Introducing The Panopticon

I’m delighted to post the inaugural edition of The Panopticon, Edinburgh’s student led sociological journal. The Panopticon is named after the all seeing institution designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th Century. It is a building in which the inmates can be continually visible to their overseers. They can never be sure they are not being watched. It is an idea as much as an architectural template. Michel Foucualt identified it as the model for a pervasive system of governance and behavioural control that characterises modern societies.

The journal is a lively and fresh take on sociology and reminds us why it is relevant to the current moment. It includes interviews, playlists, reflection and analytical articles. The authors apply their sociological imagination to themes of death, anonymity, ambiguity, life in the city, system change and stasis, economics, autonomy and avacados. Thoughtful, provoking and vibrant, it asks what sociology means to us at this time, as individuals, scholars and communities. This first edition is a cracking read! Download the pdf here:

https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/ed-decameron/wp-content/uploads/sites/1382/2020/07/The-Panopticon-Issue-One.pdf

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

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.

Fake times and real life during the pandemic

By Angus Bancroft

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

On the backs of the working class

Elsie Greenwood

Photo by Eric Parker

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, we aren’t without hope.

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

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

Are students customers?

Mary Holmes

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

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

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

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

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

What does Covid-19 look like?

Liz Stanley

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

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

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

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

Wet markets are among my favourite places to shop

Sophia Woodman

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

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

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

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

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

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