Any views expressed within media held on this service are those of the contributors, should not be taken as approved or endorsed by the University, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University in respect of any particular issue.

Sociality in a time of grief and mourning

Liz Stanley

Following a near-death encounter some years back, I published a number of things about death and mourning which focused around the ‘simulacra of presence’ aspects of mourning on the one hand, and what Elias refers to as ‘the loneliness of the dying’ aspects on the other. This distinctive kind of loneliness involves the frequent sequestration of the old, the ill and those about to die in places out of place, so this is not just an interpersonal everyday kind of loneliness. And the idea of simulacra of presence involves such things as photographs, favourite objects and other memorabilia that conjure up some trace of a dead person, with the simulacra being the intangible trace of this person that they convey, rather than the objects in a literal sense.

This blog acts as a postscript. It is written slant-wise to the simulacra of presence argument, looking again at presence, the tangible and the visceral, and their part in relationality and sociality. In particular the focus is on how these may be changing in the ‘coronavirus normal’ context. More particularly still, it concerns how they have changed for me, exploring this not in any confessional vein but as a sociological inquiry – the social is, after all, our stock in trade.

Human interconnectedness is a truism for sociologists and ‘no man is an island’, as the line in John Donne’s poem goes. But what happens, as in the coronavirus lockdown period and what has followed it in terms of social distancing, when many of the components of sociality are bracketed, put in abeyance, or for some people need to be given up almost entirely because of particularly severe health conditions? Does the web of social connection remain intact, or if not then what?

Many comments about the coronavirus pandemic have emphasised ‘we’re all in this together‘ aspect, that strangers now recognise a common bond, that new ways of keeping in touch have increased exponentially, that people are kinder to each other, and so on. However, the examples most often mentioned mainly concern the civility or kindness of strangers in the in-passing encounters that occur when walking down streets, going into shops, using public transport and so on.

But what might be happening in that larger realm of sociality that lies between once-only encounters with strangers, and relationships with those we live and interact with on a daily basis? What is happening to relationships with the people who are close to us, our relatives and friends and close colleagues, those with whom we have a sustained bond, but do not necessarily see on a daily, weekly or longer basis? In particular what is happening to these kinds of relationships in circumstances of illness, death and what comes after in grief and mourning?

In contemplating this I have in mind the illnesses and deaths of people I am (still am, in the present tense, in spite of deaths) close to in an emotionally close but at the same time socially distanced way, each of whose illness/death has occurred recently. Also in mind are all those other illnesses and deaths, of the almost unimaginable number of people who have died in a short time-period and are still dying around the world. Worry and concern for people who are loved though living at a distance – either a geographical distance or the social distance that exists between in-passing strangers and those we live with – has for me taken place in the context of this more disembodied and in a strange sense greater worry and concern. That is, worry for myself and for those near and dear and mourning for those among them who are loved and lost has become a factor in a larger context, that of mourning for the tens and hundreds of thousands of people, strangers, who have died. There is a figure/ground affect, as well as effect, going on.

A text arrives, a loved friend, X, has contracted ‘it‘ within days of their small business reopening. But what to do other than text the mutual friend who has informed me back, for not even telephone, Skype or Zoom with X was a possibility because of the illness. The personal worry hangs in the air day after day of waiting. But its backcloth is the greater worry felt, and this personalised worry became absorbed into it. Then X’s recovery from the illness became absorbed in a similar way: ‘oh I hear [a text] X has recovered’, then a slow fade, X in my memory rather than renewed contact. Then eventually weekly texts and occasional phone calls resume with X, with the earlier presence of the possibility of X’s death becoming a generalised ‘new normal‘ thrum of concern. Yes the concern is for X, who keeps doing things that worry me, but it is also for all those other people doing the things they do as well. And the word worry is insufficient, because it’s mixed with grief, grief that all these other deaths are occurring and those of people I know might follow, including of course my own.

Y, once a close friend seen multiple times a week, moved continents. A plan to meet up for a holiday came to nothing because of the encroaching pandemic, so we agreed by phone that we would not meet again until ‘it‘ was over or a vaccine developed The following silence was not unexpected, the text message sent but no reply received was not unusual, in the context of this very long friendship. Into this usual absence came the different absence of Y’s coronavirus death, communicated by a third party. But what does death in the sense of the final absence of a person mean in a context in which no close communication had occurred for a long period and would not happen for a long time in the future as well? Indeed, Y and I might not have met again anyway, given the large geographical distance involved, so what is the difference between that kind of absence and the absence of death?

