I befriended a homeless man

Giulia Cavalcanti

I befriended a homeless man.

It is interesting how I am choosing to write about this. This is not a ‘hero’ story. This is just a story about an ordinary human being. Me.
Yet, it is interesting how this act has remained etched in my mind.
In ‘normal’ times where we run late to work, class or to socialise with everyone apart ourselves and/or strangers, so focused on our routines and ourselves, this story is worth telling. Bear in mind, this is not a story about a homeless man, it is a story about myself…

I befriended a homeless man.

I am no hero. I am human. Coronavirus made me human. Coronavirus made us all humans. Once again.

I walk to the shop near my home and there he is. A man around his 40s, with grey short hair and beard. Always sitting with crossed legs, smiling and wishing everyone ‘a good day’. A British or Scottish version of George Clooney I must say. I am sure he was there many times before and during Coronavirus, before and after I noticed him. Always there. I must have seen him, smiled embarrassed and mumbled something like “I’m sorry”. But then one day – nothing like an epiphany – while I am walking to the shop from the safety of my home, I do wonder ‘how it is like to live under the skin of a homeless person?’. What is interesting is that only now with Coronavirus I asked myself such a question.

As now in light of the movement of Black Lives Matter, many people – including myself – ask themselves ‘how it is like to live under the skin of a black person?’. Only now, or only when some big media explodes.
Yet, Coronavirus did not cause homelessness. Coronavirus simply changed my relation towards homeless people. Homelessness has always been there, I was simply not looking directly at it. The reason most likely is that now the home is so filled with meaning and with a bit of intersectional lens we can become all aware that even the literal meaning of home is not as granted as we thought it was. It actually has never been granted!

My “epiphany” changed my attitude. I started smiling, with real intent of smiling, without embarrassment. I started looking and seeing this man’s face. I was no longer simply looking towards his face. I saw the man’s face, and notices: the short grey beard, his small eyes, small details…

I made soup and I brought it to him. I talked to him – What would you like?
And he said nothing. I was confused.
Sometimes I would ask, sometimes I would “surprise” him. Sometimes he would answer secure of what he wanted, sometimes he would not know.
Coffee.
Chocolate.
I did not buy him something every time. But he smiled at me every time. And I smiled and waved at him every time.

He was a kind man. Those people that give you the impression of calmness.

And then I realised something. I did not behave with all homeless people in the same way. That was not an epiphany moment at all. I still smiled embarrassed and mumble “I’m sorry” to other homeless people. I still did not look at every homeless people directly in the eyes. I would wait until he was there to buy something. I bought a coffee once to another homeless man. But that’s it.

So… Why him? It was not the George Clooney’s clone charm. Rather I choose to humanise that singular man. I choose to give him a face into my memory. I choose to interact with him. I choose to connect with him.
There is always something about humanising one homeless person. Usually a man. Homeless women do exist, you know. And yet again women are the one whose stories, whose existence do not change us rich white folks. I still wonder why we choose one person. And why did I choose him? And, after going over and over what I wrote I have my answer. I do not particularly like this ‘solution’. But here it is! I choose him because he does not look like the homeless person. He does not have the appearance of abusing substances of any sorts. He looks clean. He looks at you. He says: ‘have a good day’ before someone would mumble ‘I’m sorry’. He could be a male version of myself as homeless.
I choose him because our similarities allowed me to empathise with him.  I did not choose consciously, but I think my unconscious drove me to him for some reason…

Until our culture is ready to humanise everyone. Every single person. And not just the ones who look like us – Capitalism will win. And every time we walk to a shop and do not see the person who is sitting outside on the floor, capitalism will have won the battle.

I befriended a homeless man.
I humanised a homeless man.
I wish I had asked him more.
– What happened?
– What’s your name?
I still do not know his name.

So, after all, this is a short story about my failed attempt to befriend a homeless man. So, after all, this is a short story of how a virus humanised one woman and maybe all citizens overall.

