Fear, Trust, & the Sociology of Pandemics
The Covid-19 pandemic was often described as an ‘unprecedented’ disaster, which required wholly new ways of thinking about, and managing, social life. But what was different about this pandemic to those that have afflicted societies over time?
Sociologists have long been interested in pandemics, because they disrupt the existing social order and throw existing problems and tensions into sharp relief. Yet there seemed to be relatively little critical discussion about the historical and sociological dimensions of the response to Covid-19, or balanced debate about the consequences of organising social and economic life around fear of infection.
In this CG conversation, Jennie Bristow talks to Professor Robert Dingwall about the role of the historical and sociological imagination in making sense of the past two years, and where sociology could have done more to put fear into context.
JB: Welcome to this Collateral Global conversation. I’m Jennie Bristow, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Canterbury Christchurch University, and I’m a member of the Collateral Global board. My own research focuses on generations and education, and I’ve written several commentaries about the impact of lockdown, school closures, and other Covid restrictions on young people, including a short book written with my teenage daughter in 2020 titled The Corona Generation: Coming of Age in a Crisis. Here I’m delighted to talk to Professor Robert Dingwall about the role that sociology as a discipline can help us understand the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and also where we could be doing better. Robert is not affiliated with Collateral Global; we’re meeting today for the first time, and it’s great to meet you Robert. His comments and articles from March 2020 onward have been invaluable in raising important sociological questions and insights. So hello Robert, and please could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your work.
RD: Ok, Jennie, well it’s a privilege to be here talking with you. I suppose the first thing to say is I have something like a 50-year career in sociology now, and it’s strayed across sociology of medicine, the sociology of law, the sociology of science and technology, and the pandemic’s really been a point at which all of those things have come together. But they’re also united by an interest in work, organizations, occupations. And really going back to the first big project I worked on which was agency decision making, and child protection where I became interested in the question of how institutions and organizations fail, and that introduced me to the work of an engineer and sociologist called Barry Turner who’d written a study of the public inquiries into various sorts of disasters in the 1960s and which was then sort of provided a theoretical framework for looking at instances of social and organizational failure. And subsequently I had the opportunity, rather randomly, I got my first grant my first travel grant to go to America on my own from an odd little program at the US embassy, landed me up in Denver, and I was really studying divorce mediation at the time, but the Denver sociology department didn’t quite know what to do with me and sent me out to lunch with a man called Tom Drabek who was one of the pioneers of the sociology of disasters in the States, and he took me to a country club which was a very strange experience for a very young sociologist, and we talked about his work and it was absolutely fascinating. And I stayed with that and a little bit later I had the opportunity to share an office with Diane Vaughan for three months while she was working on her study of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.
That’s been a sort of continuing but low level interest in my career throughout, which I suppose finally became important in this context in some work on the 2003 heatwave with colleagues in France, but also looking at the experience in the UK, and this sort of background of these sort of kind of low intensity slow-breaking but quite catastrophic sorts of events that could hit societies. And we don’t have too many natural disasters in this country, so the sociology of disasters has never been a big field, it’s never really sort of taken off in the way it does in the States with hurricanes and tornadoes and massive floods and so on. But I’d had this as a background interest and then I got involved in a conversation on a hospital clinical ethics committee about the prospect of an influenza pandemic, this would be about 2003-2004, and it was picked up by Radio 4’s Inside the Ethics Committee, and we prepared a broadcast version of this discussion which happened to be heard by a civil servant at the department of health who was putting together a committee to look at the ethical aspects of the planning they were doing for pandemic influenza around 2005-2006, and she invited me to join that committee. And I suppose that pretty much everything since is sort of built on that invitation because I found it such a fascinating topic. And I recruited a number of PhD students to work on aspects of it.
I had the opportunity to work for a while with Jonathan Van-Tam who became Deputy Chief Medical Officer, was one of the leading figures in the research on influenza, and then of course, you know, I’m sort of thinking, well how do I start preparing to retire in 2020, I’m coming up for my 70th birthday, and the pandemic hits and you sort of think, well yes it’s the sort of culmination of a career interest. You can’t really just sort of walk away from this, and you know you have maybe some responsibility to put something back into the community for all the years that the community has been sort of good to you by making that cumulation of knowledge and thinking and an understanding of what sociology might have to offer in a situation like this, and putting that on the table for if people are interested or not as the case may be.
JB: Yes, and it’s obviously a very unique historical moment, I suppose, and the word that was used quite a lot was ‘unprecedented’, and what interests me is given your historical knowledge of how societies have dealt with disasters and ways of thinking about things, how would you summarize the response to Covid, particularly in the UK, because, well, the world’s very big, but you know looking at our response as society what did seem surprising about it if anything or new compared to the way that societies might have responded to such a disaster previously.
