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The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Crisis of the Social Sciences

Shiv Visvanathan ( is a member of the Compost Heap Initiatives, a group of scholars exploring alternative imagination to sustain democracy.


This article raises wider questions like whether the social sciences have been able to provide any meaning to the Covid-19 crisis by exploring the life worlds of body, time and nature. It also focuses on the role of policy and the connectivity between social science and democracy.

The historian Robert Conquest once made an observation on the social sciences that was fascinating. The social sciences, he said, dealt with facts but facts do not always add up to insight or perspective. He cited the example of American intelligence agencies, which collected enormous range of facts about Joseph Stalin, yet never fully grasped the depth of his authoritarianism or evil (Lays 2011). Conquest and other critics like the Polish poet Czesław Milosz pointed out that literature had the power to expose authoritari­anism in a way social sciences could not.

In confronting the crisis of COVID-19, we face a similar situation. A literary friend of mine complained that COVID-19 was a failure of storytelling. Here was a crisis on the epic scale of a novel and yet all one got were policy documents and newspaper jottings. In fact, my friend added that the COVID-19 pandemic had the scale of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with every crisis to be as a tale of strategy and leadership. COVID-19 also demanded the intensity of a Fyodor Dostoevsky to understand the tortuous psychology of emotions that haunted it. Yet the social science lacked such a language to capture the nature of suffering or the demands of ethics. The breakdown of concepts and categories created too many black boxes and silences. The crisis of the social sciences around COVID-19 stems from a flatness of language and an emptiness of concepts. One required a different langu­age for ambiguity, ambi­valence, for folds and hyphens, linking disparate worlds. Yet beginning with a perspective from literature gives us an advantage. One begins holistically. One senses the need for connectivity. As a result, one will avoid the standard ­social science survey which inspects every field and delivers a report card, which has no sense of the whole. The usual Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) policy report in fact mimics and per­petuates the crisis of narrative.

This article will try to look at the COVID-19 crisis holistically by building a multidisciplinary framework around key concepts and questions. The effort is to see whether social sciences provided a sense of meaning to the COVID-19 crisis. It will ­explore the life worlds of time, the body, and nature, and use these to raise wider questions of the social, such as the role of policy and the connectivity between ­social science and democracy.

The Problem of Time

Fundamental to such an approach is the question of time. The social construction of COVID-19 is built around governance of time. The modern state offers itself as a collection of timetables with the state playing timekeeper. The lockdown was a suspension of timetables. The state, to express control, even creates a timeline for closure, but that control eroded soon. Within a few months, one felt time had lost its way, one had forgotten its meaning. All we enacted were old rituals as routines. The problem of time becomes central and something about the nature of time needed meditation. One suddenly confronted the fact that industrialism and nationalism provided a grammar of timetables from history to development. Conventional history ignored natural time and one realised that the great cycles—carbon, oxygen, nitrogen—needed ethnographic attention. One suddenly sensed the appearance of the anthro­pocene. The time of crisis got exaggerated as catastrophe and crisis crossed each other as India faced a cyclone, a locust invasion, a gas leak and the epidemic, raising questions about the nature and natural time. One senses that in the ­immediacy of the short run, the social sciences had lost what Fernand Braudel called the longue durée (Hindu 2017)1 of nature and natural time. Two concepts that social science pushed to backstage—time and nature—make a reappearance during the COVID-19 narratives.

The Crisis of Nature

The social construction of nature had also become impoverished. The state and the social sciences in their arrogance had confined the virus as plague to a medieval past, creating a sense of ethnocentric control. The reappearance of the virus triggered a civilisational crisis as one discovered that the plague and virus were parts of ever-present reality. The social sciences had to rework the rel­ation of nature to culture. The narratives of the coronavirus were presented in officially secular terms. There was no sense of the sacred or taboo. In the initial weeks, the scientific temper was invo­ked almost as a solution, pretending it created immunity from fears and anxieties. As science confronted the ideas of risk, complexity and uncertainty, the ­social sciences realised that they had inter­nalised the Judeo–Christian idea of nature which was now embodied in development as an ideology. Instead of proceeding towards what Garrett Hardin (1986) dubbed as ecolacy, the regime loosened environmental laws making it easier for corporations to access the ­forest and coastline.

