Armchair Sociology 4, The pandemic state & its curious UK contradictions

The fourth in the Armchair Sociology series of informal conversations facilitated by Liz Stanley is with Eve Livingston, and focuses on different aspects of the state in relation to caring work, homelessness, poverty, and structural inequalities of different kinds. There are curious contradictions, witnessed by the UK Conservative government’s initiatives with regard to homelessness, unemployment and related matters. Whether these will persist is also discussed, including in relation to migrant labour of different kinds and also coronavirus tracking and surveillance technologies.

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

Eve Livingston is a freelance journalist specialising in social affairs, inequalities and politics. She writes for The Guardian, The Independent, VICE, OpenDemocracy and more, and is currently working on a book for Pluto Press about trade unions and young workers. For her website, go to everebeccalivingston.com. 

What does Covid-19 look like?

Liz Stanley

Images of the coronavirus and Covid-19 specifically have become a familiar sight. A bunch of them, shown in the screenshots here, have been harvested from web sources over the period since mid-February – and for each one, a dozen more sits alongside it. But where do they come from, who owns them in a copyright sense, and what is their status in factual terms?

Following these images into Google-provided live-links regarding possible copyright matters yields a research or an organisational text or simply general information on copyright. Only rarely does an indication of ownership appear on the images, nor if or how they can be reproduced. Also the links, except very exceptionally, do not provide information about where and how the images have originated, whether by a graphic artist, whether through a process of actually photographing the coronavirus, some combination of these, or what. They are, rather than they have become, what Covid-19 looks like.

These images have become as familiar in the communicative spaces of media and television reporting as are street signs and billboard advertising in public places. And they are taken on trust even though they look so different. This is what it looks like. Oh, this is what it looks like. That is what it looks like. Here it is and it’s like this. Or that. Such images have become so familiar that the variations on the theme pass without comment. Where from and why the variations?

The gleaming eye of the tiger – and we casually and almost unseeingly stare into it, accepting, and with the questions not asked or not pursued.

Armchair Sociology 3, the before and possible futures of Covid-19

The third in the Armchair Sociology series of informal conversations facilitated by Liz Stanley is with Nicolas Zehner and is concerned with terms in frequent use, such as before and after and what will happen in the future, and which have taken on a very different resonance in the wake of Covid-19. Do these things pan out very differently between Germany, where he is presently located, and the UK? What about other national contexts and their histories? And does social theory on the future still stand-up or might changes in emphasis and approach be required?

The video of this conversation will be found on The Armchair Sociologist YouTube channel here.

Nicolas Zehner is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Nicolas is researching the intersection of the sociology of imagination and urban assemblage thinking by investigating how urban planning agents imagine data-driven futures. Twitter: @Nicolas_Zehner

Wet markets are among my favourite places to shop

Sophia Woodman

The author beside her favourite vegetable stall in the Tianjin ‘wet market’, Nov. 2008.

When I first moved to Tianjin in northeast China with my family for 10 months of PhD fieldwork, people I met often offered suggestions about how to navigate the city, including where to shop. Several of them pointed out the location of Carrefour, a global French supermarket chain that had a superstore a bus ride away from where we lived. Their assumption was that this was the most appropriate shopping location for someone like me from what they called the ‘advanced’ world, and that I would be worried about the safety of places where locals did their shopping.

Just down the road, about five minutes’ walk from our flat, was the Tianjin version of a ‘wet market’—a commonplace in many Asian countries. In this city, by the time I moved there in 2008, long-standing local street markets had been moved into large covered halls, open at each end, with shop-like stalls along each side and tables stacked with produce down the middle. When you walked in to the main entrance to the market, the first stalls were piled high with colourful displays of all kinds of fruit, and a bit further down were vegetable sellers, who purveyed an impressive range of greens at all times of year. At the far end there were butchers, with red lights shining on cuts of meat hanging from hooks on a metal bar. There was no wild game in sight—this was not an upmarket neighbourhood. The market stretched out into the open along contiguous alleyways, with one along the side selling clothing, another household goods, flowers, plants and pets, among other things. There were tailors, watch repairers, cooked food vendors and bakers selling delicious flatbreads steaming from the griddle.

