In a recent Zoom call, one of my former students described the challenge of this moment in terms of toggling between “large” and “small.” On the one hand, we are daily subjected to events that feel incomprehensible in their scale – the size of the protests, the growing death toll, the number of jobless, and so on. On the other hand, we are subjected to the absolute tedium of life at its most mundane: sheltering-in-place seems to require drilling down into the smallest practices of being human; it is domesticity in miniature. It is hard to find a place to settle between these cognitively opposed states, and yet social theory has long grappled with precisely how we can hold in the same frame the large-scale structures that shape our world and the more intimate realm of subjective experience. This is not to say that social theory seamlessly weaves together these two planes of social existence – the “micro-macro problem” is something like the holy grail for sociologists – but we are at the very least primed to wonder about social processes that unfold at very different scales.
Another puzzle of the pandemic concerns the jarring juxtaposition of the most robust sort of individualism – refusals to mask, angry defiance of government orders to shelter-in-place, the go-it-alone mentality that has long been a feature of American political culture – with a resurgence of collectivism certainly unlike anything I have witnessed in my lifetime. There are the astonishing images of Black Lives Matter protesters filling the streets of American cities day after day. At a more existential level, there is the relentless collectivism of an infectious disease that has revealed in startling and painful ways that our fates as human beings are inseparably connected. How do we manage the dissonance? Social theory offers various ways to think about the relationship between individual and collective – the manner in which our individual subjectivities are built from our collective experience, and how collectivities in turn require a transcendence of our individual selves. Again, there is no easy resolution here, but social theory foregrounds a tension – in a sense, sociology as a discipline is built from this tension – that is central to the current crisis.
Finally, yet another paradox of this moment is the belated realization that what is most necessary to our collective survival – paid and unpaid care work – is least valued in our society in terms of the economic compensation it receives and the social status it commands. As social theorists, of course, we have a full toolbox that allows us to analyze how we value, how we mark and differentiate, and how we create status hierarchies. We know that these techniques of valuation operate alongside – and help to constitute – forms of social difference (particularly race, gender, and age, among other possible divisions of the social world) that have been salient in terms of who is most at risk of contracting the virus, who cares for the sick and dying, and who educates children when schools are shuttered. Thus, even as the virus reveals webs of interconnection, it also manifests the deep and persistent inequities between us – inequities that social theory helps us to name, understand, and (potentially) work to undo.
In short, social theory doesn’t have pat answers, but it illuminates many intriguing questions that have surfaced in the context of the double pandemic. I look forward to seeing many of you and engaging in such questions at the ASA’s Virtual Engagement Event next month.