covid-19, Notebook

Community research during the time of Covid-19: solidarity, care, and radical thinking

by James Duggan and Abi Hackett

This blog emerges from a series of discussions held online with academics, practitioners, and early career researchers interested in participatory work with children and young people to understand how we might respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown? We began affirming that the COVID-19 pandemic ‘is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’ (Roy, 2020) and a space for rewriting of our imaginations (Stanley Robinson, 2020). Writing earlier on this year, Rebecca Solnit (2020) writes of the challenges of navigating these uncharted spaces of COVID times:

“As the pandemic upended our lives, people around me worried that they were having trouble focusing and being productive. It was, I suspected, because we were all doing other, more important work. When you’re recovering from an illness, pregnant or young and undergoing a growth spurt, you’re working all the time, especially when it appears you’re doing nothing. Your body is growing, healing, making, transforming and labouring below the threshold of consciousness. As we struggled to learn the science and statistics of this terrible scourge, our psyches were doing something equivalent. We were adjusting to the profound social and economic changes, studying the lessons disasters teach, equipping ourselves for an unanticipated world.”

We may wish to hide away and protect our body and those of our loved ones from contamination and death. As citizens or politically-inclined scholars, we might hope to contribute somehow to a notional national effort, knowing that our research shapes even in small ways what matters, which life experiences are heard, and who counts. As academics employed in universities, however, we are interpolated as entrepreneurial subjects, developing our research career through delivering world-class research with excellent impact. Is COVID-19 an opportunity to be productive? We might recoil from ghoulish opportunism. We are not short of critiques of neoliberalising subjectivities, that position knowledge production and its ethics in terms of power and risk (Loveday, 2018). What is to be done? How might we re-imagine our position and relationships with the communities we work with? How might we grow, heal, make, transform and labour in a time of COVID-19? Some starting points and questions emerging from our discussions include:

1. Care

We welcome moves to develop questions about the future of society towards the notion of radical care, that is, care that operates within an anti-capitalist politics, thinking beyond the rational, purposeful and economically significant (e.g. Tironi and Rodriguez-Giralt ,2020). A similar perspective is summed up by Alexis Shotwell (2020) in her discussion of the novel Station Eleven, in which much of the plot is organised around the phrase “survival is insufficient”. That is, things and people should be valued beyond function, this involves asking, beyond survival, what does a good life look like?

  • How might we find purpose for our research beyond the notion of function and economic imperative?

2. Time

Lockdown can feel like suspended time, waiting time, waiting for the curve to flatten, unable to control or predict in the usual way or make plans for the future. We have felt busier than usual, and at the same time struggled to fill time (or both); as Solnit points out in the quote above, notions and practices linked to “productivity” or how we use our time, might be shifting.

Kim Stanley Robinson (2020) has argued that notions of time and future are significantly shifted by the pandemic. Writing about the threat of climate catastrophe, he suggests that for many in the West, we can only really conceive of the lifestyle changes necessary to avert the disaster of climate change for our descendants, some future people, in abstract terms. “The fact that these problems will occur in the future lets us take a magical view of them.” Yet, the pandemic can be seen as a parallel challenge to climate change but with a tighter timescale – how we act now (e.g. lockdown) affects our future lives, rather than our descendants. As Robinson writes, now “we are the future people”. He argues that this may offer a shift to new ways of conceptualising the future, which might have repercussions beyond the immediate lockdown.

  • How can we rethink timescales, cause and effect, linear progress or the rhythms of lived experience in our research?
  • How do shifting conceptualisations of time make our research more / less relevant?

3. Speculative Practices

After decades of marginalisation, speculative practices have become resurgent in diverse range of fields including art, design, media and education (Levitas, 2013; Wilkie, 2018). For Gorz (1999), utopian imagination functions to provide us with distance from the existing state of affairs, allowing us to judge what we are doing in the light of what we could or should do’. These speculations might invite us to encounter forms of difference, and to clarify our values in the present. Or we might envisage how our lives, communities and societies might face the shocks and uncertainties of an unpredictable future. Alternatively, emerging as a counter to techno-utopianism, Foster’s (2013) ‘future mundane’ aesthetic invites us to concentrate on the continuities and rhythms of everyday life. Here we remember the mundane activities that fill our lives (e.g. lost passwords, empty batteries) and the struggles as we navigate a world of grime and smudges in the rhythms of quotidian existence.

  • Whilst living through a pandemic, where and how might we imagine things otherwise? 

A question that has seemed to circulate like a refrain in conversations we have had with friends and colleagues over the last few months is – how can we make sure we don’t go back to normal? To a ‘business as usual’ society that was flawed, precarious, unfair and continually reproduced trauma and inequality? How, then, might we ensure research does not go ‘back to normal’ either, but slowly, painfully, begins the work to think collectively, generously and expansively about how research might become ever more caring, relevant and radically imaginative?

References

Chiaporri, M.Z. (2020). Hacia una cultura del cuidado / Towards a Culture of Care, Solidarity and Care, May 15th, Available online: https://www.solidarityandcare.org/stories/hacia-una-cultura-del-cuidado-towards-a-culture-of-care

Gorz, Andre, (1999). Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Foster, N. (2013) Future Mundane, Core 77, Available online: https://www.core77.com/posts/25678/the-future-mundane-25678

Loveday, V. (2018) ‘The neurotic academic: anxiety, casualisation, and governance in the neoliberalising university’, Journal of Cultural Economy, 11(2), pp. 154-166, DOI: 10.1080/17530350.2018.1426032

Roy, A. (2020). The pandemic is a portal, Financial Times, April 3rd. Available online: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

Shotwell, A. (2020) Survival will always be insufficient but it’s a good place to start, Alexis Shotwell, March 25th, Available online: https://alexisshotwell.com/2020/03/25/survival-will-always-be-insufficient-but-its-a-good-place-to-start/

Solnit, R. (2020) What Coronavirus can Teach us about Hope, The Guardian, April 7th. Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/07/what-coronavirus-can-teach-us-about-hope-rebecca-solnit

Stanley Robinson, K. (2020). The Coronavirus and our Future, New Yorker, May 1st, Available online: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-coronavirus-and-our-future?utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR2uQEmAbT-vL9iSctXoHaToIc0lmmSw1pcj28jQr-ykynzPYeeDmEXUtcM

Tironi, M. and Rodríguez-Giralt, I. (2020). Radical care in times of COVID-19: lessons from Puchuncaví, Solidarity and Care, May 8th, Available online: https://www.solidarityandcare.org/stories/radical-care-in-times-of-covid-19-lessons-from-puchuncavi

Wilkie, A. (2018). Speculating, in Lury, C., Fensham, R., Heller-Nicholas, A., Lammes, S., Last, A., Michael, M., & Uprichard, E. (Eds.). (2018). Routledge handbook of interdisciplinary research methods, London; New York, New York: Routledge, pp. 347-351.

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