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.

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