On Masks

Nick Prior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10th June 2020

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.

Finding the Words

Derek Morris

In times like these, it is hard to find the words. For me, searching for the words help to give meaning to what I am feeling. Hiraeth is a Welsh word with a meaning that is hard to translate. It is said to have a meaning close to homesickness, but this doesn’t quite capture it, as a sort of hiraeth-lite explanation. Others have described it as a “longing for where your spirit lives”.[1] That is closer, maybe. It has a kinship with other words in different languages such as the Portuguese word saudade, which expresses its similarity as a longing for something that is not there. Another close word brings to mind my time in Istanbul: this is the Turkish word hüzün, the sense of melancholy and past that hiraeth can convey.[2] I am unsure as I don’t speak these languages with any fluency. But hiraeth and its kindred help to give some sense to these ungraspable moods, and may do the same for many people now in these times. These words are also often associated with immigration, and I am a migrant. I do know I certainly feel a sort of melancholy and longing for something, perhaps a place that no longer exists. These times feel a lot like that: losing the world we knew, wondering if it will ever return. Words help for what I feel, especially when I see my homeland in the news or talk to others, back there, in the United States. 

Being far from home has always been difficult, and now the virus makes everything more so. Although I am a migrant, my situation is quite comfortable compared to that of other migrants. Home, for me, is Oklahoma. My first journey to live abroad began with a year in Iraq in 2003 as a US army soldier. This period, like now, also required unfamiliar forms of communication with my loved ones. It was only letters home at first. Then, our entire company shared a phone. One hundred people. Eventually, there were call centers, a huge step-up from what past soldiers endured, but still difficult with the time zone difference amongst myriad other issues. In Iraq, spending time with Iraqis and also people from all around the US, my former beliefs were also challenged, and I returned home feeling somewhat like an outsider myself, something common amongst migrants that return home.

I eventually met someone who understood this aberrant feeling. My future partner had returned from France with the same sentiment. The wanderlust it produced in us both eventually returned us abroad. Zygmunt Bauman, a migrant himself, wrote on migrants being “rule-breakers,” breaking one of the biggest rules: the rule of staying put. Their countries of origin regarded it as “their original sin”.[3] We made the decision to live in Istanbul, Turkey, as sinners. 

C. Wright Mills once wrote, “in Europe an American discovers America”.[4] I agree. Again, my beliefs were challenged and in between Europe and Asia I discovered another America through fresh eyes and ears. I heard the critiques. I heard the praises. I read the love. I read the hatred. I tried to read and listen to all those in between. Next, the move was to Ireland. I again learned of new ideas from a different context and diverse views. Not only did a new country offer novel views, a master’s course on race, ethnicity, conflict made me even more aware of my country’s racist and colonial past. 

We returned home for a few years, but again pieces of us didn’t quite fit after those many years abroad. Those old feelings returned. We once again returned abroad where I find myself now, in Scotland. Here I am working on a PhD in a concentrated sociological study of my life through the method of autoethnography and the Documents of Life approach. Each time with each new place, it felt like our old world was lost. This does not mean we left that home behind though.   

Weeks ago, I had a 6+ hour phone conversation with one of my oldest and best friends from back home. He was having a crisis. The call ended early in the morning. There may have been drink involved. As mentioned, home is Oklahoma, which is about 5 time zones between us. He was having trouble in a long-term relationship where kids were involved. We have been having long conversations, for several weekends now, over the phone, that stretch well into my mornings. There tends to be lots of nostalgia to annoy my partner. In Covid-19 lockdown, this seems to be a much too common experience for us all. My partner and I spend a lot of time now on the phone and messaging with family, friends and friends that feel like family, back home, at our former homes and even in our new one. Over the years we formed a kinship with many who have a similar sense of hiraeth.

Back home, which is a terrible focus of the current outbreak and the dramatic failure of the Trump administration, my friends are in shock. It is a weird time where you see different countries having different responses: some hailed as good, some great, some bad, some infuriatingly bad. One of my friends mentioned to me how horrible the US response has been (as perceived from her perspective). She lives in a country with a suppressed media landscape. This left her wondering aloud in a WhatsApp recorded message if the response she was observing was partly to do with how it was portrayed to others abroad or if it was, in fact, that unbelievably bad. Had the US sunk to the level of the semi-dictatorial government she lived under now? There is a feeling to want to go to somewhere where things are better. Yet, if you keep moving, where will that place ever be? And there is the guilt you feel about those left behind.