We often bought these flatbreads for lunch. We frequently ate it along with the cooked wares from a north China version of a salad bar: vinegar pickled vegetables—lotus root, spicy marinated cucumber, grated carrots—and cold potato flour noodles in toasted sesame paste sauce were among my favourites. A woman and her husband prepared the dishes, presumably at home or in the back of the stall. We bought all our fruit and veg in the market, and got to know which vendors sold the nicest and freshest produce. One of the vendors I liked most was a tall young man whose family came from a rural town some distance from Tianjin. He and his family sold all kinds of things that I didn’t recognize on their vegetable stall, and he would patiently explain to me how to cook them. One example was the spring tips of ash branches, which were delicious stir fried with egg, and like nothing else I had tasted. He always had a joke and often gave his regular customers an addition to what they had paid for, along with the standard handful of spring onions and leaves of fresh coriander.

I did occasionally shop at Carrefour, but I didn’t like it much. There was nothing social about the interactions in such supermarkets, and I didn’t find that the packaging and the sterile environment made me more trustful of the safety of what I was buying. I got into the habit, like most of my neighbours, of shopping daily at the street market, buying small amounts of what I wanted to cook and eat that day. Fresh food, less packaging, less food waste and friendly chat to boot. I’ve also loved shopping in similar markets in Hong Kong and Chiangmai, and found comparable experiences in farmers’ markets in Vancouver and Edinburgh.

Since the suspected origin of the coronavirus outbreak was linked to a wet market in Wuhan where live animals were on sale, there have been constant calls for wet markets to be banned. Such calls conflate wet markets and the eating of wild game, and show little awareness of the complex interconnections involved in the emergence of zoonotic viruses such as Covid-19, which knowledgeable writers have attributed to the destruction of ecosystems on the ever-expanding frontiers of global capitalism. Attacking wet markets is often a cover for barely-disguised anti-Asian racism, and unfortunately most journalists feed into this by continuing to report on the origins of the pandemic in a simplistic way, as well as giving air time to ill-informed celebrities who repeat these tired tropes.

Dying

Leanne Clapperton

Death, or the fear of death, forces most people without question to put on a mask, gloves, wash their hands, and spy on their neighbours to check if they too are abiding by the rules. However, what if you had no fear of death, how would you be feeling just now, through this pandemic? I think I am one of those people. I already live in a reality where time has changed, my comfortable social structures disappeared overnight, and people became socially distanced. Two years ago, I watched my beautiful 12-year-old son die from brain and spinal cancer.

I can remember clearly, when he took his last breath in our bed surrounded by me (his Mum), Dad, brothers and dog (tucked beautifully along his legs). This felt a familiar experience, it somehow felt like the birth experience but in reverse. I had supported him into the world, and now I was supporting him out of the world, I would have travelled with him if somehow possible. There are no words that are adequate to describe being present as the bodily processes begin to shut down, to observe it feels like an out of body experience. Yet, paradoxically you are more present than you have ever been. There is point when consciousness is lost and you can see and hear the person taking Cheyne-Stroke breaths, but at the same time there can be a very strong feeling they have already left…

I think comparatively about people in hospital unable to be with their loved ones in their final days and hours. Although it is impossible to know how a dying person feels, it must be even more confusing and frightening alone with no physical contact. Social distancing appears to have taken over every aspect of our reality, right up until death… I wonder if it will become more normalised with all the public numbers of the Covid deaths, or will it be feared more. Or it may be tucked away in books and research, similar to the deaths in concentration camps. What I do know is more control and choice have been taken away from vulnerable and dying people on a global scale. I think of how I would have felt if I had been unable to be with my son through the last moments of his life. It is unimaginable, I am not sure I would still be alive. Unfortunately, I am not speculating, a 13-year-old boy did die alone in London not long into lockdown.

