Since leaving Edinburgh in February and trying to settle back into my hometown, São Paulo in Brazil, I have been thinking a lot about space and place. Doreen Massey, whose work you recommended to me (thank you again!), has been particularly helpful, as her idea of a progressive sense of place nicely brings together time and space.
I have been musing about my feeling of dislocation between the city I left in 2016, and the one I arrived back in this year. If places are, as Doreen said, always constructed out of articulations of social relations, well… this society I am back in has experienced a political turn in the few last years, and I cannot say I feel warmly towards what seems to be the mainstream values of my fellow compatriots. Which can feel isolating. More personally, as we are under lockdown, and I have been so since shortly after arriving, and will continue for the foreseeable future, I am away from my family and friends just as much as I was living in Hong Kong and then Edinburgh, timezones aside. Additionally, I am living in a new apartment, in a new neighbourhood, which is a place that is older and more urban than my previous addresses in this city, so in a sense it is more similar to where I lived in Hong Kong.
Then there is time. As one would expect, I am significantly different from the person I was four years and some countries ago. As I unpack both what I have brought from abroad and all the stuff that had sat packed up for years here in Brazil, things that have never previously shared the same space or the same time are now coming together, which makes me feel a bit like a time-traveller. I am still noticing some sort of breaks on the time-space continuum which are caused by this and that testify to very different ways of living.
So, right now, I am trying to knit together a present in which these stories from different places and times can come together. There is time for that now in my life, as I am sheltering in a place with no conditions about planning for the future. I wonder how things are and who is writing what about the histories happening in those apartments that were a home for me when I was abroad in Hong Kong and Edinburgh. Now I am trying to find some coherence and identity in this non-place and non-time that I am in. Which is fine because, as Doreen said, the identities of places are always temporary, uncertain, and in process.
As is customary everywhere at this trying time, I finish by saying that I hope this finds you, your family, friends, places, and all other affections, healthy and fine.
What do you touch most everyday? Your face? Your hair? Someone else? Coffee cup? Door handle? Keyboard and screen? A lot of our social, leisure and work lives were conducted digitally before lockdown and now it seems nearly all of it is. Now imagine each digital element was tangible. How much does a click ‘weigh’? What’s the mass of a like? How much momentum does your tweet have? What’s the force of an insta? The calorific value of an email?
The question I have been dicing with during lockdown is how the digital is tangible as a physical force. It has been estimated that the internet weighs between 6 micrograms 60 grams depending on how many electrons are factored into the calculation. Rather than being this literal – what energy does it consume – I think of it in reverse. How much of your energy does it consume. What physical properties does it imbue in the user? Marshal McLuhan noted that watching television was a physical experience. A person watching it has their metabolism change, their brain changes to devote more resources to the bright little square in the visual field. The digital also rearranges selves, demands devotion, shifts sleep cycles, changes appetite.
The question matters for how we apply digital methods. As we recognise the digital as material this helps us examine how it has effects as a set of social things. Digital systems stabilise some realities and destabilise others. The design of digital platforms makes the social tangible in ways that we can examine. In a way this just brings us back to the original questions of sociology – what is artificial, what is natural, what is social and how do real things have real effects. We have never been without technology, from the cooking pot to the lifestyle pharmaceutical. Technologies order life. Now we can examine how sociality incorporates computational effects, the touch of the algorithm.
We already deal with this materiality in many ways. A spreadsheet has material effects. Double entry bookkeeping brought us modern capitalism. Lotus 1-2-3 brought us predictive capitalism. Lenonardi identifies that as the effective production (‘the practical instantiation’) of theoretical ideas. Software creates capacities for action and constraints on it as any technology does. One of the effects I have noticed in digital drug dealing is how it reworks the experience of waiting. Social time is a comprehensible, graspable form of sociality which is currently overwhelmed and articulated by machine time, by the nanoseconds of algorithmic calculation. Drug buyers’ discussion of waiting – waiting for a dealer to respond via the market system, waiting on the postal service to deliver the drugs they want – put social time back in. I noticed how often concepts of dopesickness – drug withdrawal – were showing up in the same discussions as references to time and waiting. The obdurate waiting times dictated by the delivery infrastructure, such as shipment times, and by the market infrastructure, such as the time for bitcoin payment to clear and an order to be confirmed, were endured. Waiting because the dealer keeps you waiting is not endurable. Users who perceive indifference on the dealers’ part then find time is experienced more harshly. Dopesickness becomes more painful, and anxiety grows. One reason for that is that the user is concerned that the drug may not arrive at all. That feature of the infrastructure then changes the texture of dope time for the user. It reminds them that the power in the relationship fundamentally lies with the dealer. The user worries that they may be thrown back on an unreliable face to face market, or have to go without. Time waiting becomes physical. The drug market system produces a physical response. System users experience the system as touching them.
