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Pandemic Rationalities: Sources and Dynamics of Uncertainty and Non-Compliance in Germany

Research focus:
May 01, 2021 — Dec 31, 2021

According to widely shared and disseminated sentiments, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by an almost equally frightening crisis of enlightened reason. So-called "corona protests," conspiracy theories, and what appears to be an escalating loss of confidence in science, politics, and the established quality media are being interpreted as expressions of a rampant irrationality. At the same time, fortunately, only a small minority of the German population seems to be affected. Since the beginning of the pandemic, surveys suggest that a clear majority is behind the measures prescribed by the government and supported by scientific expertise.

This widespread diagnosis of the situation makes a strict distinction between two "camps". On the one side are those who behave rationally and trust in science, politics and the established quality media. On the other side are so-called "covidiots" who do not observe hygiene and social distancing rules, adhere to conspiracy theories, and make common cause with right-wing extremists who have joined (or were always already present at) their unruly demonstrations.

Our explorative research project is based on the assumption that this simple and clear-cut division comes up short. We suspect that it does not capture the experiences, feelings, and conclusions drawn by a considerable number of people whose confidence is shaken by concrete contradictions and inconsistencies in official responses to the pandemic and/or by previous negative experiences with health providers and official authorities. Their behavior should not be judged irrational across the board. Rather, it is necessary to explore and identify the sources and dynamics of their specific rationalities. We want to problematize and complement the diagnosis of rampant irrationality through insights into reasoned uncertainty, loss of trust, and non-compliance.

We approach this through interview research with staff members in public health offices who have been speaking (mostly via telephone) to people seeking advice and help and/or to people in quarantine who needed to be monitored and whose contacts had to be traced. We are interested in staff members’ experiences from these contacts and conversations. What kinds of problems, expectations, interpretations, uncertainties, resistances etc. did they encounter? How did their clients explain or justify their stances and behaviors? Where they and, if so, how were they able help and convince people to comply with official regulations? From this, we aim to begin to draw conclusions about pandemic rationalities and the presumably not always unreasonable sources of uncertainty, loss of confidence, and non-compliance.


The following blog posts provide some background on the ideas and experiences that have led us to formulate this project:

  • Menzel, Anne 2020: Widerstand und Verschwörungstheorien in der Gesundheitskrise (Resistance and conspiracy theories in health crises). Soziopolis, Schwerpunktreihe „Sicherheit in der Krise“ [Link].
  • Menzel, Anne 2020: Liberal Rationality and ist Others in the Pandemic. SCRIPTS Blog No 7 [Link].