COVID-19: How the crisis affects society

Ettore Recchi, University Professor and Research Director at the Sociological Observatory of Change (OSC), is coordinating a new research project that brings together several researchers and engineers from the OSC and the Centre for Socio-Political Data (CDSP).

"Coping with Covid-19: Social Distancing, Cohesion, and Inequality in France in 2020 (FR)" is being launched at the height of the confinement period. The study will look at French households before, during, and after the crisis. 

Ettore, as a sociologist, what do you make of this period of acute crisis that we are currently experiencing?

The majority of social phenomenons have a tendency for inertia, for persisting over time, even in an era like our own, which we think of as more prone to social change. Sometimes, however, there are ruptures or discontinuities which are particularly eye-opening. This is what we are seeing right now. We are all dealing with an event that has completely upended our lifestyles. Will this be an interlude or will it be a crucial turning point for the way in which we behave, structure our social lives, and govern our societies? In any case, we can expect that the pandemic will leave its mark in the minds and the imagination of at least one generation, as has been the case time and again following wars, uprisings, and the falls of political regimes throughout history.

What does sociology bring to the situation? What can you show the French population through your work?

As human beings, as citizens, and as researchers, we have all been affected by this invisible virus that we hope to eradicate as soon as possible. Virologists and pharmacologists are, naturally, focusing on researching vaccines and treatments. They are on the front line. Behind the scenes, sociologists can try to measure the social effects of the epidemic, as well as the effects of political measures that have been deployed in response. This is particularly the case when we have a virus whose spread must be countered using social rather than medical mechanisms: distancing ourselves from others and avoiding all forms of sociability! Is this causing or will this cause more inward-looking attitudes, loneliness, social fragmentation, and therefore become a possible threat to social cohesion in the future? Furthermore, will this epidemiological and political solution of a lockdown (and other measures to come) have an equal and fair impact on all members of society? As sociologists, social cohesion and inequalities are the lenses through which we carry out our research.

How have you structured the research process? What distinctive features does it have? 

The project “Coping with Covid-19 (CoCo)” brings together a Sciences Po research centre and a service unit of the CNRS, in a mutually complementary process. The OSC brings its expertise in the analysis of inequality and social change; the CDSP contributes with its capacity for rigorous survey methods and the ELIPSS panel. In fact, the panel is the cornerstone of the project. It provides information on a representative sample of the French population from before the Covid crisis, and therefore allows us to track changes in behaviours and attitudes that have been caused by the pandemic and the lockdown. This is a crucial distinction from other sociological studies of Covid-19, which are tending to view the situation like a snapshot, without recording in “real time” the changes in social practices that may take place over time.

You’re a specialist in mobility, especially intra-European mobility, and more widely in European integration… Is that world falling apart right now? Have your areas of research, your reference points and your convictions been suddenly turned upside down?

It’s tempting to say that “all that is solid melts into air”. Personally, I’ve always said that European integration and the freedom of movement, which constitutes its fundamental pillar and sociologically unique character, are historic constructions not necessarily meant to last forever (see the final paragraph of my 2015 book Mobile Europe). The present crisis is taking place against a background of rising neo-nationalism that has long been advocating for the restoration of national borders as a tenet of socio-political reorganisation. The question is whether or not this ideology can exploit the health crisis to reinstate a world made up of hermetically-sealed national societies. In my opinion, the future will be more complex than this, because there are economic and cultural powers that will fight against this on a global level. The future will play out at the conjunction of three major forces: economic privilege (which is best defended by national structures), individualisation (which pushes for freedom and mobility), and the environmental crisis (which demands global action). These forces - and, above all, their political manifestations - will extract divergent lessons from the current situation. How people live through this unprecedented and difficult period will also be important for deciphering what will be the most likely path forward. 

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