How does social science help society

Society under tension. What can sociology contribute to overcoming the corona crisis?

Every conversation, whether private or professional, is currently dominated by a single topic and that is the individual and social handling of the corona virus. The outbreak of the corona pathogen has now been classified as a pandemic by the WHO, and after the first outbreak in China, 148 countries are now apparently affected. Within the last week, the crisis situation has worsened massively in this country as well. Society is under enormous tension [i]. For this reason, I am now deviating from my original writing plan for the blog to focus on the current crisis and how to deal with it. However, there is no analysis, but rather a documentation of the dynamic development of the last few days, combined with the open question: What knowledge can and should sociology in particular contribute to crisis management?

Social distancing as a means of crisis management

The corona virus has kept the world in suspense since the beginning of the year and Europe has now developed into the epicenter of the pandemic. The numbers of registered infections and deaths can be viewed in real time on the interactive map of Johns Hopkins University. As a result, the number of infected people in Germany is 5813, while 13 people have so far died from the consequences of the corona virus (as of today: March 16, 2020), the Robert Koch Institute offers more precise mapping by federal states, the numbers differ slightly compared to the latter. There are regional epicentres such as the municipality of Heinsberg in North Rhine-Westphalia and there are areas such as Saxony-Anhalt or Saarland that have largely been spared the disease. Test centers were set up nationwide in order to achieve the fastest possible diagnosis and in this way contain the further spread of the virus. The political measures in dealing with Corona have increased massively in the last few days and they intervene deeply in everyday social life: The solution is called social distancing to avoid further spread via droplet infection.

In a first step, the federal government banned events with more than 1000 participants in order to minimize the risk of infection. This applies to trade fairs, large concerts as well as football games, which are now temporarily running without spectators as so-called ghost games. The start of the summer semester at universities in Berlin and many other federal states was postponed to the end of April, and face-to-face events during the lecture-free period were canceled. Three days ago, all state cultural institutions such as libraries, museums, memorials and theaters, opera and concert halls in the capital were closed until further notice. Pubs and club closings were brought forward to the weekend compared to the first-mentioned date. Most public services and Friday prayers were also suspended until further notice. In a further step, all other facilities open to the public (amusement arcades, cinemas, brothels) or events with more than 50 participants were closed or banned by ordinance of the Berlin Senate. Sports activities on all public and private sports facilities were also temporarily suspended (including swimming pools, fitness studios).

The whole of public life is thus affected, as in Italy [ii]. A particularly strong turning point, which has been delayed the longest, is the closure of schools and daycare centers until the end of the Easter holidays, and this almost across the board. How work and childcare can be specifically organized remains a mystery to many employees and employers. Whether and how local public transport can be maintained is currently just as uncertain. For today it was announced that regional traffic will be restricted. Deutsche Bahn expects that the number of commuters will decrease significantly because of the need for childcare. Ad hoc border controls have now also been decided in this country in order to prevent travel with the aim of mastering the further spread. With the restriction of traffic not only in Germany, but also elsewhere, concerns about security of supply are currently growing. In some European countries such as Italy, Austria and Spain curfews have now been imposed, in Germany this is currently being debated.

Concern for the social impact

The economic effects of this crisis can only be speculated at the moment, but they will be massive. The Dax share index fell to a four-year record low below 9,000 points today. Numerous groups of people (including cultural workers), institutions and companies see their existence threatened, and the first petitions have already started. Financial support measures for the local economy such as loan guarantees, short-time work benefits and tax breaks have already been promised by the government, but they currently offer few concrete individual breakpoints. In accordance with the scientific expert council, the political motto is currently primarily "Flattening the Curve" in order to absolutely prevent a collapse of the medical care system in the event of an exponential spread in this country. How long this state of emergency will last and the extent of the economic consequences will depend on the development of the number of newly infected people. That is why every citizen is asked to follow the medical recommendations in order to avoid the invisible virus as much as possible and thereby slow down the spread. The general rule is to minimize frequent hand washing and face-to-face contact. The fact that the symptoms of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 cannot easily be distinguished from flu or cold symptoms contributes to the general uncertainty. The current rush to the general practitioners and the test centers is correspondingly high, and this has to be managed from an organizational point of view.

