Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Reflections – Relational Corona
Markus Lange, Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
The Coronavirus pandemic affects and challenges all areas of society in their respective micro-, meso- and macro-social dimensions. Related to the genuine health risks enabled by the virus, several social risks have emerged too. On the one hand, processes and routines in social areas such as healthcare, statehood, economy, and culture are either pushed to their limits, or are temporarily locked down. On the other hand, mutual dependencies, entanglements, and conflicting interests between these areas are put into tension, but at the same time require coordination in the shortest possible time in order to prevent a social collapse.
Coronavirus is relational and may engender a relational coordination of society. This essay aims in the direction of sketching at least some dimensions of a relational understanding of the pandemic. Focusing on the current coordination problems of political actors illustrates initial evidence for this.
What we can currently observe in statehood and politics are motivations that aim to coordinate different areas of society. This is predominantly not conducted as global convergence, but rather as divergence between nation states that pursue different approaches and therefore achieve different forms of advance and regressions. However, the fundamental coordination problem is basically the same for all national and supra-national political actors which evaluate and manage the pandemic: namely, the risk-related weighing up of a twofold spectrum. On the one side, they are confronted with the danger of an upcoming health hazard that is life-threatening for many people, and likewise threatens the stability of the healthcare system. On the other side, they are confronted with the danger of an economic collapse due to the necessity to lock down sufficiently large parts of the economy, which in turn can trigger subsequent socio-economic crises for significant sections of the population.
Attempts to counteract this crisis by coordinating several – if not all – social areas, seem to be much more evident in the case of the Coronavirus pandemic than, for example, the global financial crisis of the years 2007 to 2009. In the latter case, the emergence of the crisis, predominantly in the financial sector, represents a crisis management that was strongly rooted in neoclassical economic theory. However, these economic paradigms proved to be largely incapable of adequately framing and deducing the consequences of the crisis, particularly with respect to the real economy . In the case of the Coronavirus pandemic, a much broader paradigmatic and discursive spectrum of interpretations has emerged, and is formed, for example, by biologists, ethicists, economists, historians, philosophers, physicians, psychologists, sociologists, and virologists. It seems that the rapid spread of the virus and its societal consequences has released a diversity of (opposing) interpretations that has reached politics and statehood. This has not prevented the possibility that economic consultancies are still in the position to advise political crisis management with respect to non-economic agendas, because these actors are already embedded in the political arena .
Against the background of these initial observations, we can ask: What marks a sociologically informed relational understanding of the current crisis? What is relationality? Grounded in ongoing debates in the field of relational sociology , a general understanding of relationality may advocate a view on social reality with respect to mutual observations and dependencies between, as well as entangled practices of, individual and/or collective actors. Therefore, it is of sociological interest to uncover (a) how respective actors (from different societal areas) were related towards each other before the pandemic, in order (b) to reconstruct how they relate each other during the pandemic. In what follows, some routines that are in flux due to the Coronavirus pandemic can be sketched out on situational and structural levels of relationality.
On a situational level, it is promising to focus on social interactions and relationships. In the current stage of the crisis, physical distancing certainly engenders new experiences in social interaction. For example, this can imply both loneliness, in the case of missing daily physical interactions with others, as well as more frequent interactions with the personal core contacts that are already part of one’s everyday life (e.g. primary family members, living communities, intimate relationships). In this context, manifestations of individual or collective deceleration and mental re-sorting are just as conceivable as individual isolation or collective escalation (up to the point of domestic violence, etc.). Furthermore, in Germany, it is permitted to meet personally at least in pairs. To what extent does this render or even ‘upgrade’ the dyadic social relationship? Is conversation then more personal, direct, open, or empathic, due to the lack of peer pressure in group interactions, and against the background of the shared crisis experiences?
On the meso- or macrostructural level (such as social networks, fields, or systems), relationality addresses both historically ingrained logics, structures, and routines in certain areas of society, as well as dependencies and entanglements between these areas. The above-mentioned coordination problem of political actors refers to this, and one could put emphasis on further relations between all areas of society. To give just one example from my research in the state-finance nexus: the Coronavirus pandemic initially can be considered as an ‘exogenous’ risk event. On the one hand, the pandemic separately challenges and even changes the intrinsic logics of finance and statehood. Falling share prices – in what is, historically speaking, an extremely short period – due to massive asset sales by financial actors and the empowerment of political actors to govern through the executive branch, are just two current occurrences. At the same time, the pandemic also concerns existing relations between finance and statehood. For example, it can be observed how concepts that originally were developed as a crisis response to the global financial crisis and the European sovereign debt crisis, are now being refreshed to deal with the current crisis. This is illustrated by ongoing debates on either issuing “Corona bonds”, originally framed as “Euro bonds”, or instead using the European Stability Mechanism, as instruments to support affected countries in the Eurozone. However, the contrasting positions on this between the Eurozone countries were already part of the negotiations before the pandemic.
“Let’s hope that Corona won’t fall on our heads.”
My son said this sentence a while ago at dinner. He is currently reading the comic series “The Adventures of Asterix” by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, in which the phrase “Let’s hope that the sky won’t fall on our heads” sometimes appears. Of course, his variation of this phrase allows for several interpretations of the present situation. I would like to conclude with the following point. Sociological analysis and reflection can certainly contribute to illuminating the currently existing uncertainty. To look at society in its most diverse areas and facets, as well as offering suggestions for interactive, discursive, processual, or structural relations between them, is of great use in this crisis. It is therefore worthwhile to turn on our relational heads, in order to prevent them from getting a bump or much worse through the Coronavirus pandemic.
 Fligstein, N., Stuart Brundage, J. & Schultz, M. (2017) ’Seeing like the Fed: Culture, cognition, and framing in the failure to anticipate the financial crisis of 2008’. American Sociological Review, 82(5):879–909.
 Hirschman, D. and Berman, E.P. (2014) ‘Do economists make policies? On the political effects of economics’. Socio-Economic Review, 12(4): 779–811.
 For an overview of the current debate see: Dépelteau, F. (ed) (2018) The Palgrave Handbook of Relational Sociology. Palgrave Macmillan/Springer.
Comment on this article – log in with your ESA username and password: a comment field will appear.