The example I have used here shows how digital systems have matter. They are not only communicative but have force, weight on the world. It needn’t surprise us that the weight lies on those already marginalised (Noble, 2018).
Leonardi PM (2010) Digital materiality? How artifacts without matter, matter. First Monday. DOI: 10.5210/fm.v15i6.3036.
Noble SU (2018) Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. NYU Press.
There has been coverage of the disproportionate numbers of Black and ethnic minority deaths during the pandemic. Colleagues at the University of Edinburgh have written about the social determinants of covid 19 and bame disproportionality in their post for the British Sociological Association blog: Discover Society. It is important reading.
In talking to some of my PhD students recently we were discussing how they are not able to enjoy each other’s company at the moment or go to conferences and other events. Such occasions can be very helpful for networking. Over the years, I have found that a lot of my best networking has been done rather serendipitously. For instance, Lynn Jamieson and Liz Stanley encouraged me to apply for the job I now have at Edinburgh. I was introduced to Lynn Jamieson during a tea break at the first BSA conference I attended in 1998. I met Liz Stanley some years later when I applied for a job at Manchester (which I didn’t get) and she was kind and chatted to me about Auckland (my home town). Åsa Wettergren, who I co-founded and co-edit the journal Emotions and Society with, was at a small conference on emotions that I attended many years ago and we got chatting over a glass of beer. Remembering such encounters gave me the idea for an experiment in virtual networking that I am now undertaking. It works like this.
For each of my PhD students (1 at a time), I invite a scholar I know, whose work they are, or should be, citing.
I set up a ‘tea break’ online meeting (based on the scholar’s availability)
I ask that scholar to invite one of their PhD students or early career colleagues
My student gets to invite 1 other PhD student (anyone, at Edinburgh or from anywhere)
I invite their other supervisor – they are not obliged to come! (so 5-6 people per meeting)
Come the time of the meeting we all make ourselves a cup of tea or coffee
When we meet we introduce ourselves and just chat about what everyone is working on just now and swap any academic gossip we have (x has got a job at the University of Pocklington, y has bought a goat farm etc). There is no homework needed beforehand.
The scholars I have contacted have responded very positively, even the ones who I barely know, and I now have several meetings lined up.
The inaugural ‘I’ll meet you at the tea break’ went absolutely beautifully. We spoke to Vivienne Elizabeth, at the University of Auckland and one of her students, Moeata Pele Keil. Moeata and my student, Amy Andrada, had a lot in common across their respective projects on post-separation Pacific families in Aotearoa/New Zealand and single mothers in the US. It was a joy to hear them talk confidently about their work and yet be able to discuss some of the difficulties they faced in doing it. This less formal setting made that discussion more nuanced and interesting than I think it would have been if they had been giving a structured presentation. They were able to talk about mistakes they felt they had made and how their positions and approaches had changed as they did the research. For Vivienne, Angus (Amy’s other supervisor) and I this provided a welcome chance to reflect briefly on how our research can change us as researchers and to think about why this is not discussed more. It was also nice to see my friend Viv. She and I met during a tea break at a conference when we were PhD students.
Whether you approach old friends (who might now be esteemed scholars) or chance a speculative email to a Professor you really don’t know, I encourage you to try this out. COVID-19 has crowded out some of the more human and inspiring aspects of intellectual life. This is a form of connection that allows a sharing of ideas but does not put pressure on people at a difficult time. Sharing our sociological connections with PG students and colleagues less advanced in their careers can hopefully contribute to enriching the discipline. So please do, if you would like, set up some tea breaks of your own. I am happy to be invited: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or not. Enjoy.
One of the most nerve-racking activities during the pandemic for me was to walk down to the California beach on a hot day. Signs reading that beaches are closed from 11am to 5pm, with the exception of water sports, should stop the masses coming to escape the heat, but it has become more a coronavirus vacation.