Put another way, the loving relationality between me and Y had come to be characterised by a large degree of absence and a small degree of sociality – little or no regular communication in a face-to-face and voice-to-voice sense. Then this was confirmed by the lockdown and health issues at both ends. The worth or value of the relationship had not lessened, but its character had changed. And ‘after Y’s death’ in these circumstances is to a large extent just like before when Y was hale and hearty but absent. Grief and worry have occurred here in the rather abstract and general way mentioned earlier in relation to X. That is, grief and mourning for Y has occurred in a ‘piece of the continent, part of the main’ sense, as the next line in John Donne’s poem continues, rather than the intense and utterly specific feelings of grief in missing someone that is associated with ‘normal’ death. Grief and mourning has been for all the hundreds of thousands, rather than ‘just’ for Y on their own.

Perhaps this odd combination of intensity, emotion on the surface, fellow-feeling and abstractIon is part of the ‘new normal’ so often invoked. Feeling such a combination of things is perhaps not surprising, but what is unexpected is just how visceral it is, how much it is felt, how raw these ‘abstract‘ emotions are, how grief sits only just beneath the surface and erupts in unexpected ways. Anything kind, upsetting, loving, moving, triggers it – and no matter how cheesy it might be. So I find myself holding back tears, or not holding them back, at the most unlikely things. It’s almost as though my body has constant grief in it, but which my conscious mind is not always aware of. It seems to be the sense of an ending, but what kind of an ending is it? And how is it that something so abstract and disembodied can be so visceral and raw?

These complicated feelings seem to hover all the time, catching me off guard when something not entirely connected but also not entirely disconnected happens. Something of this kind has involved a friend from many years back who got in touch again recently. Q to my certain knowledge – Q told me – flouted the lockdown on at least three occasions, with a passing stranger, with a relation, with a neighbour. I’m sure Q thought there were good reasons, not being a ‘bad person’. But there was no social distancing involved, hands were clasped, people stood well within spitting distance of each other and so on. I said nothing about this, but counted the possibilities for any one of those people being a carrier of the virus and how many others might catch it as a consequence. And instead of being angry, or saying something, which would have been more sensible, I felt an instant grief for all the possible deaths and misery that could have occurred. Something like this had happened when X had caught ‘it’ from someone, Y had got ‘it’ and died from someone spreading it, in both cases involving people doing what they did for what they presumably thought were good reasons. And a PS to this is that Q did get the virus, or at least was severely ill though was not actually tested, and survived.

Thinking now about X and Y and Q, I am struck that particular illnesses, deaths, grief and mourning here have lost much of their particularity. The constant omnipresence of the deaths of unknown strangers world-wide means that grief for a single death feels like fixing on one wave when it is part of a mighty ocean. My response starts with the particular feeling, but it almost immediately slips into the general and abstract – and in an odd way even more upsetting – sorrowful remembrance of the many.

The ‘hovering‘ aspect of the welter of emotion involved that was mentioned earlier is compounded because in the lockdown situation there was/is no chance of mourning in the public sense. This took a particular shape when a very elderly relative in a nursing home died. Whether U died of ‘it’ is not known, and nor will it be given the pressing circumstances in the nursing home when it occurred. But what was certain was that there will not, cannot, be the usual extended family gathering (two generations back there were ten brothers and sisters, of whom U was one, all with children and grandchildren) which had usually occurred at such occurrences as funerals, marriages and anniversaries. When U died, there was no social gathering, just a phone call, plus one-to-one communications for those who wanted to work their way round the family group by telephone. But even Facebook pages failed to register it beyond once.

There are different kinds of absences, and something is happening to my experience of them such that they are becoming overlaid and generalised rather than each being separate and specific. It is not distance alone, whether geographical or social, that is responsible; something more complicated is going on about relationality and sociality. There is the bubble of those we live with, if we are fortunate or sometimes unfortunate enough to do so. There are the many people we are not directly connected with, both strangers and others. And there is the large in-between of loved but not lived with people, which has become shunted to the distant end, except under such flat-pack circumstances as are permitted by computer screens and software such as Teams or Zoom or Skype. What the eye doesn’t see in these online meetings is almost everything, for these performative situations are both like and unlike actually and in the round seeing people and talking with them.

The simulacra of presence is somehow connected, those traces that conjure up the loved, now absent, now dead, other people. It’s as though all this in in abeyance, for such simulacra seem to have lost power or resonance in the face of the peculiar kind of distancing that has for many people become almost habitual. The usual kinds of feelings associated with the trace – like seeing U’s photograph and their kindness welling up in my remembrance, or glimpsing a present from the much loved Y and this sharply conjuring up their presence – don’t occur. There is a slip straight from Y and U to the countless hundreds of thousands.

