Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19

It’s not exactly good news to find out that you have been successful for a funding bid to do research on Covid-19 – it generates a rather ambivalent response, the usual sense of self-satisfaction that such news generates tempered, to say the least, by the situation that is its very condition of possibility. Anyway, I’m already over thinking things – Nick Clarke and I have been awarded funding under the British Academy’s Special Research Grants: Covid-19 scheme, for a project entitled Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19. Nick is the PI on the project, which builds on his previous work using materials from Mass Observation to examine popular understandings of politics in the UK, and which arose out of conversations between us sparked by a blogpost I wrote just at the start of lockdown, which in turn was riffing off a set of conceptual themes from a research project from what nows seems like previous life that we worked on together, which investigated what we called ‘grammars of responsibility‘ in everyday life. At Exeter, the project is part of a wider set of humanities and social science projects on Covid-19 related topics, curated by the Wellcome Centre for Environments and Cultures of Health and The Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis).

Anyway, in place of a fuller explanation of what we are meant to do on the project, which I guess we’ll get to writing about sometime between exam boards and online pivots to blended enhancement, here is the short summary of the project:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, people living in the UK have been asked to act responsibly in novel ways because of the risks their behaviour poses to themselves and others, and their role in complex chains of causation. We aim to investigate how citizens have engaged with these demands, with the objective of contributing to conceptual and empirical understandings of popular responses to emergency situations including future pandemics. Specifically, making use of contemporaneous qualitative data available through the Mass Observation Project, we seek to develop a better understanding of how people interpreted sometimes conflicting demands to act responsibly in relation to COVID-19 and translated them into practices of everyday life.”

What’s Responsibility Got To Do With Anything Anyway?

Amidst the challenges of translating more than 25 years of University teaching experience into the task of ‘homeschooling’ a nine year-old and a thirteen year-old (or, just making sure they have something to do), as well as wondering whether Higher Education institutions which are not configured to deliver coherent blended learning at the best of times should really be trying to transfer all teaching and all assessment online in a moment of intense, rapidly changing global emergency, I’ve been thinking about the range of ethical postures generated by the Coronavirus crisis. That’s sad, I know. It helps me cope, though. It’s no sadder, perhaps, than lots of other forms of self-indulgent bias-confirming commentary flying around right now.

I have been processing in my head, quite consciously, since about March 11th, a bunch of thoughts about what sense to make of different forms of official messaging, health advice, as well as various forms of new coverage, twitter-commentary [now switched off for the most part], and shared conversations with real people. I’m trying to make sense of how and why I have responded in the ways I have, and why it’s been easy to respond in certain ways, and not in others.

In the UK right now, and for a week or more, there has been a lot of discussion about whether  and why people are acting selfishly, by buying too much loo paper or going to the park. Between right-wing journalists demanding that the Prime Minister condemn ‘immoral’ behaviour, Twitter-led outrage about ‘irresponsibility’ and Guardian-esque think-pieces confirming that this is all an effect of decades of ‘neoliberalism’, there is an awful lot of self-congratulatory rationalism flying about right now which is, if truth be told, almost certainly not very helpful.

The forms of behaviour at the core of these worries, the patterns of observance and non-observance, are no doubt more or less predictable outcomes of the strategy, such as it is, pursued by the UK government, of seeking to re-shape the conduct of conduct (by closing things down) while also trying to morally encourage ‘voluntary’ social distancing. They are also somewhat overdetermined by the accreted associations of deceit associated with the lead persona charged with leading this subtle communication strategy.

I’m actually struck by how effective the main message does seem to have been communicated, as a general national discourse. It stands in contrast, most obviously to the case in the USA, which does not have a central cultural institution (like the NHS) around which to mobilise forms of solidarity, but does have a governing political movement actively seeking to undermine elementary public health initiatives.

Public health information, in normal times, tends to revolve around messages addressed to what is good for individuals, or immediate family members. Getting a flu jab is something one is meant to do so one doesn’t get the flu, oneself. Getting your kids vaccinated is something you do so they don’t get ill, but you’re supposed to worry about their health in ways not expected of you towards other people’s kids. Making lifestyle changes to reduce cholesterol or sugar levels or blood pressure is something you do to minimise your own risks of heart disease, stroke, and so on. Of course, we know that these initiatives all have a wider, systematic relationship to provision of public health care, and indeed to collective health outcomes (as made visible, for example, by the effects of anti-vaccination campaigns). But the address made to the subjects of public health campaigns is resolutely self-centred, in a non-pejorative way, and necessarily so.

