Doing Sociology – Funding, Teaching & Opportunities
Beware! (of) Pandemic Imagination
Karoline Krenn, Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems FOKUS, Berlin, Germany.
To some extent the pandemic experience is reminiscent of Plato’s vision of the state. Regulators daily receive reports from experts. In Plato’s vision, those experts, of course, were philosophers and they ruled themselves. At first sight, the experts of the pandemic are virologists. No news broadcast happens without an interview with one, or without a politician referring to one. A liberal German newspaper recently proclaimed a Berlin chief physician as the new Chancellor.
Other voices make this the time of sociologists, the meticulous observers of society. And truly, sociologists from different areas of expertise already provide manifold framings to sort out different kinds of micro, meso and macro phenomena that unfold. They invite the public to look into everyday life-world experiences, family and work relations, networks, gender aspects, social and business structures, spheres of production and sectorial vulnerabilities, institutional (mal-)functions, multiple interdependencies and systemic deficits of the past. Empirical studies are about to generate a comprehensive understanding about life in the pandemic: how people respond to the situation, their attitudes and sentiments towards measures taken, how they cope with their daily demands in changing routines and distancing practices. And they also look into the resilience of institutions. Media comments, blog contributions and preliminary reports nourish expectations as to many comparative studies to come. Due to extensive surveys under way, future generations will be provided with an extraordinary database to describe the present state. The historical writers of the plague could have only dreamt of the sophisticated methods and tools available now.
Thinking about the pandemic, I frankly envy colleagues who successfully manage to step back into the expert role of the observer already, and who can engage themselves in designing empirical studies or drawing theoretical conclusions. My mind is still in a haze. I was not prepared for the vanishing of the world as taken for granted. Honestly, I would not have needed this practical lesson in Mead to recognize the significance of his ideas. All along the line this could be the moment to revitalize some of the classic concepts and scrutinize their illuminating vigour. Speaking with Durkheim, is this puzzled state many people find themselves in already a sign of anomie? Are the extended transitions from the analogue to the digital, and the prevalence of distant socializing, expressions of a new type of Simmelian socialization? Or have we simply manoeuvred ourselves into a collective crisis experiment of an extent even Garfinkel never would have thought of?
From my privileged academic home-office experience, life has switched to slow motion and there seems nothing to plan for in the near future. Apparently, this does not hold back long-term prophecies for society popping up in the media, utopias and dystopias alike. Utopians see in the readiness to adjust and in the unagitated helpfulness an opening-up of local and global solidarity and cooperation. Dystopians watch us entering a new era of renationalisation and monopolisation. Again the former imagine social deceleration and a joint return to value-orientation and public interest, while the latter envisage a global economic crisis aggravating social and global inequalities and polarisations in more than one field. A boost for digital technologies throughout various sectors is declared as an eventual positive outcome, since more and more people arrive at experimenting with digital technologies. The enforcement of complete digital surveillance, and the declaration of an irreversible transition of socio-cultural experience to virtual spaces, are complementary threats.
Since media love bad news, I am not sure what is more alarming: the virus or the predicted dystopias? The performative effects of predictions are no less threatening than the pandemic itself. Thus comes the subsequent crisis as self-fulfilling prophecy?
Even more discomforting, another question remains: On what evidence are any of those predictions based? Historic analogies and survey data will not do. Unfortunately, we also cannot control for any variables in this social experiment. Apart from ethical concerns about exposing certain groups to different environments, it also appears practically impossible to guarantee the stability of other factors. As sad as it is, for the moment all there is are ad hoc statements and more or less ambiguous expert opinions. The long-term effects of the pandemic experience seem simply impossible to predict at the present time. Apparently, this bubble of extraordinary contingency puts to the test both our nerves and also the available instruments for reducing uncertainties, science included.
But don’t we particularly need pandemic imagination for exactly this reason? A distinctive quality of the sociological imagination lies in the understanding that social outcomes are based on what we do. To twist this argument around, this also includes the imagination itself. Against this backdrop, any post-pandemic vision, as well as any timely provision of warnings, require great caution. Let’s face it. There is a delicate difference between an informed, nuanced, contextual sociological insight and a grand proclamation. Increased attention from the media feeds our vanities, but shouldn’t we resist the temptation of the latter? As for now, our means to control the virus are quite restricted. Fortunately, our expert judgment is within our reach. Or, to modify a line of a song: Be careful what you predict (for), we just might get it!
This leaves me concluding with an entirely personal remark: My two cents from this present time is an existential experience of being social. Doubtless, besides system relevant workers on the job, it is digitization that keeps the system running. Digital tools help us to adapt and to withstand the pandemic. Tools connect and facilitate continuity. Meetings and conferences can take place virtually, artists remain in touch with their audience via live streaming, leisure courses go online, and we can stay in close contact with the people we love. And not to forget the potential mobile apps have to release us from lockdown, hopefully, any time soon. Our society has developed enormous digital resilience. Without diminishing these accomplishments, the pandemic experience also demonstrates in which areas we would rather not choose the digital if we had a choice. Nobody will doubt the qualitative difference between a real and a virtual touch, a computer-assisted or an analogue discussion, and a musical live experience and one coming from a screen. Digital resilience or not, we are amidst an analogue void. For my taste, this is a rather discomforting human experience.
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