What social science can offer us in a time of Covid-19

Katie Metzler would like to see the different disciplines become more than the sum of their parts

April 18, 2020
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Just as during the Ebola crisis, social scientists have a crucial role to play today

First, a confession. I am struggling to accept the magnitude of this crisis. I’m reading the news, registering the numbers, following the London lockdown rules to the letter, but there are obvious signs that I’m in denial about this continuing for more than a few weeks. I spend my days silently mouthing “It will all be over soon, it will all be over soon.”

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review compared what we’re experiencing to grief – we are mourning the loss of our previous lives and selves. That feels right to me, and while I seem stuck in the denial stage, others appear to have catapulted through to acceptance far more quickly. What factors predict their seemingly superior ability to cope with lockdown? Why will some people’s mental health suffer more than others over the coming months? Why are some seeing this as an opportunity for a new and better world to emerge, while others (myself included) are finding far less to be cheerful about?

This is just one strand of social science questions emerging from Covid-19. Will existing theories about the factors that shape our responses to crises and isolation hold true in these new circumstances? Early data from the Pew Research Centre suggest that women, young people and those with lower incomes, as well as “those whose jobs or income have been cut by the outbreak”, are “more likely than other groups to fall into the high distress category”. New findings on who is suffering most from loneliness in lockdown vary by country. In one recent US survey it is the young, while an unpublished study by Soubhik Barari and others suggests that in Italy it is older people.

A global crisis like this provides us with a gruesome natural experiment. As social scientists around the world share early findings, other questions are beginning to form in my mind: namely, will this ultimately be a good or bad thing for the social sciences? Will they generate a huge range of new questions, leading to a fresh appreciation of their importance in helping us tackle major global challenges? Will people turn to social scientists for answers, or will trust in them be damaged by the emergence of fault lines between competing theories and disciplines?

Any increased attention will come with increased scrutiny, from within the community and outside. After what must have been a record number of mentions of “behavioural science” in the UK government’s press conference last month, I watched in fascination as 600 behavioural scientists penned an open letter questioning the government’s decision to delay enacting social distancing policies on the basis of “behavioural fatigue”. This called for “a clear indication how behavioural fatigue features in the decision-making and modelling, and any behavioural evidence for the phenomenon”, since “there is no sound evidence base to suggest that behavioural fatigue would undermine early interventions based on social distancing”.

I expected criticism from outside academia (and found plenty of “Behavioural science? Don’t make me laugh” tweets), but the questioning of evidence from within the behavioural science community was a stark reminder of how many different perspectives there are even within disciplines. And I was saddened by the number of social scientists on Twitter and elsewhere complaining that the government was listening to social science at all and suggesting it should prioritise the advice of medical experts, because, in a pandemic, they were the only “real experts”.

Recent events such as the backlash against White House trade adviser Peter Navarro when he cited his background as a social scientist in a discussion about the value of an anti-malaria drug suggest that social scientists need to stick to their discipline if they are to be taken seriously as experts. And yet it’s clear they have a vital role to play. Reflecting on lessons learned from the Ebola crisis of 2013-16, Margaret Chan, former director-general of the World Health Organisation, acknowledged that “inadequate engagement with affected communities and families” posed a significant obstacle in developing an effective response and called for “multidisciplinary approaches to community engagement, informed by anthropology and other social sciences”.

As the crisis continues and our social world gets remade, there is no doubt that the research agenda of social scientists will change profoundly. Whether this becomes a defining moment for them in other ways, it’s perhaps too early to judge. But it does feel as though this is the time for the whole to become greater than the sum of its parts, and for specialists to bring their expertise and insight together not just to cope with the crisis but to help promote a regrowth of culture, society and economy in ways that enable future generations to flourish.

Katie Metzler is associate vice president at SAGE Publishing and has worked in social science academic publishing for more than 15 years. 

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