In contrast, the Coronavirus crisis turns on a very different mode of communication, a different form of ethical imperative. The effort to make people social distance voluntarily, beyond the macro-level scale of closing things down and subsidising economic demobilisation, are difficult precisely because they ask people to take responsibility simply by virtue of being mere agents – that is, by virtue of their actions having effects in much the same way as Bruno Latour’s key fob or Michel Callon’s scallops can be described as agents simply because one can place them under a description in which they have traceable effects on wider patterns of action. But remember children, an ‘actant‘ is just a character in a story. On their own, lots of the defamiliarising, revelatory stories that academics tell about the links between action, consequences, and ‘responsibility’ provide rather thin accounts of what it is to be human. Rarely do those stories attain the level of having any motivational force at all. 

The crisis of social distancing strategy, right now, revolves around a very different kind of ethical address from ordinary public health initiatives – it involves asking people (or directing them, or forcing them) to act in certain ways in order to prevent or minimise or delay other people getting ill, so that other people don’t suffer. And it asks us to do this in two distinct, though related ways: by seeking to avoid directly infecting other people, particularly vulnerable people; and by thereby seeking to minimise unbearable strain on stretched infrastructures of health care. If you slow down for a moment, it’s worth considering just how complex that message is. It is, no doubt, difficult enough to convey. One could argue about how well it is being delivered. It might, also, be a really difficult message to take on board by its addressees, in ways that the much denigrated behavioural scientists probably appreciate better than they are given credit for.

I’m being asked to think of myself as acting responsibly by virtue of a capacity to see myself as a passive vector for a virus, and then to act accordingly. I am also being asked to think of myself as being responsible for a whole series of unintended consequences of that passively exercised status by virtue of being one small element in a very complex technological, social and organisational system. Oh, and to act in response to all of this primarily by NOT doing  lots of things. That’s really weird, if you think about it.

People like me – academics, certainly; Guardian-reading folk; geographers, especially geographers – are quite good at being able to place other people’s actions into these chains of consequences, from the outside. It’s what people like me are meant to do. It might even be what counts as our ‘science’. People like me are rather less good at recognising just how alienating that view of other people is, to those other people, when it is projected as a set of recommended virtues, as it often is (see, for example: ‘Brexit’, ‘Climate Change’, ‘Corbynism’). To borrow a line or two from W.H. Auden, it is easy enough to attribute responsibility for certain outcomes or even potential consequences; it is a different thing entirely to accept responsibility, to take on responsibility for such extended patterns of consequences, to ask or expect this of oneself, much less others. As ever, Iris Marion Young is the best guide to this general theme.

The standard way of trying to align the two perspectives is to find ways of getting those other people to recognise what’s really good for them and act in accordance with an externally derived idea of what they should really do. There is remarkably little reflection on the degree to which large swathes of academic work, belonging to broader cultures of rationalistic liberal good sense, have come to see themselves as engineers of acceptance.

There are various philosophical avatars for these ethical postures. I’m struck, for example, by how far the challenge of acting responsibly in this current public health crisis requires a kind of Spinozan ability to picture all the determinisms into which one’s own self is enchained, and then to find therein, from the acknowledgement of the very abjection of one’s own dependence, some power to act wilfully for the good of others. Or, perhaps it’s a version of embodied Kantian deontology. Or an other-regarding utilitarian consequentialism. These are really not very good ways of thinking about how people ordinarily do act, or how they should. An agent-centred narrative of the extended causal consequences of intended actions and their more or less unintended consequences lies at the heart of lots of analysis, whether of environmental change, global justice activism, and now, at least some of the more popular discourses around a public health crisis. These causal stories presume an ability of their addressees to reason about issues of actions, intentions, consequences. But on that assumption, it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that the same stories that are thought, by some, to obviously have a motivating effect on getting people to act in one preferred way, will be interpreted in other ways, indeed, reasonably interpreted as demonstrating that anything I do won’t make much difference at all (that’s before one starts to think about the rationalities of ‘implicatory denial‘. As a vector for thinking about these sorts of issues, I suspect disease, viruses, will end up having a different ethical shape, shall we say, than that most often associated with ideas about the politics of commodity cultures or climate change activism.

Perish the thought, today of all days, but it might be amazing that current strategies, whether of lock-down or ‘advice’ to stay at home varieties, are working as effectively as they are. I’m not being complacent, or flippant. I’m channelling my anxieties and fears. Who knows how all this will play out. But rather than add to the rapidly consolidating genres of ‘I told you so’ or ‘Let’s take this as an opportunity’, maybe the most responsible thing to do right now is to take care over the sorts of intellectual frames being promulgated in the midst of rapidly moving events, frames which are likely to resonate far and wide beyond them.

