New book now out – COVID Societies: Theorising the Coronavirus Crisis

The third in my series of books about the social aspects of COVID-19 is out today. COVID Societies: Theorising the Coronavirus Crisis can be ordered from Routledge here and a preview of its contents can be viewed at Google Books here. The abstracts for each chapter are listed below.

INTRODUCTION: COVID societies

The COVID-19 crisis has provoked intense and far-reaching socioeconomic changes globally as well as posing a major threat to human health and wellbeing. This introductory chapter introduces the rationale for the book, addressing the question of why sociocultural theories and historical perspectives are so important to make sense of how the COVID catastrophe erupted and created so much turmoil worldwide. The chapter also provides an outline of the content of the remainder of the book, detailing the topics and theoretical perspectives on which each of the ensuing chapters focus. These include discussions of the political economy perspective; biopolitics; risk society and cultures; gender and queer theory; and more-than-human theory.

1          COVID IN CONTEXT: Histories and narratives of health, risk and contagion

Major new or recurring infectious disease outbreaks are always accompanied by significant sociocultural and political disruptions and transformations. These crises often call into question ways of viewing and living in the world, as well as exposing and entrenching forms of social discrimination and inequalities. This chapter provides an overview of the historical, sociocultural and political contexts of the COVID-19 crisis. Medical historians, sociologists, anthropologists and cultural geographers have shown that social, cultural and political responses to the emergence or return of deadly pathogens often bring to the surface hidden, unacknowledged or long-established beliefs and practices. The chapter demonstrates how these perspectives have offered much of value in relation to the analysis of the sociocultural and political dimensions of previous serious infectious diseases. This discussion is followed by an account of how the new virus SARS-CoV-2 and the new disease COVID-19 emerged in the early months of 2020 and developments in the pandemic throughout 2020 and into 2021.

2          THE MACROPOLITICS OF COVID: A political economy perspective

Political economy critiques adopt a macropolitical perspective, drawing on Marxist theory as well as feminist critiques, critical disability studies, critical race theory and postcolonial theory to highlight the social determinants of health and healthcare and the role played by medical expertise and authority in society. A political economy perspective incorporates the discussion of social justice issues, inequalities and the exacerbation of socioeconomic disadvantage caused by the pandemic, including the disproportionate effects on low-income countries and marginalised social groups. Indeed, some commentators have argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced a ‘crisis of care’, in which the failings of neoliberal political and privatised approaches to public health surveillance systems and healthcare delivery across the world have been shockingly revealed. This chapter shows how neoliberal and free market capitalist political systems have been called to account and disrupted by the COVID crisis but have also operated to protect the privileged and further entrench inequalities in COVID societies. The concepts of medical dominance, the social determinants of health and globalisation are explained and applied to the COVID crisis.

3          THE BIOPOLITICS OF COVID: Foucauldian approaches

COVID-19 governance at the level of the state raises questions about how power is exerted and experienced and how it may be productive as well as repressive. This chapter delves more deeply into the complexities of these tensions and conflicts, using perspectives drawn from the scholarship of the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault to trace the historical underpinnings of contemporary approaches and responses to the COVID crisis. Various levels of control over citizens’ bodies and movements have been exerted and rationales for limiting individual freedoms put forward to protect the health of the body politic. Foucauldian theory offers concepts for understanding these relations of power. The scholarship of philosophers Giorgio Agamben and his concepts of bare life and states of exception, Roberto Esposito and his notions of affirmative biopolitics and immunitary mechanisms, and Achille Mbembe and his writings on necropolitics is also outlined. This discussion is followed by an account of Foucauldian viewpoints on the biopolitical dimensions of COVID societies have been developed, including discussion of how these theorists analysed social and governmental responses to the crisis.

4          RISK AND COVID: Risk society and risk cultures

The COVID-19 crisis is suffused with discourses, practices and emotions related to people’s reactions to risk and uncertainty. This chapter focuses on sociologist Ulrich Beck’s risk society perspective and anthropologist Mary Douglas’ cultural/symbolic approach to risk. Concepts from Beck’s scholarship, including reflexive modernisation, individualisation and cosmopolitanism, and Douglas’ work on the cultures of risk, blame and symbolic boundary control are explained and applied in an analysis of risk and uncertainty in COVID societies. The chapter shows that the risk discourses and practices circulating within and between regions and countries globally involve an affectively compelling combination of concepts of embodiment, contagion, danger and morality. The COVID crisis can be considered both a pre-industrial, fateful event and a late modern risk society phenomenon.

