The Unexpected Effect of Coronavirus: The Re-Birth of Sociology [and Sociologists]?!?

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis




by Izabela Wagner (Warsaw/Paris)

Ethnographical impressions[i] of a researcher/academic in an isolation situation

This pandemic has put our life in parentheses. In suspension. Suddenly, stuck in our homes, we were taken off our daily routines: preparing courses, finishing the Power Point presentation for the next teaching session, attending reunions, finishing the last paper, starting to write a grant application, reading in parallel those three new books and closing our research activity report – all these tasks were planned for yesterday. Now we are in our apartment, trying to maintain our social ties via the phone and the internet. As social media are the perfect tool for sharing our anxiety, the theme which appears (on Facebook) frequently is, ‘What you will do after the shutdown ends’.

What I will do, when we will be back to our previous life? 

Well … I do wish to not go back to my previous life!  I wish to not go back to the world that we shared before epidemics!  Why? Well…

Yesterday – Disruption

My lecture at the university

Less than a couple of weeks ago (when the first cases of CV19 started to cause alarm in Northern Italy), I was on my visiting professorship post in one of the European capitals.  One of the best universities in the country, students carefully selected, kids of middle and upper-middle class parents, who pay for their education – a necessary stage in their bourgeois life trajectory. The huge conference hall for 400 people, late afternoon, three hours of introductory class teaching sociology of migration.

I love to teach, and I love interacting with the students who are just starting university; they are so young and so full of energy. However, that day, I am in trouble. I try to be understood (my audience is not composed of native English speakers, and the lecture is in English), but the real problem is not the language. The level of noise is so great that I have trouble hearing my thoughts. Twenty minutes after the start of the lesson, all the students are speaking loudly, as if it was the break time. They are gesticulating, laughing, eating, drinking, passing here and there, going out and coming back. In the fourth row, one couple kisses passionately, forgetting about the world around them. People are speaking by phone and texting, walking in groups, sitting on the tables, turning their back to the stage, where I am standing; it is chaos.

I am disappointed. This is a new situation for me. So, I try to mobilize what I have experienced and read, and what I have heard from depressed colleagues about the new generation of young students, who are not at all interested in courses or learning, but are focused on themselves, and are impolite, uneducated and so on.

I know about the cultural differences, but this is a disruption. There is no possibility for me to perform my role as teacher. The social contract is broken; the interactional frame is not set. I am not their teacher; they are not my students. We are just people in the big hall, immersed in the huge mess. It is a  failure… 

Progressively, I was able to conduct my teaching. About a quarter of the students remained to the end – those who were interested and happy to learn (75% of material was presented). If it was another day, I could stay longer and finish my lecture, go with them for coffee to talk about what happened. But I was in hurry, because I had my fieldwork in the evening – the food distribution for refugees[ii] at the railway station.

My fieldwork

There, I met my younger colleague – an ethnographer – and we crossed the commercial gallery. Behind the shops and restaurants displaying luxurious clothing and tasty meals was the hidden exit. We took it and were immediately on the back street served only for delivery, where on the pavement, partially covered by a roof, over one hundred people were lying down or standing in groups. There was also a long line composed only of males, mainly African, who were waiting for food distribution. We arrived in the middle of the dinner service, which was pasta with vegetables and meat sauce, being distributed by three volunteers. The volunteers were working fast, smiling and briefly chatting. The stress of not having enough makes people nervous. The volunteers are calculating the number of people in the line and in the blink of an eye estimating how much food remains; they consider whether to reduce the size of the portions or if there will be enough for everyone. The place is very windy and dirty. Several pieces of cardboard packaging, covered with sleeping bags and blankets lie on the pavement. It is difficult to distinguish between improvised beds and omnipresent rubbish.  The tasty aroma of freshly cooked pasta is mixed with the smell of urine.

People are eating in silence, just as they stayed in the line in silence. When volunteers announce that this evening there is enough of food for everyone, and even for some second helpings, the tension immediately drops.

We start to speak to each other and shake hands. Ahmed is from Afghanistan but ran to Pakistan as a child with some of his family to escape the war there. He has been in Europe for many years, passing through Balkan Road, he crossed Hungary, Austria, Germany and Sweden. After two years there, he was unable to stay in Scandinavia, so came to Southern Europe, but now, he is disappointed. He has been away from home for over ten years. We start to speak politics… wars, powers, society, poverty, capitalism… There is a specific macro-micro level connection: the names of political leaders are directly connected to the names of people who died in the wars.  As a child, Ahmed was at the Quran school but he knew he would love to learn and to study; he is speaking and reading in English, German, Dari and Arabic, he also speaks Russian. As is common in large gatherings, another person, Rachid, joined our conversation. He had just arrived in Europe. Two months earlier, he was saved from an overcrowded boat by the NGO’s ship. There was no place in the camp for refugees and he lives on the street. He has no phone, no clothes or belongings; just a big smile saying: ‘I am in Europe – I am safe now’. Rachid was born in Eritrea, and lived in a Sudanese camp for years. His English is perfect. We continue to discuss colonialism and African politics, then move on to the history of Europe, and the analysis of post-modern society. Rachid almost finished his high school studies and hopes that he will be able to study again one day. The others then ask me what I do for a living.

