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.
For the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Ilmari Käihkö reflects on the effects of distance. Mirroring the author’s experience of research impacted by the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, Covid-19 too has forced a reckoning with the emergence of “new normalities” and the physical and social distancing imposed by viruses. Käihkö not only considers the work of ethnography from a distance, but also weighs the effects—and affects—of researching and writing in isolation.
Misinformation can be deadly. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that fact clearly and tragically. While the big tech companies have taken some steps to rein in misinformation and make credible organizations more visible, they lag far behind the pundits, scammers, and extremists who abuse trust on a global scale. It’s time for companies and researchers to take risks, make bold experiments, and rigorously test ways to slow the speed and spread of deadly deceptions.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted epidemiological reliance upon models and statistics for understanding the impact and spread of the disease. Given the convergence of health and economics, it proves worthwhile to explore the origins, techniques, and status of econometric models as tools for health policy. For the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Bryan Dowd recounts the history of econometrics and describes recent developments, showing that it has become a standard tool for analyzing data and informing policy decisions.
For the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Moshe Justman asks whether there may be tradeoffs in a model’s precision and its ability to inform policy. Justman explores the rise of randomized control trials (RCTs) in economics as the “gold standard” for inferring causality, and provides a detailed account of Project STAR—a landmark RCT study in education. A lesson for research informing policy on Covid-19, he argues, is that the messier models of epidemiologists are more useful to practitioners than the purportedly more rigorous RCTs designed by health economists.
For “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences,” Fotini Christia and Chappell Lawson address changes in research and impacts of the pandemic on fieldwork. They trace the shifts in research focus that it has produced and find opportunities in newly broadened methodologies, but warn of the dangers of neglecting non-Covid research and the traditional fieldwork that still remain essential to social science. They further outline ways to support the “Covid-19 cohort”—graduate students whose research has been undermined or transformed by global pandemic—in order to keep from losing an entire generation of fieldwork-based scholars and scholarship.
In a pandemic that isolates people from each other and their religious communities, digital media has made it possible to gather in ways that approximate face-to-face interactions. Zoom funerals, holiday celebrations, and worship are all par for the course these days. Yet there are all kinds of material properties and affordances that make every communication channel distinctive, and we do not know yet if or how digital practices during the pandemic will affect religious life in the long term. Ethnographers, even restricted as we are now from in-person research, are particularly well suited to studying how religious worlds lived on digital media might be changing in unexpected ways.
Amid the flu pandemic of 1918, face masks came to mark the intersection between public policy and personal action. In the burgeoning Covid-19 epidemic a century later, masks are once again central symbols of tensions between collectivism, public health, science denial, and fatal notions of personal freedom in the United States. Drawing on case studies of mediated mask debates in Indiana, Ariel Ludwig, Jessica Brabble, and Tom Ewing trace the effects of contentious mask debates in 1918, demonstrating the importance of consistent enforcement and complementary measures in fighting deadly disease.
Jacob Remes reflects on the significance of the United States as a “border nation” in the context of pandemic. While much media attention has been paid to the “bungling” of the US government response to Covid-19, Remes draws attention to the continuity between the Trump administration’s longstanding border policies. Taking this perspective highlights how disaster and public health responses have typically fit into the broader priorities and logics of governments and are often convenient amplifiers of xenophobic tendencies. Remes shows how these logics affect not only visible border policing, but can affect decisions such as whether companies from other countries can gain contracts for needed equipment or supplies, such as tests and treatments.
Covid-19 threatens millions of people and has forced governments to adopt radical lockdown measures, risking unprecedented economic downturn. However, these measures draw upon a scarce resource: people’s discipline and willingness to put their lives on hold. Once patience wanes and restrictions trigger a blowback, no democratic government can enforce strict lockdown measures against a majority of its citizens. Here, Claudia Landwehr and Armin Schäfer explore policy decisions and their effects in the United States, United Kingdom, Hungary, Poland, and Germany. Each case study highlights the intersection between leadership and democratic governance and how these influence a country’s ability to combat Covid-19.