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Guest authors: Urban Transitions Hub (UTH) (Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon)
Editor’s note: This post is an engaging contribution by the members of UTH, including the founder and former editor-in-chief of the YA blog.
With this collective post, the Urban Transitions Hub wants to contribute to the debate about what it means to be a social scientist today, and what it might mean in the medium term. Perhaps aptly, we began this reflection on April Fools day (April 1st) during our first online meeting amid Covid-19 lockdown measures. We came together somewhat unsure of how and what to share between us, realising that ‘business as usual’ was not an option, and soon finding that we were searching for a space where we could discuss our collective desasossego (Fernando Pessoa’s disquiet) and unease triggered by the way the pandemic was affecting our personal and professional lives; we also needed to make renewed sense of our work in the ‘now’, and into the uncertain future. This is an open, ongoing exercise in self-reflection, which may hopefully resonate with others out there. The post is (un)structured with the view of sharing our tentative steps from facing, coping and reacting to this situation, toward organising ourselves to better act, together.
We started this conversation roughly two weeks after the state of emergency had been declared in Portugal (on 18th March). We began by sharing what we felt about the ongoing situation, which, at the time, seemed like a perfect storm: one that generates unease, confusion, and struggle, while hitting on already fragile structures and systems. For many of us, this latest crisis represents an acceleration of existing patterns, trends and weathered crises – weathered, for having been defined as such for much too long. We witness problems and contradictions that have been building up over decades, to which the pandemic seems to offer a tragic new stage. And we feel that new patterns, or ‘rising monsters’ as some have been calling them, appear to creep over the horizon of a Covid-19 dawn: the techno-dystopias, the authoritarian backlashes, the glaring inequality of suffering…. the excluded choices, the unrevealed (unexplored?) assumptions about what is life, and what is being made ‘safe’.
This ‘state of affairs’ can generate a sort of cognitive (and existential?) dissonance, which is likely to be a new norm for most of us as we feel social proximity and social distance; digital connection and physical separation; affirmation and denial of previous values; future and past trends and processes; micro- and macro-politics; wish for safety (overly understood as top-down control) and for individual freedom (which resembles bottom-up agency). Perhaps even more poignant, a sense of confusion mixed with struggle as much of our work appeared to be too distant from the here-and-now of the crisis, suggesting that a certain dissonance may be spreading across our to-do lists.
As we shared and compared our individual ways of dealing with the situation, we found out that they inevitably differed depending on our context and life situation. For example, it matters whether your relatives and friends are healthy, you are alone or with someone, and whether you have children demanding most of your time and attention. It also matters whether you are in a secure job situation, or not: as it happens, none of us has a permanent contract, but we can position ourselves along a ‘spectrum of precariousness’. These, and many other feelings, colour our interpretation and sense-making of current affairs as well as of our academic work.
In this regard, our point of departure was to observe the extraordinary barrage of opinions and suggestions arising from this new horizon; and taking note of themes cropping up, as a potential ‘to-research’ list. We mentioned many, very diverse, themes, as if to prove to ourselves our struggle to make-sense. For example: the politics and economics driving un-responsiveness, the health science ‘suddenly’ gripping decision-makers where biodiversity and climate change science had failed for decades, new demands for human-nature connectedness (omitting to mention the ‘over-connectedness’ that probably drove us into this mess), new possibilities and critiques of the ‘life vs tech’ agendas, bold unilateral steps towards colonised futures where apps may legitimize our mobility, renewed questions about what and how we teach and learn etc.
The exercise was useful nonetheless. It convinced us that it is too early to build a research agenda – unless you build it for a specific purpose (e.g., helping the state manage this crisis), or to jump aboard the latest Covid-themed funding opportunity. But our immediate goal is to try and connect the pieces of the puzzle arising from this crisis, and thus we realised we needed to take a step back.
For starters, it seems odd that we needed a pandemic to start discussing our family lives among ourselves – something we tend to put aside as if honouring an idea of ‘scholars’ that could have been relevant in the 18th century? Reflecting on the separation between personal and professional life, especially at a time when they are physically inextricable, and how to reconcile these seems to be a starting point. A bit like (re)discovering our own humanity.