The COVID-19 crisis is a challenge to the social sciences to make nature a part of the Constitution. There was a half-hearted effort to make Ganges a person but our legislators, despite the protests of G D Agrawal and other scientists reduced it to a secondary public works department. The first challenge of the social sciences is to absorb the wisdom of ecology, to create a multidisciplinary holism which can reconstruct nature and civilisation constitutionally, and as a part of syllabus and citizenship. This demands a fundamental rethinking of the anthropocentric nature of the social science, with paradigms that locate humans at the centre of the universe. This problem was raised acutely by the biologist Lynn Margulis when she noted that the way humans constructs their role in history and evolution, one is tempted to create a trade ­union for the role of bacteria in history. In a way, it shows that the social sciences have still not filtered and absorbed the real implications of the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. The idea of a ­social construct called humans at the centre of the universe is outdated. The recent work in science and technology studies reminds us of the need to recover the re-enchantment of nature and the sense of the sacred (Burman 1981). It is ironic that when natural sciences are rethinking fundamentals through Stengers, Lovelock and others (Stenger 2015; Lovelock 1979), the social sciences are still following a Victorian sense of nature as machine and commodity.

If time was problematic in debates in philosophy and physics, time had been domesticated into a mundanity by the economisation of the social sciences. Governance became an act of large-scale time management enacted through the plan, through timetables, through the creation of routine as the preferred normalcy. COVID-19 exploded the fragility of time at several levels. It first rendered the time of development redundant. It also challenged the Taylorisation of time in daily life. Between plan and everyday routine, one had domesticated the ­social. The disruption of time led to the disruption of the social. Once timetables broke down, regimes unable to offer certainty looked irrelevant. Instead of the objective time of governance, one suddenly confronted an implosion of subjective times, the time of waiting, uncertainty, loneliness, hope, anxiety of which we had little sense of nuance or theory.

The disruption of official time led to an explosion of plural times for which social sciences even lacked a language. The chronologies of policy hardly worked in the empty time of the migrant or the anxious time of the housewife. An anth­ro­pologist commented, “As students we would read that Eskimos had a hundred terms for snow, beyond the English uniformity of white. One realizes the wisdom of it when the COVID-19 crisis created the challenge of time.” Sociology and psychology failed to provide an ethnography of the variety of time, of waiting, of routine, of everydayness, of rites of normalcy. The classic linear model of the rite of passage broke down and we lacked the language for ambiguity, broken down everydayness, or empty time. The impoverishment of the social sciences was clear as the society stood bet­ween delegitimised official time and the anarchies of micro time. The anomic of time which once created the grammar of the social was clear. The sadness is that few social scientists responded to “the chrono-crisis.” As a housewife, taking a break from a career put it, “The masculinity of control, which blinded the social sciences, created its biggest havoc in the way social science treated time.” Rebui­lding society now means rebuilding the languages, the concepts, the vernaculars of time that society desperately needs.

The new normal is too quick and obs­cene. It is an ersatz return to the idiocy of linear time. One needs a return to what Raimundo Panikkar calls Kairological time (Panikkar 2010), where past, present and future are not separated but exist together. The reinvention of an ant­hropology and philosophy of time beyond plan, development, routine and timetable is one of the greatest challenges of the social sciences. Sadly, we have delegated this responsibility to management and behavioural psychology which created time management in terms of a mix of spontaneity and managerialism, creating the irony of spiritualised Taylo­rism, which turns time into plumbing, an instrumental need rather than a search for meaning or plurality. The way pop psychology has banalised time, needs a special study. It reflects a philosophical impoverishment of the social sciences. In fact, as time is disciplined in this way, one senses a plethora of words like self-reliance, self-sustaining, self-sufficient lose significance. What one notices in all these works, is the impoverishment of the existential, phenomenological self that managerialisation of the social self creates. It is a tragedy one has to confront urgently.

On Narrative and Language

There is also a failure of narrative and language which is drastic. COVID-19 for all its epic character embodied a failure of storytelling. There was no sustained narrative. It either broke down to fragmented reportage or to exponential announcements of body counts. If body counts made death a statistical exercise, they also deprived groups of the language of mourning. The fragmentary nature of the reports misled many about the size and scale of what was a global disaster. In fact, the narrative was cast as a macabre Olympiad of death, with each nation competing to see which state had done better. It gave many deve­loping states a glib assurance of comparative competence as far as governance was concerned.

The discussion on COVID-19 should have been threefold, emphasising storytelling or narrative in the form of case studies; paradigms elaborating the scientific nature of the problem and problem solving and discourse, analysing the hermeneutics of policy and theory across disciplines. Instead, what we got was a coll­age which led to little systematic understanding creating alternately, hysteria or pretentious hope.