Next: The possible second wave

Liz Stanley

A consortium of the leaders of the UK‘s medical, nursing and public health professions on 24 June published a joint letter in the British Medical Journal, sent to the leaders of all UK political parties. It argues for procedures to plan for what happens next, now that strict lockdown has been lifted, because in their view the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus is actually likely rather than just possible. Succinctly, it proposes a cross-party all-interest group or inquiry but which would have planning for what happens next as its aim, rather than enquiring into what went wrong with the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. It proposes that the focus for this inquiry should be:

  • “Governance including parliamentary scrutiny and involvement of regional and local structures and leaders
  • Procurement of goods and services
  • Coordination of existing structures, in a way designed to optimise the establishment of effective public health and communicable disease control infrastructure, the resilience of the NHS as a whole, and the shielding of vulnerable individuals and communities
  • The disproportionate burden on black, Asian, and minority ethnic individuals and communities
  • International collaboration, especially to mitigate any new difficulties in pandemic management due to Brexit”

Important in its own right, there are a number of aspects worth thinking about in a bit more detail.

First, there is the fact that these professions are working together and doing so through the highly regarded vehicle of the BMJ. The medical, nursing and public health professions are all important, but in worldly and political terms the most powerful of these is the medical profession. The BMJ is a kind of lodestar, with social scientists as much as others working within medical areas aspiring to publication even as one of a very large team in its pages.

Second, the letter is addressed to the leaders of all political parties, not the government specifically or at least not in a public way in this letter. This is itself a sign of the changing times, for even just a few weeks earlier it would have been addressed to the government or some part of it. It is a return to political life that is being signalled in who the letter is addressed to, in which political debate and manoeuvering will resume publicly, for one assumes it had not entirely gone away out of the public eye.

Third, the leaders of the medical, nursing and public health professions have used a letter, a public open letter, to make their intervention. In academic terms, much has been pronounced (wrongly) about the so-called death of the letter. Against this, not only is there a massive upsurge in forms of communication premised on ‘letterness’ aspects, text and email amongst them, but in formal circumstances it is notable that only a written letter directed to a known person and physically signed by the letter-writer will do for legal, official and other public purposes. Using a public letter as the device of communication is a strong signal of intent on the part of identified persons, with their names and positions specified as part of ‘the letter’ overall, which includes its address and sign off as well as its specific content.

And fourth, in the BMJ letter the way that what happens ‘next’ appears is that this might well be rather like previously, unless problem areas are tackled and better forward thinking mechanisms put in place. ‘The future’ is described as ‘the future state of the pandemic’ and the letter is concerned with planning for this. It is notable that there is no sign of an ‘after‘, in the sense of the pandemic coming to an end, of this being a possible state that UK society will be in. Instead there is next, a haunting by a possible future that could be as terrible as what has happened already.

Wuhan: Life After Lockdown

A BBC Our World podcast

An excellent 25 minute podcast in the consistently good Our World series on BBC Radio is available, featuring the accounts of many people in Wuhan. This longer version is only available after signing in, and so is accessible only by people who have a BBC licence in the UK. However, in addition a shorter version focusing on some of these people in particular is available via the BBC News app here. ‘Inside Wuhan: Life after coronavirus lockdown’ is concerned with Decameron stories as told, not by the original Italian privileged and rich plague story-tellers, but the ordinary extraordinary folk of Wuhan.

BBC Our World. Producer: Natalia Zuo; Filmed by: Hong Chutian; Edited by: Natalia Zuo, Gordon Watt; Assistant Producer: Yitsing Wang; Executive Producers: Claire Williams, Adam Grimley, Howard Zhang

Covid-19 & the global intensification of inequalities

An e-symposium at UEL

Friday July 3, 2020, 3-4.30pm

Centre for Social Justice and Change, and Centre for Narrative Research, University of East London

Chair: Dr. Meera Tiwari

Presentations on and discussion about Covid-19 and its effects on economies, livelihoods, education and health, in relation to women, poor communities, and HIV positive people, in India, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia, and the UK.

Presenters: Elaine Unterhalter (UCL), Sanny Mulubale (University of Zambia), Adriana Prates (Federal University of Bahia), Corinne Squire (UEL), Meera Tiwari (UEL), and Alan Whiteside (Balsillie School of International Affairs/Wilfred Laurier University).

