The question of how to reopen our societies in the wake of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus poses special questions for social researchers, beyond those of the immediate and difficult task at hand. For scholars, the question is not only, what is society to become after the Covid-19 pandemic? But 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, methods, and theories of social science?
The Covid-19 crisis has disrupted the normal practice of economy and governance, and scientific expertise. In recent weeks we have experienced a global economic crisis that was unexpected; because the speed and scope of this downturn lacks historical precedent, its impact cannot be readily modeled using the standard social science methods. In the realm of political economy, we see market transitions without historical precedent, such that they become impossible to model reliably, even as new and unexpected informal economies are emerging.“The tested facts and hard evidence emerging out of scholarship that were once relied upon as a ballast during times of social disorientation are now subject to ideological litmus tests or ignored.”
In the United States, the pandemic response is realigning (again) the respective roles and responsibilities of state and federal governments, against a backdrop of a reshuffled global political order, as scholars reckon with the decline of globalization (and the persistence of asymmetrical national interdependence1Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman, “Weaponized Interdependence: How Global Economic Networks Shape State Coercion,” International Security 44, no. 1 (Summer 2019): 42–79.). The tested facts and hard evidence emerging out of scholarship that were once relied upon as a ballast during times of social disorientation are now subject to ideological litmus tests or ignored.
In addition to introducing new dynamics, the pandemic has confirmed what scholars have known about social inequality and compounded the intersecting forces of race, class, and gender on disparate life chances. The disproportionate, life-threatening impact of the novel coronavirus on Black communities across the United States, for example, is a symptom of the wider, deeper social pandemic of structural inequality. Social scientists have long known that socioeconomic opportunity, employment sector, incarceration and detention status, housing insecurity, and educational access have everything to do with health and wellbeing.
What should be our prevailing theory of society after pandemic intervention breaks what we thought we knew about economy, governance, and expertise, and confirms what we know, but failed to address about social inequality? How can we continue to invest in projects that sustain the description of gross inequality without offering prescriptions for change? Social research can provide theories, evidence, and viable alternatives to this impoverished status quo. As economist Darrick Hamilton notes in his brief interview about the future of social research on SSRC’s Covid-19 platform, “[t]here’s a need for a call to arms for us to apply our scholarship. There’s no impediment to drawing a link between research and policy beyond the fact that we don’t do it.”“How do we reimagine the human sciences with human flourishing at the center?”
The social sciences have a role to play in helping to scaffold the new forms of social solidarity that are being called for in this moment. One model comes from the work of sociologist Eric Klinenberg who draws on his “social autopsy” approach,2Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002More Info → and now decades of singular scholarship, to demonstrate the need for the cultivation of “social infrastructure.” But a notion of shared humanity is a precondition for the common good on which social solidarity necessarily rests. Or as Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, any “moral instinct… to be found in human conduct is socially produced. It dissolves once the society malfunctions.”3“Sociology after the Holocaust,” British Journal of Sociology 39, no. 4 (1988): 469–497, 472. With so much about society at stake, there may be an opening for the human sciences to be more humane in their aims and ambitions. How do we reimagine the human sciences with human flourishing at the center?
To take up the now common language of reopening in a different way, this moment affords an opportunity to consider what social research has gotten wrong and to enact new practices around what we know about all too well.
This opening is also an opportunity to pose questions about the conditions of our work as scholars. As we ask what kind of society we want after this pandemic wave crests, inherent in this question for scholars is the type of robust social research we will need to both apprehend and construct these renewed social communities.
The multifaceted effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are and will be staggering. We are in the midst of a social tumult that will have a far-reaching impact. “Unprecedented” has been used to describe the contagion rate and tenacity of Covid-19. “Unprecedented” also embodies the new global public created around this once-in-a-lifetime common experience. In education and research, we are creating new social modalities as we live them—”building the ship as we sail it,” as an SSRC colleague of mine often says.