5          QUEERING COVID: Insights from gender and queer theory

This chapter introduces insights from scholarship in gender and queer theory and shows how they can be productively applied to an analysis of embodiment and socialities in COVID-19 times. While contemporary queer theory has its roots in critical studies of gender and sexuality, it has since expanded well beyond these origins. There are many intersections and overlaps between gender and queer theory, and both reach into many related fields: including queer necropolitics, queer death studies, crip studies, fat studies and critical animal studies. The major precepts of these intertwined bodies of literature are explained, with reference to the influential scholarship of philosophers such as Mel Chen, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Julia Kristeva. These extensions of gender and queer theory and what they offer for analysis of the COVID crisis are considered in this chapter. They critically analyse aspects of discourse, affect and embodiment to ‘queer the pandemic’: that is, to highlight disjunctures and invisibilities in the ways with which COVID has been portrayed and dealt and to provide further insights into the nature of lived experience in COVID societies. In identifying how these responses might be subject to contestation and change, contributors to gender and queer theory scholarship imagine better and more inclusive futures.

6          MORE-THAN-HUMAN COVID WORLDS: Sociomaterial perspectives

Given the intertwined dimensions of human and nonhuman relations and connections, the crushing impact of the COVID-19 crisis extends well beyond human lives and agencies. Scholars and researchers are beginning to engage with the body of scholarship that I refer to as ‘more-than-human theory’ (alternative terms used are ‘new materialisms’ or ‘the critical posthumanities’). There are various varieties of more-than-human theory. In the discussion presented here, I focus specifically on the scholarship that builds on non-western cosmologies (particularly Indigenous and First Nations philosophies) and the feminist materialism perspectives offered by western philosophers Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Karen Barad and Jane Bennett. These philosophies advance a non-anthropocentric approach to understanding human existence. The implications of this approach for understanding the complexities and dynamism of COVID societies are outlined in this chapter. More-than-human theory is applied to better understand the affective forces and relational connections that are generated with and through humans’ encounters with nonhuman agents. I discuss the assemblages of humans and nonhumans that have come together and come apart as the COVID crisis unfolded. As I show, such an approach expands the One Health perspective in productive ways.

CONCLUSION: Reflections on COVID futures

This brief conclusion chapter summarises the key insights offered by COVID Societies, and then moves towards a future-oriented discussion. It is noted that throughout the book, a series of intertwined threads cross back and forth between the macropolitical and micropolitical dimensions of COVID-19: contagion, death, risk, uncertainty, fear, social inequalities, stigma, blame and power relations. Overarching these threads are five complementary themes: the historicity of COVID societies; the tension between local specificities and globalising forces; the control and management of human bodies; the boundary between Self and Other; and the continuously changing sociomaterial environments in which the world is living with and through the shocks of the COVID crisis. At this point in the pandemic, only uncertainty seems certain. As we learn to live with and through COVID, we must work towards better conditions for people across geographical regions. Acknowledging our vulnerability and using this knowledge to better care for the more-than-human worlds in which we are emplaced is a way forward to care more deeply about ourselves and our fellow species.

The three COVID books

New research website – Social Aspects of COVID-19

I’ve done quite a bit of research on the social aspects of the COVID crisis over the past two years – including posts on this blog but also books, book chapters, journal articles, pieces in places like Medium and The Conversation, and recorded talks.

I’ve made a new website bringing it all together in one place, which can be accessed here. I’ll be updating it as new publications come out.

From my collection of ‘COVID Life’ photos, December 2021

Registry of Australian social research on COVID-19

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Photo credit: D Lupton

 

I am doing lots of COVID-related projects and so are many other Australian social researchers.

Here’s a registry of these projects I have compiled – please add yours if it is missing. Registry of Australian Social Research on COVID-19

 

 

Topical map of COVID-19 social research literature

I have been busy checking out the explosion of peer-reviewed articles published recently in social science journals on the COVID crisis. I located over 120 such articles, and have conducted a rapid topic mapping process to support my own COVID-related research.

In case anyone else might find this document useful, it can be accessed here: Lupton – Map of Social Research on COVID 19 July 2020 (updated version 20 July 2020).

