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Citizen Social Science on COVID-19 Pandemic

Master Students in Sociology have collectively reflected on how social science can contribute with expertise during the coranavirus pandemic COVID-19.

Authors: Jonas Bjärnstedt, Rebecka Cromdal, Julia Edlinger, Maria-Magdalena Eriksson, Robin Gillenskog, Victoria Halvardsson, Alexander Johannson, Yasser Khamis, Lyudmyla Khrenova, Nadia Larsson, Sofie Ludvigsson, Marina Maraeva, Ava Tolouei, Alf-Tore Tyft, Maximilian Weik.

Editors: Jonas Bjärnstedt, Maximilian Weik and Linda Soneryd.

Introduction

The coronavirus disease covid-19 is affecting a large number of people across the world. Health care systems are struggling to cope with the pandemic and governments have enforced restrictions of varying rigor, ranging from softer recommendations of limiting social contacts and washing your hands to stricter measures of quarantine and lockdown.

The coronavirus crisis has effects on societies on a global scale as well on people’s everyday lives. On a daily basis, new ethical dilemmas occur in relation to how we live together, support each other, and ensure that actions are safe for ourselves as well as for others.

The expertise that is voiced in news media reports are expert organizations that are advising governments, as well as others, and typically news media reflect epidemiological expertise or statistics showing figures of covid-19-related infections and death rates. In what ways can the social sciences contribute as expertise?

In what ways can the social sciences contribute as expertise?

The following reflections on this topic come from students at the master course Social Science as Expertise and Social Scientists as Experts, at the Department of Sociology and Work Science, University of Gothenburg. The basis for these reflections is four project groups that each designed a citizen social science project that relates to the current covid-19 situation.

The overall questions: How are various citizen groups affected by the coronavirus crisis? How can these groups be involved in and contribute to a social science research project?

The specific focus for the four projects were: people working in elderly homes in Sweden; the Hasidic Jewish community in New York; people working at housing facilities for drug users, as well as the drug users themselves; and people living alone, without a partner or family, and their experiences of isolation measures.

The mentioned citizen groups are affected by the covid-19 outbreak in specific ways. Health care professionals working in elderly homes are expected to take new safety measures as old age is considered the primary risk factor for suffering detrimental consequences of the disease. Cultural and religious minorities, such as the Hasidic Jewish community, raise particular questions around expert advice and how to reach groups that are characterized by other practices and beliefs than assumed by those experts who are formulating the advice.

Drug users belong to a group that is affected in many ways by the covid-19 outbreak: many of them already belong to the risk groups mentioned by the public health authorities (i.e. having underlying diseases), and new risks occur when changed mobility patterns cause limited availabilities of drugs. Finally, people living alone might become even more lonely in times of isolation and “social distancing”, so how does this group cope with the situation?

We will draw upon these examples in order to illustrate what the social sciences can contribute with, and how social science research can be designed in close cooperation with concerned groups. First however, we will give a brief introduction to social science as expertise and the role of citizens in the social sciences.

Social Science as Expertise

Since the discourse on covid-19 so far has mostly been shaped by the medical sciences and statistics, there is a need to emphasise the role of social science expertise. The rapid spread of the coronavirus has revealed the unpreparedness for this type of disasters and its negative impact on individuals, as well as societies and governments at all levels and in different areas such as health, the economy, politics and social life. It raises questions about various kinds of expertise and experts and their respective role in the production of knowledge.

The social sciences are characterized by diversity and a range of disciplines, approaches and methodologies. The social scientist can be employed as an expert and for example evaluate how public as well as private organizations have worked during the new situation and pressed circumstances. Social science expertise can also be employed to give voice to groups that are less heard, for example by putting focus on knowledges and experiences of people in vulnerable groups.

Social scientists, however, as well as any other experts, need to be aware of the possible limitations of their expertise and the importance of other forms of knowledge. In addition, the social sciences have a crucial role in analysing expertise in relation to the framing of problems. Analyses can be of practical importance and can give new insights into missing aspects, dead angles, and where power is located and for what reasons.