To attend, please book here on Eventbrite and you will then receive your invitation:

Presenters

Elaine Unterhalter is Professor of Education and International Development at the Institute of Education, UCL. She is also the Co-Director of the Centre for Education and International Development. Prof Unterhalter will be drawing on her extensive research in South Africa and Nigeria to reflect on how the Covid pandemic has impacted education for the poorest cohorts and girls in those countries.

Dr Sanny Mulubaleis a University of Zambia lecturer and researcher who obtained a PhD from UEL as a Commonwealth Scholar.  Adriana Prates has extensive experience as a community health worker, researcher and activist, and is completing a PhD at the Federal University of Bahia, Salvador, brazil. Corinne Squire is Professor of Social Sciences and Co-Chair, Centre for Narrative Research, University of East London. Sanny, Corinne and Adriana will be talking about their research on Covid-19 and the intensification of lived HIV inequalities in Brazil, the UK and Zambia.

Prof Alan Whiteside is CIGI Chair in Global Health Policy, School of International Policy and Governance, Wilfrid Laurier University and Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo, Canada, and is currently on sabbatical at UEL. He will be talking about the Covid-19 responses in South Africa and how people living with HIV are being affected.

Dr. Meera Tiwari is Reader in Global Development at UE where she leads the EADI accredited Masters in NGO and Development Management.  She will situate the complex impact of Covid-19 in India within her extensive research on livelihoods and multidimensional poverty in India.

The ASA’s Footnotes & the Decameron

Liz Stanley

The latest issue of the American Sociological Association’s Footnotes, for May/June 2020, has recently appeared. Also available electronically here, it takes the form of a print publication of 46 pages, and is filled with short contributions on the theme of sociology during COVID-19. This is actually sociology in the US, although this is not made clear but is implicit. There are many short and very accessible essays which provide considerable food for thought.

The issue starts with a number of first person narratives by an array of sociologists about their experiences and reactions. This is followed by essays on challenges to the profession and in particular to research productivity because of the foreclosure of, for instance, fieldwork or archival research sites. The bulk of the issue is concerned with sociological insights on COVID-19 provided from the many different sections of the ASA, with each section invited to contribute and 35 short essays resulting. An editorial comments that “Collectively, the articles here make a powerful statement about sociology as a discipline and all it has to contribute to addressing critical societal issues“ (p1). It certainly marks the moment and provides a wide set of thoughtful interesting contributions.

The opening personal narratives (why are they called narratives? They are simply short statements of personal experience and surely there is more to narrative than this) are interesting and at points moving, while being concerned with specific locations and persons. By and large they do not concern any ‘outside’ to the US context. More surprisingly, while COVID-19 is rampaging as a pandemic, including in countries close to the US, there are oddly few points at which the international context is registered across the 35 section essays. The rest of the world barely figures, and instead there is mainly a curious parochialism rooted in the specifics but seeing this as generalities. It is interesting to think about the British equivalent in this respect and whether it too might be fettered by its national roots and specifically British concerns. Casting an eye over the BSA website and the area concerned with COVID-19, and also its members print publication Network, would be interesting in this respect. Comparing Footnotes with the Edinburgh Decameron is like comparing a large fish with a tiny bicycle, but still some interesting points come to mind.

Footnotes speaks on behalf of a national discipline or rather that part of it with membership of the ASA (with some members in other national settings). Contributors to the Edinburgh Decameron speak for ourselves as members of a small located community rather than on behalf of wider groupings. Its localism is deliberate and upfront. Footnotes is concerned with marking a particular point in time through a considered set of statements which mark out the trajectories of the ASA sections and appear in a fixed format. The Edinburgh Decameron is all about process and a plethora of voices, often disagreeing, and its contributions appear at any point at which someone has something to say, so it is always changing. Footnotes is rather dominated by the print format. Many of its contributions are split between pages, appearing on one page, and then continuing at the bottom or the side of the next rather than following directly on. This makes for a disjointed process of reading, with the mind’s eye going from one essay topic, which is left part-way through, to another only 2/3 finished, then picking up the earlier, then finishing off the following, and so on and so on. It is certainly available in an electronic version, but it is conceived with print in mind.  The Edinburgh Decameron takes a form dominated by WordPress templates, and its curators (information on the website) find the blog templates not entirely satisfactory for both recording specific localisms in an unfolding processual way, and creating an archive in which readers can easily find past as well as present posts. It is/not a blog. Broad anonymised data in analytics shows a general pattern of reading that starts with recent posts, and from there goes onto other material, with some pages only glancingly arrived on, and others having much time spent on them. 

