November 2020


  1. Appreciating the politics of the pandemic
  2. Silver Bullets? Medical Sociologists Know They’re Hard To Come By
  3. Book Review: What is Digital Sociology? by Neil Selwyn

Appreciating the politics of the pandemic


Analyzing the political pressures of COVID-19 will help us understand what a post-pandemic world might look like.

he pandemic is political. While COVID-19 is essentially a public health crisis with massive economic effects, political decisions facilitated the spread of the virus, and politics guides how governments are working to keep it at bay. Appreciating the politics of the pandemic is vital to understanding how we got here, what we are doing about it and what the post-pandemic world may look like.

While there has been some analysis on the political aspects of the pandemic, it merits further attention. Contemporary political science is a strange creature in many ways. It is quite derivative, drawing on other fields such as psychology, economics and sociology. Although this borrowing can be viewed as a weakness, it also can be a seen as a significant strength because it gives the field the ability to analyse the individual, societal, governmental and international aspects of events.

In that spirit, we offer a political science perspective on events and debates surrounding the pandemic and potential considerations for moving forward as Canada ponders an end to confinement and scenarios for recovery.

The novel coronavirus originated in China, and that country’s handling of COVID-19 has been the subject of significant debate. The Chinese government began by silencing whistleblowers in the early days of the epidemic and then took drastic measures to control the spread of the virus. China has now reinvented itself as a global champion in the fight against the pandemic through generous public and private transfers of personal protection equipment abroad.

China deceived and used coercive measures initially to control information and distort COVID-19 statistics, on which we relied for modelling other countries’ pandemic trajectories. With questions raised about its handling of the virus, China also tried to demonstrate international leadership and benevolence to compensate.

This is the contradictory universe of authoritarianism, where the projection of power and influence at home and abroad is built on image. Authoritarian states have always relied on their image as an essential part of how they govern and legitimate themselves. At home, image management is not just about the dictator masquerading as the enlightened despot, it is also often a reminder of what the state stands for and expects from its citizens.

Image management in foreign affairs is just as important, particularly for a burgeoning regional hegemon such as China. Authoritarian states regularly mask the ugly to promote their shiny brand. In China’s case, early signals that hinted at failings, including the failure to anticipate the danger of COVID-19 and to react, were replaced by stories of its effective responses and its ability to prove itself as a global leader in the fight against the pandemic.

China’s handling of the crisis has also led to a series of questions about the World Health Organization (WHO). The organization’s approach to COVID-19 highlights the pressures and limits that international organizations face. While these organizations are essential for fostering global cooperation, providing guidance and leading international initiatives, they remain subordinate to states and the contentious nature of international politics.

Notably, international organizations are not only dependent on states for financial contributions, but for information, access and goodwill. In the absence of these, international organizations can achieve only so much, and their ability to perform their advising and coordinating functions is hampered.

In the context of the current pandemic, the twin pressures of information denial from China in the early months and the upcoming financial punishment from the United States will weaken the WHO. It will complicate efforts to build back a reputation that has arguably been tarnished, whether justified or not, by its handling of the pandemic. For all their internal flaws, international organizations like the WHO are only as effective as states and the international environment allow them to be.

On the other hand, Canada’s relationship with the WHO since the first months of 2020 reminds us that certain states are heavily invested in international organizations, not only for the coordination and guidance they offer, but also for what they represent and provide as hallmarks of the liberal international order. The Canadian government’s determination to follow WHO guidance was in part a reflection of the fact that no one state has the capacity to handle the pandemic alone.

Multilateralism involves the sharing of information and pooling efforts together to do more while enjoying economies of scale, giving groups of states far greater reach with more effectiveness than they could achieve alone. Other smaller countries chose to follow a more independent and prudent approach regarding WHO advice when the first signs of a possible pandemic emerged. In theory, Ottawa might have been able to do the same. But Canada’s determination to follow WHO guidance equally reflects a larger commitment to multilateralism and the global order that the country helped build after the Second World War.

"An interesting aspect of the Canadian response has been the placing of public health expertise at the forefront of decision-making."