Beyond failure of narrative was a failure of theory and concepts. The social sciences were caught in a barrage of dua­lisms which restricted the full comprehension of the social. The dualisms of formal and informal blurred one to the presence of the migrant. Dualism became a screen reducing a large part of life to the backstage. The standard oppositions of work, leisure, job/livelihood, and domestic/office, blurred the nature of understanding. The corporate domain celebrated the rule of work from home but this blurred gender injustice of women retur­ning to the drudgery of domestic work. There was a further split between welfare and well-being, with the former ­ignoring the fate of the migrant and latter focusing on middle-class leisure time. It created a schizophrenic situation of newspapers discussing hobbies, leisure and interests in colorful supplements, while the political pages reported the suffering of the migrant.

There was little reportage of domestic violence in the beginning. The conceptual dualisms that the social sciences inter­nalise create a split-level perception that needs to be addressed. We have languages to measure scale and quantity of impact but few concepts to understand the nature of suffering. Often given the rapidity and fragmentation of news, the social scientist becomes a spectator of violence rather than its analyst. One sensed this when many of us saw the pictures of ­migrants being sprayed with chemicals at bus stands or even more poignantly, the child of a migrant playing on the railway station while its mother lay dead.

One often realised that many of the concepts we used needed refining, even a sense of embeddedness. The liminality surrounding the concept of migrant as an ambiguous form of citizenship was obvious. The idea of the nation state with its hysteria about borders and security was overplayed leading to the collapse of globalisation. In many ways, COVID-19 created a graveyard of concepts in time, economics and the understanding of the city.

In fact, the language of social science could not capture the violence of COVID-19; its sense of triage creating a dispensability of vulnerable people, the obsolescence of old age and the breakdown of the language of professional trust is something we need to reflect on (Hardin 1980). The frequency with which doctors were insulted or beaten up has to be seen as a problem of trust not reduced to a law and order problem.

The final twist was even more ironic, when the state created an idea of the new normal. It was an instant myth of governance that erased memory, posited at instant normalcy, which sounded like instant utopia when events were still dystopic. The new normal became a post-truth concept and one requires an ethics and a linguistics that challenges such construct. The failure of social science lay in its lack of confidence to cha­llenge such artificial definitions of the social. We accepted this new definition of the social, when the traditions of Karl Marx, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim should have led us to instantly challenge the pretentiousness of brand and advertisement as instant myth. There was a failure of nerve, an absence of critique which one needs to explore. The policy sciences feel the need to march with state rather than providing a critique of it. This raises the question of the relation between democracy and the social sciences.

Disasters and Democracy

There is a paradox that we must acknowledge. Disasters have always added more to the imagination and consolidation of the nation state than to the dynamics of democracy. Disasters have in fact helped scientise the state adding to its legitimacy of control and welfare. The social contract between science and state goes back to the Bengal famine. The state realised that its legitimacy ­depended on the creation of the policy sciences. The Bengal famine helped internalise the logic of planning, the scientisation of governance. Even later, in the case of Emergency or the Bhopal disaster, science added to the legitimacy of the state. Civil society had to search for dissenting imaginations to back its argument. Even now, the idea of “the new normal” creates a social, based on distancing and scientific control. It is an ­attempt to sanitise and technologise the social by claiming to scrutinise it. The social sciences in that sense have often let democracy down or constructed it as an imagination leading to the ideas of the panopticon, the enclosure and the language of surveillance.

The immediate challenge of COVID-19 to the democratic imagination was built around the concept of citizenship. India once recognised was already a majoritarian society. The movement to consolidate the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Assam had created inklings of the state as a surveillance society. The refugee was no longer welcome without the rituals of certification. The COVID-19 crisis broke the template of citizenship in India. It lacked the guarantee of a sense of homecoming and dwelling becoming more a clerk’s prerogative. The template of citizenship cracked in four ways, creating four kinds of vulnerability: (i) the temporariness of the informal economy and the uncertainties of the migrant, (ii) the vulnerability of the mino­rity, (iii) the stereotypes against north-eastern groups, and (iv) the suspicion against the refugee rendered doubly homeless by the CAA. Social science had no answer to these questions. Nor was it able to hint that the vulnerabilities of citizenship added to the dominance of majoritarianism, creating a second skin of authoritarianism. The irony was that populism and majoritarianism were destroying the very plurality of democracy. One sensed that democracy needed to theorise beyond formal economics, differentiate between an abstract job and the embeddedness of livelihood linked to ecology, lifeworld, life cycles and lifestyle. Second, the very categories of market economics threatened the trusteeship that democracy required. Third, the modes of conventional social science thinking had little place for diversity or plurality. One lacked an epistemics of democracy based on a celebration of difference. Social science theory still worked around the old enlightenment triangle of liberty, equality and fraternity of uniform and similar groups when, what it needed was a celebration of the ecology of difference to give citizenship as lifeworld, a more life-giving meaning. One needed more than an abstract motion of rights. One needs a theory of caring, a sensitivity to new forms of violence. There is an inventiveness demanded of the social sciences in the post-COVID-19 era where it copes with the silences of law, political theory and economics around the idea of rights and citizenship. The new forms of exclusion and violence have little place in social science and theory. The iatrogeny of social sciences has added to it.