More practically, how do we do social research at a time when, for the foreseeable future, borders are closing, global cooperation is yielding to widespread mistrust, and necessary public health accommodations such as “social distancing” create hurdles for both human connection and research? While there are certainly digital and other means for accomplishing our work, what does it mean to do video interviews in a time of “deep fakes”? How do we account for the information that might be lost when physical contact is not possible, the inability to see gestures like toes tapping and nervous hands, the “intersubjective encounter”?41983; repr., New York: Columbia University Press, 2014More Info → And as historian Lara Putnam reminded us at an SSRC convening in the fall, although the form of digital research may present new opportunities, such as ready access to distant archives, what latent knowledge gleaned from the tactile nature of the archive may be lost in the process?
Education as a workplace and research as a labor practice are also being transformed. We are simultaneously experiencing a rapid transition in processes central to knowledge production—including office hours, lab convenings, graduate school seminars, and professional conferences—now taking place virtually. Without the benefit (or luxury) of strategy or fine-tuning or near-term assessment, the cycles and rituals of research and education—including examinations, commencement, peer-review, and the pace of and audience for scholarly publications—are being extensively reimagined.“This moment is an opportunity to envision the education universe anew and to prioritize a culture of teaching, learning, and knowing that is equitable, collaborative, ethical and accessible.”
How are the concerns about the “future of work,” workplace surveillance, and privacy now an integral part of the research enterprise for both faculty and students? How will public and private institutions mitigate the disparities inherent to the move to virtual teaching and research engagement? A large, insecure teaching labor force is undergoing real-time re-skilling without compensation; a digital divide is stubbornly in place, with net neutrality unevenly distributed globally; and the density and security of living arrangements as well as caregiving responsibilities make learning or teaching or conducting research at home a new frontier of disparity. With these issues brought into stark relief, this moment is an opportunity to envision the education universe anew and to prioritize a culture of teaching, learning, and knowing that is equitable, collaborative, ethical and accessible.
Even as bans on travel may stoke xenophobia, nationalizing the universal quest for knowledge, solidarity, and mutual aid are being reinvigorated. Educational institutions are meeting the moment: dormitories becoming hospitals; public health and policy schools turning over their research enterprise to Covid-19 response; faculty writing in the public sphere to increase public understanding of this time. This “fourth purpose” (to use Columbia University President Lee Bollinger’s phrasing) of education and research will be taken up wholesale. This is a moment to rededicate ourselves to what education enables: the advancement of research and knowledge across boundaries of geography and convention. Because Covid-19 is a matter of human behavior and social interaction, as much as one of public health and immunology, we at the Social Science Research Council are putting in place a set of initiatives that critically examine “social distancing” as a new modality of social life carrying with it both benefits and downsides. In addition, we are pressing forward with an “anticipatory social research” agenda that draws from the wellspring of what we know, while endeavoring to create frameworks to apprehend the certainty of unexpected phenomena on the horizon.
Today, the Social Science Research Council launches a series of initiatives that propose answers to the question, what is society after the coronavirus pandemic? We envision this scholarly endeavor to be as enduring as the long-term effects of this crisis.
In the weeks and months to come, the Council hopes to catalyze new work on the social, political, economic, and psychological disruptions resulting from the coronavirus crisis. The SSRC Covid-19 platform will be a “virtual research center” for thinking about the impact of the novel coronavirus, as well as considering what this impact means for the questions and methods advanced by social science today.
We have assembled prior SSRC essay collections of the last two decades on the social implications of Hurricane Katrina, September 11, and extreme climate. Each of these instances are specific and particular. But placing scholars’ reflections and analyses side by side reveals the chronic nature of human vulnerability and the increasing incidence of disaster and disease that lie at the intersection of environment, culture, and politics. In years prior, the Council archived these essay collections after some time because the moment had passed. No longer. These issues will never be behind us. We will never be beyond them. Covid-19 is a kind of social kaleidoscope refracting social phenomena, reassembling them in new and familiar formations—and with unfamiliar vividness.“This is a time for creating knowledge pathways to a better world.”
What Bauman wrote critically about sociology might be extended to all social research: it “has been engaged… in a mimetic relationship with its object—or, rather, with the imagery of that object which it constructed and accepted as the frame for its own discourse.”5“Sociology after the Holocaust,” 495. In light of changes in society we must also change social research to consciously make it dialogic with the world it seeks to apprehend and improve. This is a time for creating knowledge pathways to a better world.
Editorial assistance provided by Rajat Singh.