10 Apr 2020

The value of the social sciences and humanities in a pandemic

Dr Sara Arko, IRI UL

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is overloading health systems in most countries, it is felt that most attention has to be paid to vaccine development and strengthening health and epidemiological capacities. Above all, the role and importance of the public health system have proven to be essential, while at the same time the potential of information technologies for managing and regulating our lives in the future is increasingly being revealed.

At first glance, it may seem that the challenges we have been facing in recent months are mainly of a technical, medical or pharmaceutical nature. As research and debates can show us, for example in the field of the development of artificial intelligence and big data, the issues of ethics and the integration of technologies into our everyday practices and ways of life will also be of key importance in the nearby future. Similarly, existing social practices have a significant impact on pandemic management, and it is essential to avoid simplified conclusions about “stubborn national cultures” that are supposedly affecting the dynamics of infection transmission. Social practices always have to be understood in the context of a mix of different factors that limit, encourage or influence changes in human behaviour and habits: from available infrastructures, local and global economy, power dynamics, institutional capacity and access to basic goods, to more seemingly banal factors such as advertising or dissemination of (mis)information through physical and virtual networks.

Pandemic-related measures have posed entirely new challenges to researchers, both in terms of research and communication as well as in terms of content. For researchers in the fields of social sciences and humanities whose research relies on fieldwork, where personal contact with research participants is essential, these measures have drastically changed the way they work. The global community of researchers responded quickly to the challenges posed by the pandemic to qualitative research. At the initiative of the Australian sociologist Prof Dr Deborah Lupton of the University of New South Wales, researchers and academics contributed to the creation of a crowd-sources document “Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic” that describes remote and online qualitative research approaches. The document offers brief descriptions and key resources on research methods and techniques using various communication technologies, such as online focus groups and interviews, videos, and wearables. (These online research techniques, are of course not something entirely new in the social sciences and humanities.) Descriptions of some of the more creative approaches, such as the use of prototypes, diary entries, and storytelling, are also included. At IRI UL, where ethnographic research has become an integral part of our Horizon 2020 interdisciplinary projects such as TripleA-reno, U-CERT, as well as NRG2peers and BUSLeague, which launch this Autumn, we also had to prepare contingency protocols for conducting qualitative parts of research using digital technologies and creative research techniques.

In addition to the ways in which social scientists and humanities scholars can continue to conduct qualitative research, the topics that we must urgently address are also of importance. The pandemic has upended our lifestyles almost overnight, and social scientists and humanities scholars can make an important contribution to understanding the changes we are witnessing, as well as to reshaping societies and our lifestyles for future (co)existence. In an article published on Medium, Dr Deborah Lupton raises some important questions. Among other things, she proposes to analyse how governments and public institutions have responded to the crisis and how the measures have affected the containment of the epidemic. She also wonders what the experiences of everyday life in a pandemic are, how they differ between social groups, and how factors such as gender, age, education, health or housing infrastructure affect the well-being of individuals and their experience. In addition, social scientists should also focus on which groups are excluded from the measures or subject to stigmatization and how the responsible institutions respond to this.

In addition to such longer-term and more in-depth research that will offer us a holistic picture of societies during a pandemic and will have a significant impact on dealing with similar situations in the future, qualitative research can also be directly involved in pandemic management and response planning. Despite the fact that ethnographic research is known for its “slowness”, qualitative methods are also very flexible. Anthropologists have previously worked effectively with international organizations to help contain epidemics around the world. Qualitative data and social sciences and humanities are a necessary component of any smart planning and action. It is already clear that social aspects will be extremely important if we are to build ethical, equitable and sustainable societies for the future. Technology and big data alone will simply not be enough; it is now even more important to connect and intertwine knowledge and approaches.