Going forward, the fallout from the pandemic will be immeasurable. I know only too well how many years it can take to try to process a disease that ravages the body. Focus nationally has been for our NHS heroes, and while they are doing a brave job, there is no experience that takes more bravery than dying. Pre-pandemic, people could be present and support their loved ones through the only predictable process we will all face. I see pictures in the paper of faces that have lost the battle to Covid, yet very few of us can really imagine what it is like to go through that process we simply refer to as ‘dying’. When we watch images from hospitals, we focus on the machines, equipment and staff, what about the human under the machines?

Death is one of the most severe and complex social events that will occur in a person’s life. I wonder what happened to the end of life care plans, the wishes, rights and values of the person dying in isolation. How can we dictate the personal and individual experience of dying? Through my own experience it makes me think how little consideration there is about dying through this pandemic, only we are made to believe it needs prevented at all costs.


Leanne Clapperton is a 45 year old Sociology student living in Edinburgh with her family. Leanne enjoys all sociology subject matter but is particularly interested in the social aspects of death, dying and bereavement.

The Will

Morena Tartari

Once upon a time, there was a mother and a son. The mother was a researcher. Her work carried them to different countries in Europe to study the problems of someone who was a mother like her. She considered herself lucky compared to many mothers she had met for her research: she had studied, had a job, and a healthy son. However, having to compete for academic work with men and women without children, the mother never rested, never cried, her thoughts never stopped, her fatigue was so great, her face marked, her hair whitened.

The son was a primary school pupil. Travelling he had learned a new language and had listened to many others. He loved stories, nature, and science. His humor was a valuable resource and adults and children usually loved him.

Together, the mother and the son had started from a Mediterranean country, Italy, where they had left a grandmother and friends. If the child sometimes felt nostalgic for their home, the mother had no nostalgia for the efforts made to make ends meet. From Italy, they had migrated to Belgium and soon left for Scotland, which was just outside the borders of Europe.

In Scotland, they had immediately felt at home. The son loved school and classmates. The mother adored colleagues; he wrote and worked tirelessly. People were hospitable. Nature was intriguing. It was all they had always wanted.

But an epidemic came.

Perhaps read about only in schoolbooks, for many the word epidemic had an ancient sound. Frequent comparisons were made with the Spanish plague and fever, but most seemed to have forgotten what an epidemic was. Having studied ancient Greek, the mother knew that ἐπιδημία (epidemìa) is something that “is in the people”, circulates, takes possession of them, governs them, does not discriminate, but exacerbates inequalities.

In Italy, the epidemic had spread early and quickly compared to other countries. In other countries, it had come more slowly. In others, it was spreading. However, the life of the mother and son flowed normally, in that Scottish city, hospitable and rich in culture, where the mother and the son could not give up cinemas and theaters, libraries and book stores, museums and gardens. The virus seemed nonexistent. It was enough to think so.

In those weeks between February and March 2020, among the people that the mother met in that city, the epidemic was discussed as an invention of the mass media, a non-existent danger, a constructed panic, an economic speculation, a normal flu, a mistake by the Mediterranean countries, which were considered unable to manage economic and health resources.

In social media in Italy in those same weeks, the epidemic was considered as an enemy invasion, the result of uncontrolled and dangerous immigration, the result of a conspiracy. Furthermore, some people celebrated the epidemic as a liberation brought to humanity: it freed old and sick souls to facilitate their renewal. It “cleaned”.

The mother and the son were unable to fully experience the feelings of their compatriots: skepticism, the anger of being invaded by an “immigrant” virus, anxiety about health, the terror of being deprived of personal freedoms, the fear of contagion among those who had chronic diseases. The mother and the son were unable to understand the abnormality of the situation.

One morning in March, while her son was at school, the mother returned home to get some documents and stopped for a few moments to read the news from her country. On the web page of a newspaper, she saw a video: in the night a column of army trucks transported dozens of corpses out of an ancient town to many other towns, because no cemetery had more place to house the dead, for the cremations there were long waiting lists. The video was silent, only the noise of the engines running. Faced with those images, the mother sat down and began to cry. She could only cry. It was not important that they were elderly or sick. They were dead. In the following weeks, the dead multiplied.

