It’s Social Sciences Week, and one way to emphasise the complex and nuanced insights offered by social research is to present this COVID-19 tanglegram that I have just drawn. I have built on my own and others’ research into the COVID crisis and its many dimensions in making this tanglegram.
The concept of the ‘tanglegram’ comes from the work of the archeologist Ian Hodder. It’s a similar idea to a mind map or concept map, but it focuses on relationships between people and material things rather than on ideas or concepts. In his 2012 book Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things, Hodder explains his sociomaterial perspective. He argues for an approach that can demonstrate how a thing brings other things and people together. It is not a matter of identifying what things ‘do’ for people in a certain cultural and historical context but instead focusing on understanding the thing itself and its multiple connections to other things as well as to people.
Hodder argues that how humans give meaning to things is related to the ways in which they use them and to their links with other things. People use things in often very different ways in different contexts. Hodder discusses how things demand attention and care from people, sometimes facilitating, sometimes hindering human purposes and agency. Things, he says, ‘have lives that follow their own paths’ (Hodder, 2012, p. 13). Hodder notes that all things, whether they are designated as ‘living’ or ‘inert’ are in a state of change. He further notes that things make people, just as people make things.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 crisis – a combined health and socioeconomic crisis – is a powerful entity that is changing human lives in unprecedented ways. We are still trying to understand how the coronavirus spreads and can be treated and contained. Just when we thought we may have controlled it, it re-emerges again, again creating chaos. But this is not to say that the coronavirus is a thing unto itself – a malevolent enemy that is outside us, trying to break in and destroy us. Rather, the virus and the COVID crisis are entities that are part of complex networks and relationships with people and do not exist outside these networks and relationships. The coronavirus has agency and force, but only with and through humans and other things.
One way in which Hodder documents and explains these relationships and dependencies in his archaeological research is to make what he calls ‘tanglegrams’ or maps in which he traces the connections between a thing and the other things and people to which it is connected. My COVID-19 tanglegram took inspiration from this idea. I started with the broad concept of the ‘COVID assemblage’, which shows how major elements come together: the coronavirus, humans, other animals, place/space/time, affects, things and discourse/culture. This is shown as a simple Venn diagram below.
In drawing the tanglegram I wanted to map in more detail the multiple, constantly changing things and people that come together and come apart as part of the COVID assemblage. I have not been able to include every element or relationship of this assemblage in the tanglegram (that’s simply impossible), but I have included many of the major things, places/spaces, people and organisations that I could think of. Unlike Hodder, I also include affects, as these are crucial to my theorising of how people engage with and form relationships with things.
For me, as a social researcher, this tanglegram helps me understand the power and multi-layered, overwhelming complications of the COVID assemblage in a way that has gone well beyond my initial Venn diagram.