Working with the WHO, rather than going it alone, is a form of good international citizenship for Canada and an expression of the fact that global problems require global solutions. While this has led to questions about the efficacy of Canada’s initial response to the pandemic, appreciating the multilateral dimension of the Canadian approach sheds light on why Ottawa stuck by the WHO and why it likely will continue to do so.

Within Canada, the debate is turning toward decisions made by governments, federal and provincial, and the information and advice they have been providing citizens. An interesting aspect of the Canadian response has been the placing of public health expertise at the forefront of decision-making.

Public health officials have been providing daily briefings and ministers have been steadfast in assuring citizens that the measures and policies that have been put in place reflect expert advice and the best available evidence. This approach has been met by expressions of significant trust in government, as observed by various polls.

As Canada begins to contemplate a loosening of restrictions, experts in public finance will likely join their public health counterparts in providing critical advice to ministers. This expert advice has been vital to Canada’s response and will be as important for the country’s recovery.

Yet expertise will not be enough. Political decisions will still need to be made, as studies of evidence-based policy tell us. This will involve weighing the evidence provided to ministers from different competing sources, managing the uncertainty that necessarily accompanies advice about the future and balancing trade-offs between public health considerations, economic concerns and citizens’ tolerance for restrictions over the long-term.

No one field of expertise can provide complete advice on these trade-offs. But these decisions will require political judgment, an attribute that belongs with politicians and their political advisors.

Finally, when political judgement begins to take on greater importance, the risks associated with having experts as the public face of the government’s response will increase. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has already become a political and media target, including in the form of inexcusable racist attacks on her loyalty to Canada. This is no fault of Tam’s. It is an unfortunate consequence of her public profile. If decision-making around the lifting of restrictions becomes more contentious, ministers will need to increasingly emphasize that they are responsible for the government’s actions.

Indeed, as the field of policy studies indicates, giving expert officials visibility increases trust, but it can also create confusion about who is accountable for decisions. Although they may have an interest in fostering this confusion, responsible ministers should leave no doubt that “the buck stops with them.” Politics must come back to the forefront, where it belongs.


This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.


By            :                      Marie-Eve Desrosiers, Philippe Lagassé

Date        :                       May 8, 2020

Source    :                       Institute for Research on Public Policy

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Silver Bullets? Medical Sociologists Know They’re Hard To Come By


Yet there have been virtually no campaigns related to preventive health and building a healthy lifestyle.

How do we get out of the pandemic? How do we build an equitable society wherein pandemics do not exacerbate poverty? How do we reconcile the connection between racism and poor health outcomes?

And how do we build a healthy society wherein a respiratory virus need not shut down the entire global economy?

In March a significant portion of the population thought the shutdowns induced by COVID-19 would be temporary. Yet we find ourselves now six months deep into a pandemic. Most people thought the summer months would bring the United States back to some sort of normalcy; yet here we are enduring a pandemic that is muddled through politics, economics, fear, pride, and rapid-fire changes in public health information.

Over time, we have learned what medical sociologists and public health experts have long known — that the poor and other marginalized communities will suffer the most in terms of health outcomes. And, these outcomes are directly linked to categories of class, race, and gender.

n’s food supply afloat, witnessing BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) communities be significantly more affected by COVID-19, seeing significant proportions of women reporting increased experiences of abuse and overwhelming family care responsibilities, and watching local, state, and federal guidelines be adopted without significant science to back such decisions.

For example, in Hawaii, little has been done to support those most vulnerable, but politicians have spearheaded policies banning people from engaging in outdoor activities by restricting access to hiking, parks, and the beach (unless you stay in the water), even as such policies have no merit in slowing the spread of COVID-19. These activities are, actually, incredibly low-risk and banning them is likely riskier to physical, cultural, and mental health than COVID-19 is for most people.


About That Curve

As medical sociologists, one area we study is how medical authority functions. Yet, ironically, restrictive policies are not being made by public health officials or experts deemed most knowledgeable in infectious diseases, epidemiology, and/or virology.