Families do not think twice about setting up their tents and umbrellas to spend the day and ignore the state mandate of wearing a mask at all times outside until they need to get food for their hungry child, or they want to enter a shop to purchase something. I personally have quickly adopted the new reality of wearing a mask at all times outside of my house and have been met with weird side glances and sometimes even sniggering from people passing by. But one of the most bizarre reactions is from those who aren’t wearing one and don’t even acknowledge that you are wearing a mask. They are fine seeing others take the required precautions in the pandemic while they are actively failing to do so themselves. This becomes more absurd because with the masses of the people at the beach, it is exactly how it would have been last summer. A summer without coronavirus.
This perception of a pandemic free summer is created mainly by how people are forgetting that the pandemic is still an issue. By not wearing a mask or failing to follow guidelines, there becomes two different realities between people who are living in the same community. The two different realities of pre-pandemic and post-shelter in place life. While these realities are always intersecting with each outing outside of my home, they aren’t met with any uneasiness or conflict. At least where I live, they both coexist.
But this coexistence of these realities is what makes me, personally, perturbed. The difference in general social norms and the perceived obliviousness of people who do not realize that the pandemic is still happening in real time has created a stark difference in behavior amongst individuals. People are still able to find moral harmony amongst others even in the extreme circumstances that we see today.
Their sense of comfort in public without following any guidelines reflects on their lack of ability to realize that social life is drastically changing and being modified constantly. Most of the latest news is about people across the country arguing why they should not be required to wear masks by citing that it is an infringement of their rights, they are not terrorists, or the worst reason, “I can’t breathe”, which undermines another American crisis that has erupted in the past weeks over hundreds of years of racial injustice. Not only does this reveal an ignorance of racial issues, it highlights that people do not see that the pandemic has a racial element as minorities across the country are disproportionately affected.
The majority of these concerns about masks has the stance on the self with a huge emphasis on “I”, as a human being and individual being oppressed for being forced to wear a mask. This feeling of oppression that many people feel reflects on how social institutions have been working for their own personal benefits are now being rewritten as everyone is put in danger with the pandemic. This new emphasis on being an individual is dangerous for how America is going to recover after the pandemic, if it is even possible.
It is the lack of understanding of our new social reality as a society that makes me worried for the future of my community and country overall. To put it in simpler terms, Americans were capable of politicizing a piece of cloth and making a pandemic into a personalized issue without recognizing the impact that it has also made on other people around the world. When a vaccine becomes available to the public, it is highly predictable that will be another battleground of debate that will not be seen overseas in other countries. It only marks a future struggle for the country, especially as we move through the phases of re-opening.
The ignorance that is seen by refusing to wear a mask reveals to me, as a sociology student, that they do not understand that taking these precautions are for the community and the people they live around is more for them than for yourself as an individual. The pandemic is forcing people to realize that we are dependent on our community to a certain extent. It is a measure that is supposed to keep other people safe, while they keep you safe by wearing their own mask.
Wearing a mask should not be up for debate. One thing that many individuals do not understand is that this is not an issue that only affects them, but the whole entire world. It is not just your region, state, or country, but every human being has felt some sort of impact from the pandemic. By neglecting basic guidelines, people fail to recognize that humans are more intertwined with each other than they actually appear. Just like social networks on the Internet, this virus has reminded the whole world that we are all interconnected in distant ways.
At the end of the day, people not wearing masks are implicitly telling others that they do not care about other people’s wellbeing, all of the healthcare providers that are risking their lives, and the world that this is not their priority.
But what most people don’t recognize that for everyone to move forward and get back to the normal of post-pandemic life, we, as a community, must be able to help each other and cooperate. It is essential to recognize that it is not the time to be thinking about ourselves. In a place where people are supposed to ‘pull themselves up by their boot straps’ and work towards their own individual goals, right now, more than ever, we need to remember that we are dependent on each other as a community to do the right thing, so we can get some amount of normalcy that people crave from the post-pandemic life.
Julia Marques da Silva is about to begin her second year as a sociology undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh
Interested in narrative approaches to researching and understanding the very very varied experiences that people, organisations and countries have of Covid-19? An excellent resource has been provided by the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London. This provides links to a wide variety of projects that use a broadly-speaking narrative approach. Much food for the mind and for thought can be gathered through visiting them, not least because they are a source of really good ideas for investigative strategies.