But the Edinburgh Decameron is indeed a small and local community response, and obviously the better comparison is between the ASA and the BSA. Contributions on this are called for! And what about other national sociologies? Also greatly welcomed would be more contributions from past and present, and also future, members of the Edinburgh community living outwith Scotland and the UK. A pandemic is a pandemic and we bracket other parts of the world at our collective peril.

Call for Papers: Building the Post-Pandemic University

A call for papers has been circulated in the last week by Mark Carrigan, for a digital sociology conference and possible book concerned with what universities will be like ‘after‘ and the impact of the digital in this. The call for papers is as follows and see here also:

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In a matter of months, the world has changed beyond recognition. Covid-19 has led to an unprecedented reorganisation of everyday life, with half the world’s population subject to lockdown measures at the peak of governmental response to the pandemic. These measures are being eased across the world, with uncertain and worrying consequences in the continued absence of the vaccine which would herald a potential resolution of the current situation. In its continued absence we face the necessity of institutionalising what has been called ‘social distancing’ but is perhaps better described as ‘physical distancing’, given the capacity of digital platforms to facilitate social interaction without the co-presence which is still frequently seen as its defining characteristic. 

The impending arrival of the forthcoming academic year means we urgently need to grapple with what this crisis means for the future of the university. How will higher education be transformed by lockdown and social distancing? What university do we hope to work within after this crisis? What contribution should we make to building this post-pandemic university? The current operations of the university are reliant on the affordances of digital platforms and this seems likely to grow in the coming years, even if some face to face meetings resume in the name of blended learning and research capacity. This includes digital platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom being incorporated into the core operations of the university in a manner which is likely to be difficult to unwind at a later date, as much as it has served a clear purpose in the present crisis. For this reason it’s essential we begin to incorporate the socio-technical into our established accounts of higher education, opening up the ‘black box’ in order to understand the role played by technology in building the post-pandemic university.

However while we see digital technology as playing a crucial role in response to this crisis, the questions which the sector faces are much more than technical ones. Our intention is to facilitate a conversation which bridges theory and practice, analysis and intervention, animated by a shared concern about what this crisis means for the university and how we ought to respond to it. If we want to understand the challenges facing higher education, it is imperative this encompasses the range of potential responses to these difficulties and the interests and ideals served by these for the multitude of groups who will play a part in building the post-pandemic university. We hope this will be a broad and multifaceted conversation which brings together multidisciplinary expertise engaging with an eclectic range of topics rotating around the core problematic of ‘building the post-pandemic university’. We imagine this would include themes such as: 

  • The built environment of the campus and how it is likely to change 
  • The enactment of social distancing across the university’s activities
  • The impact of the pandemic on racialised, classed and gendered injustice 
  • The implications of these changes for equality & diversity within the university
  • The impact of Covid-19 on the challenge of climate change 
  • The search for new markets and products by education investors 
  • The public role of the university and transition out of the crisis
  • Equality and diversity in the post-pandemic university
  • The geo-politics of Covid-19 and its relationship to global higher education
  • The challenge of academic mobility and the potential demise of the global conference circuit 
  • The surveillance architecture inherent in the turn towards platforms 
  • Labour relations during the crisis and what this means for the post-pandemic university

These are only suggestions and we welcome contributions on any topic which speaks to the broader theme of building the post-pandemic university, particularly if they also contribute to a broader exercise of mapping out the contours of the present crisis and possible transitions from it.
Please send 300 word abstracts by email to mark@markcarrigan.net by July 31st with the subject line ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’. We aim to inform contributors of acceptance by August 10th for an online conference due to take place on September 18th 2020. We hope this event will be the starting point for an edited book so please indicate when submitting your abstract if this is something which you might be interested in contributing to. 

We will release full details of the conference format soon after the confirmation of acceptance but at this stage we expect the bulk of the event to take place through Zoom with an as yet to be confirmed asynchronous component which will extend participation beyond those who are speaking at the conference.