Well, I try to be a teacher…[iii] I responded and then told them about what happened just three hours previously, and briefly described the mess in my last class.

They were concerned. And Rachid said: “You, Europeans, you have the problem, while your kids no longer know what social ties and respect are.” (yes – he used the term “social ties”!) Then we talked of remaking the world, dreaming about social justice, equality of rights and sharing.

I left them late in that long evening, before the last bus, while Ahmed went back to his place and Rachid looked for willing to share a piece of their cardboard box and blanket with him for his night at the railway station.

That half of the day – university teaching and the dinner of refugees –  is a perfect illustration of the huge disruption that occurs in our society. Just after my disappointing lecture, I had conversations which included the large data and deep analysis that could be held by political scientists who specialized in post/neo/new-colonialism. Then we passed into the sociological reflection, that Mills would certainly recognize as a perfect case of the sociological imagination. A perfect connection between Rachid’s and Ahmed’s troubles and our society ‘issues’ (Mills, 1959). The level of analysis was high, the ideas were inspiring, the passion – the zest for life – and creativity about the future changes were there.  Now, you can ask me if my most inspiring and intellectual moment took place at that famous university?

With my students? In the ivory tower, when speaking with colleagues?

 No… not really. It was there, in this garbage area, smelling the mix of urine and pasta.  It was with them – the refugees.  

Today – Suspension

In our cosy homes

Shutdown everywhere. So, we are stuck. Our offices, teaching rooms and conference halls are empty. Campuses are asleep. People stay home. We are focused on ourselves; scared by the sudden probability of being contaminated and becoming sick or perhaps dead. This anxiety made us addicted to the newest information: how many people died in last twenty-four hours? How many new cases since yesterday? Where are the epicenters of the epidemic?

In our anxiety we are blind, as we were blind in our previous life, when we rushed to get so many things and to complete so many accomplishments. We don’t look out of the windows at our neighbours. Among our neighbours are refugees, like those I met at the railway station over month ago in the city that I left before the lockdown started. Where is Ahmed today? What are Rachid and the others who slept on the pavement doing? How can they exhibit social distancing when they do not have homes?

On the streets in European capital city

On the 18 March 2020, in another European city, less than ten minutes walking distance from new luxurious Campus Condorcet (just by the Parisian metro station Front Populaire) the mounted police were stopping refugees from leaving their wild camp [iv]. There were several horses with their uniformed riders acting aggressively. No one could resist, especially skinny men, who were trying to go out and get some food. 

How did they feel in that situation, surrounded by policeman on horses, pushing them back to their tents? They should hide in this insane zone similar to the pavement behind the railway station, where lived Rachid and other refugees. In Parisian wild camp[v], the tents are set up very close to each other,  taking all the free place in between the buildings in construction. There are no toilets, water connection or food, but there is a lot of garbage and the environment is insalubrious. There are small children, women and elderly people. In the middle of the Coronavirus crisis, about 400 people living in this camp. They are homeless, and the police prevent them from going out. They cannot go to the places where food is still distributed despite the pandemic crisis. We are here, in the nearby neighbourhood of Condorcet Campus – ‘Parisian Harvard’. Freshly opened buildings are now empty, shut down by coronavirus, and just near by – people are dying, including children.

What I can do? Steal the key of that beautiful new building where we had our meetings to discuss forced migration? Opening that place with its large hidden spaces, several toilets on each floor and even equipped kitchens? The floor here is so nice that just a blanket would play the role of a king-size bed. Why can those children and their parents, other refugees and homeless people not stay here, washing their hands and maintaining  the necessary hygiene  for survival. We know that coronavirus is deadly especially among fragile populations.  I wish I could steal those keys.

Instead, I am sitting home doing nothing.  I can only write on my Facebook page,  #not#in#my#name#.  That’s my agency I am an ethnographer – a sociologist working on migration. Stuck in my home.

Tomorrow – Change

Citizenship Engagement

As a European citizen, I refuse to go back to the world we already know. To the world, in which we Europeans are spending money on military interventions and reinforcement of our borders, instead of offering refugees the necessary help and care[vi]. Helping people would cost less than those military actions. Helping people would bring peace instead of an increase in fascism and populism. Welcoming exiled people and learning from each other about how to live together is a hope for the old Europe that will not survive without immigration (who better than we sociologists to know that?).  I refuse to live in a European society that does not respect international laws and refuses to help the people sinking in pontoons. I don’t agree with using the police to push refugees into the ghettos. I refuse to see the volunteers and humanitarian workers criminalized for their actions. I refuse the language of war, which was employed by some European leaders – even if our enemy in that war is coronavirus. We don’t need that discourse, which prepares us for the sacrifices and deaths; we need another world – the world of solidarity. This is the voice of the citizen, who doesn’t agree with social injustice and discrimination.

Professional Engagement.