Analyses can be of practical importance and can give new insights into missing aspects, dead angles, and where power is located and for what reasons.

In times of crisis, it is perhaps even more relevant to discuss the role of scientific experts and their relation to citizens and concerned groups. Social science research can extract new knowledge from society through its interaction with various citizens and professional groups, however, it can also activate and mobilize societal issues and engage in conversations about public values (1). An engaged social science could involve efforts to engage citizens more directly in the knowledge production, and potentially offer more innovative solutions to public problems (2).

Designing Citizen Social Science

Citizen science is an increasingly popular term, but it is also a very heterogenous phenomenon. Sometimes it is associated with a combination of ‘regular’ science and crowdsourcing (3). The technology to create large scale digital communities and open databanks enable the use of “the crowd” in research. However, citizen science is much more than crowdsourcing (4). Citizen science refers to a variety of ways for citizens to be active participants in scientific projects. Citizen science can involve “non-professional scientists at the stage of funding, data collection generation, analysis, interpretation, application, dissemination, or evaluation” (5).

So far, citizen science has primarily been used in the natural sciences, and is not established in mainstream social sciences. “Citizen social science” is thus an emerging concept. The application in natural science has been varied, ranging from historical weather patterns to identifying galaxies. This can be explained by differences in epistemology between the social and natural sciences (6). Put simply, the large-scale collection of data and participatory forms of analysis, become more clear-cut when they fit into an established paradigm where knowledge production is cumulative. This is not the case for the social sciences (7).

However citizen-science relations are always a result of historical and institutional circumstances. There is a historical closeness to citizen concerns in the social sciences in various fields, feminist studies and the women’s movement is one clear example of how citizen concerns and research are co-produced.

There is a historical closeness to citizen concerns in the social sciences in various fields, feminist studies and the women’s movement is one clear example of how citizen concerns and research are co-produced.

Three models for public participation in scientific research can serve as outlines for designing citizen social science (8). In contributory projects, citizens participate through contributing data. Collaborative projects involve the public in making design alterations and analysis, in addition to contribution.

Finally, in co-created projects, citizens are involved in every step of the way from design to conclusion. It has been suggested that citizen social science could be placed at the far end of this spectrum (9). In acknowledging the diversity of the social sciences, however, we have designed our proposed research projects to reflect a variety of approaches.

Evaluating Societal Institutions

Elderly homes in Sweden have been facing a range of problems for some time (10). This has included: struggles to recruit the necessary quantity of personnel, a difficulty in ensuring the quality of professional competence, a disproportionately high number of sick-leaves; woes of new-public management where organization is steered towards the improvement of quantifiable goals at the cost of experience based work; and a widespread and general discontent with the working environment. The picture painted is not of an optimally functioning institution.

As social scientists, we see benefits to explore the situation further by originating from the perspectives of the people in the middle of the fray, namely the care professionals employed at Swedish elderly homes. In collaboration with such professionals we could explore the multifaceted question of how different and multilevel factors have affected Swedish elderly homes in their work towards preventing the infiltration by and spreading of covid-19. Such a project could be set up as an open knowledge bank.

This could serve as a platform for professionals working in elderly care facilities to voice their concerns and opinions with regards to the covid-19 pandemic, but also as a medium of collective discussion and reflection. It would also produce knowledge and increase our understanding of how professionals in elderly homes understand the tensions arising on the technological, organizational and individual levels, in the process of trying to prevent the spread of covid-19 within their workplaces as well as what measures the care-workers themselves deem necessary for managing the tensions and ensuring a capability to handle future pandemics.

Emphasizing Experts’ Understandings of Publics

It is crucial that experts understand the limitations to their advice, since this will always include ideas of who they want to reach. Here social science has a valuable role, it can put focus on how expert authorities and their advice are based on particular assumptions about who they are trying to reach. If the goal is to reach out to all groups in society, including religious and ethnic minorities, it is crucial that experts understand these groups.