Politicians rightly advise prudence. What must be avoided in this crisis situation is panic and hysteria. The first signs of this can be seen in the phenomenon of hamster purchases. There is currently a tense atmosphere in supermarkets when it becomes apparent that entire shelves have been swept empty. Although there have been no delivery bottlenecks so far, the perception of the crisis initially seems to be reflected in prepping. Cashiers report of insane purchases, shopping carts overflow, toilet paper becomes a symbol. Disinfectants and respiratory masks have become in short supply in this country. The first criminal behavior can be seen in the theft of disinfectants in hospitals, which has become known, in order to do business with the fear in the population. Social solidarity is required, especially towards the sick and the elderly who are considered vulnerable groups. According to the first epidemiological studies as well as the experience with the coronavirus in the outbreak country China, the risk of death for this lung disease is allegedly 0.3 to five percent, for people aged 65 and over it is probably significantly higher [iii]. Correspondingly, the opportunity to visit patients in the hospitals and nursing homes has also been restricted. It is obvious that such a contact ban also has psychological effects on those affected, be they patients in hospital or people in quarantine at home. In contrast, the social willingness to help is growing, as demonstrated by certain solidarity actions for those in need in Vienna and Berlin in the #nachbarschaftschallenge. A recent survey for Germany also shows that the willingness to limit oneself is “surprisingly high”.

But the question is: How long can such a state of emergency be sustained without endangering the social order?

Scientific policy advice

The political decisions in the Corona crisis are currently based primarily on scientific assessments by experts from virology and epidemiology. Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized in her video message on March 11, 2020: “The standards for our actions, our political actions result from what scientists and experts tell us.” Science and politics seem to have never been closer. Together it is about mastering this great social challenge, which above all requires rapid political action [iv]. The behavior in a crisis is also a prime example of science communication [v]. For example, Prof. Dr. Christian Drosten from Charité Berlin, meanwhile a prominent figure, has been on the NDR podcast every day since February 28, 2020 with a lot of acclamation about the latest developments and shares his scientific insights. What is remarkable is that the voice of science here does not come across as apodictic, but rather, very close to the ongoing research process, also includes revisions of what has been said before and explains the reasons for this to an unfamiliar audience in more detail. Since not only the virus, but also the form of a pandemic is unknown in this country, all political decisions and rules of conduct are currently only possible under the sign of scientific uncertainty. Nevertheless, and this is indicative, the epistemic authority of the experts is not in question. Added to this is the relative agreement among the experts. But is the medical assessment sufficient for politics and the public in this crisis or is it not finally needed more diverse voices from science, namely on the economic, political and social implications? What are the specific effects of the current and announced restrictions on public life, what possible risks should be avoided? How can relevant information be best prepared and circulated for different groups?

On the role of sociology as an advisory body

At the moment we as sociologists, like all citizens, are probably primarily concerned with registering the latest regulations and administrative instructions and developing individual coping strategies for everyday life: We are eager to reorganize our research and teaching context [vi], alternative To ensure childcare, reduce mobility, take care of family members and in doing so follow the resolution of social distancing. The professional role is sometimes confused, the organization's actions are delayed, there are no patent remedies.

Even at the risk of overriding my current role as the author of the SozBlog with this appeal: But wouldn't this be exactly the right time to bundle the diversity of sociological expertise and develop advisory services for crisis management at various levels? Wouldn't that be part of the public mandate of sociology as a science that researches the social coexistence of individuals in society, to contribute its relevant knowledge in this exceptional situation, also for preventive purposes for the society in quarantine? Public Sociology at its best? In addition to reflective knowledge, orientation knowledge is currently required, but how and with what do you start? What has already started? Which findings can be transferred to this case from disaster, organizational, educational, medical, family, media sociology or all other special sociologies? What political precautionary measures need to be taken to cushion the expected negative effects of a social shutdown and to anticipate unintended consequences at an early stage? Which research projects may have already started, also and especially in an international comparison?

Notes, collections, analyzes, suggestions and discussions on the blog are very welcome.



[i] That is the title of the upcoming sociology congress in Berlin in September, which now sounds like a wise foresight.

[ii] Italy, the second most affected by the coronavirus behind China, currently records 250 deaths per day, according to current news.

[iii] The figure for the death rate differs here depending on the region. In view of the unknown number of unreported cases, reliable figures and comparative studies are not yet available. The fact sheet of the Science Media Center provides continuously updated information.

[iv] As is well known, this does not succeed in the climate crisis.

[v] Promoting science communication more is also in line with current political objectives.

[vi] This should be the subject of the next blog post, if nothing else comes up.

Author Martina FranzenPosted on Keywords Crisis, public sociology