We’ve written a post on ‘Risk and responsibility in popular responses to COVID-19’ for the Royal Geographical Society’s Geography Directions blog. You can find it here. Thank you to Phil Emmerson for the invite.
One part of our project focuses on Covid-19 and the questions of responsibility outlined in our previous blog, but another part focuses on Mass Observation’s Covid-19 collections and questions of method. In the following blog, we outline some initial thoughts on using MO’s Covid-19 collections. At some point in 2021, we hope to organise a workshop where these and other thoughts can be discussed.
Five lessons for using Mass Observation’s Covid-19 collections (plus five ways of solving the problem of representativeness)
During 2020, Mass Observation (MO) collected lockdown diaries, 12 May day diaries, and responses to three letters/directives on life during the pandemic. These Covid-19 collections will be used by social scientists and historians to understand what ordinary people thought, felt, and did in Britain during 2020. But how should these collections be used? How should the material be read and interpreted? Drawing on histories of MO and existing research using MO sources, here are five lessons on how best to use MO’s Covid-19 collections.
1) Writing for MO should be treated as subjective writing. Writing for MOdoes a number of things. It transmits knowledge, constructs knowledge, and contests knowledge, but it tends to be subjective writing, as opposed to social reportage (Bloome et al 1993, Sheridan et al 2000). It tends to be writing in the service of identity construction (Nettleton and Uprichard 2011). It tends to be writing as a social and cultural practice oriented towards doing something: building a relationship, influencing an opinion, and especially positioning the author in relation to MO and other authorities and institutions (Sheridan et al 2000).
2) Writing for MO should be treated as dialogic. It is part of a dialogue with MO (Bloome et al 1993, Salter 2010). It is not just subjective, but intersubjective (Pollen 2014). The panellists are not just Mass Observers or respondents, but correspondents who exchange letters with MO as part of an ongoing conversation (Sheridan et al 2000). They have a sense of purpose and document ordinary life for an imagined audience of current and future researchers (Kramer 2014). Having said that, the specific wording of particular directives should not be overplayed. MO wording frames more than it dictates (Gazeley and Langhamer 2012).
3) Writing for MO provides evidence of top-down and bottom-up processes. In the writing of MO diarists, we see their cultural worlds – their worlds of discourse – and how they construct from these worlds their own distinctive selfhoods (Hinton 2008, 2010). So we see how individuals drive historical processes as historical agents operating in the face of received cultural norms (Hinton 2010). In writing for MO, we see evidence of top-down standards and codes, but also how people receive such standards and codes – their dis/comfort with them – and what people do with them (Langhamer 2016). In MO sources, we see the sociological constructs panellists use as resources, but also their lay articulations of those constructs – their practices of selection, interpretation, appropriation, incorporation, contextualisation (Wilson-Kovacs 2014).
4) MO not only reports public opinion, but also helps to shape it. The original MO of the 1930s and 1940s helped to develop new conceptions of population and culture, new notions of ‘mass’ (a particular conception of population) and ‘morale’ (a measure of the population’s mood), new means of knowing and governing the population, which it communicated to MO writers in the form of example diaries and directive responses, providing them with models for self-observation and so normalising mass surveillance as a collective habit (Harrison 2014). In its twentieth-century activities, which sometimes mobilised large numbers of people, MO benefited from and helped to produce a cadre of the technically, intellectually, scientifically engaged – a new social identity – and to embed social science in everyday life, providing people with a new language and imaginary of social group, social relationship, and social change (Savage 2008, 2010). MO provides participants with opportunities to tell their own stories, assert their own agency, reflexively fashion themselves (Sheridan 1993, Sheridan et al 2000). During the twentieth century, it contributed to the production of a new and more individualistic culture, which should not be interpreted as moral decline, but rather as the outcome of struggles for personal autonomy, egalitarianism, and democratisation (Hinton 2010).
5) The problem of representativeness can be addressed in at least five ways. The social constitution of MO’s panel of volunteer writers haunts social scientific engagements with MO data. The current version of the panel is more representative of the national population than previous versions, which were dominated by the radicalised lower middle class (Jeffrey 1978), or the technically-minded middle class (Savage 2010), or people from the middle classes, the Left, and London and South East England (Hinton 2013), or the elderly (Casey et al 2014). That being said, the current version remains unrepresentative in the statistical sense favoured by most social scientists, and it is dominated – as it always has been – by volunteers for a certain kind of project: self-selected enthusiasts who tend to be particularly dutiful, engaged, reflexive, and critical (Hinton 2010). How might users of MO’s Covid-19 collections respond to this problem of representativeness?