If the goal is to reach out to all groups in society, including religious and ethnic minorities, it is crucial that experts understand these groups.

Social science research conducted in close collaboration with the concerned groups can help provide contextual knowledge generated outside of formal scientific institutions which will help experts understand religious and other minorities, making invisible sub-communities more visible for the overall society they are a part of.

In every case where science attempts in some way to alter society, we need to ask: “what is the purpose? who will be hurt? who benefits? and how can we know?” (11). The need for scientific intervention versus the concerns of particular citizen groups becomes a particular important balancing act when society is faced with the imminent threat of a pandemic. It can be argued therefore, that there are needs to put special emphasis on citizen groups that historically has been inclined to deny most support or intervention from authorities.

It can be argued therefore, that there are needs to put special emphasis on citizen groups that historically has been inclined to deny most support or intervention from authorities.

An example of such a group is the Hasidic community, and it has especially been reported in news media that people living in New York have been disproportionately struck by covid-19.

This can partly be understood in relation to traditions which require gatherings and lessens the ability to practice social distancing, and partly because of the sometimes refusal to use contemporary technology. There is a possibility that the tools available to social science can be used to better understand these problems and come up with solutions that can help the community protect itself.

Mobilizing New Communities

It is important to understand existing communities, such as ethnic or religious minorities, but social science can also aid in mobilizing new communities.

It is important to understand existing communities, such as ethnic or religious minorities, but social science can also aid in mobilizing new communities.

Single households are a very heterogenous group. Among people living in single households there are both those who have chosen to live alone and those who do so involuntarily. People living in single households will also differ when it comes to how they understand their situation as vulnerable or not, as well as their experiences in raising and articulating their problems. Social scientists need to take these varieties into consideration.

Social scientists need to address audiences that are mixed, and meet expectations from a wider range of people, not only those of decision-makers or fellow scientists (12). Socially robust knowledge, it has been argued, need a relational approach to knowledge production, where different perspectives, experiences and interest are played out (13).

Social scientists can aid in mobilizing or facilitate the creation of a “community of lonely people”, i.e. people living by themselves during the pandemic. It is not uncommon that researchers initiate processes that transform a group of individual participants into a collective (14). However, this raises both methodological concerns as well as ethical ones. As scientists we presume single households share something particular in this pandemic: the fact that participants live alone and lack the possibility of physical closeness to others during isolation is a factor that can be important in coping with the pandemic.

A possible way to mobilize individuals that live alone is through a digital space where this group of people can share their stories and talk about their coping strategies. Some coping strategies could be thought of as less socially acceptable, and as researchers we need to be sensitive and aware these. A “community of lonely people” might reveal new aspects of living alone, which could open up further discussions that needs to be addressed by society. In this way, public sociology can often turn to policy sociology (15).

Methodological Competences and Voicing Vulnerable Groups

It is important to take vulnerable groups into consideration when deciding on political action concerning social consequences of the pandemic. Some vulnerable groups have so far been given little political and media attention.

The absence of stigmatized groups in political, medial and societal discourses increases their marginalization. Therefore, it is important to shed light on groups who do not have the same possibility and societal standing to make their voices heard on their own terms. We should be aware of the possible preconceptions developed by certain discourses when working with vulnerable groups.

A point that must never be ignored is that these individuals are experts on their own lives. Since social scientists have methodological knowledge and training, they should oversee collecting empirical data, organizing stages of the project as well as conducting an analysis. Having critical theoretical knowledge, social scientists can identify explicit and implicit power relations and demonstrate how certain discourses and subjectivities are constructed.

Social scientists in particular will have to take into consideration the way in which results are formulated. It is important to note that the balance of tacit knowledge and social scientific expertise might be different during different stages of the project.

It is important to note that the balance of tacit knowledge and social scientific expertise might be different during different stages of the project.