One of the buzzwords frequently heard concerning the coronavirus pandemic is that we are ‘all in this together’. This ignores vastly experiences on grounds of gender, class, ethnicity, age and other social structural factors. It also fails to recognise the vastly different experiences of different parts of the world. An interesting account of someone returning home to China from studying at Cambridge in the UK has just been published in the University World News. Among other interesting comments, its author, Jingwen Alice Fan, suggests,
“Like many people, I used to be anxious and paranoid whenever I read bad news about COVID-19. But I soon found the pandemic was actually a great learning opportunity. COVID-19 is like a mirror. It reflects a society’s problems. It is painful to see all the hidden problems in our societies uncovered, but it is only through doing so that we can confront them and try to make our societies better.
The experience has also taught me that we should be cautious about being manipulated by the media. Critical thinking is the key. A healthy society needs different voices. This applies to every single country, but also to the international context.”
An interesting article by Nic Mitchell in the most recent 3 July issue of University World News reports on a British Council Going Global conference on ‘global learning in the post-Covid world’. Its final session was concerned with the Eurocentric curriculum and the myth that Covid-19 will almost by definition change HE and much else for the better.
“The myth that COVID-19 will be “some great equaliser” should be debunked as its impact on education is likely to increase the gap between richer and poorer regions around the world, the British Council’s Going Global 2020 conference heard in its final session, – which also discussed the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on the “Eurocentric curriculum”. This year’s virtual conference was split into a series of webinars culminating in a look at ‘Global learning in a post-COVID world’ in a session chaired by Maddalaine Ansell, director of education at the British Council.”
My brief, infrequent and unnerving
pilgrimages for groceries and other household necessities have led me to notice
an interesting change in local small talk. Specifically, I have noticed a shift
in the regionally-conventional greeting: ‘Hi, how are you?’.
For a number of years now, New England retail store cashiers have frequently greeted customers with a, ‘Hi how are you?’. In reply, the customer is meant to say, ‘I’m fine, thank you. How are you?’ This sounds like a nice-enough exchange of pleasantries until one realises that neither party really listens to or cares about the other’s answer. It’s conventionally normative for Person A and Person B say their halves of the exchange, and then both continue on with their days. On past occasions, mainly to see what would happen, I have attempted to highlight the hollowness the ‘Hi how are you?’ exchange by turning it into a mini breaching experiment of sorts: when a person greeted me with ‘Hi how are you?’, I would answer with an honest account of my day and state of mind. It was a relatively pointless exercise that mainly seemed to cause confusion. Sadly, calling attention to the emptiness of pleasantries is rarely enough to change them.
However, soon after Connecticut began observing state-wide stay-at-home rules, I began to notice a difference in the ‘Hi how are you?’ exchange. I first noticed a difference whilst at the checkout counter of my local grocery market. On this occasion, the cashier asked ‘How are you’ with a surprising tone of sincerity. In turn, I found myself responding with sincerity. On that occasion and frequently since then, the cashiers’ ‘Hi, how are you(s)?’ have seemed to convey genuine interest in my answer, and perhaps also some degree of gratitude that shoppers were wearing face masks, following store-mandated social distancing rules, and continuing to shop at their place of work; my reply of ‘I’m fine, thank you. How are you?’, likewise felt relatively honest. All things considered, I am indeed ‘fine’ because I’m not ill with a mysterious virus. I also realised I was genuinely concerned for the grocery market cashiers, and hoped none of them caught coronavirus or lost their jobs.
I have been wondering about how and in what ways the coronavirus pandemic might potentially foster unity, and perhaps the newly sincere ‘Hi how are you?’ exchange is a small affirming indication. On a grander scale, the coronavirus pandemic has presented the world’s people with a common problem and a common set of related concerns. On a local level, at least in my area of Connecticut where people are overwhelmingly sensible, the coronavirus pandemic seems to have encouraged people to act in terms of others’ safety more than they otherwise would have in the past. This could all be wishful thinking, but my hope is that some positive social norms will rise from the ashes of this frightening year.
The global Covid-19 pandemic
exacerbated the fractures in society and illuminated how deadly racial, gender,
class inequalities can be – not that we needed a pandemic to reveal how
deep-seated and endemic these oppressive social structures are (if only people
listened to sociologists more). As we emerge out of lockdown into phase two, I
contemplate on the experiential aspects of the pandemic and why it is important
to connect embodiment with temporality and spatiality in understanding how we
make sense of ourselves in our social worlds.
