Simplification of social life

The world society is facing an unprecedented situation due to the corona pandemic: What happens when all of society’s function systems temporarily follow one imperative only?1

by Rudolf Stichweh, Sociology, Forum Internationale Wissenschaft and Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies, University of Bonn, Germany

Sociologists describe society by the forms of differentiation that occur within it. Differentiation means the distribution of societal activities and of participants of society among sub-systems (of which society consists). Up until the 18th century, and to some degree even beyond, premodern Europe understood estates or strata as its main sub-systems. There was the nobility, the clergy, different groups of commoners as well as peasants. The social order was the order of these groups and of the usually lifelong membership of individuals in one of these groups or strata.

Modern society, as we have known it for 250 years, is based on a complete replacement of this form of order. Hierarchically structured estates are replaced by communication systems that are ordered by thematic issues and societal functions. All of these communication systems are world systems: the polity, the economy, religion, science, education, law, art, sports, mass media, the healthcare or illness system as well as the system of intimate relationships and families. No one’s daily life takes place in only one of these function systems. Instead of belonging to them, one selectively participates in them (sociologists refer to this as inclusion), and the persons that participate in the function systems are individuals that become individualized through the extreme diversity of their participations. The individual exists outside of these function systems and is only connected to them in occasional events. Aside from the order of function systems itself, the individual is the other revolutionary invention of modern society.

Regarding the corona crisis, an essential sociological question is whether and how it temporarily puts modern social order into question and what this means for the development of society in the long term. First of all, the fundamental event of the corona crisis, the infection of an organism with the virus, is also the infection and potential illness of an individual, and there are two questions resulting from that. Firstly, how can it be prevented that an infected individual transmits the infection and disease to other individuals? This results in social distancing of an individual from other individuals as the new form of social life in the corona crisis. Secondly, how can the survival of an individual be ensured in case of serious illness?

It is striking that the second question is predominant. We dictate to the individual to practice social distancing (which is difficult to endure) in order to keep the reproduction rate of infections at a level that makes survival of as many individuals as possible more likely. It is impressive how much this latter aspect has priority. Each individual counts. Each death of an individual is one death too many. The incredible significance of the individual in modern society is illustrated in the corona crisis, too, by the fact that no other value can compete with the highest valuation for saving as many individuals as possible. In this perspective, the socio-political shaping of the corona crisis appears to be – across all nations – structurally conservative in relation to one of the most fundamental structural decisions of modern society.

Even more dramatic, then, is the temporary break of the corona crisis with the other structural decision of modern society: the emergence of functional differentiation as the horizontal interplay of numerous global communication systems among which no order of primacy or differences regarding societal significance can exist anymore. This order is, in fact, not only in principle a horizontal order of equal significance of each system. It is also an extremely dynamic order in which each function system is incessantly put into motion and challenged by rapid and surprising developments in other function systems. Both descriptions are no longer appropriate in the current situation. Instead, a peculiar order of function systems emerges to which there is no historical precedent.

Continue reading “Simplification of social life”

How will/should the world change? The corona crisis as an interdisciplinary challenge

by Véronique Zanetti (ZiF Bielefeld, Germany),
G. Ary Plonski (UBIAS, IEA Sao Paulo, Brazil) and Britta Padberg (ZiF Bielefeld, Germany )

Heavily shaken by the corona pandemics many of us are currently thinking about how we could contribute to overcome this unprecedented situation. The covid-19 crisis not only challenges disease control and crisis management, but may also have long-term and far-reaching impacts on states, societies and international cooperation. There are increasing indications that the world will look different after the crisis and that globalization will be questioned in many areas. According to these observations, the covid-19 crisis would mark a turning point. In times of deep uncertainty, science is asked to look to the future and to flank a rational discourse about how to react to the current global crisis, and therefore now better cope with other tantamount global challenges such as the climate change.

Since this challenge is genuinely interdisciplinary, Institutes for Advanced Studies are rich pools to fish for visionary ideas and scientific observations. We are very happy that a number of distinguished and young scholars from different fields and countries agreed to write short essays on how the world will change and how it should change. The pieces will be posted bit by bit, two texts per week. Since science and art make a good couple in developing a good sensorium for tectonic shifts we also asked the comic artist Oliver Grajewski to complement and contrast the academic way of thinking. He will deliver one short comic series each week.

We hope that the blog will contribute to sketching out ideas of a world that is more sustainable, fairer and fit for the future and are very much looking forward to lively discussions.