There is no end: these are ruminations rather than an attempt at conclusions. What we think of as the social is undergoing change of some kind, and where it will take us in the longer term none of us knows. And X, Y, Q and U are amalgams, not distinct people.

This post is in the way of swansong, as my time inhabiting the Decameron has come to a natural end. Bon chance.

A shifting sense of sanctuary in the time of pandemic

Alison Koslowski

Thursday 30th July 2020

Lockdown for me came just days after moving from Leith to London. Our intentions were to use the flat in London as a base from which to launch to various work trips, including for me, a regular shuttle up the East Coast trainline to Edinburgh. It was never intended to be a place where we spent so much time, day in day out. But mostly, it was a new place, and so lockdown hit us before we had the chance to form a new mental map of how things worked around us.

This experience leads me to ponder the role of sanctuary in our everyday lives. We can be said to have found sanctuary when we feel safe and protected, cocooned from any outside pressures that might be waiting for us. Sanctuary is not a regular constituent of the sociological canon, but I wonder whether we might want to give the concept greater consideration.

Our homes have been presumed by Governments across the globe as sanctuary from the virus. Sometimes ‘home’ is the environment over which you have the most control and so the place where you can best create sanctuary. Other times ‘home’ can be a place where you might not feel safe or might struggle to be comfortable, or simply have to share space with (too many) others. It is usual to seek sanctuary elsewhere than home, even when you also have a home that does shelter you well.

Everyday practices of sanctuary

Where can you find respite from the world; rest; take a moment to pause undisturbed? Where can you be fully yourself in the moment without immediate concern? Where can you take a break from your inner theatre of thoughts? The routines we have to these ends are our everyday practices of sanctuary. I usually find sanctuary in the water. Not being able to immerse has been really hard. Getting in the water at the Parliament Hill lido last week as it reopened was wonderful.

Sometimes you stumble on sanctuary in a lucky find, but more often creating or discovering sanctuary takes effort. Early on in lockdown I saw a clip with top tips from a submarine captain for surviving being cooped up. Top of his list was keeping your home clean. The washing up involved in staying home – who knew! But I agree with the submarine captain, for most of us at least, it is difficult to feel well if things are too unclean. Observing a (new) neighbour during lockdown revealed a cleanliness paradox: She was truly terrified by the virus, to the extent that she was scared to touch anything or go out even to put out the rubbish as the outside world was too ‘unclean’…for months. Last week she had to get pest control in and is only now putting out her rubbish again.

Are you able to sleep well? We had some night time noise issues with our new flat. Without sleep, it is difficult to feel that you have sanctuary; it is one of the basics. Whether it is another flashing light disrupting the darkness, or a mechanical whirr disrupting the quiet of the night or stompy nocturnal neighbours; these things matter if you are to feel safe and well. Having a dedicated, peaceful place to sleep, without electronic gadgets, is an everyday practice of sanctuary for many.

Sanctuary refers to holy places. Whilst we live, at least in the UK, in times of declining religiosity, I wonder if the lockdown has seen a boost for spiritual approaches centred on nature, which encourage us to cultivate a feeling of reverence, awe and wonder for and unity with the natural world. Having somewhere to be still – or indeed to move -, to be outside, to be in communion with something beyond yourself can be very beneficial. During lockdown I took out a subscription to ‘Silly Greens’ who, for a nominal sum, posted three sets of seedlings every week – effectively a fancy version of cress, and it was soothing to see their irrepressible nature to sprout. Since arriving at the new flat I have seen from our kitchen window: a squirrel, a fox, jays, blackbirds, robins, pigeons, a myriad of insects, and the piece de resistance, we have had a resident nightingale in a nearby garden, which renders a smile every time I hear him.

The disruption to our usual sanctuaries during the pandemic

There are various public spaces that are regular sanctuaries. I have mentioned swimming pools. Libraries can also be such places (thinking of Emma Davidson’s work on the multi-functions of public libraries). My Mum was delighted when the library reopened last week, but then terribly disappointed: “they are just lending books”, she said. As someone who lives alone since my Dad passed away, and is extremely outgoing, she does not really use her local library to borrow books, but for the company at one of the various craft sessions that they usually run. Sanctuary can be experienced alone or communally, and Mum is a person who feels more relaxed when in a group. Similarly, my Aunt is very much missing meeting with her church congregation in person (she does not use the internet and so the zoom services are not available to her) and so for someone who usually goes to church a couple of times a week, this has been very hard.

The role of dedicated spaces for different aspects of our selves is part of sanctuary. In so far that we have various identities, how do we find places to live out these different component parts of who we are, when we are sharing space with others needing to do the same? Noise cancelling headphones only get you so far: I love working from home when it is just me. I do not love working from home at the same time as my husband and my neighbours.