RD: Well it’s certainly not unprecedented in any sense. I mean one of the things that strongly influenced my analysis of the pandemic is some work that was done by my PhD supervisor and great friend Philip Strong who was working at a history of the AIDS pandemic at the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London in the 1980s. And Phil wrote this paper which was intended as a sketch or a book about– which was based really on his historical studies of previous epidemics and pandemics from the Black Death onwards in the 14th century through to the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s which is of course still just about with us. And Phil came up with this scheme where he was pointing to the way in which pandemics were this fundamental disruption of social order and they went through a strongly recurrent pattern of, you know, an immediate moment of panic– the thought that the world as everybody had known it was coming to an end, which was then generating three societal pandemics: a pandemic of fear, a pandemic of explanation, and a pandemic of action, which reflected the uncertainties and the insecurities. But in a fairly short order people came to understand that, you know, the pandemic was not the end of life as they knew it. It was a massive inconvenience, but they found ways of living with it, working with it, having it settle into the background of everyday life, and that his argument was that this was a recurrent pattern, and that it was the sort of thing that sociologists should take an interest in and write about. Now sadly Phil died relatively young, I mean just short of his 50th birthday, and never wrote the book, but the paper I think is absolutely seminal and it’s certainly done a lot to frame my understanding of what we’re living through now as something which has historical precedents and is following precisely the kind of pattern that that Phil projected with a few unique and particular characteristics which reflect the particular infection and the particular society that we live in but where the basic framework that he proposed 30 years ago is still a point of orientation, should I say, for any sociologist coming to look at the pandemic.
JB: So broadly speaking thinking about how society kind of coped with Covid over the past couple of years, what do you think of the strengths and the weaknesses to how we managed?
RD: The problems lie in two areas, really. The first I would say is the failure to move on from the initial phase of panic, which is entirely understandable when you get a new a newly emergent infectious disease. Nobody knows if this is going to be the big one that will wipe out human life on this planet. But it became apparent pretty quickly that that was never going to be the case. I mean even in February 2020 the World Health Organization report on the Wuhan outbreak was observing that 80% of the people who contracted Covid in the wild, the wild type, the original Wuhan strain, would never need to go near a hospital. You know people might be quite unwell, but they were not so unwell as to require hospitalization. I think in that context of existential threat, you know, exceptional measures, what Agamben calls the “state of exception,” you can understand why that might be appropriate, why that might be justifiable. The problem really has been moving on from that and doing anything, the way in which you feel like the fear became perpetuated, the way in which the fear came to be adopted and managed, adopted as a technique for managing populations in a way that I think hadn’t been the case before.
I think if you look back to 1918, if you look back to the outbreaks of bubonic plague before that, if you look at HIV/AIDS, people come to accept that this is a serious issue, but it’s not the end of life on the planet. And one moves towards a more proportionate kind of response as the infection works its way through the population. I mean all pandemics come to an end with herd immunity; the only political issue is how you get there. And you either get there through, if you’re lucky, you get there with a vaccine. When we were doing pandemic influenza planning we had high confidence that a vaccine would be available in six to nine months at scale because we know how to make influenza vaccines. With a new infection obviously that is more uncertain, but you should also be able to recognize in fairly short order that actually the risks of this infection are very strongly correlated with age and comorbidity, and that there is no virtue in locking down a lot of the society in order to in order to prevent transmission. You know, you really need to think about how do we protect the vulnerable and how do we, as we did, ultimately distribute the vaccines according to some assessment of risk. I think the UK did a pretty good job on that. What we did not do was to really deal with the sort of proportionality of the risk management and, you know, the tolerability of risks and that in a sense it was because I think too much weight was being given some of the, sort of, biomedical voices and that perhaps there wasn’t sufficient thought about the, if you like, the balance of responsibility between the medical and the political at the appropriate times early on to some extent. I think the politicians just shared the same panic as everybody else and maybe got carried away by their, you know, their own fears and anxieties. Although maybe not if you believe the accounts of the parties in Downing Street.
JB: Yes I mean I think this question of fear is really interesting because there seem to be so many layers to it, all of which are sociologically fascinating, so the question of fear itself, and as you’ve indicated, I mean, it seems to be a fairly normal reaction of society confronted with the new respiratory virus, sorry, respiratory infection, to be scared and, you know, my feeling of this has always been, well, that is actually quite helpful, because it’s that fear that leads people to behave in certain ways that would limit the spread of the infection. So there’s that element of, you know, fear initially, but then there’s been a lot of discussion about the, kind of promotion and almost politicization of fear through the Covid pandemic, which does seem to me to go beyond what you might expect looking back historically at pandemic management. I mean I do remember growing up in in the AIDS pandemic, I was quite a young teenager at the time in the mid-80s, and this I remember the tombstone advert said, I remember very clearly getting the message from school and everywhere you look, you know, teenage magazines, everything else, you know, if you have unprotected sex you will die, you know, and so I mean I remember that being very frightening. But at the same time I think that it’s been noted that that message was kind of, yes it was used partly to reinforce a particular kind of message, moralizing messages to young people about not having too much sex, I guess, it wasn’t as all-encompassing as the kind of messaging that we had with Covid, where that seems to be a very well documented attempt, almost to sort of say we have to over scare people in order to make them behave themselves, which has then had a host of quite negative and unintended consequences. And I just wondered what your reflections were on that.