Talking about practices

There is an interesting paper now online in Area by Russell Hitchings titled ‘People can talk about their practices’. Now, you might think that the immediate response to that assertion is ‘Of course they can’. After all, if they couldn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be able to. But Hitchings’ paper is intervening against what has become an orthodoxy of sorts, at least within the weird world of social and cultural geography, to the effect that interview methodologies, and talk-based methods more generally, are irredeemably ‘representational’ and therefore unable to ‘capture’ all that is most fecund about everyday, routine, habitual practices. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“This paper considers the value of using interviews to research routine practices. Interviewing could easily be framed as inappropriate for this task, either because such practices are too difficult for respondents to talk about as a result of having sedimented down into unthinking forms of embodied disposition or because this method is out of step with a current enthusiasm for research styles that do not focus unduly on the representational. The discussion starts with how some key proponents of social practice theory have characterised the possibility of talking with people about these matters before turning to my own experience with two interview projects that attempted to do so inside city offices and older person households. I conclude that people can often talk in quite revealing ways about actions they may usually take as a matter of course and offer suggestions about how to encourage them.”

Whatever happened to make an entire sub-discipline of human geography, supposedly one of the most important ones too, follow a theoretical and methodological path that leads to a point where an argument like that of Hitchings in this paper has to be articulated at all, and somewhat tentatively at that? I have to say that I have shared the same ‘unease’ that Hitchings mentions in his piece about having invested time in interview-style research – but then I remembered the problem isn’t really mine. We wrote about some of these same issues in our book on ethical consumption, in the chapter grandly called ‘Grammars of Responsibility’, which seeks to make sense of how interactive talk-data (i.e. focus groups) can help to throw light on everyday practices. I think the ‘non-representational’ prejudice that provoked this chapter, and seems to have provoked Hitchings’ piece too, revolves around three related intellectual moves:

1). One of the oddest, yet most resilient, themes of recent discussions about theory and methodology in human geography is the idea that ‘discourse’ and ‘textuality’ and ‘language’ have been thought of as ‘representational’ mediums until, roughly speaking, about 1996, when geographers discovered the joys of ‘non-representational’ styles of thought (i.e. finally got round to reading Deleuze). Needless to say, this is deeply silly. Doing things with words, indeed.

2). One of the recurring motifs of discussions about exciting and creative methodologies in this strand of human geography for more than a decade now has been the idea that some approaches can’t quite ‘capture’ aspects of practice, process, emergence, becoming – life itself. And some other approaches – non-textual, non-discursive ones, often ‘visual’ methodological approaches, by extension are presented as a little better, if not a lot better, at ‘capturing’ things that are in motion, emergent, inventive. Needless to say, no methodology is meant to aspire to capture anything, one way or the other. Social science is not best pursued on the assumption that what most matters is elusive or evasive.

And the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to). Knowing what some embodied sequence of movement is depends on ‘getting’ something about it, something about context, about intention, about meaning.

To presume otherwise – to presume that knowing the full significance of an observed action or interaction or sequence of events can somehow do without or marginalize the shared understandings expressed in the things that participants might have to say about them – is, again rather oddly, not only to negate the interpretative competency of ‘people’ who are the subjects of social science research, but is to reproduce a very old-fashioned preference amongst social scientists for third-person, externalist, causal accounts of action over and above those provided by first-person perspectives of participants.

3. There is a kind of ‘political’ failure involved in the denigration of language/discourse/textuality in the name of the non-representational. Geographers of a culturalist inclination have spent a decade or more worrying about the ‘symmetry’ between humans and non-humans. In the process, they have managed to forget about the more fundamental ‘symmetry’ that underwrites any such ontological levelling – the symmetry between academic/expert discourse and lay discourse. This is the symmetry at play in Luc Boltanski’s attempt to reconstruct the grounds of critique in social theory; in other terms, it’s also at stake in Andrew Sayer’s otherwise rather austere account of ‘why things matter to people’. John Levi Martin, in what is without doubt the funniest book of grand social theory I have ever read, The Explanation of Social Action, says the following about the suspicion of first-person perspectives in social theory: “Social science rejects the possibility of building on first-person explanations because, to be blunt, it distrusts persons and their cognitions”. Quite. Just because this attitude can come wrapped in protestations of it’s own political significance, sprinkled with avant-garde post-Marxist populism or anti/post-humanist self-righteousness, doesn’t mean that the basic point doesn’t still hold: the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days carries its own political imprint, one which denies the shared, levelled conditions of the very possibility of social science description in its assertion of the self-centred authority of the academic voyeur, freed by theoretical fiat from accountability to the utterances, the contra-dictions, of their research subjects.