On Masks

Nick Prior

Do you mask up? Amidst the unbearable tragedies unfolding around Covid 19, one might be forgiven for failing to notice that people in these islands have slowly taken to the idea that wearing a face covering or protective mask of some kind might help mitigate the spread of the virus. Decorator’s masks, surgical masks, washable masks, makeshift masks, branded masks, three-layered masks, Joy Division masks – people appear increasingly willing to don a lower-face covering procured in whatever way they can, to protect themselves and others. News feeds feature almost daily updates on the scientific evidence for and against the mask’s effectiveness in reducing transmission, as well as which types of masks are the most effective, where to get them, and how to stylise your own fashionable mask in order to stand out from the Covid crowd. (Bourdieusian sociologists won’t be surprised to hear that cultural distinction operates even in the midst of a global pandemic). Not unlike the beak-like plague masks of 17th, 18th and 19th century Europe, the protective mask has – alongside rainbows and representations of the spikes of the coronavirus itself – come to symbolise the pandemic. It is now part of the semiotic landscape of our Covid times. Unmasking some sociological components of face coverings might, therefore, give us traction in understanding elements of our current predicament. 

There are four things that interest me, here. First, masks are politically potent objects, subject to the ideological work of nation states, city authorities and global institutions. When scarce they become indicative of the state’s failure to plan or to protect front-line workers. When their efficacy is disputed, they are subject to a bewildering outpouring of information from competing agencies, the advice changing almost daily or weekly. The news that the Word Health Organisation (WHO) has changed its guidance on wearing masks – declaring that masks should be worn in public areas in order to reduce the spread of the virus – shows how the mask is a mutable wearable. Its purpose and meaning is constantly changing as a result of the deliberations and struggles of powerful social and political actors. While in Scotland, the government is, at time of writing, considering making wearing face coverings compulsory on public transport and inside public venues, in the U.S. masks have moved centre stage in an increasingly divisive political environment. The decision to wear a mask appears to be as much a political as a health choice, with both President Trump and presidential hopeful Joe Biden taking opposing actions on whether (to be seen) to wear one.

Important differences exist beyond the realms of governance, privilege and power, however. We already know that Covid 19 has impacted more heavily on BAME communities and that experiences of lockdown are socially stratified according to wealth and political influence, access to green space, child support, healthy food, and so on. That the lowly mask is also caught in structures of social division should not entirely surprise us, then. Cost and supply are always factors, of course, but so too basic decision-making processes around the risks attached to wearing a mask by particular social and ethnic groups. Hence, in an atmosphere of uncertainty, protest and unrest – made more acute in the wake of police brutality against African Americans and the murder of George Floyd – it is clear that some members of the black community have decided not to wear a mask in order to reduce the risk of serious harm from a police force that sees a partially obscured black face as reason enough for suspicion, harassment or worse (link in Japanese). 

Second, while Covid 19’s ruse is that it cruelly exploits the very thing that makes us human (contact, communication, connection) a protective mask is designed precisely not to be an absolute barrier to the outside world for the same reason. It makes invisible only part of our faces, for it must still allow for some of the basics of interaction. It’s not a hazmat mask or protective helmet, after all. The mask meets the fiendish invisibility of the virus with its visible counterpart – a shield, of sorts – but an imperfect one that doesn’t cover every facial opening and may give the wearer a false sense of security. Even in its surgical form it is a semi-permeable boundary, comprising innumerable but imperceptible apertures of the gauze. It therefore dramatizes and makes evident the vulnerability of the wearer and those around them. One of the most appalling statistics of this pandemic concerns the number of front-line health workers who have lost their lives in this outbreak. Many of them patently did possess protective masks and other forms of PPE, albeit distributed too late or in a faulty, sub-standard or even second-hand state.

Third, a mask transforms core elements of the interaction order and the mundane dynamics of sociality. From the shop encounter to the chance meeting, masks intervene in the intricate play of language and gesture, face work and forms of talk. For the interactionist sociologist, the mask is already, of course, a metaphor for the work that goes into playing a role or conveying desirable characteristics to others. The mask adds another non-human layer into interpersonal situations, making it potentially harder to read the intentions of others and the subtle levels of communication that are already at play. It means we have to work extra hard to look for and hear the signifiers of meaning: were they being serious, are they angry, sincere, disappointed, ironic, upset? In a hear-rending article written by a beleaguered doctor dealing daily with dying patients with coronavirus, the doctor writes movingly about having to soothe a dying man through thick wads of PPE. “Behind our masks”, she writes, “we strain to hear each other speak and are forced to second guess our colleagues’ expressions. Being protected entails being dehumanised.”