RD: Well I do think it’s an important difference. I mean with those AIDS campaigns that you recall, I mean they were quite short-lived because the chief medical officer of the day banned them from running any longer. I mean the tombstone ads, the agency, the ad agency that put them together came back with further proposals for, you know, for more scary ads and the CMO of the time said, you know, this is just not ethical, this is not what public health does, and, you know, we’re not having any more of them, you know, we will educate people, we won’t scare them, and the whole focus of AIDS campaign shifted in that respect.
What I think is, we’ve seen here is the, I think we’ve got to be quite careful. I mean there’s a sort of simple version of it that is blaming the external behavioral science committee SPI-B for a lot of this, and I think much more of it is coming from the sort of much more shadowy behavioral insights team who’ve got an association with governments going back for, I suppose, the last years of the Blair government, and the, you know, the interest in trying to manage populations by means of psychological techniques, the so-called nudging. I mean Lucy Easthope writes about it in her book about the, you know, the decline of disaster management and the hollowing out of the UK’s emergency management capacity since 2010 and the idea that we won’t have professionals to manage things floods or terrorist disasters, we will have behavioral scientists who will nudge people into behaving in the right way. So I think there is some kind of shift going on there, but I’m a little bit cautious about where I would allocate responsibility for that. I mean clearly there has been an element of behavioral science that hasn’t asked too many questions about the ends as opposed to the means and which has really just sort of seen itself as serving a customer, and look at, you know, the customer is saying get people to do this but we’re not terribly worried how you get them to do it. And it may be that the sort of ethical sensibility that Donald Acheson, the Chief Medical Officer of the day in the 80s had, you know, it has somewhat declined.
I mean Acheson actually was a CMO who was also notably sympathetic to sociologists, had quite a long history of working with medical sociologists and bringing their expertise into the work of the department of health. Again I think that’s something that sort of changed a good deal in the last 10 or 15 years, but I think clearly this issue of the fear based campaigning and the lack of appropriate checks on that or indeed the idea that we might this year have gone and put it into reverse, if you like, a reinvention of Eat Out to Help Out, which again has sort of been, I mean, it was a brilliant campaign, it was a brilliant idea, and I think it’s been really very unfairly blamed because it seemed to lead to some modest increases in transmission, but again you’ve got to say well you know transmission of what. Is it responsible for producing a lot of extra hospitalizations or deaths as opposed to a lot more minor infections that made people feel a bit bad for a few days but which did a great deal to sustain a key economic sector such that it is actually in some sort of shape to come out of the crisis.
JB: Yes, I think that is very interesting about Eat Out to Help Out, and I think that campaign and the behavioral science kind of fear campaign, informed fear campaign, I think in a way you could see them as two versions of a similar thing, which is the idea that official messaging needs to get into the psyche of the citizens, and that idea of people need to be told how to feel, and I think that to me was one of the kind of disturbing things about it. I agree with you that it’s become quite fashionable to blame SPI-B for their infamous kind of minutes from whatever committee meeting it was where they did say yes we need to increase the level of fear, but it wasn’t as straightforward as that, was it, I mean all of that messaging was developed within this wider, what people called a culture of fear, a real sense of being attuned to kind of wider risks in this very free-floating way, and that I think provided that very conducive environment for people also to be scaring themselves and be very, very susceptible to risk messaging, which you wouldn’t necessarily have had a few decades ago. I think that also that idea that you kind of look to the government to tell you how to feel about everything seems to me to be, I’m not sure my grandparents generation would have known what to do with that idea, whereas these days we seem to be kind of quite accepting of the idea that we just should, if this makes sense, that we should just sort of ask governments to tell us how to feel.
RD: Yes I think to some extent it reflects, I think a better understanding of the limits of, or not a better understanding, a particular understanding, of the limits of state action that, and again it’s something that sociologists have known for a long time, rules are not self-interpreting, they’re not self-enforcing. You pass a set of regulations and people will make sense of them in their own terms, I mean they will pick and mix and they will say, you know, as the ethnomethodologists have long pointed out there’s always an etc. clause in in a rule about how you interpret it and apply it to any particular situation. And to some extent the behavioral science stuff is a way to get around that and to try to ensure that rules are enforced out of, they’re in their sort of emotional embedding rather than depending on enforcement agents, that actually you cannot have armies or police officers, you can’t have armies of other kinds of state agents going around making citizens behave in particular ways, but what you can do is to try to get into the heads of the citizens such that they can’t think of behaving in any other way than you would wish them to, which again rests on a sort of fundamental fallacy about uh the extent to which any kind of general campaign can really influence behavior in specific situations. And I think there’s some interesting work by Jed Meers and colleagues at York Law School on what they call, what sociology of law calls ‘creative compliance’, the idea that people look at rules and try to make sense of them as they apply in their own situation and you can always find exceptions.
JB: We saw that a lot during the pandemic, didn’t we, and I thought it was it was quite interesting that you have on the one hand this sort of, well, I actually remember it from the press briefings, the journalists kept asking well what about this specific case, what about this specific case, I ended up with this massively complicated rulebook where every little thing that you could do was sort of laid down and then when the way that people interpreted the rules was, I mean, it was kind of quite interesting, people who were very into following the rules but they interpreted them in a way that made sense to them and it could be very judgmental of people who’d interpreted the rules in a way that made sense to them and so you end up with something that looks like a set of rules but actually it isn’t, it’s a way of people kind of finding a way of um justifying their own actions in something that makes their life livable.
