It’s very early on a Saturday morning here in Liverpool and I’m listening to Elizabeth Alker on Radio 3 like I always do. She’s on gloriously peaceful early morning form and has already played a jazz version of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’ that would charm any passing angels. So all’s well and idyllic here except I keep wondering about something this morning, this being the part of the week where I wrote my “Home Life During a Pandemic” reports for the first nine weeks of lockdown. So we’re in pandemic mode again, here inside my head, where I’m wondering about being a social scientist and our usefulness in this continuing crisis?
At least partly I’m being provocative to myself. As a PhD student of how we choose to live I keep wondering if I could be saying more about getting through all this. Might we learn from some of the ways we’ve all been living and keep some of them, for example? The quiet, the less pollution, the less busyness? Do we really want to go back to what was, let’s face it, an in many ways dysfunctional normal? A broken economic model run On an over-centralised but also played out political system. And could we be talking more about how this possibly better society could be discussed and organised? I’m doing bits of that, some, and they’ve been leaking out in recent blog posts, but could I be saying more? And if not now, when?
Because the crisis is now. And it’s been now for months. During which we’ve heard a lot about ‘relying on the science.’ And the science keeps turning up. From real medical epidemiologist type scientists. Advice, thoughts and even some predictions. And we could all argue, and do, about some of their advice and whether or not those in power are leaning on them. But at least they’re being scientists in public.
So where are the social scientists? Because this pandemic isn’t a crisis in a merely medical kind of way is it, it’s clearly social too and has been from the start. In economic, political, sociological, historic, anthropological and any number of other social scientific kinds of ways I haven’t mentioned in this sentence yet, we’re living through the increasing tensions of a society that’s at least bored and possibly cracked. So what do we think, all of us social scientists?
Or are we studying things for afterwards to see how it all went?
Some of that is of course perfectly understandable, data taking a lot of time for enough gathering and analysing to have happened to know what we’re talking about. But though the context of every crisis is different there have been crises and even pandemics before, haven’t there? So what did people do, what do we think, what would you say? What would C.Wright Mills say, for example?
Mills, for the most of my readers who might not have heard of him, was a prominent sociologist in the 1950s who got himself in all kinds of hot water with the American military, political and academic power élite by complaining about the absence of intellectuals from public life and then going around being one.
So where are the social intellectuals now, when we could do with them, to add their knowledge and opinions to the various public debates about getting through the crises of now and soon?
Well there’s David Olusoga. In the whole Black Lives Matter crisis and because he already has a public platform he’s doing a magnificent job. Not merely of educating us all about slavery and racism but also of being seen and heard arguing about them in public, day after day, on social media and anywhere he’s asked to. Like it’s part of his job. Because he’s decided it is.
Is everyone else too busy? Wrapped up in the usual universities busyness of marking, the REF system, peer reviewing and all that. Added to which there’s now all the panic redoing of lectures and recording them and sorting out how on earth things can get going again, if at all, from September’s intake. Because that’s how universities keep going isn’t it? With massive intakes of new fee paying students every year. But what about the thinking? What about what it’s all for?
Now I know I’m being slightly unfair here, I said I was feeling like being a bit provocative. Because there are some good things happening, I know. A friend who’s an economist has been doing brilliantly practical work with the ethical businesses around Liverpool all the way through this. And just this morning I’ve noticed a report from my own university about the post-covid food economy in the Liverpool City Region. So none of this is nothing, but shouldn’t there be more? Shouldn’t those of us who study how society works, or could work, be having more to say in what’s clearly a societal crisis?
And yes I’m still new here, relatively, to be speaking out so plainly and perhaps annoyingly about all this, this silence of the social scientists. But what would C. Wright Mills be saying, right now, were he still raging up and down the corridors of the academy? He’d be a pain in the arse wouldn’t he?
And rightly so.
Read more pandemic reflections here at “Pandemic Stories”