The following weeks seemed endless. For the mother, media and social media were simultaneous windows on the social realities of the country from which they came, Italy, of the one in which they resided, Belgium, and of the one in which they were, the UK. The windows opened contradictory views: the naturalness and the artificiality of the virus, underestimation and overestimation of the danger, hundreds of deaths, a few deaths, different preventive measures, distances of one meter, distances of two meters, open schools, closed schools, seven-day quarantine, fourteen-day quarantine, closed borders, open borders. Each country was developing its own beliefs. In Belgium, it was happening what almost a month earlier the mother had seen it happen in Italy and that she expected would happen – and then it happened – in the UK. It was like living and reliving a déjà-vu.

One afternoon in March, the son came home from school and said to his mother, “My classmates beat me because I am Italian and they say that I brought the virus here. But we, mom, went to Italy only for Christmas.” It seemed to the son and mother that a spell had broken. But they didn’t tell each other. They felt alone in a foreign country.

The announcement of the restrictive measures finally came. The first few days after the announcement, many women the mother had in her contacts lost their jobs. They were mostly single mothers, with a single income. They fell one after the other, like apples from the tree of the precariousness, shouting their despair to acquaintances and strangers through Facebook. There were women who wanted to hide their condition for fear of losing their children. Women who had no money for rent, taxes, groceries. Women who could not go out to do their shopping being alone with young children. Women who feared to die from the virus and leaving orphaned children. Women who made a will. Women who, with joint custody, feared that the coming and going between their home and that of their former partner would facilitate contagion.

Working was difficult for the mother. Time went by looking for information on the virus, on the restrictive measures themselves, on the number of deaths, on the forecasts. It was a whirlwind of one’s own and others’ thoughts.

Later, with a child in primary school and a closed school, the mother was able to work a few hours during the day and a few hours during the night. She accumulated tiredness and worries in her bones, but she continued to feel lucky to be able to work from home.

One day in May, a board denied her a publication because she sent it four days after the deadline. Explaining her family circumstances did not help. At the end of the pandemic – she thought – childless men and women would emerge victorious in the academic competition. Perhaps she too, shortly thereafter, would fall from the tree of precariousness.

Despite everything, the lockdown also presented opportunities. The immobility of staying at home allowed the mother and son saving two or three hours a day by not traveling and commuting. Therefore, there was a lot of time to talk, explain, remember, plan, dream together. Working online from home allowed them to multiply the opportunities in the geographical space: she attended seminars and workshops in the United States or Australia while sitting in their living room, and her son online attended his school in Belgium and video called his classmates in Italy.

The mother rediscovered many childhood memories and taught her son what her father – a primary school teacher – had taught her. In other times, he would not have had time to regain possession of these memories and turn them into new learning.

But, above all, the mother and the son could walk in the meadows and parks, whose colors, after hours and hours closed in the house, shone extraordinarily. Being able to go out once a day in a powerful spring meant making many discoveries that started from the ground on which they placed their feet up to the sky beyond the branches of the trees. They felt free to breathe, look, touch, and listen. They felt they were citizens of a natural world without borders. They wished that their ideas could spread without borders, feeling everywhere at home, free to become part of every living thing: like a virus.

Together they were writing a will.

About the author

Morena Tartari is, currently, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Antwerp, Belgium. https://www.uantwerpen.be/en/staff/morena-tartari/

She is carrying out a comparative research study (STRESS-Mums) in four European Countries about single mothers and judicial institutions. In 2012, she completed her Ph.D. (Sociology) at the University of Padua, Italy. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she was a visiting Research Fellow at the School of Social and Political Science of The University of Edinburgh and she participated as a postgraduate student in the discussions sparked by Lynn Jamieson’s sociology class on Intimate Relationships.

Pandemics in past times – a rogues gallery

by Liz Stanley

An interesting visual depiction of pandemics in past times appeared on internet sites a while ago, with these placed in an order of how the most to the least lethal has been gauged. It uses a fuzzy ball shape for each, seemingly based on Covid-19 images. It originates with an internet  body called VisualCapitalist.com. It shows a rogues gallery, with each pandemic fuzzy ball standing for much pain and suffering, millions of deaths, enormous grief, and profound changes in the social, economic and political order.

