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.”

Best Books 2018

It’s the time of year for ‘Best of’ lists, and there’s no need for me to resist the temptation. Here is a list of the what I consider, thinking quickly, to be the best 10 books I’ve read this year, in terms of ‘fun’ of one sort or another – they were not all published this year, by any means, and I read them for all sorts of motivated or arbitrary reasons. Some are academic, some not so, all of them were thought provoking, and most of them are good for reading in the bath. So, in no particular order, here they are:

1). Eric Foner, 1983, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and its legacy. Bought for £1 from the Bookbarn, a withdrawn copy from the Seeley Library in Cambridge, a precursor to Foner’s monumental book on Reconstructioon published a few years later.

2). Mary McCarthy, 1972, The Stones of Florence & Venice Observed. Great reading if you’ve been to at least one of those places. Maybe not so much if you haven’t.

3). John Forrester and Laura Cameron, 2017, Freud in Cambridge. A book about influence and inspiration, about reception and resonance – and about the type of man who is prone to self-analysis.

4). Mariana Mazzucato, 2018, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. A clear, simple elaboration of a very radical, old fashioned, but still valid proposition – that price and value are not the same thing, and that the relationship between them is rather complex. If you teach Marx, Harvey, etc, etc, then this book should be on the your reading list to provide proper context, both contemporary and historical.

5). Nick Clarke, Will Jennings, Jonathan Moss, & Garry Stoker, 2018, The Good Politician: Folk Theories, Political Interaction, and the Rise of Anti-Politics. Dangerous stuff – empirically robust theory-building, essential reading if you want to think seriously about things subsumed under the heading of ‘populism’.

6). Graham Greene, 1951, The End of the Affair. I read this in two sittings, on a plane to and from Cape Town, and was inspired by this to try to write 500 words a day, like the more or less reliable narrator. I’m still trying. It’s easier to imagine changing one’s routines when stuck in a tube for hours than to actually do so, it turns out.

7) David Hepworth, 2017, Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars. A kind of genealogy of a what one might now think of as a residual aspect of popular culture. It’s more fun than that makes it sound.

8). Bruce Robbins, 2017, The Beneficiary. The best book about the ethics and politics of living in a stretched-out world of commodity production and markets and excessive responsibilities since, well, either this book or this one (neither of which it cites, but hey, nobody’s perfect).

9). Rowan Williams, 2015, Meeting God in Paul. I bought this accidentally while in a cathedral, it’s a short and simple introduction well suited to the non-believer, by a very smart man.

10). Shirley Jackson, 1949, The Lottery and other stories. Ordinary stuff, scary stuff.