As a narrative, what was most disturbing about COVID-19 was the absence of an ethical evaluation. There was a scientism inherent in policy, an apparent inevitability about lockdown, the displacement of migrants, the lathi charge of the police. One consumed it all as spectacle, the spectacles power and policy create in their operation. There was little sense of doubt while Narendra Modi acted as a timekeeper of the lockdown, or as mathematical models dissolved like bubbles before the fact. One sensed a “certainty,” an objectivity about policy which belonged to a Victorian science. The science of risk, complexity, uncertainty was absent. Worse, the language of body counts made death seem unavoidable. Policy as an ethical act seems remote and yet it bothered few people. We substituted technology and management for politics and ethics, and the state sounded like an indifferent policymaking machine. The problem became stark. How do we create a social science that studies and cares for people?

To the failure of ethics, we must add a refusal to listen to voice and vulnerability. The state needed a hearing aid, given its deafness to suffering. One witnessed people in the informal economy survive, yet one hardly read about coping strategies. There was little sense of vulnerabi­lity, of the fragility of lives on the street. Abandonment was seen as normal and triage of the suddenly visible masses inevitable. Our society faced erasure and obsolescence with indifference. The absence of ethics was accompanied by an illiteracy about the way knowledge systems worked. There was no real conversation of the social sciences, and the alleged multidisciplinarity of policy was an empty echo. It was as if social science had lost the sense of the social. The establishment of the new normal was a recognition of that. But the narrative is bleaker.

There was an erasure from day one and no sense of record, of memory, of storytelling. It was as if society was refu­sing to document itself, except through the statistical sleight of hand. There was little sense of witness, testimony, and documentation.

I do not think a real history of the COVID-19 crisis is possible. One had to ­begin with a sceptical look at concepts as our policy perpetuates the logic of social science, as it avoids critical scrutiny. Social sciences have provided a Teflon coating to the indifference and illiteracy of policy. The breakdown of the university as an institution and the marginalisation of the non-governmental organisations further deepened the moral illiteracy of a society in crisis. The breakdown of the social sciences through indifference and mediocrity was clear. One suddenly ­realised that the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt (1963) talked about, needs not just the policy clerk but the bureaucrat–academician with pretensions of power and knowledge. The devaluation of dissent in the last few years added to the impotence of the social sciences. It was not the nature of critique but the abs­ence of it that one has to confront. The irony that COVID-19 created an epidemic of stereotypes from pollution to ethnicity is something we have not even confronted. Every major stereotype was magnified during the COVID-19 crisis. It is not the crisis of multidisciplinarity but the sheer absence of dialogue. Decades ago, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote an article on the death of conscience in Vietnam. Today, India confronts a similar death of conscience and conscientisation over the COVID-19 crisis. The state and the profession normalised the mediocrity and certitude of the ­social sciences during the COVID-19 crisis.

A Framework for Criticism

How does a self-critical social science confront its inadequacies during and ­after a crisis of this order, especially when state and corporation are praising themselves about their acumen? The corporations, by pushing for digital learning and artificial intelligence, have made a killing. The financial bonanza is obvious in their profit ratings. The state has legitimised itself in terms of old categories of decisiveness, masculinity, and self-reliance making a hypocrisy of the spirit of swadeshi and swaraj. It is clear that social sciences cannot produce the standard ICSSR report. What one needs is an alternative framework to challenge social science as an imagination.

An informal conversation with a few philosophers and anthropologists helped me generate the following perspective, which self-deprecatingly they called the 6C perspective. A framework of social sciences needs a bigger canvas to imagine itself both in a reflexive manner about its categories and in analysing the everydayness of method and policy.

The framework merely demanded that the social sciences cross-examine themselves in terms of the categories—of the categories of civilisation, cosmo­logy, Constitution, citizenship, syllabus and the commons. Each concept here ­refracts and enlarges on a certain concern of the social sciences.