Now, there is a new crisis in America. This piece was mostly written before the events succeeding the murder of George Floyd in the US. I hesitate to bring it up late in this piece of writing because a discussion on matters of race requires much more in-depth discussion, but I feel that not bringing it up would be a bigger error. In many ways it is not a ‘new’ crisis at all as the oppression and injustice wrought by what is considered ‘white’ in America on minorities has a long history. Much longer than America’s founding, it is a part of history than can be traced back across the Atlantic to the country I write in now, in the UK; it is a place that also shares a long history of oppression and injustice. It seems in the US, in 2020, the only people who are served proper justice are rich, white, heterosexual men and everyone else receives theirs in varying degrees to him. Something has to change.

Perhaps words such as hiraethhüzün and suadade do not do enough to bring what we are feeling “home”. Maybe words fail and action needs to take place. Maybe I am not missing a place, but a feeling. Maybe the words should be kept simple and in English: solidarity. 

Derek Morris is a PhD student in Socio-cultural Studies at the University of Edinburgh and a former US Iraq War veteran with research interests in soldiers and their relation to society through autoethnography, narrative inquiry, and the Documents of Life approach

[1] Kielar, Samantha, ‘Hiraeth,’ Word of the Week, Sites at Penn State, April, 2016, https://sites.psu.edu/kielarpassionblog2/2016/04/02/hiraeth/

[2] Petro, Pamela, ‘Dreaming in Welsh,’ The Paris Review, September, 2012, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/09/18/dreaming-in-welsh/

[3] Bauman, Zygmunt, ‘On Writing Sociology,’ Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 17 (1): 79-90, 2003. Page 83.

[4] Mills, K. and Pamela Mills, C.Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Page 208. 


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.

‘Is it worth it?’ The future & what to do

Liz Stanley

In The Independent of 30 May, Alice Hughes reported on a survey conducted by MyUniChoices. A large proportion of its 1,000 college and sixth-form pupils stated they had changed their minds about higher education. ‘Before the pandemic‘, 37% of them had intended to go to university but were considering other possibilities, including not going to university and not taking a gap year because of concerns about finances, family and their future in general. More than a third of them were wondering if it is worth going to university at all because of such uncertainties. The survey also reports that these college and school students had expressed a more general uncertainty and worry about the future, both their own and more widely.

That many prospective HE students are questioning previously-made choices and have deep concerns about their future is of course not surprising, it’s very sensible. And it’s likely that a large proportion of the population generally will be thinking similar things. What is surprising is that the phrase ‘if it is worth going to university at all‘ appears as a simple statement in the Independent article without giving consideration to what this means and whether ‘worth‘ in terms of finances and the economy is a sensible way to think about higher education. Both the survey organisation and the ‘experts’ consulted raised a number of practical matters such as the uncertainty of using estimated grades to offer places and the possibility of a January start to the academic year. But what was not raised, at least as reported in the article, is this question of worth.

It’s by no means unexpected that a survey organisation might ignore the question, but is rather dismaying when an education journalist does so. Education is surely all about the future and being as well qualified as possible, in terms of having a good knowledge-base and usable and transferable skills that can be turned to a range of different purposes, thereby keeping their possessor well-informed and well prepared to make life-choices and to be able to fill their time productively in the widest sense of this word.

In this time of a pandemic, education is or should be more at a premium than ever before. It isn’t just about jobs, it’s about life and having flexible skills and capacities. This is of course not to suggest that such things can only be found in education, for the long ranks of earlier generations prove this wrong. But in the present context, it is one of the main ways that several generations of young people have done so; and it is by no means certain, indeed it is highly likely, that opportunities for them to do so within the economy will be considerably foreshortened for a significant period of time.

So yes, it is still ‘worth’ it, in both the narrow economic and the wider evaluative sense of the word. But clearly there are problems and issues.

SAGE, governance & the Cummings debacle

Liz Stanley

Those following UK political developments in government handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be aware of a high-level advisory body partly composed of senior politicians at ministerial level and partly by ‘experts‘ of various kinds, called SAGE. The initials stand for Scientific Advisory Group for Emergences, with different incarnations of SAGE membership constituted around different emergences since first established as a mechanism within the framework of governance. SAGE most often comes to public attention through its main committee being invoked in political discourse as the source of the expert scientific guidance about the best courses of action to follow in containing and ‘fighting‘ the coronavirus that the government receives and through which it describes itself as ‘following the science‘ or even ‘driven by the science’.