First, the skewed character of the panel can be challenged. Claims regarding the skewed character of the panel are often made on the basis of meta-data. For example, the panel is claimed to be skewed towards the middle classes because of the occupations registered by panellists at the time of joining. Such claims can be challenged. For example, Casey (2020) has argued that many panellists might be seen as middle class due to their current occupations, but might be seen as working class because that is how many socially mobile panellists continue to self-identify (evident in their writing, if not in the meta-data).
Second, the skewed character of the panel can be accepted and used to provide a focus for research. This may be a focus on women, who have often been over-represented on the panel, whose voices are often marginalised in public discourse, and who can be given voice by research using MO sources (Baker and Geringer 2018). Or it may be a focus on other groups often over-represented on the panel: the educated middle class (Savage 2007, 2008); the upwardly mobile (Casey 2020); particularly engaged, dutiful citizens (Manning 2017); volunteers, who tend to be elderly and female (Lindsey and Bulloch 2014); genealogists, who tend to be elderly, female, and middle class (Kramer 2011); gardeners, who tend to be elderly, female, middle class, and white (Bhatti et al 2009); and so on.
Third, the skewed character of the panel can be corrected, at least to some extent. Researchers can sample within the panel, filling quotas for age, gender, occupation, and place of residence (Clarke et al 2018, May 2018, Salter 2010). Clarke et al (2018) found that roughly 60 responses per directive allowed for wide social coverage and descriptive saturation.
Fourth, MO texts can be read carefully for what they tell us, without assuming they tell us about the views and experiences of representatives of particular social groups (the assumption behind the problem of representativeness). Here, a lead can be taken from the panellists themselves (Kramer 2014). Writing for an imagined audience of researchers, participants write reflexively and contextualise their responses, identifying the vantage points from which they write and explicitly positioning themselves as particular types of cases. Sometimes, they position themselves as typical cases (or typical of a particular social group). Sometimes, they position themselves as unusual (and, by doing so, describe what is more typical). This is the difference between ‘representative cases’ and ‘telling cases’ (Bloome et al 1993). The question to ask is not only ‘who speaks?’, but also ‘what do they tell us?’. Sometimes, MO sources make visible logical connections between phenomena of relevance far beyond the individual case or the particular social group that case might be assumed to represent (Clarke et al 2017). Something else MO sources tell us, when taken as a whole and not disaggregated as the views and experiences of representatives, is the range of cultural resources – categories, storylines, subject positions, folk theories – circulating in society at a particular historical moment (Clarke et al 2018; see also Gazeley and Langhamer 2012, Nettleton and Uprichard 2011, Salter 2010, Savage 2007). It is from these cultural resources that people construct understandings. To establish the full range, a horizontal approach to the archive – quoting from as many different writers as possible – is appropriate (Clarke et al 2018). However, to establish how these cultural resources are used, contested, and transformed (see Lesson 3), a more vertical approach is recommended, where particular panellists are followed across multiple directives (e.g. Busby 2000).
Fifth, in the spirit of the original MO, the problem of representativeness can be replaced with a similar but different problem: the problem of representation. The founders of MO in the late 1930s were interested in how to represent everyday life and approached this question not as a statistical problem focused on inputs – a sampling problem – but as a literary problem of composition and depiction (Highmore 2002, Hubble 2010, Jardine 2018). Like the avant-garde continental sociologists laying the groundwork for everyday life studies at the time (Simmel, Benjamin etc.), or the scientific humanists of the time (Tarde, Freud etc.), Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings especially were influenced by surrealism and the aesthetic techniques of surrealist poetry, painting, film, and theatre. They sought images, metaphors, close-ups, luminous moments, multiple points of view, which they thought provided clues to the mass unconscious, and which they arranged in montages to draw unfamiliar associations, to emphasise ambiguity and possibility, to represent society as a diverse, heterogeneous ‘totality of fragments’ (Highmore 2002), and to promote a new consciousness and encourage social transformation (at a time of concerns about mass media, elite representations of a unified ‘people’, and the rise of Nazism in Germany).
So where does all this lead in terms of research questions that might be asked of MO’s Covid-19 collections? We could ask: what cultural resources, worlds of discourse, constructs, categories, storylines, subject positions, norms, standards, codes, and theories were people exposed to during the pandemic? How did people receive, use, and transform these resources – by means of selection, interpretation, articulation, contestation, appropriation, incorporation, contextualisation? What was produced by these processes – what new concepts, notions, languages, models, habits, imaginaries, identities, selves, cultures, ways of knowing, ways of governing? How best to represent all this aesthetically, in a way that depicts the totality of British society (the ‘mass’ of MO), but also captures fully the diversity, heterogeneity, ambiguity, and possibility of life under/after the pandemic?