The secularisation of the social sciences during the pandemic created flatlands of narratives. As one observer claimed, smallpox at least had Sheetala Ma on duty, COVID-19 has none. As a result, it has little sense of faith, hope, a sense of Pascalian wagers, an idea of taboo, of limits. COVID-19 needed a rethinking of cosmologies within which it is embedded so that notions of time, body, nature, ­and sacred are reworked. One senses that the ­rationalisation of the social science empties it of sensitivity. One needs a recovery of the metaphors of the body and nature, and this cannot be done by treating nature as a resource but by re-reading it as a way of life, living, livelihood located with a relationship bet­ween man, nature and god. COVID-19 demands that Indian social science rework itself to confront the crisis of the anthropocene.

The COVID-19 crisis demands that we ­rethink the contract between social sciences and the nation state challenging the fetishising of border, security and the obsession with enclosures and panopticons. One needs a dialogue of civilisation to recharge the arid frameworks of the nation state emoting an empty sense of swadeshi and swaraj. A dialogue of civilisations has been advocated by scholars from Tagore to Raimundo Panikkar and allows one to rework basic concepts, recharging them with new imaginaries. It also breaks from fractionalising min­ority and margin, and helps create a diff­erent base for cognitive pluralism.

COVID-19 as a crisis of time needs to rework the Constitution as a text of citizenship in multiple time. Linear time can only create the surrealism of development. One needs multiple time as a life-saving model challenging obsolescence, erasure, triage and amnesia. One has to represent nature in the Constitution and rethink the relation between ecologies, cosmology and livelihoods. Otherwise we acquire a way of treating obsolescence, indifference as inevitable. There is a danger of socio-biology infiltrating critical social science.

COVID-19 crisis demands that we rethink citizenship not as certification or a filter of exclusions as in CAA but as a sense of hospitality, dwelling and homecoming. The social sciences need to rethink the margin, the minority, the migrants, the refugee and their fate as sociological categories. One has to build diversity as a key category of the social science imagination across the spectrum.

COVID-19 has to rethink the categories of economics especially in relation to marginality, vulnerability, and understand the creativity of limits. The recovery of tribes and crafts, the rereading of the informal economy is critical. The econo­mics of livelihood has to become central, incorporating a theoretical understanding of limits, waste, and intellectual property. The idea of the commons needs to dialogue with the conventional sense of scarcity which is turning economies into a dismal science. One desperately needs a sense of the commons as imaginary and imagination.

Finally, one needs a theory of know­ledge showing the epistemological possibilities of pluralising science to understand so-called local knowledges. A fra­mework of pluralism and holism has to be built into the syllabus of the social sciences so that one cognitively meets and confronts the prospects of extinction, genocide and enclosure. One needs a pedagogy of dialogic diversity for dem­o­cracy to be reinvented again. Mere thinking of concepts and methods will no longer do. As professionals we need to rescue the following issues thematically and follow it concretely. First, one has to show that the crisis of the social sciences is linked to the failure of the university. Second, the next range of the ICSSR survey cannot be antiseptic bibliographies but include the dissenting imaginations. Third, memory needs to be kept alive and for this we need a social contract between orality and textuality and digitality. One has to understand that these are not only mediums of communication but epistemic expressions linking communication and community. Finally, one has to, following Patrick Geddes, recreate a holism of knowledge that links social sciences to the wider idea of freedom, decency and dignity (Boardman 2017).

In more concrete terms, the above frame provides a set of thought experiments to recreate the imagination of ­democracy. Democracy has been too caged by the nation state into a pre-emptive script of futures. It has become too electoral a game where majoritarianism destroys the play of dissent and plurality to prevent a world of alternative possibilities. The real casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic was democracy. What we face is a creeping authoritarianism. Instead of being silent spectators, critics must reinvent democracy to go beyond the 19th-century imaginations that anchored it to create not just a new idea of the person but new ways of looking at the relation between knowledge and democracy. This essay is a prelude, an invitation to thought exp­eriments that can serve as a basis to a more compassionate and creative social science.


1 Fernand Braudel of Annales School pioneered “longue durée” as a method of writing history.


Arendt, Hannah (1963): Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York: The Viking Press.

Boardman, Philip (2017): Patrick Geddes: Maker of the Future, University of North Carolina Press.

Burman, Morris (1981): The Re-enchantment of the World, New York: Bantum Books.

Hardin, Garret (1980): Promethean Ethics, University of Washington Press.

— (1986): Filter against Folly, New York: Penguin Books.

Hindu (2017): “What Is Longue Durée in Historio­graphy,” 20 April,, Simon (2011): “The Hall of Uselessness,” New York Review of Books, pp 48–49.

Lovelock, James (1979): Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press.

Panikkar, Raimon (2010): Rhythm of Being, New York: Orbis Books.

Stenger, Isabelle (2015): In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, Open Humanities Press.


Updated On : 20th Oct, 2020


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