RD: Which is not an idea that sociologists are unfamiliar with. I mean, I think there was an issue at the press conference, is that by and large the journalists who went to them were the political reporters, not the science and medical reporters, and that did affect the kind of quality of the questions that were asked. But I think beyond that, I mean, the rules, yes, they proliferated, they became unintelligible, their impact was largely as something was overlaid on existing social conflicts. I mean here in Nottingham we saw a lot of use of the rules to pursue previously existing conflicts between students and other residents in the neighborhoods where there’s a lot of rental housing let to students, and we’ve had all these years of conflict where the, you know, the students don’t put the rubbish out on the right days and they have these parties and they don’t look after the gardens and every summer there’s a pile of abandoned mattresses and stuff that the council has to clear away, and, you know, here’s a new tool for the new for the neighbors to pursue their grievances with. They can ring up the local police and say, well, there’s half a dozen students got together and they’re all breaking the rules and the police response is eventually, you know, to say well what do you really want us to do about it. You know there’s a few high-profile symbolic fines, you know the universities get dragged in, you know you get sort of university discipline being applied, but I mean in fairly short order there’s not much appetite for pursuing any of this stuff, you know the police have got better things to do on a Saturday night than to go around issuing fixed penalty tickets to students.
JB: And I suppose it was very interesting at that time where often it took the form of, is it law or is it guidance, that kind of thing. I’m thinking about the role of convention in all of this, and performativity, moralization, all of that, where you would have, well, I suppose when I think back on it that there were quite distinct phases, I can’t remember exactly the exact dates, but you know initially people were generally genuinely quite scared and thought, right, staying at home is the right thing to do, and then there started to be a sense of, you know, now we can go out, and those kind of things. But there was still a real tension between those who felt that we still needed to sort of stay put and this demand to be told what to do. And then around the edges are kind of a loosening of attitudes. And then I think probably from after July 2020 it all got a lot more messy, really, you had different groups of people making their own decisions, you had institutions like schools and universities being bashed this way, that way, you know, told what to do, but then it wasn’t as kind of coherent. So I suppose my experience of it was this very kind of contradictory one where on the one hand you feel like there’s a real pressure to behave in in certain ways and, you know, I think the law is important, I think even if the police don’t enforce it, it is important when you’ve got laws that are kind of micro-regulating your everyday life. But at the same time it seemed that the cracks showed quite quickly, which I suppose falls into a fairly familiar pattern of the times that we live in, doesn’t it, that we do live in quite an individuated society where people don’t necessarily obey community conventions in the way that people…
RD: Well they never did, I mean I think again it’s perhaps one of these things where, you know, a little bit more historical perspective is helpful. I think that we may have been through a 20th century which was more, I suppose, compliant than would have been the case in earlier generations. But if you look back at the history particularly of the English, you know, you go right back to the 13th century, and you know, Alan McFarlane’s work traces this, you know, the English have always been a more individualist sort of culture than the many other countries. And when I say English I would be sort of reaching up to Scotland, the Scottish enlightenment of the 18th Century, where a lot of the implications of individualist thinking are explored. People like Adam Smith thought of themselves as North Britons, you know, the Scots were those people behind that, beyond the highland line who’d been in rebellion in 1715 and 1745 and that, you know, they were the real barbarians. So people like Smith and Hume and their contemporaries, they’d go to elocution lessons in Edinburgh to mitigate their Scottish accents, and their whole orientation was south of the border. And eventually when higher education begins to change in England, University College recruits a lot of its first professors from Scotland and brings this sort of tradition southwards, so I think it’s a much more complex issue.
You know it’s like the idea, I used to work in social sociology of the family a bit, and you know the idea of the nuclear family as the sort of long-term marriage with 2.4 children, very much a 20th century thing. Prior to that marriage was often very informal for much of the population, until the 1830s, and it only became formalized so that the state could find out who a father was and pursue him to pay for his kids. There’s still a lot of informal marriage or cohabitation right through to World War I, it becomes a major issue for paying widow’s pensions at the end of the war, is identifying the widows because so many of them are de facto rather than de jure.
I mean one thing we did suffer from in the pandemic was really the lack of capacity in the sociology of law in this country, which was stimulated a good bit in the 1980s, it was how I got into it, but it’s a very small field in sociology. But all these issues about rules and compliance and how you do effective rule making, what’s the basis of legitimacy for rules. I mean one of the problems increasingly has been the lack of a scientific base for many of the actions that citizens are being asked to undertake, and that then throws into doubt the legitimacy of any rule requiring compliance with that action. Now that’s a very familiar kind of problem in law and society studies. I mean if you go to the States, sociology of law is a medium-sized field. Within the American Sociological Association, the section has about half the membership of the Medical Sociology section, but that still makes it a pretty 400 to 500 people. In the UK you could count the number of sociologists of law on the fingers of one hand, and most of them are my contemporaries, and we will be gone. But that’s a source of expertise that was that never really featured in pandemic management, and so we end up with laws that are being drafted on the basis of, if you like, the rational scientific advice rather than an understanding of, this is what you can actually do with law and this is how laws work and this is what you need to found laws on for them to be legitimate.
