During coronavirus, we need social sciences and humanities more than ever. This is why


To really understand how this pandemic is impacting all of us, and what we can do about it, we should look to social sciences, humanities and the arts.

These areas have a lot to offer in the time of coronavirus — in ways that might surprise you.

They can help us imagine a better society and understand our place in it, offer hope, spark tough questions, inspire change, and shape the ways in which this moment in time is recorded in history.

Yes, there is such a thing as ‘society’

Dr Barbara Barbosa Neves

Woman with long dark brown hair stands in front of green bushes with her arms folded and smiles.
Dr Barbara Barbosa Neves says coronavirus provides an opportunity to rethink the kind of society we want to live in.(Supplied)

“One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson while in self-solation with COVID-19.

Sociologists like me were relieved to hear it. Sociology is the science of society.

Simply put, I study how societies shape individuals, and how individuals shape societies — and coronavirus shows how inseparable these relationships are.

Sociologists are helping understand our collective behaviour and its social implications: from panic-buying and related inequalities to the role of online communities during a global crisis.

Being stuck at home is also showing many Australians the pain and consequences of isolation; how being connected to others matters a lot for our wellbeing.

Sociology shows that we need social connections to survive and succeed in any society, particularly during disasters and crises.

We know that social isolation and loneliness have terrible consequences for our health and the vitality of our communities. They reduce our satisfaction with life, increase the risk of a range of illnesses (from depression to chronic pain), and exclude us from society.

COVID-19 is creating havoc, but it is giving us an opportunity to rethink what kind of society we want to live in.

Social sciences can help with that, too; they help understand what we are going through and how to envision a better future.

Thinking with your eyes

Dr Darren Fisher

Dr Darren C Fisher stands at an expo stand.
Dr Darren C Fisher says visual arts and images can help us understand complicated things in a clearer way.(Supplied)

Humans are visual creatures — more than 80 per cent of our brain’s processes are related to visual input.

Visual arts, including animation and comics, help us to understand the world by taking ideas and concepts, distilling them to their essence, and presenting them to us in a way that makes sense.

Illustrations and animations of global infection rates, of the impact of social distancing on flattening the curve, translate the global issue of COVID-19 in a way that our brains are wired for.

But the importance of visual media goes beyond that.

Think of the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and washed onto the beach in 2015. This single image made global headlines, and prompted a long overdue international response to the refugee crisis. It often requires a personal approach to inspire broader change.

During the coronavirus, visual arts are needed for entertainment while we’re stuck at home, as a way to understand complex issues, and as a vehicle for reflection.

A comic about coronavirus reads: The experience is revealing reserves of strength we haven't needed before, but it is draining.
Like many others, Darren C Fisher is using art to process what’s going on.(Instagram: darrencfisher)

It’s not enough to hear the statistics. Facts and data are made digestible when served as stories.

Universal, existential issues are only able to resonate when reflected to us from human-level perspectives.

We relate to the personal. We are emotionally numb to large numbers and abstract concepts.

And we are compelled to tell our own stories, in whatever way we can, to understand, to connect, and to make sense of the world, and our place within it.

The consolations of theology and philosophy

Dr Gareth Wearne

Man with dark hair and glasses smiles in front of a green backdrop with plants.
Dr Gareth Wearne says theology reminds us that we aren’t the first people to confront uncertain times.(Supplied)

It’s no surprise to see people turning to religion for comfort during the COVID-19 crisis.

At times of heightened anxiety, religious world views offer a sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and a way to look beyond our immediate troubles. This is more than simple naivety. The search for meaning in life is among the most basic human instincts.

Religious traditions also offer the opportunity to belong to a community. For some, this includes our most meaningful human connections. In this sense, religious communities offer vital support during social isolation.

Above all, theology and philosophy — together with their sister disciplines history and literature — provide tools to help us understand the complexity of human nature.

They help us make sense of both the best and the worst of human behaviour.