COVID society – some resources I have put together for social researchers

 

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Over the past fortnight, I’ve put together a few open-access resources concerning what an initial agenda for COVID-related social research could be and research methods for conducting fieldwork in the COVID world.

Links are below:

Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic (Google Doc crowd-sourced resource)

Social Research for a COVID and post-COVID World: An Initial Agenda (blog post)

Conducting Qualitative Fieldwork During COVID-19 (PowerPoint slides) (Webinar presentation with voice and slides)

 

Photo credit: Daniel Tafjord on Unsplash

 

Vitalities Lab is go!

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It’s been a busy few weeks as I’ve moved to my new position as SHARP Professor in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney. I am attached to both the Centre for Social Research in Health and the Social Policy Research Centre in the Faculty. But I’ve also established my own little research entity: the Vitalities Lab (click here for details).

I’ll be recruiting team members for the Lab very soon. I have a doctoral scholarship and postdoc positions to fill, and also have funds to support international visiting fellows.

The title of the Lab was chosen to encapsulate my hopes and plans for what we will do. ‘Vitalities’ points to engaging in lively social research methods, inspiring creativity, new directions, excitement and passion in research. It is also a nod to the new materialism theoretical perspectives with which the Lab will be engaging – particularly the vital materialism perspective espoused in the work of scholars such as Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, Karen Barad and Donna Haraway. Vitalities further refers to the topics we’ll be exploring, which will be about human/nonhuman life itself: initially, people’s experiences with digital health technologies; living with data; and digital food cultures.

We will be running methods workshops, reading groups and other events.

Do get in contact if you’d like to learn more, make a visit to chat, start a postgraduate research degree with us, or otherwise collaborate in lively doings: d.lupton@unsw.edu.au

 

Image attribution: ‘Scattered light at Northern Spark’ by Tony Webster, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

New materialisms: key approaches

Over the past few years, I have been drawing more and more on new materialist theories, concepts and perspectives, particularly in thinking through how humans live with digital technologies (which is the focus of all my research at the moment). The approaches I am currently finding most useful come from a range of perspectives.

Recently, I sat down to map out and categorise the different approaches with which I have been working that use new materialist thinking. I made a big table, and used this to jot down these approaches, the main concepts and questions with which they engage, some key researchers in each approach, and the key theorists each draws on. The PDF of the whole table is available here (fifth revised version added 26 October 2019): Overview of new materialism approaches

I also made a word cloud to visually represent the key theorists identified in the table, and their relative importance in the literature (below). This is an easy way to quickly show which theorists tend to be drawn on the most in this literature.

materialisms word cloud

Below the table, I listed what I saw as common threads and key questions that emerged from the literature I had read when constructing the table. These are as follows:

COMMON THREADS: More-than-human worlds, human-nonhuman assemblage, vitality and vibrancy of things, ethico-onto-epistemology, relational ontology, sensory encounters, tensions between sameness and difference, how matter comes to matter, posthumanist performativity, identifying entanglements and shared agency, identifying exclusions, respectful engagements with disciplinary differences, the micropolitics of relations and affects, the generation and expression of agential capacities, encounters, forces (constraining and enabling) and intensities – how lines of flight might be generated – resistances, new possibilities for action or assemblages, thinking otherwise – intra-actions within assemblages between their various components- this includes power, which is transitory as it is enacted – interdependency between researcher and researched.

KEY QUESTIONS: How do objects under analysis establish conditions of action? How do humans incorporate and improvise with objects? What are the social lives of things? Which assemblages and networked power relations are they part of? How do the objects of study work and who does it work for? What imaginaries do they rely on and establish? Where are tensions/differences/novel formulations? Where are differences and exclusions? How do differences get made? What effects do differences have? What are the relations between things? How does matter come to matter? What theories can be brought to bear to make agential cuts of meaning? What are the affective intensities/forces and agential capacities generated by the assemblages under analysis? What do they do? After identifying the conditions of possibility (normalising agents), how to ‘think the unthinkable’/escape normalising discourses and habituated acts and open up new conditions of possibility? What are the ethics of more-than-human worlds and encounters? What lies beyond the ascendancy of the human – what is posthumous life? What can non-western onto-epistemologies offer?

 

 

 

Design sociology review

HealthTech (42 of 60)

Earlier this year, I published four posts about design sociology. At the time, I was working on a review article on the topic for Sociology Compass. The article has now been published – see here. It’s behind a paywall, but I’m happy to send you a copy if you email me.