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One starting point for this project was a blogpost written by Clive on Covid-19 and responsibility, posted on www.poptheory.org on 23 March 2020 – it was written over the preceding few days, that weird period immediately before the UK went into its first lockdown. There’s a temptation to edit these thoughts and ruminations with the benefit of hindsight (and to correct for any offence they may have caused). On the other hand, since this post provoked the conversations that ended up with the two of us working together on a project taking as its object of analysis the real-time first-person reflections of people living under the shadow of the pandemic, it seems appropriate to reproduce it here in the spirit of sharing.
What’s responsibility got to do with anything anyway?
Amidst the challenges of translating more than 25 years of University teaching experience into the task of ‘homeschooling’ a nine year-old and a thirteen year-old (or, just making sure they have something to do), as well as wondering whether Higher Education institutions which are not configured to deliver coherent blended learning at the best of times should really be trying to transfer all teaching and all assessment online in a moment of intense, rapidly changing global emergency, I’ve been thinking about the range of ethical postures generated by the Coronavirus crisis. That’s sad, I know. It helps me cope, though. It’s no sadder, perhaps, than lots of other forms of self-indulgent bias-confirming commentary flying around right now.
I have been processing in my head, quite consciously, since about March 11th, a bunch of thoughts about what sense to make of different forms of official messaging, health advice, as well as various forms of new coverage, twitter-commentary [now switched off for the most part], and shared conversations with real people. I’m trying to make sense of how and why I have responded in the ways I have, and why it’s been easy to respond in certain ways, and not in others.
In the UK right now, and for a week or more, there has been a lot of discussion about whether and why people are acting selfishly, by buying too much loo paper or going to the park. Between right-wing journalists demanding that the Prime Minister condemn ‘immoral’ behaviour, Twitter-led outrage about ‘irresponsibility’ and Guardian-esque think-pieces confirming that this is all an effect of decades of ‘neoliberalism’, there is an awful lot of self-congratulatory rationalism flying about right now which is, if truth be told, almost certainly not very helpful.
The forms of behaviour at the core of these worries, the patterns of observance and non-observance, are no doubt more or less predictable outcomes of the strategy, such as it is, pursued by the UK government, of seeking to re-shape the conduct of conduct (by closing things down) while also trying to morally encourage ‘voluntary’ social distancing. They are also somewhat overdetermined by the accreted associations of deceit associated with the lead persona charged with leading this subtle communication strategy.
I’m actually struck by how effective the main message does seem to have been communicated, as a general national discourse. It stands in contrast, most obviously to the case in the USA, which does not have a central cultural institution (like the NHS) around which to mobilise forms of solidarity, but does have a governing political movement actively seeking to undermine elementary public health initiatives.
Public health information, in normal times, tends to revolve around messages addressed to what is good for individuals, or immediate family members. Getting a flu jab is something one is meant to do so one doesn’t get the flu, oneself. Getting your kids vaccinated is something you do so they don’t get ill, but you’re supposed to worry about their health in ways not expected of you towards other people’s kids. Making lifestyle changes to reduce cholesterol or sugar levels or blood pressure is something you do to minimise your own risks of heart disease, stroke, and so on. Of course, we know that these initiatives all have a wider, systematic relationship to provision of public health care, and indeed to collective health outcomes (as made visible, for example, by the effects of anti-vaccination campaigns). But the address made to the subjects of public health campaigns is resolutely self-centred, in a non-pejorative way, and necessarily so.
In contrast, the Coronavirus crisis turns on a very different mode of communication, a different form of ethical imperative. The effort to make people social distance voluntarily, beyond the macro-level scale of closing things down and subsidising economic demobilisation, are difficult precisely because they ask people to take responsibility simply by virtue of being mere agents – that is, by virtue of their actions having effects in much the same way as Bruno Latour’s key fob or Michel Callon’s scallops can be described as agents simply because one can place them under a description in which they have traceable effects on wider patterns of action. But remember children, an ‘actant‘ is just a character in a story. On their own, lots of the defamiliarising, revelatory stories that academics tell about the links between action, consequences, and ‘responsibility’ provide rather thin accounts of what it is to be human. Rarely do those stories attain the level of having any motivational force at all.