The day Scotland entered lockdown, I
traversed international borders on a flight so empty I woke up multiple times
on the plane wondering where I was. There was no crying baby or scuttling crew
along the aisle. Just the consistent humming of the plane gliding through
clouds. These are ‘bits and bobs’ of our social-physical environment that we
associate closely with particular spaces and emotions. The anticipation of
arrival in a new place for example, accompanies travel (most of the time).
My return home was the most bizarre.
I got out of the cab and was confronted by my dad, standing properly distanced
from me at the door, yelling in short commands “leave your bags! Go shower!
Quick! Disinfect!” this chaotic scene was the prelude to a week of heightened
parental surveillance before a prompt relocation to a government funded hotel
room out of my own volition. I was required to complete a two week Stay Home
Notice (SHN), a state-mandated quarantine from the date of arrival into the
country. For fourteen days, the Singapore government sent me periodic text
messages asking me to declare my location through GPS.
The first week of my SHN was spent
with my aged and at-risk parents. It was an unrelenting experience of paranoia,
surveillance and exasperation. I received texts from my mom in a different part
of a three-bedroom flat, asking me to “please mask up, your dad and I are old”.
Every trip to the toilet had to be accompanied by frenzied disinfecting.
Basically, I was the personification of a virulent Covid-19 organism and my
parents’ interactions with me were guided by this understanding. In any
circumstances, this would have been ludicrous and offensive. But, since I
travelled from the UK, even the state was wary that I could cause a potential Covid-19
cluster. This experience culminated when my mom shrieked at me for touching a
pizza slice meant for her and my dad. “YOU CAN’T TOUCH THAT THAT’S DADS AND
MINE” This episode ended in tears and desperate pleading for me to “stick to
the safety guidelines”.
Done with the unyielding scrutiny of
my parents, I decided to relocate for the remaining seven days of my SHN to a
hotel paid for by the state. This shift also meant a shift from hypervisibility
in the house to complete isolation from people. I was tucked away in a room with no recourse
to fresh air, social interaction or any kind of noise from the outside. That
room was a sensory vacuum. No smells, sterile, no noise nothing. The scene
outside of other towering hotels and an empty pool was so still it might as
well have been a printed photo stuck to the frames of my windows.
It dawned on me then the extent of
our reliance on our physical surroundings in making sense of our reality.
Jetlagged and isolated, the line between ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Singapore started to
blur. It was then that I began to notice that time was ‘felt’, in the smells of
the outside, the sounds of traffic, of people, of the colour of the sun and the
sky. The feeling of exhaustion from having a full day’s work at the office with
the commute marking the ‘end of the workday’. Such are experiential moments
that accompany and affix social meaning to the hands or digits of the clock. In
this sense, in lockdown where my days are humdrum and consistent, I felt time
in an absolutely different way. On days without scheduled zoom meetings, I
experience time through a different modality, one that is more reliant on physical
sensations like hunger.
My experience of melancholia and
depressive bouts have been different during this pandemic. I can no longer
distinguish between feelings of restlessness, emptiness, general despair and
‘normal’ days since there are no markers of norms anymore. The lack of
demarcation between (social) space and time also translates to difficulties in
making sense of my emotions and by extension, sense of being. Prior to March,
when days were properly scheduled with regular changes to the physical / social
landscape around me, the ebbs and flows of general depression and anxiety were
more acute and jarring in relation to ‘good’ days. I could keep track of how I
was doing emotionally based on how I was coping with my daily tasks, properly
giving purpose to time and space. With the lockdown and upending of normalcy as
we knew it, there was no meaning to time and space. In addition, the precarity
of unfunded PhD life and the paranoia of racism towards Asians in this pandemic
has become palpable. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ days, what I like to call ‘being
in the good, medium or bad place’, have begun bleeding into each other.
Time and space need to be seen as
constituents in this embodied process of sense-making and identity-formation.
Rather than abstract concepts that are studied as disparate pieces of a larger
puzzle, we both make sense of time and space through our bodies, while also of
our bodies and our realities through time and space. Sociology needs to grapple
with bodies and bodily sensations, and the significance of bodily time and
space, in its pursuit of understanding the social. Moving forward, with social
distancing a preferred mode of interaction, I wonder how such embodied
realities can be sociologically investigated from afar.
Aerin Lai is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Edinburgh.