Pandemic response needs ‘wisdom’ of social sciences, scholars say

Whether it’s to be ‘business as usual’ or not, social scientists have much to offer in discussion about how to move on after ravages of Covid-19

May 12, 2020
Locals wearing protective mask dance sevillana, a typical flamenco dance, in the street in front of their house April 24, 2020 in Mairena del Alcor, Spain during Covid-19 pandemic
Source: Getty
Dance with insight: ‘wisdom is more than technical expertise, and technical expertise alone will not help us repair the wounds in our common life that a pandemic causes’

The voices of epidemiologists and public health experts have inevitably dominated initial responses to the coronavirus crisis. Yet this has meant that other disciplines have been sidelined and risk being shut out altogether from the thinking processes informing decisions about how to move forward.

So what can those in the social sciences bring to the table, both at the present time and when we “return to normal” and seek to rebuild our societies? And what will Covid-19 mean for such disciplines in the longer term?

Some broad answers are provided by Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford, who also serves as vice-president for public engagement at the British Academy, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and the social sciences.

“It’s the humanities and social sciences that are best placed to steer society in refocusing its priorities once the heroic work of medical science has provided us with a workable relationship with the current pandemic,” he argued. “We can’t go on as we were…The social and political sciences will show us how human behaviour at the present day has led us into folly.

“Above all, the humanities and social sciences represent the wise side of human knowledge. Wisdom is more than technical expertise, and technical expertise alone will not help us repair the wounds in our common life that a great pandemic causes.”

But how does this play out for individual researchers?

“The social sciences have a major role to play in responding to the challenges,” said Matthew Flinders, vice-president of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.

Political science in particular, Professor Flinders went on, was “a discipline that goes to the heart of fundamental questions about public risks and the role or reach of the state – and so the demands placed on the discipline by potential research users, future students and society are likely to grow. The challenge, however, is that if Covid-19 has done anything, it has revealed the weakness of thinking in mono-disciplinary terms and also the limits of thinking about scholarship as still wedded to the lone-scholar model.

“So the transformative impact is likely to push political science and many other disciplines along a pre-existing path towards genuinely interdisciplinary and team-based science. The massive opportunities will fall to those disciplines and institutions that recognise that shift and seize the agenda.”

Although Professor Flinders believed we were seeing “far more awareness within STEM disciplines that their scientific advances are unlikely to reach their full social potential unless combined with cutting-edge insights about how individuals, communities and social structures operate”, he said the crisis had also had a major impact on “the relationship between politics and science” and had raised important research questions about “what happens when the politicians hug the experts a little too closely”.

Sociologist Salvatore Babones, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, describes himself as “Australia’s globalisation expert”. Today, he told Times Higher Education, “many journals and grant agencies have announced special issues and competitions for coronavirus-themed research projects”, but these amounted to “a bonanza for a lucky few, since it is generally impossible for anyone just starting up to win competitions like this against established scholars”.

His own expertise in “the structure of globalisation”, Dr Babones added, offered valuable insights into what governments should do if and when we emerge from the current crisis.

“I am confident that global production networks have proven themselves very robust in the face of the extreme stress of a global pandemic,” he said, “and my advice for returning to normal is that we should quickly reintegrate national economies into the still-functioning global economy. Unfortunately, so many vested interests see crises as opportunities [to advance an agenda] that it is difficult to be heard with a ‘business as usual’ message.”

Although the pandemic was having a major impact on teaching and might “slightly raise the profile of health issues in the humanities and social sciences”, Dr Babones was sceptical about whether it would result in significant long-term changes in research priorities. “There may be a one-time bump of grant-funded coronavirus PhD projects; but by the time these theses are written, the epidemic will be a distant memory.”

A very different perspective comes from Daniel Orenstein, an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, who also heads its Socio-Ecological Research Group.

He has already “turned the entire focus of my environmental policy course, which I’m teaching online, to working with a local environmental NGO to examine how to actualise plans for a distributed solar energy production system in one of Haifa’s neighbourhoods”.

“I was collaborating with this NGO before the pandemic, but the pandemic made me realise how important their work is for recovery and strengthening resilience,” Dr Orenstein continued. He was also involved in a recent online conference of the European Long-Term Ecosystem, Critical Zone and Socio-Ecological Systems Research Infrastructure group, which is developing “a statement and some research proposals that will focus on the potential contributions of socio-ecological research to strengthen societal resilience and information policy during and in the aftermath of Covid-19”.

“A hiatus in the disease”, explained Dr Orenstein, “could be a window of opportunity to look at where the pandemic exposed our weaknesses” and to “buffer biodiversity systems”.

“Scholars of resilience, sustainability and socio-ecology”, therefore, should seize their chance to make two key points, argued Dr Orenstein. The first – directly contrary to Dr Babones’ view – is that “returning to ‘business as usual’ is both unrealistic and damaging to future prospects of human well-being”. The other is that their disciplines “are proposing an alternative model based on everything we know about socio-economic and environmental sustainability – [and] it is an optimistic model, although one that challenges the basic assumptions of free-market economics and neoliberal ideas of small government”.

“I don’t care if I’m sidelined by epidemiologists and doctors,” continued Dr Orenstein, “but I fear being sidelined by advocates of a return to business as usual or advocates of greater concentration of power among particular economic interests.”

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Reader's comments (2)

Its high time the media should move out of "scholars" with bookish and "academic research" knowledge being far from practical and grass root level exposure not able to talk out the hard facts and ground realities.
"Above all, the humanities and social sciences represent the wise side of human knowledge" is a sweeping statement that disregards the wisdom associated with the basic sciences. To suggest that medicine, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics lack the 'wise side of human knowledge' disregards the fact that academics and practitioners in these subjects require not only advanced technical knowledge, but also wisdom, resilience and emotional intelligence. If academia is to properly address the problems humanity faces and will face, it is a multidisciplinary approach that is needed and not one in which one group of disciplines wants to take a lead role.