12 May 2020

Thinking sociologically: Sustaining our lives

Professor Tim May has recorded (with permission from the publishers) a chapter – ‘Sustaining Our Lives’ – from Thinking Sociologically written with the late Zygmunt Bauman and published by Wiley in 2019.

Cars parked on an empty street

Chapter two of Tim's book is titled ‘Sustaining our Lives’. The focus is on boundaries and whilst it does not directly address the current situation faced across the globe, it sheds light on the issues.

Thinking Sociologically was deliberately written without references as a series of essays on different elements in our lives – communities, social bonds, morals, values and choices, gifts, exchange and intimacy, the body, sexuality and health, nation, space and time, culture, the economy, nature, consumption, social media and technology. The intention was to cover these topics in a way that illuminated what it is to ‘think sociologically’.

The Covid-19 pandemic is having widespread and tragic consequences. It raises fears, its victims are family members and friends and it tears into the heart of local communities and societies as a whole. What have been questioned in the process are the boundaries that we can take-for-granted in our everyday lives.

The virus is ‘zoonotic’: that is, it moves between animals and humans. Not only does it move between species, but within and across nations. We have seen this happen through the process of globalization. Goods are shipped across the world ably assisted by what seems like a never ending search for competitive advantage in business with countries providing differing incentives for investment. There have also been extraordinary increases in mobility between countries. The result, for those recognized as having legitimate reasons and the means to do so, has been a massive expansion in the travel industry.

Professor Tim May

That mobility is now seen differently and is associated with risk. The skies are far less congested and the cruise ships moor in docks. Pollution levels have dropped and seas have become cleaner. There has been some effect on the rate of climate change which is another threat to ways of life.

Variations in responses by governments around the world are apparent.  Some have engaged in contact testing and isolation and others appeared to commence with denial and apportioning blame before recognizing its consequences. The boundaries between health and the economy are under question and not as distinct as assumed in the usual course of events. In the process there has been acquiescence, resistance and even the promotion of conspiracy theories among populations.

Could we have conceived of such scenarios? In The Plague, by Albert Camus, towns and cities are closed, travel is prevented and the hospitals are full within a short time frame. We have restrictions on movement argued to be important for the collective good, the protection of health services and massive injections of government money to support the economy. Such expenditure is reminiscent of bygone times before a particular economic orthodoxy sought to render it redundant and mould societal values in its image.

What was often said to be impossible is now possible. What has been instilled as the sovereignty of the individual pursuing their own ends has been replaced by urging people to exhibit a relational responsibility for their actions through a concern for others, whether known to them or not. The people to whom we might have been indifferent or just unaware – those working in shops, refuse collectors, delivery drivers, volunteers and teachers, to name a few – have joined the ranks of the health professionals to whom we should be grateful for saving lives and sustaining us whilst putting their own at greater risk.

The evaluation of the appropriateness of government actions and the need for cross-border cooperation will come. Some responses are apparent and constituted in the rhetoric of blame based on the distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’ which is discussed in the recording. We can only hope that a more sensible response emerges. Vulnerability and resilience will mix for different reasons and with varying consequences. Difficult questions need to be asked and simple solutions based on apparent self-evidence encased in ideological blinkers needs to be abandoned.

Listen to chapter two of Thinking Sociologically here

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