They remind us that we all have the capacity for both astonishing generosity and incredible selfishness.

It’s not that we look to theology and philosophy for ready-made answers. Rather, the great thinkers and writers of the past are like a mirror we hold up to ourselves.

They remind us that we are not the first to confront uncertain times and they help us to think through what options we have for responding to doubt and hardship.

Pandemics and the uses of the past

Dr Ruth Morgan

Dr Ruth Morgan wears heavy framed blue glasses and has short hair.
Dr Ruth Morgan says historians are attuned to the particular factors that have combined to create coronavirus.(Supplied)

Diseases, epidemics and pandemics have long fascinated historians, revealing the extent to which microbes have shaped human societies — from the earliest agriculture to the Black Death, 19th-century cholera, the Spanish flu, polio, and more recently, HIV-AIDS and Ebola.

But the uses of the past have limits.

Tempting as it may be to seek lessons or some certainty from past pandemics and epidemics, such as H1N1 or SARS, this search for similarity and analogy may blind us to other problems and leave us unprepared for other possibilities.

Trained to examine specific contexts, historians are attuned to the particular socioeconomic, political and environmental processes and conditions that have combined to produce COVID-19, guide policy responses, and unevenly distribute impacts both locally and globally.

With these concerns in mind, historians counsel that COVID-19 is no “natural” disaster. Rather, it is of our making.

Although the precise origins of the disease are not yet certain, we can already see how the forces of globalisation, urbanisation, industrialisation and industrial agriculture have rendered us increasingly interconnected — not just with each other through trade and travel, but also with animals and the atmosphere through pathogens and pollution. We’ve made for ourselves a planetary petri-dish.

Meanwhile, we can think ahead to how historians in the near and distant future might make sense of our everyday experiences of COVID-19.

From essential workers to the elderly, school kids to scientists, all kinds of diaries, letters, art, newspaper clippings, photos, videos, and social media will each form rich portals to the personal, intimate, and local stories of the pandemic that maps, graphs and statistics just can’t show.

Thinking about history, past, present and possible, is vital to understanding what makes us — and COVID-19 — human.

The media and expertise: are all voices equal?

Dr Raihan Ismail

Woman wearing a headscarf smiles at the camera
Dr Raihan Ismail says the pandemic provides the opportunity to re-examine whose voices are heard in the media.(Supplied)

Few humanities scholars will have been surprised to see reputable news publications giving time to the views and modelling of political commentators and economists — addressing not about politics or economics, but the public health question of how best to control the spread of coronavirus.

There’s nothing like the confidence of public intellectuals wading into new disciplines despite having no training or experience.

The difficulty for the rest of us is that the media too often fails in its responsibility to ask a fundamental question: is this person whose article we are publishing, or whose views we are quoting, appropriately qualified?

When it comes to projecting the possible trajectories for the coronavirus in Australia, for example, surely an epidemiologist with years of experience is better than an economist?

In my own area of research, commentators with limited understandings of Islam and Muslim societies have doubled-down on the concept of a ‘civilisational divide’ between Islam and the ‘West’.

Their misconceptions about identity and politics have fuelled anti-Muslim sentiment. The consequences of careless prognosticating are considerable.

The responsibility for fixing this state of affairs might not be the media’s alone. Scholars, particularly in the humanities, may need to be more assertive of their expertise and willing to speak beyond their colleagues to the public at large.

Applications are now open for the 2020 ABC TOP 5 program, with media residencies available in humanities and social sciences, science and the arts. You can find more information here.

Dr Barbara Barbosa Neves is a senior lecturer in sociology at Monash University.

Dr Darren Fisher is a lecturer in film and animation at Swinburne University of Technology.

Dr Gareth Wearne is a lecturer in biblical studies at the Australian Catholic University.

Dr Ruth Morgan is a senior lecturer in history at Monash University.

Dr Raihan Ismail is an ARC DECRA fellow and a senior lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University.

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