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I haven’t shaved since lockdown

Giulia Cavalcanti

Today I will tell you the anatomy and history of electric shavers from 1920 until today, or better known as Corona times.

Shavers came into the world for men. Designed by men for men. Black, robust, strong, fast, and with visible screws. That is how electric shavers for men were and still look like (van Oost, 2003: 198-9). As sociologists, we are all well aware that material goods are used to construct and perform one’s gendered identity (van Oost, 2003: 194). This electric shaver advert from the 1990s targeted to men says it all. Meanwhile the manly voice talks, the song sings “for the men inside”. These features – robust, strong, fast, technological competent – are the features that make men manly. Masculinity, however, was not built from scratch starting from electric shavers. Designers and adverts have simply reinforced the meaning of being a man through the symbolic features of electric shavers ‘for men’. For instance, the visible screws told men that they are technologically competent (van Oost, 2003: 198-9, 207).

Then, shavers for women came into the world. For women, but yet still designed by men. Pink, small, delicate, sensitive, gentle. That is how electric shavers for women were and still look like. This was the understanding that designers – male designers – had around femininity. Small, delicate, sensitive, gentle ‘electric shavers for women’ alongside their adverts — such as this – have reinforced the meaning of being a woman (van Oost, 2003: 200-7). Furthermore, the manly voice in the advert gives us a tip. He says: “made for women with men in mind”. Simply put, women ought to shave for the pleasure of men. And this is how women’s generation after generation dedicated their times to remove their body hair to avoid men from having the haunting sight of a hairy woman, meanwhile hairy men became sexier and sexier…

Eventually, millennials came into the world and rejected the gendered products, including shavers. Designers and adverts had to respond, and eventually, gender-neutral shavers came into the world. Shavers ‘for you’, shavers ‘for all’… But how neutral are they? If we take a closer look and compare those “revolutionary” (feel the sarcasm) shavers and compare them to the old-fashion ‘shavers for men’, it can be easily argued that gender-neutral shavers or any other “neutral” material good, are made having in mind as possible target men, exactly because designers are mostly male (van Oost, 2003: 196).

Products have changed, but not shaving practices, especially among women. Until finally, coronavirus or scientifically speaking COVID-19 came. Coronavirus has contributed to making the poor poorer, black deaths, working-class peoples’ deaths, increased housework and childcare labour for women…. But we, or at least I, cannot deny that coronavirus freed us all from few gendered social norms.

I haven’t worn a bra since lockdown.
I haven’t used make-up since lockdown.
I haven’t shaved since lockdown.

My neck, armpits, and legs are uncovered. It is summer. And yet I still have not shaved since lockdown. Has coronavirus revolutionised women’s shaving practices? The answer is no. I haven’t shaved since lockdown. Until I decided to go to Portobello beach to swim with my friends. Since then my body hair has grown, and I haven’t shaved since.

Yet, my neck, armpits, and legs continue to be uncovered. So, why have I shaved when I wore a bikini and not when I wear trousers that show my hairy legs? I wish I could say that the answer is laziness. Lazy to shave. Rather, one of the possible answers might be the fear of drawing attention. A female hairy body draws more attention than a shaved one. And drawing attention means having eyes at you. I shaved to not draw attention to my body, to limit the eyes of those who may look at my body. Because most than often drawing attention to a body ends in the sexualisation of it.

Let me tell you a story. I went to the Meadows and wore 80s trousers. For fashion lovers: black and white striped trousers. And a tight basic blacktop. I chose to wear those trousers despite my hairy legs, but I chose to wear a bra (remember: I haven’t worn a bra since lockdown, no matter if at home, or outside).I chose to show my hairy legs, but I chose to hide my nipples. Calves, in my heterosexual viewpoint, are not sexy. Calves are not sexual per se. Women’s nipples are.

