Coordination by De-Integration in Pandemic Times

by Elena Esposito, Sociology, Bielefeld University, Università di Bologna

The present condition of social isolation makes most of us aware of the value of sociality – that we lack. But society is not only sociality, as we realize precisely when we mustminimize physical social contacts. In the emergency we perceive society much stronger because of a condition that appears as a global threat and seems to change everything everywhere. “There is the world B.C. – Before Corona – and the world A.C. – After Corona“ (Friedman 2020). The risk affects the entire world, from Hubei to Italy to New York to Rwanda, all sectors of society and each of us. The virus is a threat to people’s lives, but also to the stability of institutions, the soundness of finance, interpersonal relations, democracy, the maintenance of jobs, international links and many other things. In this short note, I refer to society in this global sense and analyze the coronavirus emergency with the tools of Niklas Luhmann’s sociological systems theory – primarily because it is a theory of society, and there are not many nowadays.

In the pandemic, society is perceived first of all as global interconnectedness that produces a domino effect and makes the crisis spread from one geographical area to another and between the different fields of society. In an emergency, the high interconnection of society becomes a threat. Coordination is required between different countries and also between political, economic, legal, sanitary measures to face the emergency. The most common response is to demand “tightening-up” (e.g. Gelfand 2020). If everything is connected with everything else, one claims, interventions in different areas should be coordinated according to the same approach and the same basic principles. Only in this way, one argues, can interventions be effective and avoid hindering each other. By going all in the same direction one does not get in each other’s way, reinforces each other and proceeds more quickly and effectively.

The classical notion that sociology proposes to study the interconnection of society is the concept of integration. The notion refers to what holds society together and addresses the relationship of the parts to the whole. Usually integration is interpreted in a general senseas reference to a shared unity, to a common perspective one recognizes and in which one can identify herself. Classical sociologists like Durkheim (1893) and Parsons (1977: 283 f.) use the notion of integration to deal with a widespread sense of belonging connectingdifferent parts of society, which should be preserved. Societies, that’s the idea, should be as integrated as possible, avoiding risks of anomy and coordination difficulties – especially in challenging times as the present emergency.

The principle seems plausible, but putting it into practice in a complex society is not easy. Integration in this sense is threatened by the increasing differentiation of society, starting with the division of labor. The challenge is maintaining a shared feeling of belonging not when everybody is equal and does the same things, but when everybody is different and does different things. The main obstacle is the condition that system theory calls functional differentiation, considered the basic characteristic of modern society (Luhmann 1997: 743 ff.). Functional differentiation refers to the articulation of society into different areas (or functional subsystems), each directed to a specific function: economy, politics, law, science, education, art, religion, mass media, families, healthcare. Whereas in previous hierarchically organized societies the different fields shared the same basic principles, in modern society each subsystem is guided by its own logic and criteria, which are not necessarily coordinated with those of others and cannot be traced back to a single order. The programs and priorities of the economy are different from those of science, politics, religion and any other subsystem – and success in one system does not by itself translate into a positive result in a different one. While the economy is driven by profit maximization, politics seeks consensus, research is directed towards the production of scientific truths and healthcare towards patients’ recovery.

Yet the pandemic today threatens everything – health and wealth, church and commerce, law, sport and families. Differentiation, which leads to different responses in different areas, in the face of this challenge seems to prevent coordination. Medicine needs tests to see who has the virus and must stay in isolation – while the economy requires tests to see who has the antibodies and can go to work. Restricting people’s freedom and tracing their movements is effective in countering the spread of the virus, but goes against the principles of the rule of law and the guarantees of the constitution. Reducing taxes can help companies overcome the crisis, but taxes are required to support research and equipment for hospitals. Science needs time to develop and test treatments, yet politics is in a hurry to give immediate answers (Gopnik 2020).

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