SAGE is usually mentioned just in passing in comment about government policy, with the details of what it is and does rarely mentioned. It exists in a taken for granted way as part of the apparatus of governance. But a closer look indicates some interesting things. Basic information about its composition and formal activities can be found on the UK government website here. It is described as a body that “provides scientific and technical advice to support government decision-makers“, with its two leading members names that often appear in press conferences and media reports: Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser from the Department of Health and Social Care. It has 53 other members, listed complete with titles and their formal honours, as are Vallance and Whitty, plus two who requested anonymity. The indications are, then, that SAGE’s role is to provide informed advice; and political decision-making, if not separate of this, is not in the position of either ‘following‘ or being ‘driven by‘ the scientific and technical advice provided.

More detail is also given on a link from the main page on the coronavirus and SAGE, and can be accessed here. Its opening statement is worth considering:

“The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is responsible for providing Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) meetings with coherent, coordinated advice and to interpret complex or uncertain scientific evidence in non-technical language.
Typically, SAGE meets in advance of COBR and the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) subsequently represents SAGE at COBR. SAGE provides COBR with science advice at the UK level.
In relation to COVID-19, SAGE brings together expertise from across the scientific spectrum, including epidemiologists, clinicians, therapeutics and vaccine expertise, public health experts, virologists, environmental scientists, data scientists, mathematical modellers and statisticians, genomic experts, and behavioural and social scientists who feed analysis, research and data into SAGE.
SAGE’s role is to provide unified scientific advice on all the key issues, based on the body of scientific evidence presented by its expert participants. This includes everything from latest knowledge of the virus to modelling the disease course, understanding the clinical picture, and effects of and compliance with interventions. This advice together with a descriptor of uncertainties is then passed onto government ministers. The advice is used by Ministers to allow them to make decisions and inform the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The government, naturally, also considers a range of other evidence including economic, social, and broader environmental factors when making its decisions.”

Some useful pointers can be drawn from this about the role of SAGE, and which throw interesting light on governmental claims that it follows or is driven by ‘the science’:

• SAGE through its key team member advises COBR, so it exists at a high level within the structures of governance.
• It is multidisciplinary and has membership across the sciences, humanities and social sciences.
• It provides unified advice, which given the size and constitution of its membership implies reaching a broad consensus.
• This advice is ‘passed on‘ to government, which ministers use together with other advice.
• Government also considers other sources of evidence in making decisions.

There appears something of a divorce between government pronouncements about following or being driven by scientific evidence, and the formal role of SAGE and its sub-groups, which is to reach a broad consensus of opinion and pass this on in a framework in which government draws on a range of sources. The question arises as to whether custom and practice differs and there is ‘following’, although recent events suggest otherwise when political expediency dictates, something returned to below.

Among other questions that arise is, where are the social scientists located within this? That is, the statement in the quotation above indicates that social scientists are there, but where, and who are they in disciplinary or interdisciplinary terms?

Going through the list of those on the main SAGE committee and exploring the qualifications and positions of its non-governmental members indicates that the clear majority are not social scientists but include epidemiologists, medics, mathematicians and modellers. The most familiar name in social science terms is that of Ian Diamond, the UK’s National Statistician in the Office for National Statistics, and formerly head of the ESRC. There are, however, important sub-groups. The same more detailed document quoted from above states:

“In a highly complex crisis such as COVID-19, a lot of work is done by sub-groups and de-facto sub-groups – covering for instance epidemiological modelling, clinical questions and behavioural science. For COVID-19 SAGE has two main subgroups:
• Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) (40-45 Participants)
• Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behavioural Science (SPI-B) (18 participants)”

Clearly the sub-group on modelling is much larger (40+ v. 18), which could be taken as an indication of perceived importance, and there are ‘de facto’ advisory groups as well, which the document provides some more information about. Turning attention to the Behavioural Science sub-group and its members suggests the majority are economists and psychologists of different kinds with at least one ethics specialist. However, it appears no sociologists or anthropologists of relevant specialisms are involved.