The website is published by an editorial team at VisualCapitalist.com under the caption of Covid-19 and provides some connected visuals and text on ‘the facts’ for the various pandemics featured. Its ranking of pandemic morbidities from the Black Death (most morbidity) through to SARS (least morbidity) rests on sources which the text and footnotes acknowledge are sometimes less than fully reliable.

For instance, what it calls ‘Spanish Flu‘ is not usually called this now and wasn’t generally called this at the time. Spain was neutral during World War I and had wider reporting of non-war items than combatant countries, and its King had had the influenza; and the 1918 to 1920 pandemic was given many names, at different times and in different places. Also the figure of 200 million deaths in this pandemic is a guesstimate on a range which other sources indicate as starting with something much less than this and ending with something rather more.

The VisualCapitalist.com website provides some helpful information about its graphics and data and its mission concern with media changes and the role of data in this. It is an organisation with a mission, and its account of this is interesting.

However and in spite of its footnotes and brief cautionary comments, its view of ‘the facts’ of pandemics in past times and the data used still has to be taken on trust.

So what do these images add up to? They are posters, with the advantages and disadvantages of such. They are striking in having a colourful and visually striking clarity in conveying information. The ‘history of pandemics‘ information is laid out in bite-size chunks on them with one pandemic following another in morbidity order, and in fact covering a vast time-period although this is difficult to discern without scrutiny of the small font captions beneath each pandemic image. And the ubiquity of this fuzzy ball image does a lot of work, for as well as being striking it coveys, perhaps without really meaning to, that these pandemic are linked and take the same visual ‘viral’  form as Covid-19.

‘Unprecedented’

Idil Galip

Social distancing, lockdown, quarantine, isolation, confinement. These are some words that inspire a sense of stuck-in-betweenness like no other: they signify a clear boundary between the past and the present, and provide no solace for our fantasies about the future. Some of us are well accustomed to this detached anticipation. Some of us, who have witnessed conflict from too close a distance, know this feeling of cosmic dread intimately.

Today, it’s seeing people wearing surgical masks and gloves scanning their meal-deals at isolated self-checkout machines. For us, in North Macedonia in 2001, the tension between extraordinary circumstances and mundane activity manifested itself in similarly tragicomical ways. I clearly remember my family having a barbeque in the snow in the echoes of distant gunfire exchanged between militia and armed forces. But I guess sometimes, a kebap is a kebap.

In Skopje, we were bystanders in an ethnic conflict that a very large part of the world was unaware of. It was a localised, ‘confined’ crisis that would affect the immediate surrounding area. Specific supply chains critical for the comfort of the affluent West wouldn’t be disrupted as they have been today because of the covid-19 pandemic, so there was no need for ‘international’ outcry. One to two million people felt the direct effects of the conflict, and for others it was business as usual.

The witnesses of this conflict, like many other witnesses of such violent crises, however, learned what it meant to exist between emotional extremes: to be afraid and nonchalant, accepting and defiant, hopeful and apathetic all at the same instance. This nebulous and unpredictable state of being that we now occupy is therefore not ‘unprecedented’. It is, was, and has been the living reality for many people around the world.

I am not by any means suggesting that the pain and suffering that this pandemic has brought to people isn’t real or worth discussing. It obviously is. However, thinking about the pandemic in a historical vacuum or as an isolated incident of human suffering is short-sighted. Here, removing ourselves from the past by highlighting the uniqueness of our present strengthens a sense of exceptional individualism and undermines community. This relentless focus on the singularity of individual pain (as well as individual perseverance) is emblematic of a dangerous neoliberal morality. By highlighting the distinctness of the misery that this pandemic has caused, we create untranslatable mythologies.

Ralph Fevre in his book Individualism and Inequality (2016) seperates ‘sentimental individualism’ of the 19th century, associated with authors such as Thomas Paine and Adam Smith, from ‘cognitive individualism’ embodied by neoliberal politics. While the sentimental individual believes that we all share a ‘common humanity’, the cognitive individual believes in self-direction, self-actualisation and self-determination. Cognitive individualism then rests on the belief that any success or failure is the responsibility of the individual. This understanding of human experience is inevitably alienating and isolating. It breaks down notions of community belonging and instead rewards or punishes the individual.

