In a pandemic, what counts as and how we count impact is fundamentally social and political. In their essay for our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Robert Soden, Jacqueline Wernimont, and Scott Gabriel Knowles suggest that we must more accurately account for a broad range of ways in which the labor of caring is happening in response to the pandemic, from care of acutely ill patients to the work of mutual aid collaborators seeking to address social inequalities magnified by the pandemic. The authors call for multimethod research that allows for qualitative insight to give depth to quantitative data, in order to ensure that new policies address the underlying problems that may be obscured by numerical research alone.
Given the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems a crucial time to reflect, from the perspectives of those who have studied disasters and public health crises, on social science’s insights and its potential impact (positive and negative). In this introductory essay to the “Disaster Studies” theme of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Alexa Dietrich and Scott Gabriel Knowles highlight how disaster research can shed light on the mutual effects of social inequality and disaster over time. Conversely, this theme will both explore how research through a disaster-focused lens can help us understand and address the preconditions and consequences that make the pandemic so devastating, and what can usefully be learned from the responses of institutions and communities worldwide that have most effectively reduced its impact, or that may signal hope for society’s future.
Scott Gabriel Knowles opens our “Chancing the Storm” series with a reflection on how uncertainty—and an engagement with contingency and multicausality—has come to be embraced by historians, not least by those who study the history of disasters. Building on his own research on the history of engineering, Knowles emphasizes temporality and how disasters are both events and technological, environmental, and social processes that unfold slowly over time. Knowles also calls attention to space and scale, especially in the era of the Anthropocene, and how disaster history can make possible “a fusion of the analytical and the irrational—the graph and the story, the cost-benefit analysis and the social analysis” in ways that bring ostensibly opposing approaches together.