And what of speech, the mouth and humanism? Would it be a Derridean stretch to say that Western societies, with their emphasis on voice and speech, are peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with these attenuated forms of interaction? Is this one of the many reasons why European nations have been slow to adopt masks as part of everyday face apparel? There is a strand of thought that suggests that many countries in East Asia (South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, China, Taiwan), have suffered less catastrophic human loss during the pandemic precisely because these are societies where mask wearing is common in everyday life. And members of these societies have found ways to co-exist with them while maintaining a richness of human communication. In Japan there is a well known proverb – “me wa kuchi hodo ni mono wo iu” which roughly translates as “the eyes can tell you as much as the mouth”. What we might call “eye-work” and the “reading” of eyes is a strong component of how members of Japanese society go about their business while masked, supported by a reliance on para-linguistic context. Exploring how culture shapes and gets into behaviour and action during the pandemic, then, is an important task for the sociologist not least because cultural matters can be matters of life and death.

Fourth, the Covid situation has sparked into being myriad cultures of amateur mask production, instigating a whole DIY infrastructure of makers geared towards providing stock for those in need. In Edinburgh, Edinburgh Mask Makers organise themselves on a supply-and-demand basis, with a Facebook page combined with a series of physical drop off boxes around the city. Typically, a call goes out from a service or group for a number of face masks, and individual makers commit a certain amount until the total is reached. Volunteers have also developed a buddy system of direct transaction to avoid unnecessary group administration and people donate various materials, like fabric, to the group. Linked initiatives for the borrowing and swapping of sewing machine hardware have also sprung up. There’s more than a whiff of what Mason calls post-capitalism at work here: a self-organised network of digitally and physically connected individuals, working on an entirely voluntary basis, to meet a human need. If there is some positivity to take from the pandemic it is surely in how networks like these – and the acts of kindness and support that have taken root – have fomented. How we harness these energies in order to imagine new futures will be a key question for those interested in not returning to the “old normal”.

As for the mask, there’s a good chance that it may be here to stay and that we need to get used to it as a material presence on our faces and in our towns, cities and communities. That might mean a recalibration of what constitutes the public sphere and the interactions that happen there, perhaps even necessitating new skills of interaction and ways of being human. It is worth remembering that the invisible counterpart to the mask is 0.1mm thick, and is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. 

10th June 2020

Changing consumption practices

Lisa Howard

Much has been written in the media about changes in consumer spending over the lockdown period. More food and alcohol, fewer non-essential goods such as clothing and footwear, furniture and recreational goods. The patterns of our spending have reflected constraints on our mobility and perceived risks of contracting the virus in public spaces, as well as parts of the economy shutting down, such as the travel and leisure industry. The question is, now that restarting of the economy is on the government’s horizon, will we revert back to old consumption habits once lockdown is over? From the evidence in my photos, I believe the marketers of these goods and services think perhaps not.

I took the photos on 9th June, at the Phase 1 stage in the Scottish Government’s strategy to exit from lockdown. The photos show a series of advertisements from a rotating billboard near Murrayfield. I thought the products were particularly emblematic of the times: Wine delivered to your door; A virtual livestreamed rave; A high-spec indoor fitness bike; and learning to write packs for children. Despite lockdown easing, the investment in advertising these products and services suggests that marketers predict our consumption habits will remain home-oriented in the near future. How might a sociologist analyse such shifts in consumption practices?

The sociology of consumption is a vast field, having seen numerous ‘turns’ over years, but can commonly be understood as the ‘social organization of activities through which items are incorporated, deployed, and disposed of’ (Warde, 2015, p. 118). The ‘practice turn’ in the sociology of consumption is informed by social practice theory. This seam of thought de-centres the human actor in consumption, but without prioritising structure or agency.  A social practice is seen by Shove et al (2012) as integrated elements of materials (objects, tools and infrastructures), competencies (knowledge and embodied skills) and meanings (cultural conventions, expectations and socially shared meanings). Social practices interlock, for example the practices of mobility, shopping and eating. They are dynamic, emerging or disappearing when links between their defining elements are made or broken.