JB: So then there’s a lot to unpack in that, isn’t there. There has been some discussion about what some people call scientism in relation to this, which is not only come up in relation to the pandemic but increasingly in other areas of policy making, where you have kind of ideas about what should be done that are kind of dressed in the language of science and presented as though they come out of a lab, whereas in fact they’re actually ideas about what should happen with society. You’ve got the question of trust, which I think is a very interesting one. I suppose one of the things that I noted, but you may not think that this is as new as I think it is, that we’ve lived in for a while in a society that people say is a society of, kind of, declining trust, I mean particularly between citizens and politicians and media and all of that. But there did seem to be a kind of lack of trust in all directions that gave rise to the demand for new rules in the sense that there seemed to be an assumption from the top that unless people were told exactly what they couldn’t do they would go and do it, and then an assumption from below, if you like, from everyday citizens that it was the role of the government to create all of these kind of new laws, but also a kind of a lack of belief in them. And I found that very interesting that the interplay between all of those things.
RD: Where to start, I mean I think there is a particular issue, which is to some extent connected with the nature of the UK as a class society, about trust between citizens and elites. And I think I’d probably use elites as a more general term than government. I mean certainly thought to have been one of the features of the relative success of the Nordic countries in dealing with the pandemic is the high degree of trust between citizens and government, which comes at a cost. I mean friends in Sweden occasionally complain about the pressure to conform, that being a country that doesn’t like tall poppies , so that your scientific excellence, innovation, things that might make somebody to stand out from the crowd are not valued in the way that they might be in a more differentiated society like ours.
But there is clearly a much more egalitarian society, at least in theory, although it’s interesting that the coverage of Sweden, for example, tends to be focused on Stockholm and inner Stockholm and the nice places the journalists go to rather than the sort of ethnic diversity of cities like Malmo or Gothenburg. But all contemporary societies, all modern societies, rest on trust, I mean Simmel was pointing this out more than a hundred years ago now, that we have to trust all sorts of institutions, there’s all sorts of things we can’t verify for ourselves. You know, when Adam Smith wrote about customer sanctions being the most important thing, he’s thinking of very small-scale societies, and if the baker sold you moldy bread and you didn’t go and buy the bread from the baker, the baker would go out of business. You know now the bakery is the factory 200 miles away, you’re supplying thousands of shops, and that kind of consumer power is considerably weakened, and you have to depend on other institutions. And it’s the great theme in classic sociology is about how you produce that level of trust to replace the kind of immediate relationships that you might have had in more traditional societies.
But I think that what we’ve seen with the with the pandemic is the erosion, the partial erosion of that as something between citizens and government, in part because government has continued the emergency legislation and the emergency response in ways that no emergency planner would actually advocate, that there are the things that are appropriate for an existential threat and there are other things which are appropriate for a much longer term, if you like, management of the transition to Covid as an endemic infection and the pathway to herd immunity through the mixture of vaccination and natural infection, and you know, how you combine those and manage them and how you don’t make the sort of false promises that the Chinese are making, for example, the party will eliminate Covid, you know, this is a fantasy, zero Covid always was a fantasy. But in order to achieve that you simply you do need a more collaborative approach by governments, you need something that exposes, explains more of the uncertainties, that discusses the trade-offs and the tolerability of risks and which gets a proper balance between the scientific input and the political judgments. The scientific input is very important to inform those judgments, but the science doesn’t tell you what is a tolerable risk. A tolerable risk is a political judgment, it’s a value judgment, it’s one that any of us is competent to join in debating. The scientists can inform that debate, but it’s not appropriate for them to take it over, particularly when you’ve you’re looking at the issues of trade-offs that, and again, quite a lot of the naivete of the zero Covid school rests on the assumption, on its neglect of the economy and the economic issues and the fact that our lifestyle has to be paid for, and you know the government genuinely does not have a magic money tree. I started out as an economist in my first year at university and sometimes used to joke with my colleagues that I was the last Keynesian left on the campus. But I think the idea that you have to worry about the resources and you, again, there are things that you can do in a short term emergency and there are things that you, in the long term you have to make a transition to a society that is not organized around the elimination of infection, it’s managing infection in a proportional way is as good as it gets.
JB: Well that’s right, you can’t see policy as just looking at this one very, very particular area, because you need to look at the effects of that on everything else. I think education is instructive in this regard, I mean, that you would just sort of pretty much abandon education for two years because of the focus on this particular emergency, and the short term as well I think is interesting because, just to go back a bit to Eat Out to Help Out and this kind of attempt to try and get people back to work which doesn’t seem to be going very well in certain institutions. Of course a large section of the population have always been at work as well, that’s the other contradiction of the whole thing. But there seems to be this problem, which I’m surprised wasn’t anticipated, that if you unleash this level of fear or if you unleash a particular focus on a particular thing and you become wedded to that then it’s very difficult to roll back from it, isn’t it, and it’s not like you can just click your fingers and say, okay it’s all over no, back to work.