For some children at least, schools are a sanctuary. For some adults, their places of work are a sanctuary. Others find sanctuary at their local gym, as part of a music group, at music gigs, at church; these can be safe spaces. For others, sanctuary is found in a couple of hours at the cinema, or in their local coffee shop. All of which have been unavailable to us recently.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the incidence of domestic violence increased during lockdown. Home is not a safe space for some, and the usual refuges have not been available. It is deeply problematic to make the blanket assumption of home as sanctuary.

In search of sanctuary

Removed, at least in terms of physical distance from my former community and places in Edinburgh, I have started to consider the component parts of my sanctuaries that are external to home and to think about what I need to find in the new place. At the same time, finding myself dropped into a new flat has also fine tuned my sense of what I need to feel safe and at ease whilst at home. I am sure that I am not alone following lockdown in reconsidering what I should make manifest to create the sanctuary I need.

How much better at realising good outcomes might many of our social and public health policies be if we incorporated a more explicit consideration of sanctuary into their planning – both during and beyond this pandemic?

Staying at home may literally provide sanctuary from the virus, but I would suggest caution that the home, and more specifically a lifestyle where we are encouraged to stay at home as much as possible provides sufficient sanctuary for many of us. Whether we have sufficient sanctuary is not a question we are regularly asked: but I think it would be helpful to do so, if we are to better understand the mechanisms underpinning good health and happiness.

Alison Koslowski is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh.

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:

A postcard from my envelope of space-time

Mariana Marcondes

Dear Liz,

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.

Mariana Marcondes

São Paulo (Hong Kong, Edinburgh), July 2020

Narrating Covid-19

Liz Stanley

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.

Go here.

What is an expert?

Liz Stanley

For people following the daily toll of infections and deaths from the coronavirus, the website provides a useful source in providing a day-on-day collection of a wide range of composing statistics for countries around the world. At the time of writing, the most recent death figures for the UK are shown in the Figure here.

‘The numbers’ remain of key concern, and perhaps as a result they are often taken at face value with their origins, data source and validity bracketed away. Alongside this, although perhaps not quite as prevalent as they were even a month or so ago, new representations are still appearing of ‘what the virus looks like’, with every week another depiction to add to the archive. However, the status of ‘the image’ and whether these are ‘real’ or artistic productions or some amalgam remains usually hard to discover (as commented in an earlier blog-post ‘What does Covid-19 look like?), for only rarely does copyright information appear, let alone more detail given.

Together with ‘the numbers’ and ‘the image’, ‘the expert’ is a familiar presence in public speaking or writing about the pandemic and its effects, along with ‘the science’. ‘The numbers’ as above appear almost in a vacuum, ‘the image’ is usually a free-floating one that just ‘is’, and in what sense ‘the experts’ have expertise other than through what they are saying or writing is often not referenced beyond a job title seen to accomplish this job of work. Linking the numbers, the image and the experts is correspondingly quite hard to do. And concerning all of them, what Harold Garfinkel referred to as the ‘forgotten whatness’ of the work involved is bracketed and made invisible. What is stressed as important is the product and readers/users consuming the product, rather than awareness of the process engaged in and the links between one sphere of coronavirus knowledge and others. This makes it difficult for readers to get a purchase on and assess the status of claims being made.

Sometimes expertise can inhere in specific individuals. For instance, in early March 2020 it was possible for The Guardian newspaper to name Christian Dronten as the leading coronavirus expert in Germany, something likely to be impossible now.

Fauci in the US and Whitty in the UK, key officials in the health sphere, do not have this status, and most likely nor now does Dronten in Germany, for expertise has proliferated and much work has underpinned this. To an important extent this has been due to the mass media and the way that journalism works contemporaneously. TV, radio, press, media websites and other mass media require experts for their working practices. These seek people to act as such, as certified expert sources that can be reported on, for even media journalists with specialist titles (such as health correspondents, for instance) rarely carry out investigative journalism but rely on interviewing people seen as appropriate certified sources. There are of course exceptions, but these are fairly rare and what largely exists is the recycling of what ‘the experts‘ say by ‘news’ reporters.

The production of expertise also inheres in people labelling their activities and/or knowledge-base in professional/institutional (and largely academic) fora as that of expertise. This is facilitated by the high need context, and encouraged at institutional level as promoting skills and knowledge that will enhance the reputational standing and perceived capability of institutions as well as particular persons and sub-units. Experts may be self-made and self-reproducing in relation to both the media market and the research market, then. The LSE’s Department of Health Policy, for instance, has an ‘Expert Analysis Coronavirus’ page with quotations from podcasts by named experts. No further information about their spheres of expertise appears, although searching the LSE site generally provides the information that they are involved in a global health policy Masters degree.