All types of knowledge and expertise should be recognized, however, and not sorted in a hierarchical manner. In our suggested research on facilities for drug users, we will first approach staff working at these facilities, and give the opportunity for drug users themselves to be involved in the research at a later stage when some time have passed and we have developed relations to the staff as well as people living in the facilities. Participation needs to be on participants own terms. Respect for the participants is important as they are vital for the project, and more important than the possible results.

Discussion

In the above examples, we have only presented very brief extracts from our designed citizen social science projects. Our point has been to show that the relation between social science and citizens are diverse. There is a number of ways in which citizens can be included in social science research: as contributors, collaborators or co-creators.

Some societal problems might become more visible in times of a crisis, for example societal institutions such as elderly home that already before the pandemic were constrained. We have argued that the experiences of the people working in these institutions are important to consider as contributors.

We have also argued that the social sciences can aid in giving voice to concerned groups that are less heard. This might also nuance experts’ understandings and improve communication. Experts are likely to miss certain groups if they are not aware of their own pre-conceptions of the public they want to reach.

Citizens’ relations to science can never be controlled or regarded as finally settled. Citizens can always protest the results, question the relevance of the research questions, or express concerns about categories and distinctions that are excluding certain values, identities and ways of living.

Neither the societal relevance of research nor the validity of the results are questions for the researchers alone to decide. This will always be settled in relation to an audience and contexts in which the relevance of the research can be tested and openly debated.

Footnotes
1. Flyvbjerg, Bent. 2006. ‘Social Science That Matters’. Foresight Europe (2):38-42; Irwin, Alan. 2001. ‘Constructing the Scientific Citizen: Science and Democracy in the Biosciences’. Public Understanding of Science 10(1):1-18; Jasanoff, Sheila. 2003. ‘Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science’. Minerva, 41(3):223–244.
2. Franzoni, Chiara & Sauermann, Henry. 2014. ‘Crowd Science: The Organization of Scientific Research in Open Collaborative Projects’. Research Policy 43 (1): 1–20.
3. ibid.
4. Mayer, Katja, Kieslinger, Barbara & Schäfer, Teresa. 2018. ‘Open and participatory citizen social science for evidence-based decision making’ Austrian Citizen Science Conference, (4): 74-77. (p. 2)
5. Prainsack, Barbara. 2016. ‘Understanding Participation: Science of Genetics’ in Schicktanz, S. &Werner-Felmayer, G. (eds.) Genetics as Social Practice: Transdisciplinary Views on Science and Culture. Abingdon: Routledge, p. 150.
6. Heiss, Raffael & Matthes, Jörg. 2017. “Citizen Science in the Social Sciences: A Call for More Evidence” GAIA - Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 26(1):22-26. (p 23)
7. Flyvbjerg, 2006. opus citatum
8. Bonney, R. et al. 2009. Public participation in scientific research: Defining the field and assessing its potential for informal science education. A CAISE Inquiry Group report. Washington, D. C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE). http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED519688.pdf. [Accessed 27 April 2020]. (p.11)
9. Mayer et al. 2018. opus citatum, p. 1.
10. Framtidens äldreomsorg – en nationell kvalitetsplan, Regeringens skrivelse 2017/18:280.
11. Jasanoff, 2003, opus citatum p. 240.
12. Nowotny, Helga. 2003. ‘Democratising Expertise and Socially Robust Knowledge’, Science
and Public Policy 30(3):151-156 (p.152)
13. Ibid., p. 155.
14. Bogner, Alexander. 2012. ‘The Paradox of Participation Experiments’, Science, Technology, &
Human Values, 37(5), 506–527; Laurent, Brice. 2011. ‘Technologies of Democracy: Experiments and Demonstrations’, Science and Engineering Ethics, 17(4): 649–666.
15. Burawoy, Michael. 2005. ‘For public sociology’, The British Journal of Sociology, 56(2):4-28. (p. 267)

Page Manager: Anders Östebo|Last update: 5/15/2020
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