These decisions, instead, are coming straight from the state’s highest office. Institutional agents, like Gov. Ige and Mayor Caldwell, have assumed a major role in determining how to stop or slow the spread of COVID-19 on Hawaii’s most populated and most infected island of Oahu. That the political arm of the state can justify aggressive and wide-ranging policies to deal with a pandemic is not novel, but it is interesting, and deeply concerning, that these decisions are also enforced with little scientific data and are being implemented through increased policing.

All of this comes at a time in the nation where increased and aggressive policing is being adamantly rejected and “defunding the police” campaigns have gained popularity. This is not unimportant to note. Over $13 million federal dollars, through the CARES Act, have been allocated to law enforcement. Instead of investing that money in preventive measures to reduce the spread of COVID-10 or to support our most vulnerable populations, that money has gone to enforcing political mandates and citing individuals who have been caught on land where they were “not supposed to be.”

An ironic action particularly in the context of occupied Hawaii. But we digress.

Of course, it is rational and helpful to limit person-to-person contact when trying to limit viral infection. As medical sociologists, we know such information and practices are protective for those most at risk. The public may have their reservations about policies, some are legitimate, others less so. But the government has mandated that these restrictions are justified as “silver bullet” measures to slow the spread and “flatten the curve.”

What is rather bizarre about this rhetoric of “flattening the curve” is exactly the phrase itself. Indeed, it makes sense, with a virus for which humans currently have no universal medical treatment or cure, that it is best to “flatten the curve” as much as possible.

But on the other hand, what about the curve in and of itself? If the poor and the essential workers must continue to expose themselves, if we must at some point leave our homes, what do we do to support our bodies should we contract COVID-19?

Why aren’t the state and larger medical institutions (e.g., the state Department of Health) informing us of how to create a healthier and safer lifestyle?

A recent report revealed how Hawaii still has until December to spend a predetermined amount of the CARES Act money that was given to address the pandemic. We have seen plenty of mask-wearing ads and public health campaigns, yet we have seen virtually nothing related to preventive health and building a healthy lifestyle.

Such campaigns might include addressing housing issues, eating well, using herbs, boosting our immune systems, getting rest, addressing social and income inequalities, taking vitamins and minerals, providing resources to support the health of those most at risk, addressing racial inequities that endanger the health of BIPOC folks, supporting parents who are finding themselves with increased domestic and educational labor, etc., etc., etc.

Now that fall is on the horizon, it is unclear what is the end goal. Families are spiraling over what to do with their school age children; businesses are closing permanently; comorbidities and pre-existing conditions are resulting in increased rates of death; racism and poor health outcomes are directly linked.

All of this makes us wonder: Is Hawaii really the “safest place on Earth?”

I am sure that is not a catchy slogan to the hundreds of people who are currently hospitalized — many of whom come from Pacific Islander and poorer communities. The ever-increasing number of people who have died, the ones who have yet to be “counted,” and the long-haulers who are experiencing debilitating symptoms through their COVID-19 recovery need the state to do better.

As medical sociologists — we are interested in all of it, and we are interested in end goals that make society and public health better.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we must be flexible and that there are no “silver bullets” or magical solutions to end a pandemic.

But, if we are looking for a silver bullet, it doesn’t lie with mandates and policies that lack scientific support like closing hiking trails and making people install apps on their phones for daily health check-ins. It doesn’t lie with extra policing, it doesn’t lie with citing people thousands of dollars when money is hard to come by, and it doesn’t lie with the painful dance of shutdowns and reopenings.

Instead, we need to address our social inequalities, address racism, address our environment, address colonization, address policing, address our need for preventive health measures, address our access (or lack thereof) to clean food and water, and address our need to collectively build society in a way that supports the health and wellbeing of our fellow humans.

Perhaps our silver bullet, our only way out of this pandemic, is if we become healthier together.


Omar Bird is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He studies medical sociology, social determinants of health, and racism in institutions.

Alexandra Kisitu is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hawaii Manoa. Her research interests focus on medical sociology, health lifestyles theory, obstetric violence, midwifery and childbirth.