RD: And there is also this proportionality issue that I’ve certainly seen arguments, and I think this is something that the epidemiologists will be debating among themselves for years, that you may end up with more deaths from the collateral damage than you do from the infection itself when you take account of the delayed treatments for cardiac conditions, cancers, and so on, when you deal with the sort of legacy of so-called deaths of despair, which as we saw during the 1980s from the economic and social disruption that’s been caused, you know, we may in the short term have this employment boom, but that seems to be tied up with a lot of people actually leaving the workforce, and that’s the problem, that’s the issue around the labor shortages, and I think it will be very interesting to see how the sums look 10 years down the track in terms of where the deaths come, where are the excess deaths. But there is certainly this issue of the fixation on a single outcome measure, rather than thinking about to what extent are the Covid deaths displaced deaths, you know, that these are deaths that were not caused this year by influenza. We’ve had we’ve had 10 years of falling death from influenza, death rates generally been falling since around 2000, and what the pandemic years did was to sort of take it back to something around the level of 1999, 2001. So again it’s putting that kind of notion of a catastrophe into proportion, that if you’ve got a historical sensibility, you know this is not a big pandemic, it doesn’t begin to compare with the death rates of 1918, it certainly doesn’t compare with the bubonic plague death rates of the Black Death, of the plague of Justinian before that or the fifth century BCE and the great plague of Athens, whatever caused that, and nobody quite knows but were we’re talking about death rates of 30 to 50% of the population and, Covid was never going to be that lethal.
JB: You wrote a very interesting blog for the British Sociological Association a few months ago now, I think it was, where you talked about the project of sociology and how it sort of became detached from its roots, if you like, and that that was evident during the pandemic. I wondered if you could just sort of tell us a little bit about that.
RD: Well I suppose if we go back to what I was saying about Phil Strong’s analysis, and he’s saying look, you know, what a pandemic does is to disrupt the order of the society that we all thought we lived in, and the problem of order is centrally what sociology has always been about. All of the social sciences have their big question, you know economics has the allocation of resources under scarcity, politics about power and legitimacy, you know, geography about space, psychology about the mind, you know. And our question is order, and it’s order at all levels, And you might say it’s about orderliness, and it’s also about justice and distribution. But there are questions about how do societies balance stability and change, as well as how do they then, as a word, distribute the consequences. And I think to some extent it’s my leadings towards ethnomethodology and conversation analysis which is still very much engaged with these issues of orderliness. How do we carry out conversations without disagreeing and arguing all the time, and then moving on from there to think about the institutions that we have, the way that which they conserve and the ways in which they change.
And I do think a lot of contemporary sociologists become somewhat fixated on the second aspect of the question, which is what kind of order, and looking at issues around identity, looking at issues around class, ethnicity, social justice, which are important, but it seems to me that they are less fundamental than the question of how order itself is possible. How do we actually practically in the world avoid the sort of thought experiment that Thomas Hobbes carried out, you know, what would life be like without society. Well it would be forgetting the right order, you know, nasty, solitary, brutish, and short, you know, that you couldn’t live in a world where there was no incentive to form relationships, there’s no incentive to plant crops, because somebody would just come in and take them, there would be no restraint, you could make no investment for the future, nobody would want to have children, you know, the land would be dominated by violence, conflict, rape, you know, all of people just in a sense pursuing their own goals regardless of the collective impact. And you know sociology, if you like, is about finding answers to that question, you know, how is it that that is not the world, that for the most part that is not the world that we live in. We do all sorts of things every day in an orderly fashion, we continue to produce and reproduce that orderliness. Now it has adverse consequences, it’s maybe not the best world we could have, and you know an important part of sociology has always been the dream that we could come up with a better one, but an important part of the task is understanding the one that we have. And yes the argument of my blog was that we perhaps have neglected that in pursuit of other concerns.
JB: In a sense that sociologists would become critics first and foremost, I suppose, rather than that that kind of more holistic sense of responsibility that I think is associated more with the kind of classical sociology.
RD: Yes, if I can drop names for a moment, I had a conversation with Howard Becker about the politics of the Chicago School, and I was quoting to him Michael Oakeshott’s description of what conservatism was really about, you know, modest change based on evidence carefully considered, taking account of the wisdom of the past, and how he said, well yes, I mean, that’s what we thought we were on about. And now again it’s coming out of an American context where the political distribution is very different, but I think there is an authentic sociological tradition of a small-c conservative kind. There are also important points that people like Hayek have raised about the sort of collectivist thinking that sociology tends to default towards, and again we come back to these problems of trust, these problems of information, that what we’ve seen in the pandemic is, if you like, a natural experiment in central planning which has revealed precisely the problems that Hayek identified in his academic work. I mean it’s quite distinctive, you know, some of his political work is a bit iffy, but I mean some of the stuff he wrote about the price system and the way in which prices code information so we don’t have to have perfect knowledge of everything in the way that classical economics assumes, we have all these sort of shortcuts that allow us to place trust in the information that we’re being given. But Hayek’s core argument is, you know, central planners cannot know the precise details of individuals’ abilities, aspirations, and everyday lives, and that is a constraint on what we can achieve by collective action, and that is something which sociologists need to take seriously and engage with.
