Professor Tim May has recorded (with permission from the publishers) a chapter – ‘Sustaining Our Lives’ – from Thinking Sociologically written with the late Zygmunt Bauman and published by Wiley in 2019.
The focus of the chapter is on boundaries and the role they play in our lives, perceptions, actions and identities. It does not address the pandemic, but raises issues which may help in our understanding. I offer some thoughts on the current situation below and a link to the recording can be found at the end.
The Covid-19 pandemic is having widespread and tragic consequences. It raises fears, its victims are family members and friends and it tears into the heart of local communities and societies as a whole. In the process the boundaries that we can take-for-granted in our everyday lives are questioned.
The virus is ‘zoonotic’: that is, it moves between animals and humans. Not only does it move between species, but within and across nations. We have seen this happen through the process of globalization. Goods are shipped across the world ably assisted by what seems like a never ending search for competitive advantage with countries providing differing incentive structures for investment. There have also been extraordinary increases in mobility between countries. The result, at least for those recognized as having legitimate reasons and the means to do so, has been a massive expansion in the travel industry.
That mobility is now seen differently and is associated with risk. The skies are far less congested and the cruise ships moor in docks. Pollution levels have dropped and seas have become cleaner. There has been some positive effect on the rate of climate change which, we should not forget, is another threat to life.
Variations in responses by governments around the world are apparent. Some have engaged in contact testing and isolation and others appeared to commence with ideas of herd immunity, denial and apportioning blame before recognizing its consequences. The assumed boundaries between health and the economy are under question. The virus travels along the fault lines of inequality with a disproportionate affect on poorer members of society. In the process we have seen cooperation, acquiescence, resistance and even the promotion of conspiracy theories among populations to explain the origins of the virus.
Could we have conceived of such scenarios? In The Plague, by Albert Camus, towns and cities are closed, travel is prevented and the hospitals are full within a short time frame. We have restrictions on movement argued to be important for the collective good, the protection of health services and huge injections of government money to support the economy. Such expenditure is reminiscent of times before a particular economic orthodoxy sought to render it redundant and mould the direction of society and its values in its image.
What was said to be impossible is now possible. What has been instilled as the sovereignty of the individual pursuing their own ends has been replaced by an urge for people to exhibit a relational responsibility for their actions through a concern for others, whether known to them or not. The people to whom we might have been indifferent or just unaware – those working in shops, refuse collectors, delivery drivers, volunteers and teachers, to name a few – have joined the ranks of the health professionals to whom we should be grateful for saving lives and sustaining us whilst putting their own at greater risk.
The evaluation of the appropriateness of government actions and the need for cross-border cooperation will come. Some responses are apparent and constituted in the rhetoric of blame based on the distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’ which is discussed in the recording. We can only hope that a more sensible response emerges. Vulnerability and resilience will mix for different reasons and with varying consequences. Difficult questions need to be asked and simple solutions based on apparent self-evidence encased in ideological blinkers needs to be abandoned.
Thinking Sociologically was deliberately written without references as a series of essays on different elements in our lives – communities, social bonds, morals, values and choices, gifts, exchange and intimacy, the body, sexuality and health, nation, space and time, culture, the economy, nature, consumption, social media and technology. The intention was to cover these topics in a way that illuminated what it is to ‘think sociologically’.
I recorded the chapter at home in one reading, so I hope the quality is good enough. I also hope you find this interesting and even insightful and I wish you well in these challenging times.
The Introduction to Thinking Sociologically is available HERE and the book is available to purchase at many outlets.
Tim May is Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield. His recent books include: ‘Reflexivity: The Essential Guide’ (Sage, 2017); ‘Cities and the Knowledge Economy’ (Routledge, 2018) and a forthcoming fifth edition of ‘Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process’ (McGraw-Hill, 2019). Twitter: @TimMay4dology