We cannot spend our lives being blind and pretending that we are too weak to change the powerful system, especially those of us who are sociologists and scholars, who should be the ‘medical doctors of our societies’. Societies are our sick patients today, and not only because of coronavirus. Our societies are touched by callousness. By insensitivity to the violation of human rights. We, as members of that society, are also ill, because of our passivity. We are imprisoned by our conformism and focused only on ourselves.

Tomorrow, all should be different. We should act, not just study.

The Future of Sociology

We have no choice, if we wish to survive as a profession[vii]. Without our active engagement in social change, our departments will be the place of work for frustrated sociologists depressed and burned out because of the permanent competition – faculty members, who teach students that are not really interested in learning. 

My dream is to work in an open university. A place where all who would like to learn and share knowledge are welcome. A space of discussion, where Ahmed and Rachid, and Leila with her scarf[viii] will be welcomed. University will be a home of knowledges – in plural, not in singular.  In the teaching rooms we will exchange just as the occidental theories, the African history in the way that is practiced in Africa – by a griot (a traditional storyteller), and so learning directly from the oral history. We will discuss the Asian concepts not only in anthropology classes, but also in sociology courses. We will welcome the peasants, the workers, taxi-drivers, cashiers and musicians, mothers devoting their lives to their children, care workers and elderly people to the discussions. Their voices will be important not merely as raw data (which we – ‘professional of knowledge’ – will later analyze), but also as a matter for analysis conducted with them as participants. Our writings and lectures will be also accessible to them.

Briefly, we will learn diverse and important content about social life from each other. If you see here a Gramscian inspiration[ix] and you are saying, ‘it was already proposed, this is nothing new’ then you are right. It was proposed, but  never done on a large scale.

How to do it? Here is an infinite field for our creativity.  This will be our job for tomorrow.

The word ‘university’ comports universe. That is contrary to the ivory tower in which we are imprisoned now. Tomorrow, I hope for our liberation. Tomorrow we will recall why we chose to be sociologists. We will meet again with different people and not only with our stressed academic colleagues. With them, thanks to that diversity, we will recover our ability to connect with the world. We will change our social role from the passive observer and chronicler of the present time, into an active and creative member of a changing society.

We will wake up tomorrow and take the keys to our offices and open them to people who need our help. Tomorrow we will wake up and stop obeying the old rules. Instead of following the ‘publish or perish’ rule, we will become independent thinkers and free mind doers.

I really hope that after the plague we will open not only the doors of our homes but also our minds. 

We have no choice. Without engagement and action – as a professional world – we will die.

Not from a deadly virus, but from callousness. 

Tomorrow it is up to us. Each of us.

Biography

Izabela Wagner is Associate Professor of Sociology at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, Associate Researcher at DynamE (Dynamiques Européennes) at Strasbourg University/CNRS, and a fellow of the Institut Convergences Migrations in Paris. Email: izabela.wagner@gmail.com

Bibliography

Gramsci, A, (1970), “Schools and Education,” Australian Left Review, 1(26), pp. 71-79.

Gramsci, A. (1982), Selections from the Prison Books. London, Lawrence and Wishart.

Mills, C. (1959), The Sociological Imagination, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Funding

The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This article is based on the research conducted under the frame of the grant OPUS 13, 2017 – HOPE [2017/25/B/HS6/01725], financed by the Polish National Science Center.


[i] The term is related to the arts – as in music – as a form of impression is a free structure, focused on the emotional impact on listeners. By similitude, I am looking to catch my scholarly public by another style of writing, hoping to inspire some changes in our academic community life.

[ii] By refugees I define exiled people, included those who are asylum seekers, people who have not yet requested documents, people who obtained the refusal of regularization, and people who obtained juridical status of refugee. There are people who escape their previous life for various reasons (war, penury, persecutions, climate change consequences, health etc.).

[iii] I am a teacher of 33 years. From 16 years at the University. Expression “I try to be” reflected my deep feeling of failure that day. I explained it to Rachid and Ahmed.

[iv] The video was taken by Solidarité Migrants Wilson association.

[v] The camp was situated exactly in Aubervilliers – Parisian suburb.

[vi] When the people’s life is in danger, Ursula von der Leyden announced the supplementary funds (EU) for reinforcing EU borders – 700 M of Euros, including 350mE “available immediately to upgrade infrastructure at the border” – in other words, for arms and soldiers that will use gas and other arms against refugees.

[vii] Each of us can cite some works on sociology of professions. One element is important there – the work for the interests of society.

[viii] The scarf if forbidden at the university and in the schools in France from 2004 and controversial law. See more in LeRoy article in English about the laicity in France, for more : Olivier Roy,  2005 Secularism confronts Islam, Columbia University Press

[ix] “The problem of the new function which universities and Academies can have. Today these two institutions are independent of one another and the Academies are the symbol, frequently derisory, of the lack of connection between high culture and life, between the intellectuals and the populace (…).” (Gramsci, 1970, p. 78) For Antonio Gramsci’s ideas on education see the whole article “Schools and Education,”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s