By             :                 Omar Bird, Alexandra Kisitu

Date         :                  September 15, 2020

Source     :                  Civil Beat

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Book Review: What is Digital Sociology? by Neil Selwyn


In What is Digital Sociology?, Neil Selwyn offers a new overview of digital sociology, advocating for its mainstream acceptance as a valuable expansion of sociological inquiry, while dispelling the misconception that it is a entirely new or radically different form of sociology. This is an excellent introduction to digital sociology, recommends Huw Davies, that will be particularly helpful for students and any sociologist curious about the field’s scope and purpose.


What is Digital Sociology? Neil Selwyn. Polity. 2019.

Sometimes it’s useful to reflect on just how profoundly digital technology has changed society. Recently, while having a clear out, I found my ‘Weetabix Book of Facts’. While I was growing up during the 1980s in the valleys of South Wales, this was a reference book for me to find out about history, science and nature. Although many of the constituent technologies existed back then, having all the world’s knowledge available to me in digitised books and articles, podcasts, videos and encyclopaedias in an instant, through a handset that was communicating with satellites, was still within the realm of science fiction. In my lifetime, how we wage war, how we do healthcare and negotiate pandemics, how we shop, form and conduct relationships, co-habit as families, entertain ourselves, learn, consume and interpret news, participate in politics and activism, and transmit hate speech, have all been transformed by digital technology. Data about our prejudices, our weaknesses, passions and identities are commodified, processed, exploited and fed back to us like a virtual soylent green so that modern robber barons can accumulate wealth and power beyond the reach of nation states. Depending on our relative position within hierarchies of wealth and power, digital technology can give us agency and take it away.

Yet, by many measures the sociological study of digital technology is not part of mainstream sociology. Pete Fussey and Silke Roth have created a special issue of Sociology on digital sociology. However, since 2008 the British Sociological Association’s flagship journal has published only six articles at the time of writing that use digital as a keyword according to its search engine. Why isn’t digital sociology more established within and beyond sociology?

In What is Digital Sociology?, Neil Selwyn argues an ‘increasingly blurred distinction between straight-ahead sociological work and the mass of cognate work’ across other disciplines (vii) is partly responsible: digital sociology is alive and well; it’s just often being done elsewhere, outside of mainstream sociology. In contrast to Sociology, from 2008, the journal New Media and Society has published 314 articles that mention ‘sociology’ in its keywords. Many of the researchers that one of my fellow digital sociology study conveners, Chris Till, has interviewed for his digital sociology podcast are doing digital sociology but don’t call themselves sociologists.

Selwyn also implies digital sociology is not mainstream because not enough people know what digital sociology is. Many of those who have heard of digital sociology believe we don’t need a faddish new form of ‘sociology-lite’. And sociologists are sometimes reluctant to exit their ‘comfort zones’ (42) to embrace innovation.

In this excellent introduction to digital sociology, particularly for undergraduate and postgraduate students and any sociologist curious about the field’s scope and purpose, Selwyn advocates for digital sociology’s mainstream acceptance but he ‘dispels any misconception of digital sociology being a new, superior or radically different form of sociology’. He doesn’t call for digital sociology to ‘usurp or demean other areas of sociological work’, but instead to ‘augment and expand sociological inquiry’ (112).

Chapter One, ‘Promises and Precedents’, begins by building the book’s case for this new field that assesses the sociological impact of digital technology. Selwyn pre-empts critics who may argue digital sociology is an inferior form of ‘sociology-lite’ by illustrating how technology and its effects have always been a concern for classical sociologists such as Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen. They showed that technology and our social and political lives are indivisible (which, incidentally, makes me wonder why, after all these years, tech determinism is still a thing!). He then introduces some less familiar, twentieth-century sociologists of technology, such as William Fielding Ogburn, Lewis Mumford and the ‘insightful but bleak’ (9) Jacques Ellul. We need a new form of sociology because ‘the current wave of digital technologies is quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from the technological conditions’ (19):

however prescient they might have been, Marx, Ellul and others were not contemplating

AI or the Internet of Things in their argument (19).

Next, we are offered a canter through STS including Judy Wajcman, Donna Haraway and Sadie Plant. Digital sociology’s novelty and interpretive flexibility can be its strength, allowing its exponents to get down to the micro level more than their forebearers: ‘digital sociology can also be more introspective and intimate than previous sociological accounts of technology’ (19). Equipped with such expertise, digital sociologists can make a ‘tangible contribution to building (or more specifically coding) the future along different lines’ (20). With their deep technical knowledge, digital sociologists can interrogate and change for the better the ‘coded architectures of software, platforms and systems and the programmed nature of what digital technologies seem to “do” of their own accord’ (19).

