemic is raising all sorts of questions about what they might get for their money when classes are delivered online. These are important questions that concern university teachers as much as students, but many of us have long had doubts how universities have been turned into businesses. The defence of the public university is an important, but often complex task. So here I just wanted to share some thoughts I had after a brief discussion with students about whether they were customers. I just wanted to think about some of the problems with that argument.

  1. Saying that students are customers assumes that education is something you have to buy rather than a right or a public good that should be freely accessible to all.
  2. What are students buying? Is it a degree, is it a service? If teachers are providing a service is the customer always right? How then can teachers tell students what they need to do to improve?
  3. To see students as customers undervalues the work and effort students have to put in to achieve a degree. As Jon Hearn says, teaching is more like being a coach than selling something to a customer. We both have to work together to achieve results.

How we might work together under remote or socially distanced conditions might be challenging, but it is working with students that made me want to teach and, with the help of students, I intend to find a way forward together.

Mary Holmes is Professor of Emotions and Society @ University of Edinburgh, email mary.holmes@ed.ac.uk