An existential crisis? Writing and researching in a pandemic

by Dan Goodley

A notebook and pen on a wooden surface

My new book - Disability and other human questions - was published this month. The publication of a new text is always the source of great pride. But there is something about publishing now, during these unprecedented times, that makes me feel uneasy. I was recently listening to Adam Buxton’s podcast interview with the fabulous author, and one of my faves’, Zadie Smith. During the ‘ramble-chat’ Smith revealed the sense of limbo that she found herself living with as the lockdown hit and the pandemic caught hold of us all in Summer of 2020. She talked of feeling useless and redundant: in direct contrast to the key workers whose essential skills and expertise contrasted markedly with her own limited skill set. Her response to this situation was, eventually, to write. This is what she does after all. And she does it so well. However, the fact that a renowned author like Zadie Smith felt redundant during these times resonated with me; specifically as a researcher in the British Uni context.

Understandably, since the pandemic hit in March of this year, universities have grappled with teaching and learning priorities, concerns around student numbers, admissions processes and adhering to lockdown restrictions. The move to online teaching, repackaging of assessment, addressing student mental health and managing safe distances during face-to-face teaching have all occupied the concerns of our university leaders, professional services and academic colleagues. Teaching and learning tasks have dominated universities; institutions that have previously marketed themselves in terms of their research-intensive rankings. The impact on research-active colleagues has been huge. Researchers’ contracts have been threatened or lost, face-to-face empirical research has been paused (or moved online) and the research priorities of funding bodies have front-loaded Covid-19 concerns. The pandemic has created an existential crisis within the research community not dissimilar to the one described by Zadie Smith. What is the value of research and scholarship in times when teaching and learning take priority? What is to be done with research that’s not engaged with primary healthcare services or the search for a vaccine? How should researchers consider their labour, their value and their worth?  I want to briefly sit with these questions about the relevance of research in these difficult times. And while I write as a social scientist I think some of these musings will travel well to other disciplinary research spaces. 

First, writing and research creates spaces of rupture, dissent and criticality. God, how we need this kind of knowledge right now. Indeed, Public Health England reported today that people with learning disabilities were up to six times more likely to die from Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic. Research and scholarship is required here as a form of direct action: to capture and document the ways in which some groups of marginalised humans in our society die earlier as a consequence of systemic abuse, institutional neglect and the absence of key services. Austerity has stripped our welfare system of key agencies and professionals. And these are just some of the disabling social, political and cultural factors that we need to document. We need research not only to hold people to account but also to resist understandings of the pandemic’s consequences that ignore material inequalities.

Second, writing and research always speaks of community. While my book is single authored it could not have been written without family, friends and colleagues. The acknowledgements section does a fairly good job in recognising significant others’ impact but it inevitably fails to capture the influence of various people and communities on my writing and research. Research planning, execution, reflection, method, analysis and public engagement always generate communities. And these communities produce new ways of being together in the world; some anticipated and others unplanned. In times of isolation, separation and lockdown, the generation of community has never been more required. And we should keep in mind that research and scholarship have always created interconnections and interrelationships. And these connections are not simply those between fellow researchers; but encompass our non/academic relationships. 

Third, research and scholarship pushes us to consider how we constitute the human category. The pandemic has revealed pre-existing inequalities within our society whilst magnifying others. And research must respond urgently to these inequities but with a sense of purpose and social justice. When people with learning disabilities are dying more than their non-disabled counterparts then we have a huge problem with our society. We need to consider the ways in which we can enlarge our categorisations of the human to ensure that dehumanisation is not a defining feature of how we do society together. And we need to find productive ways of valuing all kinds of humans. It seems to me that we need research and scholarship more than ever (whether or not you’ve got a book coming out).


'Disability and Other Human Questions' Out now! The discount code is EMERALD30 (*Save 30% with promo code EMERALD30 at

Free chapter

Film introduction to the book

Robot reading books

Our work

How we understand being ‘human’ differs between disciplines and has changed radically over time. We are living in an age marked by rapid growth in knowledge about the human body and brain, and new technologies with the potential to change them.

Centres of excellence

The University's cross-faculty research centres harness our interdisciplinary expertise to solve the world's most pressing challenges.