UCL along with other universities features a number of experts in the area who appear on designated webpages. By the start of July 2020, a growing number of academic coronavirus expert centres have been popping up and promoting themselves as providing expert commentary and research capability, and more can be expected to follow. The pop-up expert proliferates.

Government too is involved. In the UK in early March 2020, people with “expertise relating to the Covid-19 outbreak or its impacts” were invited to sign up to a government database, which around 5500 did.

Following this, over 1100 completed a survey which asked for responses to short, medium and long-term concerns. Some of the people who appear elsewhere in the media and on university website pages as designated experts appear in this list, provided in a sub-page, while other publicly-appearing experts do not. Tracing the professional locations and areas of expertise of 40 randomly selected list members suggests a range from a very specific professional expertise through to a very broad or even rather tenuous idea of expertise “relating to the Covid-19 outbreak”. Governance requires expertise and either seeks out known people to act as such, and/or invites people to present themselves as such. The authority and legitimacy of governance, as well as government more narrowly, is linked to an appropriate use of expertise, although in practice this may be highly managed and distanced.

Other experts, in survey data and quantitative methods, produced an analysis of the survey responses. The result is as might be expected a rather general account of their concerns, many of which indicate not so much focused expertise as simply general knowledgeability. For example, in relation to infrastructure concerns, “experts are concerned about public transport. They worry about the reduction of services and want clear guidance on how to say stay safe while travelling… “, and “Digital infrastructure is also an area of concern. Experts worry it will struggle to continue to cope with increased demand”. Indeed – but is there anybody halfway awake who does not think this? Some more detail on sub-pages is provided behind these anodyne statements, but not a lot that would take the reader beyond general knowledgeability.

The ‘COVID-19 Expert Reality Check’ website, with its homepage shown here, is an interesting exception to a number of these patterns. It provides information about the origins and status of the virus image shown on the homepage and assigns ownership. It makes clear it is part of Johns Hopkins University’s Public Health Department. Its listed information essays are authored by specified individuals, and clicking on links provides information about who they ‘are’ in an organisational sense, enabling the reader to assess the link between the information and the author’s professional expertise. Sometimes the result is thereby shown to exceed expertise, the ‘Could SARS-CoV-2 be transmitted sexually via semen?’ statement being a case in point. Stating ‘as fact’ that sex is impossible from a six-foot safe distance, the associate professor of surgery author seems not to have heard of telephone or internet sex or that semen and penetration might not be involved. Perhaps one of the points of the above patterns is that they stand between experts and attentive knowledgeable readers who problematise or reject their claimed knowledge.

‘Experts’ has become a buzz term, with web- and academic-database searches concerned with coronavirus throwing up many items where those referred to as experts think or comment this or that.

Some of these people become proficient and proactive in pre-packaging their activities, outputs and knowledge-base in a way that makes for easy use as demonstrably ‘expert’ by mass media and governance. Managing media take-up is an important element in this. But beneath ‘X, says expert Q’ comments lies diverse expertise that ranges from very focused high-level professional competence in specific areas, to informed and in some cases not so informed knowledge of a general kind. And rarely commented on is that many of them disagree with each other, and also over time change their minds quite significantly from their own earlier comments. This reminds us that expertise and knowledge are not static possessions, but are produced through investigation and interpretation made in a particular time/place and shaped for an audience, with the ‘forgotten whatness’ of the work involved being crucial, although absent in most public presentations and representations of ‘expertise-ness’.

What provides experts with expertise is largely bracketed, then, but is partly a product of the working practices of others, partly reputational as they become established as experts by receiving coverage as such, partly inheres in professional position and title, partly is connected with high need knowledge contexts, and partly rests upon specific knowledge and competence. All of these are involved in the ‘whatness’, not just the latter. And the more experts become established as such in a public context, the more the drift is towards becoming talking heads. That is, the public intellectual role that experts take up can expect and lead them to expound on topics outside their sphere of knowledgeability and expertise.

What is an expert? It’s complicated, and the complications need to be recognised and a careful eye cast over them.

Next: The possible second wave

Liz Stanley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid-19 & the global intensification of inequalities

An e-symposium at UEL

Friday July 3, 2020, 3-4.30pm

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

Chair: Dr. Meera Tiwari

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The ASA’s Footnotes & the Decameron

Liz Stanley

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

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

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

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

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

Call for Papers: Building the Post-Pandemic University

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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