This is the abstract:

In this review essay, I introduce and map the field of what I call “design sociology”. I argue that design research methods have relevance to a wide range of sociological research interests, and particularly for applied research that seeks to understand people’s engagements with objects, systems and services, better engage publics and other stakeholders, work towards social change, and identify and intervene in futures. I discuss 3 main ways in which design sociology can be conducted: the sociology of design, sociology through design and sociology with design. I explain key terms in design and dominant approaches in social design research—participatory, critical, adversarial, speculative, and ludic design. Examples of how sociologists have already engaged with design research methods are outlined. The essay concludes with suggestions about what the future directions of design sociology might be.

Tips for qualitative researchers seeking funding – what NOT to leave out of your grant applications

It is grant reviewing season and I’ve been reading through some very interesting applications from some accomplished qualitative researchers in the social sciences and media studies. The rationale and background for projects are usually very well described and justified, as are the track records of the applicants.

But I’ve seen some common areas across several of the applications that need more detail. These are:

  1. There is often not enough (or sometimes even any) information about the approach taken to analysing the qualitative data you are collecting. Simply saying you are ‘using NVivo to analyse the data’ and leaving it at that is not enough. NVivo seems to have become a magic word to use to explain and justify qualitative data analysis. But it is just a data management tool. I want to know what you are going to do with it. There are many approaches to analysing qualitative data. Which approach are you using? Have you had previous experience with this approach? Please justify the reason for your approach and provide some information about what you will be looking for in the data, and why.
  2. If you are recruiting research participants for interviews, focus groups or other types of participation, please provide details of whether you have used your recruitment methods before and how successful they were. I know from experience that recruiting participants can be difficult and time-consuming, and achieving this successfully is crucial to the feasibility of your project. I would like you to explain to me more carefully how you are going to find people, and how you will keep them involved if they are required for more than one activity or you are asking them to be involved over quite a long time in the project.
  3. This issue is particularly important if you are proposing to recruit hard-to-reach or marginalised social groups, and also high-status groups (such as busy professionals, for whom time is money). Here you need to provide even more information about how you will successfully recruit these participants and commit them to be involved. What will persuade them to be part of your study?
  4. Which leads on to the ethics of recruiting participants from marginalised groups, or those you wish to engage in discussions about potentially distressing experiences. How will you persuade these people to want to speak to you? How will you protect them from harm, if you are raising sensitive and distressing issues and inviting them to discuss them with you? How will you protect yourself and other researchers involved in the project from the distress you may yourselves feel at discussing sensitive and very personal issues which may be very sad or otherwise confronting for all involved? I am concerned to see that often these very important issues are not discussed in enough detail, or are even glossed over, as if the applicants do not consider them important or have not considered their implications.
  5. Many qualitative researchers now make statements suggesting that their research will have impact outside universities. Yet here again, often not enough fine details are provided to convince assessors and funders how feasible these claims are. Please tell us more about how this impact will be achieved.
  6. And finally … many major funding bodies now mandate that the publications generated from the projects they fund should be made available open access. Yet very few qualitative researchers demonstrate any awareness of this, or describe how they will meet these requirements. Here again, more detail is required. Will you be depositing your publications into your university’s e-repository? Will you need to ask for funding in your budget to pay journals to publish your accepted manuscript as open access? Please explain your strategy.

Design sociology part 4: wrapping up

This is the last in my series of posts introducing design sociology, following part 1 (introduction), part 2 (terms and approaches) and part 3 (critical, speculative and ludic design). For an article outlining a project in which Mike Michael and I used design sociology, see here (and an example of one of the design tasks we used is shown to the right). design sociology

Design sociology approaches offer many opportunities for sociologists to expand their research horizons, particularly in relation to applied, practice-based, sociomaterial and future-oriented research. There are several compelling reasons why they should begin to do so. Design sociology can bring together theory and practice in exciting ways. It can be viewed as one element of the ‘live sociology’ to which Back (2012) refers, in which new ways of investigating social worlds are developed.

One of the strongest contributions that design sociology can make is to inspire creative thinking not only for sociologists but also for people, groups or organisations outside academia who take part in their research, developing the multiple vantage points, new ways of telling and showing, and imaginative responses to which Back refers in his vision for live sociology. It also offers a route for productive multidisciplinary collaborations, in which sociology researchers can work with people in design, HCI and anthropology, among others, in exchanging and building on their respective areas of expertise.