JB: That’s very interesting that you say that because one of the things that I’ve been struck by is there seems to be some a fascination among some sociologists, and not just sociologists, other branches of academia, almost like the lockdown as utopia, you know, this idea of, right look, we can just remake society now as we see it, and I’ve really struggled to understand where that’s coming from, to be honest, because to me it runs at odds with the central concerns that a lot of sociologists have about class inequalities and the Global South and the Global North and the disparities that seem to have been so stark in terms of who benefited from the lockdowns more and who suffered disproportionately, do you see what I mean, I think it’s quite an interesting question as to where does that sort of almost radical fascination come from with the notion of lockdown as utopia.
RD: Well, I mean, there is a utopian element to sociology, as they pointed out, there is always the attempt to envision a better world than the one that we have, and that is the strength of the discipline, it’s a virtue of the discipline. I don’t think there is a single utopia that sociologists can or should aspire to, and I think again maybe we’ve, in this country at least, we don’t perhaps have the diversity that you would find in the United States, that have a diversity of utopias, if I can put it that way, partly because we’re a much smaller academic community, and there isn’t perhaps quite the same opportunity to sustain different kinds of aspiration. Although I think there’s quite a lot of sociologists just sort of keep their heads down and sort of get on with everyday life and don’t aspire to take part in that. But again the Build Back Better, you know, it’s a social movement, it deserves the same kind of analysis as any other social movement, it’s the promotion of a particular kind of class interest, and as such it should be analyzed. But that’s not to say that it should be taken up as a as a kind of collective program, our job is not to pursue that, our job is to understand it and to analyze it and to explicate it.
JB: In your blog for the British Sociological Association you also talked about magical thinking in relation to discussions about the pandemic. Could you just say a bit about that?
RD: Well I suppose it’s the way in which you’ve had this very narrow base of science that’s got in contrast to the pandemic influenza plan that I was involved in, the expectation in the early 2000s was that the pandemic would be managed by the Civil Emergencies Unit in the Cabinet Office as a whole government kind of problem. And for reasons which have not been made public, the management of this pandemic fell into the hands of the Department of Health, and since you had a Chief Medical Officer and a Chief Scientific Advisor who were both essentially biomedical scientists, you get the recruitment of a scientific advisory network that is almost entirely drawn from that world, or from people associated with it, and it’s been very hard for other kinds of expertise to get a hearing. So for example, the very extensive literature on the social science of social distancing in the field of proxemics, which has been around since the 1950s, has really just not been taken up at all. I mean we know a lot about social distancing, which bears very little relationship to any of the policy statements made about it, so there’s been a kind of an assumption that the biomedical world has all the knowledge that is needed to manage a pandemic, and this has then sort of led to some very curious thoughts, that as they sort of reach out beyond that, if you like, the distinctive expertise of the social sciences generally, not just sociology, has simply not been incorporated. If you take the issue of the group the SPI-B group, for example, it’s very much dominated by people with a background in health behavior, which means that the sorts of questions that you’re raising about education, child development, I mean, there aren’t people there who are constantly saying, what are we doing to the children of the nation by the policies that we’re investing in, closing schools, requiring children to wear masks, thinking about the impact on communication disorders, on the mental health of children, the proportionality of those interventions but there is somehow this assumption that it’s all right.
Now the specific example I’ve pursued on magical thinking really has been in relation to face coverings, where you really have three types of evidence, I mean you have stuff that comes out of experiments by engineers and physicists under lab conditions whose generalizability to the real world is very problematic, which do suggest that they might be modestly effective. You have what the public health world calls observational studies, which is quite different from what sociologists call observational studies, but essentially what naturally occurring statistics can we find in different places at different times and how can we build these into some kind of statistical model that will enable us to compare contexts where there are face coverings and where there aren’t face coverings, which basically is so vulnerable to cherry picking and confounding that I just think that entire literature is worthless. And thirdly you have the randomized controlled trials which have always been regarded as the gold standard in evidence-based medicine, where you have 15 trials of masking prior to the pandemic which show little or no benefit at a community level, where you have two trials which are carried out during the pandemic, both of which have their flaws, but they produce results that are consistent with the previous 15, to minimal effect. And yet you have very high level lab scientists, biomedical advisors confidently pronouncing masks work, you know, when their own literature reviews tell me it’s weak evidence of, at best, a small benefit. Now what you might be able to argue is that correctly used FB2 masks have some benefit as personal protection, and they may have value in people who are immunosuppressed, although again you have to ask, well what were these people doing in 2019.
And at one point in my career I was doing some possible work on cystic fibrosis, and I was talking to young people with that condition who told me about how they manage their risks in everyday activities. You know, it’s always been a risk, people have always managed it, and Covid doesn’t present an exceptional risk beyond that. You’re saying, well okay, why are we imposing this on populations, and you’re looking at expertise, which is experience largely drawn from hospitals. Supermarkets always good have good ventilation systems because the supermarket owners don’t want humans breathing gunge over the fruit and veg. Aircraft have always had high quality ventilation systems because people are worried about infectious disease transmission. Aircraft air is pretty much as clean as operating theater air, surgeons only ever wear masks to protect themselves from the sort of blood and other unpleasant substances that get sprayed over their faces when they’re doing surgery, you know, if you’ve ever been in an operating theater, you know, you nick an artery and you don’t want to get a mouth full of arterial blood, or you’re hacking away at a bone and the rotary saw is throwing off fragments, well you don’t really want those hitting your face if you can avoid it. So I think you have these kind of confident pronouncements on what is obviously flimsy evidence, and you know, what else do you call it? Magical thinking, yes.