The crisis of social distancing strategy, right now, revolves around a very different kind of ethical address from ordinary public health initiatives – it involves asking people (or directing them, or forcing them) to act in certain ways in order to prevent or minimise or delay other people getting ill, so that other people don’t suffer. And it asks us to do this in two distinct, though related ways: by seeking to avoid directly infecting other people, particularly vulnerable people; and by thereby seeking to minimise unbearable strain on stretched infrastructures of health care. If you slow down for a moment, it’s worth considering just how complex that message is. It is, no doubt, difficult enough to convey. One could argue about how well it is being delivered. It might, also, be a really difficult message to take on board by its addressees, in ways that the much denigrated behavioural scientists probably appreciate better than they are given credit for.
I’m being asked to think of myself as acting responsibly by virtue of a capacity to see myself as a passive vector for a virus, and then to act accordingly. I am also being asked to think of myself as being responsible for a whole series of unintended consequences of that passively exercised status by virtue of being one small element in a very complex technological, social and organisational system. Oh, and to act in response to all of this primarily by NOT doing lots of things. That’s really weird, if you think about it.
People like me – academics, certainly; Guardian-reading folk; geographers, especially geographers – are quite good at being able to place other people’s actions into these chains of consequences, from the outside. It’s what people like me are meant to do. It might even be what counts as our ‘science’. People like me are rather less good at recognising just how alienating that view of other people is, to those other people, when it is projected as a set of recommended virtues, as it often is (see, for example: ‘Brexit’, ‘Climate Change’, ‘Corbynism’). To borrow a line or two from W.H. Auden, it is easy enough to attribute responsibility for certain outcomes or even potential consequences; it is a different thing entirely to accept responsibility, to take on responsibility for such extended patterns of consequences, to ask or expect this of oneself, much less others. As ever, Iris Marion Young is the best guide to this general theme.
The standard way of trying to align the two perspectives is to find ways of getting those other people to recognise what’s really good for them and act in accordance with an externally derived idea of what they should really do. There is remarkably little reflection on the degree to which large swathes of academic work, belonging to broader cultures of rationalistic liberal good sense, have come to see themselves as engineers of acceptance.
There are various philosophical avatars for these ethical postures. I’m struck, for example, by how far the challenge of acting responsibly in this current public health crisis requires a kind of Spinozan ability to picture all the determinisms into which one’s own self is enchained, and then to find therein, from the acknowledgement of the very abjection of one’s own dependence, some power to act wilfully for the good of others. Or, perhaps it’s a version of embodied Kantian deontology. Or an other-regarding utilitarian consequentialism. These are really not very good ways of thinking about how people ordinarily do act, or how they should. An agent-centred narrative of the extended causal consequences of intended actions and their more or less unintended consequences lies at the heart of lots of analysis, whether of environmental change, global justice activism, and now, at least some of the more popular discourses around a public health crisis. These causal stories presume an ability of their addressees to reason about issues of actions, intentions, consequences. But on that assumption, it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that the same stories that are thought, by some, to obviously have a motivating effect on getting people to act in one preferred way, will be interpreted in other ways, indeed, reasonably interpreted as demonstrating that anything I do won’t make much difference at all (that’s before one starts to think about the rationalities of ‘implicatory denial‘. As a vector for thinking about these sorts of issues, I suspect disease, viruses, will end up having a different ethical shape, shall we say, than that most often associated with ideas about the politics of commodity cultures or climate change activism.
Perish the thought, today of all days, but it might be amazing that current strategies, whether of lock-down or ‘advice’ to stay at home varieties, are working as effectively as they are. I’m not being complacent, or flippant. I’m channelling my anxieties and fears. Who knows how all this will play out. But rather than add to the rapidly consolidating genres of ‘I told you so’ or ‘Let’s take this as an opportunity’, maybe the most responsible thing to do right now is to take care over the sorts of intellectual frames being promulgated in the midst of rapidly moving events, frames which are likely to resonate far and wide beyond them.
Welcome to the website for the Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19 project, led by Nick Clarke in collaboration with Clive Barnett. The project is funded by the the British Academy Special Research Grants: Covid-19 scheme, and will run from 2020 to 2022.
The project investigates how people in the UK have negotiated the myriad demands made upon them during the COVID-19 pandemic to act responsibly in novel ways because of the risks their behaviour poses to themselves and others, and due to their role in complex chains of causation. Making use of contemporaneous qualitative data available through the Mass Observation Project, we seek to develop a better understanding of how people interpreted conflicting demands to act responsibly in relation to COVID-19 and translated them into practices of everyday life.
We will post updates on the project on this site including regular blog posts discussing different aspects of the research.
Do please read the Research Summary for the project.