This is not to question the relevance of the disciplines and people involved, simply to point out there are notable omissions. Perhaps sociology and anthropology are seen as the ‘soft’ end of the social sciences and absent because of this, but it is impossible not to be shocked about what is excluded. In the case of sociology (and leaving anthropology to fight its own corner), there is highly relevant specialist sociological knowledge that could have been represented, concerning such things as crowds and disasters, social movements in relation to large-scale social events and changes, comparative and historical work on pandemics and epidemics, and narrative inquiries regarding how people behave in exceptional circumstances. And this doesn’t even mention appropriate contributions from risk sociology, sociological work on sustainability and environment, and ‘the biggy’ of medical sociology.

But it seems that social scientists of any persuasion will be social scientists and act accordingly. Thus commentary and debate around the debacle concerning Boris Johnson’s political advisor Dominic Cummings and his ‘one lockdown rule for me and another for the rest‘ has led to at least three members of the SAGE Behavioural Science sub-group breaking silence to specify the advice given, and accepted by government. Among other things, this advice focused on how to ensure trust in government-instituted lockdown rules.

This advice was that trust in UK pandemic governance requires that lockdown and the related rules instituted must apply to all, there should be no special exemptions, no ‘us and them’, and this is key in controlling the virus and ensuing deaths. There was clearly the assumption this had been accepted by government and would be followed. It is now clear the advice, seemingly fully accepted, was subsequently ignored by Cummings as a senior advisor deciding, a prime minister accepting, and senior ministers supporting, that special circumstances applied to him.

As present circumstances indicate, political expediency trumps expert advice. And ironically it also trumps the trust in good faith about trust that sub-group members had seemingly assumed, from comments by those who have spoken about the Cummings matter. Will more of the sub-group speak out? Or will hope of further placements hold their tongues? And what of pandemic governance from now on? The latter is clearly the key question. Will the fallout – which as of late morning on 26 May includes resignation of a junior minister – continue and increase, or will the gamble that people’s anger at being treated as stupid will subside pay off?

In it together? Important event on how families organise time, labour & home schooling

IFS event, 27 May, 9.30 – 10.30

The Institute of Fiscal Studies is about to publish the results of its research on how UK families spend their time and who does what under lockdown. From preliminary releases there will be few surprises – women hold up most of the sky and still do most of everything else as well. But there will be important detail and discussion.

All in this together? What impact is lockdown having on how families spend their time?
Date – Weds 27 May 2020 | 09:30 – 10:30
Location – Online via the IFS website, access here
Availability – Places available

What impact is lockdown having on how families spend their time and who does what? At this event, IFS researchers will present their findings on how families are managing day to day to balance old and new demands on their time, as well as whether and how this differs by socio-economic status and gender.

‘The science’: some sociological reflections

Liz Stanley

Among repeated buzz terms about coronavirus and UK government responses are ‘following the science’ and the much stronger ‘driven by the science’. Their main use has been to present political policies as embedded in or even required by scientific evidence and advice, thereby giving greater authority to political decision-making through associating it with the assumption of expertise conveyed in references to ‘the science’. ‘The science’ is another of these frequently used buzz terms. It exists in a family-group with the ‘following’ and ‘driven’ ones and is homogenised as single and indivisible and having a kind of absolute authority. Such usages disregard the range of professional expertises involved and not only the differences and sometimes clashes between them but also divergences within particular scientific networks.

In the Covid-19 pandemic context, while there has been public attention rightfully given to political decision-making and its frequent ineptitude, there has been surprisingly little critical reflection upon what is claimed or simply assumed to be scientific expertise, including its use by politicians to justify political expediency. So far as can be discerned from the relatively few public-facing sociological responses currently visible, this includes its absence from sociological attention too, although this may change. It is all the more refreshing then that some political journalists are now turning their gaze in the direction of ‘the science‘ and the political work it is doing.

The Coronavirus News is an online part of the BBC’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic with a magazine format, one aspect of which is ‘The Coronavirus Newscast’ series of podcasts. The high-profile journalists involved are Adam Fleming and Laura Kuenssberg, Fergus Walsh and Chris Mason. On 21 May, the podcast of an interview by Fleming and Kuenssberg with Sir Ian Boyd, a zoologist and polar scientist who was chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 2012-19, was published on the Newscast webpage. Boyd is presently a member of the Sage advisory group, which combines high-level members of the scientific community with government politicians, and it is in this capacity he was interviewed.

