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?
With much of the world still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, one thing is certain—in ways large and small, there is no return to a previous “normal.” In the early months of the crisis, we have seen examples of both new solidarities and self-interest. While everyone is adjusting to new risks, vulnerabilities have fallen most heavily on the already vulnerable. Will responses to the crisis alleviate inequalities or reinforce them? In the essays below, scholars reflect on the wide-ranging effects of the pandemic in all corners of society, and consider what might come after.
Mike Ananny discusses “how the pandemic has shown how an everyday word like ‘public’ actually contains myriad assumptions about why and how to live together.” Ananny argues that as “public life”—both as concept and practice—has been destabilized under Covid-19 conditions, we witness how the conventional notions of a “public sphere” has always limited our understanding of “public” and diverted attention from the inequalities that underpin it. At the same time, public life during the pandemic has revealed multiple examples of social connection and mobilization that broaden the scope of “public” in ways that imagine “what public life could be like.”
Mirka Martel and Allan Goodman argue that, despite setbacks caused by Covid-19, the flow of college and university students across borders is resilient and will continue to be a vibrant feature of global higher education. Drawing on knowledge and experience of the Institute of International Education, the authors make the case for this optimism based on current data and prior histories of how universities and international student flows rebounded after previous global health crises.
With research on the social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic now underway, Courtney Cogburn argues for examining who receives funding and conducts research, in particular with regard to the investigation of the racial dimensions of the crisis. Cogburn suggests that now is especially the moment for highlighting and supporting the work of scholars who have deep knowledge of and expertise on the racial inequalities embedded in the United States, as well as the inequities present in academic research.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has forced millions to remain in their homes and restricted the capacity of public spaces, people have turned to online spaces to continue all forms of social interactions. However, despite being heralded as a means to overcome social inequalities, the new “digital public spaces” have continued these inequalities. In this essay, Mona Sloane draws attention to how prepandemic inequalities, created by social, political, and economic dynamics, prevail in social isolation. These are exemplified, for example, through who has efficient internet access and who owns the websites and apps facilitating online social interaction. Sloane asks us to consider not just how prepandemic conditions shape digital spaces but also how they influence our understanding of these spaces and the meanings we ascribe to them.
In their contribution to the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Larry Au, Zheng Fu and Chuncheng Liu examine how experts and expertise have been drawn upon in predicting the path of the pandemic and how to respond to it in China, Hong Kong, and the United States. The authors draw on their ongoing research that traces media accounts of the role of expert knowledge in all three places, and discuss how different kinds of expertise engage with different audiences: with the state in China, with civil society in Hong Kong, and with both in the United States.
In this contribution to the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Patricia Fernández-Kelly connects the killing of George Floyd, and the powerful public responses to it, to both the current social conditions of the pandemic and the broader historical structural dimensions of racism in US society. Fernández-Kelly draws on a range of sociological perspectives to shed light on what she calls the “proximate and deep-seated causes” of both violence directed at African Americans and the wave of protests of recent weeks.
Jenny Reardon, in her contribution to the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, argues that the metaphors of war and battle in fighting Covid-19, now commonplace, can have their own problematic effects on how we imagine and act in the face of the pandemic. The “us vs. them” imagery that war metaphors promote pulls us away from veracity—“trustworthy truths” that foreground human (and nonhuman) relations and interdependencies. The pandemic provides an opportunity, Reardon argues, to mobilize veracity for a more just post–Covid-19 future.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, jails and prisons have become particularly vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus, putting millions of incarcerated people at risk. In this essay for the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, David C. Pyrooz, Ryan M. Labrecque, Jennifer J. Tostlebe, and Bert Useem draw on their research in Oregon facilities, and reflect on the complex issues of doing research with prisoners under pandemic conditions. They report on prisoners’ sense of safety given the health risks inside prisons and speak to efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Coinciding with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Jennifer Lee and Monica Yadav chronicle the rise of attacks, harassment and bias toward Asian Americans as the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded as part of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series. Abetted in part by discourse from the Trump administration, the authors also discuss the past history of these prejudices in prior emergencies. They conclude with an analysis of political differences within the Asian American community and how these might be affected, and possibly bridged, in response to the scapegoating of the group as a whole.