This is when choosing what to wear for a simple walk at the meadows with a friend becomes a sociology class. So, what has led me to step outside the door of my house wearing a bra? I chose my outfit. I tried it on. And I saw my nipples. So far so good. But then, a body sensation filled my whole body. Anxiety. Fear. Of what? – you may ask. Fear of being sexualised. Fear of the eyes of those who may sexualise free nipples. This was the same fear and anxiety that led me to shave my legs before going for a swim at the beach.

The truth is that I shaved when I wore a bikini to protect myself. The truth is that I wore a bra to protect myself. The ugly truth is that women juggle between making themselves sexual beings and desexualise themselves to avoid over-sexualisation anytime, anywhere by anyone.

Let me tell you a final little story. The other day was the birthday of my friend, and we celebrated at the Meadows, once again. I wore a loose green shirt. I also chose to not wear a bra, despite being able to see my nipples and the shape of my breast at the mirror. I did it on purpose. Apart from a few drinks, I wanted to go back home with a sociological self-reflection. And I did. After all, I did not feel sexualised by anyone, including by the strangers that I encountered in the streets.

So, what was all the fuss about – you may ask? The ugly truth is that women and girls are taught that danger is everywhere, you must never let the guard down…

Covid-19, or corona as we informally call this killing virus, has not revolutionised women’s shaving practices. Women are simply standing against the gendered norms, as far as they, we, feel safe to do so. As far as rape culture will be round and about, hidden as coronavirus, around the streets and houses of the world, women’s revolution will not be completed.


van Oost, E. C. J. (2003). Materialized gender: how shavers configure the users’ feminity and masculinity. In N. E. J. Oudshoorn, & T. Pinch (Eds.), How users matter. The co-construction of users and technology (pp. 193-208). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Invisible touch

Angus Bancroft

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.

Why so many BAME COVID victims?

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.

Worries about the future and the collective

Julia Marques da Silva

Cailin Healy and an unidentified friend, both of Calabasas, take a selfie together as beachgoers enjoy warm summer-like weather in Huntington Beach amid state and city social distancing regulations mandated by Gov. Newsom.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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

The Phenomenology of a Global Pandemic

Aerin Lai

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.

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.
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.


Mary Holmes

Looping out from the flat and back to the flat, my walks got longer. Isolated walks, without isolation. This was walking under strict lockdown and it hasn’t changed much yet, except you can stop. You can sit down for as long as you like. If there is sun, you can sit on the grass and read and drink coffee. This is exciting and having other people near, but not too near, is starting to feel okay. Before It was a challenge to find nice places to walk that were not too crowded. The canal was no good, unless the weather was bad. Other wise the tow path made it hard to stay 2 metres apart when passing. The best place for walking was the richer neighbourhoods nearby. People with big gardens and big houses didn’t need to be out, so the leafy streets were a good place to wander and to see spring blossoms and smell grass and trees. You could also eye up the property. Dreams are free.

Lockdown walking means not really going anywhere. That is different to going somewhere for something. Like Ashley Barnwell, I used to walk to get somewhere, to go to work, to buy something. Now ‘I walk to walk’. There is an extravagance in that, but also a parsimony. What else can you do?

At first it was difficult to be polite and avoid people at the same time. Someone thanked me for thanking them when they stood back to let me pass where the pavement narrowed. These are new social courtesies, and new interaction rituals; uncertain, a little complicated, slightly too much. Between encounters, when you are walking just to walk you can think, so I thought about walking. What would a Sociology of walking look like?

Walking has a history. For sociologists that might start with an appreciation of how industrialisation and urbanisation changed why, where and how people walked. For many ordinary new city dwellers, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it seems likely that walking long distances to market was replaced by walking shorter distances to work. City walking had its people watching pleasures, as early sociologists like Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin noted. However, as more and more people lived in urban areas, walking often became a leisure activity done in the countryside. Rambling clubs became popular from the 1930s in Britain. Later, as urbanisation turned into suburbanisation, suburbanites walked very little, getting into their cars to drive to suburban malls, where they walked to shop. As the ubiquity of cars has increased, pedestrians have been sidelined and spend more of their time watching out for cars than looking at the world around them. And yet walking is recommended as a fitness activity, good for our health and wellbeing.