Interviewers Fleming and Kuenssberg asked Ian Boyd thoughtful questions about vaccine development, ‘test, track and trace’, and in particular ‘the science‘ comments that UK government politicians have frequently made in justifying their decisions and policies. The point was made that divergences and uncertainties and not uniform certainty exist within the scientific community, which anyway is not one and indivisible. However, politicians nonetheless lay claim to ‘the science‘ as justification for decisions that actually include many other factors too. This was an amiable discussion and raised interesting points but did not pursue them in any great depth. Given the practical importance of ‘the science‘, perhaps the interviewers felt they could not push this further, but clearly wider issues about the character of science, its political uses and notions of expertise more generally were hovering, but were not picked up.

At the point this might have been pursued, the interview format gave way to addressing questions from listeners and largely lost its Fleming and Kuenssberg provided critical edge. The questions covered included why taste and smell took so long to be included as indications of COVID-19, when more detail would be given about a ‘social bubble’ approach, shielding, and with hindsight what political actions Boyd wished had been taken earlier. On this latter, however, the journalists did press him harder. Responding rightly that hindsight knowledge is easy but acting at the time in unfolding circumstances is not, Boyd discussed in a careful way whether lockdown policies could have been introduced earlier. In this respect, Fleming mentioned a 17 February official document recognising that infections were even then increasing rapidly, but only significantly later did the political landscape change.

Not named by Boyd nor Fleming or Kuenssberg, at this juncture the mind leapt to earlier ideas about ‘herd immunity’ and permitting deaths to increase to a level where the majority of the population would become immune, for that at that stage scientific and political ideas seemed to combine to see an increase in deaths as not entirely undesirable. It appears to have been the unanticipated scale of the deaths and rapidity of the increase, rather than ‘the science’, that changed the political landscape. Or was something different going on behind-the-scenes?

The podcast is well worth listening to as seriously questioning ‘the science‘ and its political uses; it can be accessed online via the BBC’s The Coronavirus News pages. For those interested specifically in the Ian Boyd segment, this started at 10:42 minutes in and finished at 33:16. The interview was also reported on the BBC news app on 22 May, ‘Coronavirus: acting earlier would have save lives, says Sage member’.

But what of ‘the science‘ and what might the social sciences and in particular sociology be doing regarding it? Or do we just throw our hands up and leave it to perspicacious journalists to offer an analysis?

There is a wealth of excellent sociological theory and research concerned with science, scientific networks and practices. Time for its proponents and other sociologists influenced by this work to step forward. Which kinds of scientists are proposing ‘the facts‘, what variations are there, and how are these changing over time? are there divergences and fault-lines that are not appearing in the public domain? what networks exist to enable such work to be picked up and used by policymakers at all levels of governance? how is ‘science’ being characterised? These and related questions are important for understanding not only to how policy-makers operate, but also how the general run of people respond to unfolding events. If nothing else, the hordes of British people over the last few days crowding onto sunlit beaches and into country beauty-spots indicates that there is widespread doubt about or even straightforward rejection of both political pronouncements and invocations of ‘the science‘ regarding social distancing, indeed regarding the coronavirus as such.

How to explain this? At the least it opens up the ground beneath hallowed science as providing ‘the facts’ that everyone can be expected to act on, and shows that assessments of ‘risk‘ are part of individual/group decision-making. And here another set of sociological thinking and research comes into frame, the interactional sociologies and taking seriously that people are proficient theorisers of their own lives and therefore the how and why of what they do need to be taken seriously in understanding why social life turns out as it does.

Sociological work of these and related kinds need to be embarked upon now, if not already underway; and to appear widely in public fora as circumstances are unfolding, not just three or four years down the line in funded research projects of the kind being badged as ‘opportunities‘ (an ethically dubious term given the scale of deaths worldwide) on numerous sociology websites. Sociology asks complicated questions about why things are as they are and people do as they do, using the lively curiosity about ‘the facts’ of social life that characterises the sociological imagination and its concern with biography, time and social structure. This needs putting into practice now in a new way, given present circumstances, in thinking hard about the changes occurring and the likely reverberations over time.

Please share examples by leaving comments on the Edinburgh Decameron website.

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.