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Liberal Rationality and its Others in the Pandemic

№ 7/2020 from May 18, 2020

Dr. Anne Menzel

There has been little social science interest in making sense of opposition in the Global North to recognized expertise and containment measures of the Corona pandemic. It is worth thinking about this.

COVID 19 Protest in Vancouver

COVID 19 Protest in Vancouver
Image Credit: GoToVan(flickr)

Early one morning this May, I went for a walk with my eighteen month-old daughter, pushing the pram towards one of Berlin’s newly reopened playgrounds.

It was promising to be a nice day and I was wondering whether the playground might get too crowded. But I ran into problems before I even reached the sandbox. A gate opened ahead of me — it was another mother pushing a pram, a little boy clutching her hand. Next thing I know, the little boy spots my daughter and runs towards us, apparently eager to say hello. I give the mother an annoyed glance and block the boy, hold up my hands, smile apologetically and say, ‘I’m so sorry, you guys can’t play, these are really stupid times’, or something along those lines.

The boy looks at me, his mother grabs his hand – and no, she does not apologize. Instead she shakes her head and asks me, ‘What kind of stupid cow are you? Because of Corona? They are all just bullshitting us! Don’t you get it!?’ She even yells after me as I quickly walk away.

European social scientists have been quick to respond to the Corona pandemic in interviews, press articles, blog posts, video comments, webinars and the like. But there has been little interest in the issue of resistance to and rejection of the (fluid and sometimes contradictory) facts of the pandemic as determined by recognized experts.

There are some new developments as I am writing this post. For example, last week, the German news program Tagesthemen featured an interview with a social psychologist who explained that certain people – those unable to cope with insecurity and those with preexisting right-wing convictions – were especially susceptible to conspiracy theories. [i]

And yet there is no question that the vastly male-dominated fast-tracked social science knowledge production on the crisis has, so far, focused on other issues.

It has been preoccupied with devising what one might call ‘grand diagnoses’: Is this the end of capitalism and/or of globalization? A chance for more (possibly even global) solidarity? A time for authoritarian systems and leaders to shine or perish? And/or an opportunity to truly begin the fight against climate change?

This is interesting because these concerns are radically different from the topics that attracted attention during another recent epidemic that mostly affected Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea but was also regarded as a threat to the Global North, namely the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014-15.

In the context of this epidemic, social/cultural anthropological scholars of the region (most of them hailing from and based in the US and Europe) experienced an unprecedented surge in public attention and policy relevance.[ii]

This was mostly because anthropologists offered explanations of some local population’s rejection of biomedical expertise on Ebola, as well as of their non-compliance with state-of-emergency and quarantine measures and their (in some cases violent) resistance against humanitarian interventions.

In some cases, anthropologists were recruited into the humanitarian response for this explicit purpose, providing guidance on strategies for dealing with these issues.[iii]

Their explanations drew on analyses of local interpretations of what the Ebola crisis was all about and often asserted the social sense of rejecting biomedical explanations and resisting humanitarian, emergency and quarantine measures.

For example, some analyses highlighted local people’s experience-based and well-founded distrust of their own state authorities and of international interventions to make sense of resistance, rejection and non-compliance.[iv] Others drew attention to local cosmologies that provided more convincing explanations of the spread of the virus than those offered by biomedical knowledge.[v]

In the context of the Corona pandemic in the Global North, there has been no comparable interest in making sense of distrust, rejection and non-compliance regarding recognized expertise and containment measures such as lockdowns, shutdowns, contact regulations, quarantine and mandatory mask-wearing.

It is clear that these are real issues and they may well be on the rise.

An example are recent ‘hygiene protests’ in Germany that appear to have brought together a mix of people of different more and less radical milieus and political convictions who oppose official facts and current efforts to contain the spread of the virus.[vi]

I think this is a puzzle worth pondering: why was there interest in such issues during Ebola in West Africa and why has there been very little social science interest in this during Corona in the Global North? I am going to close this post with a preliminary attempt to formulate some answers to this question – and I look forward to further discussions at SCRIPTS.

One answer that I can think of is related to the expected usefulness of knowledge on the reasons for resistance, rejection and non-compliance.

In the case of Ebola, there was some high-level political demand for such knowledge to improve the international humanitarian response and contain the epidemic before it spread out of the region. In the case of Corona in the Global North, it seems that the problem is not (yet?) regarded as serious enough to create political demand for such knowledge.

But I suspect that there are also deeper reasons at play that have to do with imaginations and projections of liberal rationality, including a high regard for objective facts and evidence-based policy making. These imaginations and projections tend to be quite different for European as opposed to West African societies – at least from a ‘European perspective’ (certainly a rough generalization).

While it may be difficult to understand and make sense of, it is not regarded as all together surprising that some West Africans do not accept biomedical expertise and behave in an ‘irrational’ manner. The same is not true for Europeans who, it is assumed, should ‘know better’. This may be why there is little interest in making sense of the convictions and actions of people who do not seem to live up to this standard. Now would be a good time to revise such prejudices.

[i] See Interview with Pia Lamberty in Tagesthemen, 11. May 2020.

[ii] See e.g. Anne Menzel and Anita Schroven. 2016. The Morning After: Anthropology and the Ebola Hangover. Blog of the Working Group ‘Integration and Conflict along the Upper Guinea Coast’ at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle; and Adia Benton. 2017. Ebola at a Distance: A Pathographic Account of Anthropology’s Relevance. In Anthropological Quarterly 90 (2), 495–524.

[iii] E.g. Fred Martineau, Annie Wilkinson and Melissa Parker. 2017. Epistemologies of Ebola: Reflections on the Experience of the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform. In Anthropological Quarterly 90 (2), 475-594.

[iv] E.g. Anita Schroven. 2014. Ebola in Guinea: Revealing the State of the State. Cultural Anthropology-Fieldsights.

[v] E.g. Catherine E. Bolten. 2014. Articulating the Invisible: Ebola Beyond Witchcraft in Sierra Leone. Cultural Anthropology-Fieldsights.

[vi] See Alex Rühle. 2020. Die Allianz des Unsinns. In Süddeutsche Zeitung/SZ.de, 4 May 2020.