In our case, we have our ‘heroes’: nurses and doctors who have lost their lives providing essential care for the good of the many. A disproportionate amount of them were BAME. This disproportionality is not being treated as suspicious, or as a reflection of a wider pattern of inequality, or something that could have been prevented, by those in power.

Many authorities and institutions are instead portraying them as individuals who sacrificed themselves for society. But by treating each case as a show of sacrificial bravery and occupational perseverance, we lose sight of patterns that are staring us right in the face: patterns of inequality, injustice and ignorance that have affected economically and socially marginalised communities for decades. We ignore historical continuities when we label these ruptures as unique, individual, or unprecedented. This is a perilous line of logic and has dangerous consequences for marginalised workers.

So is this pandemic truly an unprecedented crisis? If the same communities, not only in the UK, but all across the globe, are bearing the brunt of it as always?

Idil Galip is writing from Southside, Edinburgh. She is a PhD researcher in sociology at the University of Edinburgh and studies memes, art and digital labour: https://twitter.com/idilgalip

Physical distancing and the PhD researcher’s ‘invisible college’: What are the implications?

Lisa Howard

Like many of us during this pandemic, I feel somewhat anxious about the future. Among other things, I think about what the post-Covid19 world means for my current PhD and my career post doctorate, considering the implications of a prolonged period of remote and physically distanced interactions. In this piece I want to talk specifically about my concerns for lost opportunities for face to face contact, and how this might impair my and other PhD students’ stake in the ‘invisible college’.

The invisible college is a term originating in the 17th century to describe the informal interactions of a small group of like-minded scholars, with the aim of exchanging academic knowledge. Beginning as an exchange of written letters, the need to further ferment ideas for intellectual flourishing led to regular in-person, small group meetings at Gresham College, London. This locally-based exchange of ideas would later challenge the religious and academic orthodoxy of the time. The invisible college continues to operate today as a global, self-organised community of collaborating scholars, and is understood as one of the essential structures by which knowledge is created. While modern life affords us the technology to substitute in-person collaboration with video calling and other media, sociologist John Urry reminds us of the limitations of our networked sociality for building the connections that depend on being co-present. Personalised trust is formed when we can personally know people, and I would argue is harder when we’ve only ‘met’ them online or on a videocall. Co-presence involves rich, dense and multi-layered conversations using body language and eye contact to create intimacy and reciprocity which are difficult to re-create through technological communication.

Even when we’re eventually allowed to meet in person at a ‘safe’ distance, will there be places to meet? The early meetings of the invisible college were held within a supportive institutional setting of Gresham College. The academy is already demonstrating its risk aversion to aiding Covid-19 transmission by its recent 18-month moratorium on in-person fieldwork. In addition, the politics of space and place are significant for capitalist processes, requiring a spatial fix for continued accumulation. Universities will be facing financial black holes with the loss of international students, and are likely to exploit the opportunity to recoup lost revenue by saving costs in building and office spaces. We are already seeing the development of virtual teaching and learning for the new academic year. With this in mind, I am not optimistic that on-site sociality will resume even after the government begins to loosen lockdown measures. 

I miss the buzz and atmosphere of being co-located with peers and colleagues. I feel sadness for the lost chances for corporeal mobility and proximity, for the situated social practices that build rapport, trust and social capital, and foster collaboration. The networking at conferences, conversations with peers in social spaces, catch-ups over coffee, forging new contacts at seminars and other small on campus events are very difficult to recreate in a virtual space. I fear this will impede not only the discussions and exchange of ideas that shape my research field, but also the connections that could contribute to future job opportunities. The disembodiment of our current social life may be profound for academic life as we once knew it. We will adapt, out of necessity. But it’s clear that the invisible college, perhaps taken for granted before now, will in future not be as well supported by conducive institutional places and spaces. The responsibility will fall more on the individual to find ways to build their invisible college.

Lisa Howard is a first year PhD student in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.