Chapter Two, ‘Digital Sociology: Central Concerns, Concepts and Questions’, is about ‘reframing the core technical features of contemporary technologies into sociological concerns’ by ‘reusing and reconfiguring fundamental questions and concepts from the past 100 years of sociological thinking’ and ‘looking toward new forms of hybrid theory emerging from conflations of philosophy, computational sciences, design, politics, urban geography and other sources of critical thinking’ (22). Here, Selwyn answers the contention that the more digitised a society becomes, the more things that can be rendered as 0s and 1s, and the more we take the tech for granted, the less we need a specialist field of sociology to study digital technology: ‘retaining the prefix of digital reflects a commitment to continuing to notice what has now largely become invisible’ (23). ‘Instead contemporary society is better understood as an entanglement of humanity, materiality and digitality’ (24). The chapter goes on to cite many sociologists who should be familiar to followers of @BSADigitalSoc to make sociological sense of ‘networks’, ‘platforms’, ‘data’, ‘algorithms and automation’.

This chapter’s section on ‘the (re)use of social theory in digital sociology’ explores digital Marxist theory, platform capitalism and digital labour as well as digital sources of resistance. Selwyn assesses the relevance of ‘pre-digital’ theorists including Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Erving Goffman and Pierre Bourdieu. He then argues:

the best digital theory-building of the past decade stems from social and computational origins. As such, it is increasingly apparent that digital sociologists need to develop a computational as well as a sociological imagination (42).

This includes engaging with thinkers such as McKenzie Wark, Ian Bogost and Geert Lovink who come from ‘gamer, hacker and hacktivist backgrounds’ (42). And an ‘avant garde’ of theorists including Benjamin Bratton, Alexander Galloway and Wendy Chun, whose work ‘is already proving tremendously generative for digital sociologists to draw upon’ (44). Selwyn concludes:

‘simply adding Foucault to Facebook is not a sufficient intellectual response to the complex machinations of the digital age’ (44).

Chapter Three describes two examples of digital sociology inquiry – the areas of digital labour and digital race. This chapter includes sections on the digitisation of traditional work, new forms of distributed, discrete work and social media as sites of ‘free labor’ (53). The racialised nature of digital media is explored through a number of different strands, including work that addresses ‘the dynamics of online interactions’ (60), how ‘applications and platforms are configured in ways that prompt and perpetuate racialized dynamics’ (61), race and the digital formation of collective identity. Here, Selwyn cites many of the leading lights on digital race such as André Brock, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Jessie Daniels, Safiya Umoja Noble and, from the UK, Sanjay Sharma, who all discuss how the dominant platforms perpetuate and monetise racism. I would urge readers to also look up Ruha Benjamin’s work. Since Selwyn writes that ‘Chapter 3’s indicative discussions of digital race and digital labour are intended to inspire readers to delve into other literatures on equally significant topics’, on gender, I would recommend, for example, these books on Data Feminism and the history of women in UK computing.

Chapter Four, ‘Digital Methods and Methodology’, inevitably includes a dialogue with Mike Savage and Roger Burrows (2007), deals with big data and the computational social sciences, how ‘commercial sociology’ (71) is innovating its methods, describes the affordances and limitations of large-scale social media data from platforms such as Twitter and cites ‘topic modelling’ as one particular area of interest (75). Here Selwyn also discusses ‘thick data’, ‘the digital ethnographic turn’ (78) and ‘ethnographies of online communities’ (80). The next section on coding, programming and software development addresses the ‘burgeoning trend of research based around the design, development and implementation of software and coded artifacts’ (82). These are ‘driving impetus for digital sociology […] to engage in design and implementation of software that is likely to push boundaries and test the limits of coded environments’ (83), and to ‘act to repurpose digital tools away from (and even against) commercial logics and imperatives of dominant platforms’ (87). While these discrete chapters help make sense of digital sociology, the themes they address are often indivisible. For example, an awful lot of digital sociology’s ‘cognate work’, particularly by its more positivist and computational cousins, has a problem that Gurminder Bhambra calls methodological whiteness.