Different kinds of people walk differently and we can compare. Women and men have different ways of walking, imbibed through socialisation and years of practice. Men are more likely to stride out, and women to be more contained, to take up less space. At least, that is what we might imagine if we extend Iris Young’s ideas about throwing like a girl. How we walk is also shaped by human technologies like high heels or fancy trainers or those weird toe shoes. Not everyone can afford good shoes, and various medical studies show that improper footwear can lead to back or foot problems. How much money you have also means that if we compare working class to middle class people, their options for walking will differ. Middle class people are more likely to be able to afford to access the countryside or live near parks, while those in deprived areas might be reluctant to walk around their neighbourhoods, especially if gangs are present or even just because there is a lack of green spaces nearby.

These comparisons help in thinking critically about walking, they help to consider what kinds of inequalities are attached to it. Women may not feel safe walking about the city, especially at night, constrained by fears of violence. In other places, some women may be constrained by cultural practices that do not allow them to walk out in the world  without a male relative to accompany them. Other women may walk too much, covering large distances daily to collect water or firewood. And to think critically about walking means thinking about those who cannot walk easily or at all due to a physical impairment. How are they disabled by the way in which society is organised and cities built? Think about the cobbles and curbs that can’t be navigated by wheelchair or the step-free routes that are too long for older people with limited mobility. And what about African Americans for whom a stroll to watch birds in the park can lead to racist abuse, or a walk to buy cigarettes can end in being arrested and killed by police? Power relations and structural issues like racism and sexism affect who walks where and with what consequences.

From injustice, resistance and change can come. Despite the still high levels of Coronavirus in the US, hundreds of thousands of people have been out on the streets marching together to protest over the killing of George Floyd. There is a history of freedom marches to fight against racism and walking with others has long been a form of protest against all kinds of injustice. I remember this when my daily walks feel like they are going nowhere.

Sources and further reading

Conley, J. (2012) ‘A sociology of traffic: driving, cycling, walking’ pp 219-236 in Vannini, P. (ed). Technologies of Mobility in the Americas. Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang.

Freund, P. and Martin, G. (2004) ‘Walking and motoring: fitness and the social organisation of movement’ Sociology of Health & Illness 26(3): 273-286.

Harries, T. and Rettie, R. (2016) ‘Walking as a social practice: dispersed walking and the organisation of everyday practices’ Sociology of Health & Illness, 38(6): 874-883.

‘Beneath the pavement, the beach!’

Angus Bancroft

Young people sit out in the warm night, occupying the road, chatting and laughing until late on. The moon is bright, slightly yellow and clear. The air still. 

Like most of Edinburgh my area is car cluttered. An old photograph of my street from the 1900s shows it wide and spacious, before car parking hemmed everyone in. Looking at the teens using it now I glimpse another view, of road space made available for social life, of space to breathe and circulate. The road stops being a torrent of cars we have to scurry across. Pavements stop being narrow paths we teeter on. 

The cars haven’t vanished but the fear has. An empty parking space suddenly becomes part of the communal living room. Meadows live beneath tarmac. ‘Beneath the pavement, the beach!’ was a slogan of the 1968 Paris protests against the rigid social order of postwar Gaullist France. The city needs to breathe. The people using the street as if it was a public park are doing something new. It’s not a picnic space or a play space, it’s not a street party, it’s an extension of intimate domestic space into the street. This may be necessity. The typical domestic, public spaces we use – pubs and cafes – are closed, so new ones have to be found. 

One of the constant refrains of alcohol policy discussions over many decades now has been why can’t British/Scottish drinking culture be more like continental pavement culture. This is generally a vain hope. The image of shivering with a cold pint on a narrow, busy pavement, breathing in fumes and trying to avoid catching people’s eye was not wholly appealing. This bottom up extension of home space might be more viable and appealing model to start with should we try and learn lessons from the lockdown living.