Within this framework, the rupturing of links due to Covid-19 (for example, access to materials brought about by lockdown measures and economic shutdown) has resulted in new practices emerging, in part due to competencies to perform these having been developed during this period. For example, school closures and the need for home schooling have demanded parents learn skills of teaching, and the enforcement of spending leisure time at home has developed competencies in using technology for socialising. The meanings element of some practices may have changed due to narratives of risk, so that having wine delivered to your door could mean feeling safer (than going to the supermarket) or greater convenience. The meaning of taking exercise on a static bike may be related to expectations of continued gym closure, efforts towards preventative healthcare, or the need to spend more time at home due to caring responsibilities.

I wonder whether – in the coming months and years as we start to feel the financial pinch of the economic downturn, we will see social practices shift again, with products advertised on these billboards reflecting a shift towards constrained household budgets and frugality?

Lisa Howard is a PhD researcher researching climate change and personal life. She is hoping to be able again soon to return to walking in the Highlands.

References

Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. In The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and How it Changes.

Warde, A. (2015). The Sociology of Consumption: Its Recent Development. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, 117–123.

More on ‘guided by the evidence’

Liz Stanley

An interesting analytical consideration of the mantra of ‘guided by the evidence’ by Roger Stewart has been published in the Daily Maverick, 11 June 2020. He is a former South African Medical Research Council academic who knows what he is talking about. Not only does the problem as perceived regarding Covid-19 change shape, but also the powers accorded to science and evidence quickly dissolve into something that reveals what he calls “the dark side of evidence-guided decision-making”.

The scientific method promises much but rarely comes up to scratch in complex moving situations, he comments. Measurement in science cannot provide complete information, not least because the data necessarily leaves out so much of the complexity of social life. Measurement involves distortion, delay bias and error not because it is done by ‘bad people’ but because they are people and have points of view which guide what they do and what they think. While combining scientists and other experts in groups can help overcome some problems, there are group effects, including group pressures to conform to norms and also that some groups can become the tame pets of those higher up the governance foodchain. And anyway, as we in the UK have amply witnessed, evidence does not necessarily mean that people believe it or take notice of it even when they do.

Stewart continues making a series of interesting points, including commenting on social systems as intricate networks of feedback with implications for the relationship between policy makers and citizens. This is a thoughtful piece of writing which this brief commentary has only touched the surface of. Visit the link above to read the whole article.

Led by what? on science and experts

Liz Stanley

A short article, “‘Led by the science‘: the changing role of experts from Brexit to COVID-19”, has recently appeared on the ‘Everyday Society’ part of the BSA website. It offers a series of comparisons between the role of experts during Brexit, “where experts were notable by their absence and the debates seem to be led by populist tendencies“, with the role they have in COVID-19. It also comments that “‘Led by the science‘ of course does not mean there is one homogenous objective scientific voice… Clearly, there is a need for balance, the role of rigorous scientific evidence is crucial”. In addition it proposes, not entirely correctly, that very few sociologists have commented on this; witness, for example, interesting contributions to such matters regarding COVID-19 in Discover Society among other examples.

What comes through is the idea that somewhere within what is happening there is ‘rigorous science’ which can provide certain evidence. If only! Perhaps this is the triumph of hope over knowledge of what has been happening! It also leaves on one side the question of what exactly the ‘science‘ is here although, as indicated above, it does recognise that it is not homogenous. The result is nonetheless a kind of collapse between medical investigations, mathematical modelling, epidemiological analysis and various other ‘science‘, some of which is based on assumptions that would be sociologically laughable if not so dangerous societally and ought to be subject to rigorous critical analysis. There’s also a missed opportunity in getting to closer grips with the idea of the so-called ‘expert’, something which has been given attention in a range of Edinburgh Decameron posts. ‘Balance’ in relation to such matters is in my view not what sociology should be aiming for. But the contents of this article and others that raise sociological heads above the parapets must be seen as a welcome sign of analytical things to come.