The final chapter ‘reflects on the craft, scholarship and practice of digital sociology’ (92). ‘Unlike their colleagues in some other areas of sociology’, digital sociologists, we are told, ‘are less concerned’ with ‘sociological clique’ or the institution where they ‘happen to be employed’ (93). And, ‘many digital sociologists are happy to spend time riffing ideas on Twitter and later rounding these up to a few ‘‘blog-worthy’’ paragraphs’ (96). Selwyn says there is ‘much to admire’ in such practices, but the digital scholar is sometimes ‘tone-deaf to the politics of contemporary academic work’, including ‘performativity and affect’ and ‘issues that digital sociologists are well used to discussing with regard to other people’s digital media use’ (105).

It’s true that the ideal digital scholar is the neoliberal university’s teacher’s pet: the winner in the Altmetric Olympics. But, during my seven years of involvement in @BSADigitalSoc, I haven’t encountered any digital sociologists who aren’t acutely and reflexively aware that there ‘is the growing co-opting of these forms of digital scholarship into forms of performativity, accountability and measurement-based management that now pervade contemporary academia’ (106). There are more salient examples of academics who have failed this reflexivity test embodied in parodies such as @ProfBritPol_PhD.

Selwyn also argues that ‘despite being well aware of the phenomenon, digital sociologists are not immune to the social media phenomenon of ‘‘filter bubbles’” (109). While there may be some truth in this, to get a broader perspective and for research purposes many digital sociologists, including myself, deliberately venture outside our filter bubbles to observe how people with different politics, epistemologies and world views think and behave. I also feel I’m one of the lucky ones who experiences Twitter as more of ‘a supportive community’ than ‘self-congratulatory, smug clique’ (109).

However, aside from these quibbles, if after reading this book you are still unconvinced of digital sociology’s value, you probably never will be. The digital turn engages every level of sociological analysis: macro, meso and micro. Therefore, ‘digital sociologists should feel at ease in switching between continental and computational philosophy and in harboring interests in Marx and machine learning’ (44). Given that ‘digital technology is entwined with issues of race, sexuality, disability and intersections therein’ (19), there is an opportunity for sociology to draw on its rich traditions and claim this space, make a virtue of digital sociology’s ability to access a smorgasbord of methods and theories and become the ‘go-to’ discipline for the study of digital technology’s effects on society (and vice versa). Borrowing a metaphor from software engineering (a ‘full stack developer’ can programme the front end and back end of computing systems), by addressing macro, meso and micro layers of socio-technical systems – from the algorithms they execute to their political economy to their socio-emotional consequences – digital sociology, as a discipline, offers a full stack critique of the digitised society.

Given there are so few opportunities for young people to critically evaluate the technologies that they engage with every day, the case for digital sociology has never been stronger. Moreover, particularly at a time when so much duff sociology (such as ‘taboo busting’ race pseudoscience) is in circulation, public interest in digital technology offers further opportunities to show what rigorous, cutting-edge sociology is capable of contributing to contemporary public discourse.

Besides digest and distribute this book, what can those of us who are convinced digital sociology has value do within the academy to institute digital sociology? It’s worth noting that most of the digital sociologists cited in this book who are pushing the boundaries of sociology (including Noortje Marres, Susan Halford, Helen Kennedy, Kate Orton-Johnson, Karen Gregory, Jessie Daniels, Tara Stamm and Tressie McMillan Cottom) are women who are doing the work behind the scenes. They are often sacrificing research time, taking on extra responsibilities and fighting institutional inertia to develop digital sociology courses, form research clusters and put on events. If digital sociology is going to succeed, they need everyone’s support.


Dr Huw Davies is a lecturer in Digital Education (specialising in data and society) at the University of Edinburgh, a Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, and co-convenor of the BSA’s Digital Sociology study group (@BSADigitalSoc).


This review originally appeared at the LSE Review of Books.


By                         :                     Huw Davies – University of Edinburgh 

Source                  :          

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