JB: I think that’s really true, and I think the masks issue, I mean it is fascinating because it seems to play so many roles in relation to the way that we’ve been through this pandemic, very highly symbolic obviously, so you have that sense of you know what you’re talking about, well masks work, very confidently, but then also they make people feel safe or they remind people that there’s a pandemic on or you know there’s so many different arguments that actually come into play, where it seems like what you’re seeing is a kind of a casting around, often for a justification of a measure that’s been put into place, and you know also that’s gone along with, that which I’ve found particularly striking in relation to children, that this idea that, well it doesn’t really matter whether they work or not, we might as well just do it, which I think for school children six, eight hours a day in a mask is clearly not right. That’s not that’s not a question of scientifically does it keep particles out or not, you just look at it as a human being, you say you need a high bar to want to put that in place, and yet that seems to have been the kind of the easiest thing, almost, that we’ve used, and I suspect it is because of the symbolic quality attached to mask wearing and the performance and the ritual of it.
RD: Which is where you then come back to the issues raised by the sociology of law about the extent to which you can appropriately use law to enforce those sorts of vague symbolic goals rather than things that you will have a demonstrable benefit. I mean we don’t use health and safety law for symbolic purposes, you know, we use it in situations where we think it’s going to be effective and it’s going to make a difference and it’s actually demonstrably going to protect people from radiation, chemical exposures, um the hazards of working at height, and so on. And that’s fundamentally lacking and that’s a fundamental objection to the use of law. I also find myself disturbed by the sort of ableist thinking of a lot of the mask advocates, that these are a low-cost low-harm intervention. Well for a very significant proportion of the population, they aren’t, you know, there are neurodiverse people, there are people who have communication disorders, there are people who have previous traumatic experiences. I had a very moving follow-up to a tweet I made about this from somebody who said, for me masks remind me of when I was in Bosnia during the war in the 90s and the masks were worn by the gunmen who came to my village and shot all the men, and that is something that’s evoked for me when I see them in this. So in a sense it doesn’t, you know, and when you begin to add those groups together you’re talking about you know maybe 15-20% of the population, and then you’re thinking about the damage that it’s doing to child development in linked language, mental health, speech, the interactional abilities of children, that this is not a low bar intervention, and your questions have to be asked, I hope they will be asked about why governments around the world did not properly fund RCTs to find out the answers because those RCTs could have been done, you know, we could have randomly allocated schools in England to mask and no mask conditions, we could have had a huge, a very large-scale RCT that would have given us definitive answers to a lot of questions. We never did it. We were very happy to throw money at, no one’s throwing money, investing money sensibly in the RECOVERY trial to compare various therapeutic interventions, brilliant work, and did an awful lot to sort of demonstrate what worked and what didn’t in the therapeutic field, but somehow the social intervention simply just was simply waved through.
JB: Yes which again goes back to the short term, really, doesn’t it, in the sense of, if we were to come out of this and say, okay we will never do this again, we won’t make children wear masks or have lockdowns or use non-pharmaceutical interventions or abuse fear to encourage compliance, then okay, you can say all right, fine, but I think it’s unlikely. I think the next pandemic, you know, these things will be in the toolkit, they will probably come out again, and so it’s very unfortunate that some of these things, you know, we went into this experiment, which could never be an experiment because you didn’t have a control and as you say we didn’t have any good evidence and then we didn’t collect any good evidence either, which means that then what have we learned as a society going forwards and you know that that does seem to be a shame.
RD: Yes and I mean I think it does reflect something of the disregard for the social sciences among some part, some sections of the policy elite at the moment, and we have to ask ourselves to what extent we’ve contributed to that ourselves. But I think unless these sorts of questions get addressed more seriously, both by social scientists, and I mean all social scientists not just sociologists, and by the policy communities, you know we are just going to end up making the same mistakes next time around, and that that is troubling. I hope I shall not live long enough to see it, you know, as I say I’d really been hoping that I would pass my 70th birthday and spend more time with my grandchildren and my garden but, you know, maybe those days will come around, but for now I think the important thing is you know to you to identify these questions and to make sure that you know there a legacy of research and policy and that we don’t stumble into the same traps again, which is a very present danger, and I mean I think that you know that is, oh you know, when you’ve been a sociologist for 50 years you’re very used to being ignored, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you were wrong.
JB: No, and I think from what you’re saying that certainly those of us working in the social sciences and the policy field more broadly have a bit of work to do to kind of ensure that we’re part of this conversation and this discussion moving forwards. So I think we’ll leave it there, Robert, although I’m sure we could go on for hours more. Thank you once again for talking to me today, that was absolutely fascinating. I imagine we’ll see each other in the future as these issues keep rumbling on.
RD: Well I very much hope so, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to talk, and as you rightly say, sociologists could talk for hours.