Stop the clocks

Mikaela Springsteen

‘Clock’ by Denis Mihailov

There is an old clock which sits now in my basement. It has collected dust there for years, corrosion building around a battery which ought to have been pried loose from its moorings after the clock was taken off the wall of a childhood bedroom over a decade ago. It is forever 2:52 in that basement room.

May has lasted for months in the rest of the house.

Here in the mountains, time tends to move slowly—even in an ordinary year, but the pandemic has changed this place too. It slows time for days until a flurry of activity accompanies the arrival of some new package, or a resupply run, or some other contact with the outside world. Pandemic time does not pass smoothly.

It has been often remarked that pandemic time passes oddly, too. Wednesdays are skipped and breakfast becomes lunch. The nights are getting shorter here, and the days are getting hotter, and each and every day seems to last for a week. Pandemic time is deceptive that way.

But time still does move on. The lake thawed months ago now, and loons can be heard each night. Great excitement accompanied the year’s first sighting of the local bald eagle—a sure sign of hotter days ahead.

Isolated here, time slowly marches on—but somehow little seems to change.

That is always the way of the world, it seems. In the midst of things it feels as though nothing will ever change. That the way it is is how it has always been, and how it will continue to be from here on out. Life simply goes on.

I have always understood sociology to be, in part, a study of this consistency.

This comforts me.

All of this has happened before.

History mocks predictions of systemic change in the wake of this pandemic. Systemic change is rare. Systems resist change. They are very good at doing exactly what they were designed to do, and very rarely is capacity for change written into the source code of a system.

The clock in my basement ran forwards, only and always. And now it has stopped.

Some systems are more flexible than others—the mind of a honeybee is changed more easily than the mind of a human—but I am myself evidence of the capacity for systems to change. Only a few generations ago I would not have been permitted to vote, to have been educated so, to travel so freely alone. Even then, millions were forced to wait for years more for systems to recognize their humanity. Millions more still wait.

But there is more to life—and to sociology—than stasis. Living systems require change.

Sociology tells us not that things never change, merely that any change is hard-won and rarely novel—what is new in one local context is rarely new in all contexts. There is nothing new under the sun. Sociology catalogues changes even as it marks down consistencies.

So how are we to understand change in a context where time seems almost to have stopped? Where we all relive our days as we wait for the world to spin back up to speed? What new world will greet us all when pandemic days come to an end?

I have expressed doubts about prognostication already, so I will refrain from any such pronouncements here. What I will do instead is return to the comfort of sociology.

Sociology speaks often of the ways in which individuals can be caught up in the gears of an inevitable system. But it speaks too of the parts which constitute those systems. Society, and the many smaller systems it relies on, is ultimately built up out of each individual.

In the places where a system sticks, like in my poor old clock, someone has to pry off the housing, clean out the corrosion, mend what can be mended, and make anew all that which will not.

That is the wellspring of change. The world which exists tomorrow is the one which we make today. That is the promise—both blessing and curse—of path-dependency. People work wonders, systems change, and life moves on.

The hummingbirds have returned to the lakeside now, and are making merry war over the feeder. Cherries are back in season, and it feels somehow a small miracle to find them in the shop up here. Kayakers paddle past the house now, fishers lose lures in the rocks, and I’ve been down to dig out the old clock from the basement.

Time slips strangely for us all, especially—as we all now say—‘in these times,’ and so it feels somehow right that I will lay out some tools which belong to my father, which came from his father, and from his before that. I will lay out some tools from a century ago and try to find the future in the ticking of a clock.

The last clap?

Liz Stanley

The tenth Thursday clap, on 28 May, is likely to be the UK’s last. There was that sense in the air, for the sound was louder and more varied and came from more parts of the village, from further up the hill, from the central village, to the houses at the edge, to us on Coach Road and Warton Crag. In addition to all the clapping there was a makeshift drum, many car horns, elaborate whoops and amazing whistling, and a wider variety of pots and pans used as tymphony. To the carers.

The tenth clap

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