Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid Working – Becoming Irrelevant for the System: A Discussion of Terms
Elke Hemminger, Dept. of Sociology: Technology, Media and Empirical Methods of the Social Sciences, Protestant University of Applied Sciences Bochum, Germany.
The Corona pandemic hit Europe in early spring 2020 with a force and speed that found its societies and people largely unprepared. Apart from the lack of experience with a situation like this, there was also a lack of adequate verbal expressions for what was happening. People had to expand their vocabulary in order to understand the differences between an epidemic and a pandemic (including the legal, medical, and political implications), and they had to find new ways of describing the societal need to limit social contacts and reduce individual mobility.
One of the terms which quickly became prominent in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland has a profoundly sociological ring to it: Systemrelevanz. Translating as “relevant for the system“, the term is used to distinguish between those professions, shops and institutions which are expected and allowed to keep their services and operations working during the crisis, and those which are expected to stop operations and close. By attributing relevance to some facilities and denying them to others, the people working there also found themselves to be either relevant or irrelevant to the system. Apart from the fact that it is not exactly encouraging to be irrelevant, the term Systemrelevanz raises quite a number of questions. What are the societal implications of describing professions, institutions, or individuals as either relevant or not relevant to the system? What system are we talking about, and what do we mean by relevant? Relevant for whom or what?
The term Systemrelevanz is originally the equivalent to the expression “too big to fail“, which refers to financial institutions and corporations considered so important for the general economy that they have to be supported by government provisions in a severe crisis . In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the concept was then adopted in the context of the Corona pandemic, and expanded in meaning so as to be used about specific professions and individual persons.
In other countries and languages, different expressions can be found. In the USA, services and institutions which are kept open are called „essential“. In Spanish, the term “un bien de primera necesidad“ or “servicios esenciales“ (in US Spanish) is common. In French, the term “les services et activités prioritaires“ is widely accepted. None of those terms has the distinct sociological ring to it as Systemrelevanz, which implies a hierarchy of relevance to society in general, while the other terms refer to priorities during the crisis, to essential services to meet the fundamental needs of people for food and healthcare.
Those underlying implications can be seen as problematic from a sociological perspective. If a system is defined as the dynamic order of relations in a non-random structure, every element in the system has its specific function and contributes to stability, so that the „continuity of the social structure (…) is not destroyed by changes in the units“ . The social system, however, is also built out of social roles and expectations, and of abstract ideas and values . Therefore, some elements without an obvious usefulness for the social system can still have an essential function, such as religious and magical rituals, the arts and sports, as they can provide a feeling of security, well-being, or social cohesion . If relevance is meant to describe the contribution of certain elements to the stability of the social system, it is absurd to assume that we could permanently do without all the schools and universities, the theatres and museums, the bookshops and cafés, that are closed at the moment. Referring to them as irrelevant to the system, however, implies exactly that.
According to Parsons, a social system is made of "stabilized patterns of interaction" , and relies on the commitment to shared values . In order to persist over time, Parsons argues, any social system has to fulfil four core functions which he describes in his by now classical AGIL paradigm: Adaption, Goal Attainment, Integration and Latent Pattern Maintenance [6; 4]. Any external or internal influences that disturb the equilibrium of the system are dysfunctional. It is safe to say that the Corona pandemic is such an influence. Therefore, the social system needs to adapt to the new situation (e.g. restricted trade and travel routes), develop instruments to attain their (probably modified) societal goals (e.g. governmental support for businesses and individuals), integrate all the functional elements in a way that maintains societal cohesion and the commitment to shared values (e.g. share cultural events in innovative ways), and deal with the challenges by maintaining latent patterns even in times where specific institutions or services cannot operate as usual (e.g. offer alternative learning formats for students).
From this point of view, attributing irrelevance for the system to such elements as educational and child care institutions, or the arts in their various forms, reveals a bizarre inconsistency. In some cases, the essential relevance for the system has so far never been socially acknowledged, but becomes painfully clear in the current circumstances. This is true for health and care professions and institutions, which were assumed to be exactly the opposite of „too big to fail“; they have been taken for granted, just like the care obligations that mostly women take on in addition to their jobs, and the underpaid and non-prestigious work of cashiers, truck drivers, and waste disposal workers. In other cases, institutions and professions are suddenly not relevant to the system, even though they clearly are essential for social cohesion and stability. This is true most of all for the educational system, but also for the arts, sports, and other types of cultural activities. In times of health hazards and anxiety about the economic situation, as we are facing them now, people cling to the comfort of making music together, of listening to poems, or working out in a (adequately spaced) group on their front porches. They learn languages and connect to friends all over the world via conference tools, they keep up their studies, and teach their children in the best ways they can manage. Those activities might seem irrelevant to the system, but they are certainly relevant to the people and the values the system is built on.
But why, the reader might be tempted to ask, is it so important which words are used to describe the same phenomenon? The crisis came on quickly, and maybe it is understandable that politics and media did not come up with a completely adequate term. There was no time to properly reflect on verbal expressions, right?
Yes, that might be true. But it also might be true that the ad hoc adoption of such a term is in itself the reflection of something deeply embedded in our social reality. The words used in this crisis are expressions of a certain understanding, a concept of meaning underlying the actual situation. Whereas the terms „essential“ or "prioritaires" can be interpreted as fundamentally important both for individuals and society, Systemrelevanz clearly operates primarily on a macro-level. Neither are the needs of individuals (apart from the necessities to survive) such as company, solidarity, and mutual appreciation focussed, nor is the contribution of cultural practices to the stability of the system included in the concept. The priority of economic growth, it seems, has become an end in itself. The social system, which comprises so many elements, is, in this conception, most of all an economic system, in which the arts and education are merely ornamental padding. This is a system where music and theatre, museums, reading, and the curiosity to learn, are relevant only if they contribute to the great machine of the economic markets.
It was Niklas Luhmann who wrote that social systems have to be supplied with an ample amount of disarray . Contradiction and discord are necessary, he argues, to trigger reflection on the internal structures, values, and presumptions of a system . The verbal expressions we use are both a reflection and a possible means to influence the future of social reality. Maybe it is time to take a step back and reflect on what it is that keeps the system stable, which values we want to build our society upon, and what is in fact relevant for a social system to make it worth living in.
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