Further, in their incorporation of the participation of publics, design-oriented approaches work towards many sociologists’ desire to work with communities in co-research activities and to disseminate their research widely. Design sociology can contribute to research that has broad applications. In many wealthy nations, sociologists and other social researchers are being called upon to orient their research more towards potential users outside the academy. Policy developments in higher education such as the ‘impact’ and ‘innovation’ agendas, measurements of engagement with stakeholders and publics and associated changes in programs for funding research and universities have led to the need for academic researchers to reconsider their research topics, methods and collaborators.

Design sociology can include three different, but interrelated, perspectives (based on Gunn and Donovan’s  (2012) useful tripartite definition of design anthropology). First, it can engage in the sociology of design: that is, sociological research directed at identifying design cultures, or the discursive and material practices which professional designers enact, and the broader sociocultural and political contexts in which design as a way of thinking and a profession is situated. This approach means devoting attention to the ideas, design artefacts and other material objects designers use in their working practices, as well as the spaces and places in which they work. Second, design sociology can involve conducting research through design: that is, by using design methods and concepts as research devices to generate insights into other topics. Both approaches acknowledge the social worlds and material practices of designers and the other participants who might work with them, as well as those of the end-users of designed objects and systems.

Third, design sociology will also often need to embrace sociology with design. Sociologists have not been trained to think in ‘designerly’ ways. Most need help to conceptualise how to go about incorporating design perspectives into their research: and this means collaboration outside sociology. Thus far, of the small number of sociologists who have experimented with design research, most have training in design as well as sociology or have used designers as consultants, or worked on multidisciplinary research teams including designers or HCI researchers. Sociologists who want to incorporate design research approaches but have little hands-on experience of them may need to consider making connections with academics working in design or design anthropology or commission design consultants who have experience in the types of design research outlined here to work with them in planning and executing their projects.

Whichever design sociology approach is taken up, designed phenomena should be positioned as dynamic and contingent assemblages of humans and nonhumans, including ideas, practices, things, spaces and places. Design sociology approaches offer a way of developing greater insights into what people do with objects and systems, such as those involved in digital technologies, and not just what they say they do. Furthermore, they can build on these insights to develop future-oriented perspectives that can contribute to the further development and improvements in the design of objects and systems, including making recommendations. Design sociology can contribute more formative and conceptual research that can contribute to the design process by uncovering the meanings and uses of objects or systems that are already part of everyday lives, or by asking people to consider or generate new ideas about future objects or systems before they have entered everyday life. As such, this research can be helpful in shaping design decisions, both during the design process and when the design is tested.

An important element of a sociological approach to design methods to consider is that of multiple vantage points and contestation. The sociology of expectations and of public engagements with science and technology, for example, often involve identifying disputes and controversies arising from debates about futures (Michael, 2017; Wilkie et al., 2017). This recognition of the possibility of contestation (often between publics and government or big business) remains important to the development of design sociology approaches. For example, rather than assuming that all stakeholders involving in a participatory design process will share imaginaries of the future, a critical sociological approach will be alive to the possibilities of conflict and contestation. The reasons for differences in future imaginaries can be important in understanding the vested interests and politics of the different groups involved.

To conclude, design sociology offers one direction for sociologists to think through how they might orient their research to meet these new expectations and demands in ways that also allow them to maintain their broader intellectual interests in the meanings and practices of social identities, social relationships and social institutions. Depending on how it is applied, design sociology can be considered as a method for social critique and the identification of social inequalities, disadvantage and marginalisation. It can be a form of participatory social research or action research. Design sociology research can also be a way of contributing to the development of new technologies and systems for the benefit of communities, activist groups, government agencies or industry. In many cases, more than one of these outcomes can be achieved.

References

Back L. (2012) Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review 60: 18-39.

Gunn W and Donovan J. (2012) Design anthropology: an introduction. Design and anthropology. London: Ashgate, 1-16.

Michael M. (2017) Enacting Big Futures, Little Futures: toward an ecology of futures. The Sociological Review online ahead of print.

Wilkie A, Savransky M and Rosengarten M. (2017) Introduction: beyond the impasse of the present. In: Wilkie A, Savranksy M and Rosengarten M (eds) Speculative Research: the Lure of Possible Futures. London: Routledge.