With this essay, SSRC president Alondra Nelson inaugurates the Council’s Covid-19 and the Social Sciences essay forum. The discussion of how to reopen our societies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic poses special questions for social researchers, she argues. How do the social conditions exposed, exacerbated, and created by the novel coronavirus demand that we substantively rethink our ideas of society and, therefore, some of the prevailing assumptions of social science?
Starting with SSRC president Alondra Nelson’s reflections on “Society after Pandemic,” this series of essays explores the human, social, political, and ethical dimensions of Covid-19. These pieces call attention to how social research can shed light on the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic and what can be done to improve responses, both now and in the future.
The publication of this series would not be possible if not for the help of the following SSRC staff:
Juni Ahari, communications and editorial assistant.
Cole Edick, program associate, Anxieties of Democracy and Media & Democracy programs.
Carrie Hamilton, program assistant, Social Data Initiative and Media & Democracy program.
Saarah Jappie, program officer, Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean.
Michelle Lee, program assistant, International Dissertation Research Fellowship.
Line Sidonie Talla Mafotsing, communications and editorial assistant, African Peacebuilding Network and Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa.
Daniella Sarnoff, program director, International Dissertation Research Fellowship.
Catherine Weddig, program assistant, Social Data Initiative and Media & Democracy program.
In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, South Korea was often hailed for its success in taming the spread of the virus through the use of ICT technologies that facilitated rapid tracing and notification of those who had encountered individuals who had tested positive. In this essay for the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Myungji Yang traces the development of disease prevention infrastructures in South Korea following lessons learned from experiences with earlier epidemics, showing how changes in both technology and law played important roles in its strategy. Yang also raises questions about the impact of the intrusive surveillance systems on individual privacy and freedom of movement.
Faced not just with the pandemic itself, but also with erroneous projections that Covid-19 would devastate their populations, African countries have gradually relaxed their public health restrictions. Through conversations with African professors, Duncan Omanga explores how universities in sub-Saharan Africa have responded with a blend of approaches that reveals the uneven higher education landscape both within and between African countries.
Disaster Studies as Politics with Other Means: Covid-19 and the Legacies of Cold War Disaster Researchby Cécile Stephanie Stehrenberger
Through an analysis of the influence of Cold War–era research and funding structures on modes of disaster research, Cécile Stehrenberger explains how and why the standard research approach to disasters is not perfectly translatable to studying the Covid-19 pandemic. She also speculates on how more recent turns in the study of slow disasters can pave the way to more policy-relevant work grounded in rigorous and ethical social science. By incorporating theoretical understandings of racial capitalism and gender inequality, for example, Stehrenberger suggests that rather than leaning into a rigid model of scientific research, disaster social science should recognize and embrace its potential for activist policy transformation.
Our video is vanishing by design and threatening the collective memory of the largest social justice movement in US history. At the same time, archiving this material raises a host of ethical dilemmas around user privacy and safety. Allissa V. Richardson calls for researchers to think critically about archiving social media video and preserving the voices of the marginalized.
For the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Adam Baczko and Gilles Dorronsoro argue for the necessity of resuming fieldwork. They trace how subcontracting research or shifting to methodologies which are remote in time and space—solutions often touted in the pandemic age—in fact produce unreliable, exploitative, and undertheorized work incapable of accurately analyzing dynamic conditions on the ground. These transformations relate to broader research trends toward neoliberal privatization, and the authors outline how they can be resisted by returning, carefully, to the field.
If scholars define Catholicism by its sacramentality, its commitment to an embodied encounter with the divine in real time, what even is Catholicism in an age of social distance during a global pandemic? This question emerged this semester as I’ve tried to teach Catholicism in America in the weird approximation of a classroom that is the masked, six-feet-of-separation seminar.
As of September 8, 2020, seven months after the first Covid-19 case was officially reported in Africa on February 14, 2020, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) reports show that the entire continent recorded 1,306,157 cases, with 31,494 deaths. These are thousands of deaths too many, but a far cry from the catastrophe analysts and health professionals had projected in relation to the continent. When the number of new coronavirus cases began to spike globally in March, gloomy predictions expected that Africa would become the epicenter of the pandemic. The reasons were obvious; foremost among them were the weak health-care systems in most countries on the continent. However, six months later, compared to cases and figures from other regions of the world, Africa continues to defy all these pessimistic predictions, a trend that requires critical examination for explanatory and other purposes.
While many analyses have focused on the human-level health and economic impacts on essential workers themselves, Andrew Lakoff examines how the emergence of structural policies to “secure the supply chain” in times of disaster and public health crises created new categories of workers, and therefore of risk. In spite of the sense of urgency that emerged in the 2000s around the need to prepare for a global pandemic, the resulting guidance put forward in response to Covid-19 allowed for the social classification of essential workers to be subject to significant industry lobbying, with little regard to health and safety protections for those workers.
“This pandemic is the best time to get married and the worst time to pass away,” my father summed up in August 2020 at the end of a week when my parents attended a Muslim wedding and a relative’s funeral. Both community events were severely curtailed as Covid-19 ran its course in Singapore, where reopenings have been cautious and penalties for infractions severe. Wedding parties of up to one-hundred persons were permitted only in October 2020, doubling the number of people allowed from when restrictions were initially eased in August. My father’s varying sentiments toward these everyday gatherings of co-religionists attest to the ways in which Muslim responses to coronavirus restrictions have mutated notions of community.