We are all struggling with our existential space and knowing that this is a shared struggle helps feeling less alone. We are worried about how to maintain some kind of balance in order to keep home a safe, and healthy, space. Some of us have decided to stop watching the news, since they tend to (re)produce panic; and we try to keep ourselves informed using different means. The goal is to try and identify the anchors that can keep us afloat and to learn how to better deal with those very monsters we mentioned above. Having a ‘to do list’ to organise our daily job routine seems to help. Time matters, some are using the time liberated from meetings and daily bureaucracies to spend more time thinking and reading; others have been privileging spending more time to being in contact with family and friends – digitally, it goes without saying. From these reflections, we wonder whether more space for ‘care’ in academia (among peers and in our academic practice) may emerge.
Granted, some of us feel privileged because, in the face of our shared precarity, a part of UTH has a relatively secure job and thus a steady income in spite of the looming economic debacle. And yet, all of us felt like having a conversation on how this is affecting our human condition – who we are, what we are doing – in spite of academic pressures that urge us to think and talk about research agendas.
And precisely because of the need for a reintegration of ‘minds and bodies’, the researcher and the human being, it seems to us that the starting point is engaging in discussion aiming at reframing our questions, much more than providing answers (and certainly before attempting to do so). Some of us have reacted with a sense of rejection of their current work, as if it suddenly felt ‘meaningless’; others have been trying to resist to what they perceive as an attempted instrumentalisation of our job for this or that agenda: what we do still does matter – it may matter even more – and it should not matter only for its direct, visible, or ‘measurable’ impact. Part of what we do, especially in the humanities, is giving space to reflection. Our job is above all about exploring intellectually the realm of possibilities.
A question for which we have no definitive answer is: is it (already) time to articulate a comment on what is happening? We are trying to reflect on what (and how) we should write, be out there as critical social scientists, and think in the long term, beyond technical and pragmatic contributions. Social sciences have long been put under pressure to continuously prove their relevance and impact: will pressure further increase after this? More cuts to social sciences will be done to fund bio-sciences? The signals made by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology do not seem promising in this respect, as some emergency funds have been allocated for medical research and AI during the pandemic.
We can try to gather the energy to focus on the greater meaning of this situation and the proper ways to contribute, as individuals, as scholars, as a group. We feel that business as usual work and schedules are not a priority, and should not be for the wider academic community. We feel that individualised agendas, egos, careers are not so relevant now (and should never have been so dominant): against a Covid-19 horizon, they appear even more dispiriting and disruptive than ever. It is not so much about the number of working hours that you put in a day, but the sense therein.
Looking to what can be unbuilt, removed and demolished… getting rid of all that noise, paying more attention to the (social and academic) relevance of the kind of inputs that are less valued in and through academia. Outreach work, work as activists, action/engaged research and similar practices that are less valued in our CVs. We need to increase our social productivity within society and politics. We should focus on the real world, doing some kind of real job. Our work has to have a community dimension. Giving help, rather than being helpful as academics. We should raise our voice out there, on citizens’ platforms – who may not read long academic papers but possibly watch videos, or interviews. Try to cooperate on concrete processes and practical tips, help in our local community.
We need to increase our social productivity within society and politics. We should focus on the real world, doing some kind of real job. Our work has to have a community dimension.
As you will have gathered then, we do not yet have an answer, or even a question, let alone a clear list of priority themes to offer. For all the above reasons, we do not really feel in the position to give much advice, but hope this brief account of the steps we took so far, and of how we are organising to cope, react and act, may be useful to other groups out there.
Following the March declaration of the state of emergency, our Institute closed and we cancelled our monthly meeting and reading group. Soon however, one of our members who was driven by the challenge of suddenly being locked out of the office and having to work at home, suggested we could try holding the reading group online. We were a bit sceptical at first: can you really do an engaging reading group discussion online? The answer turned out to be yes! Although the level of interaction we had during that session was definitely lower than usual, the need of a stricter organisation of the conversation also forced us to a fairer distribution of talking time. To our collective surprise, we enjoyed it! This encouraged us to hold our first online meeting soon after, and – perhaps inevitably given all the above – it served first and foremost as a much welcomed self-help group. Several of us took notes, and came up with the idea of putting a text together, which we then discussed in our following meeting as a way to explore ways of moving from coping to (re)acting. For one, we decided to change the topic of the following reading group, dedicating it to the urban and social implications of epidemics:[i] with a view to advance our thinking towards a revised research agenda for our Hub.
But we are not in a rush.
[i] In case you were wondering, we read: Connolly, Keil and Ali’s review of extended urbanisation and infectious diseases; Social Contagion, a long post by China-based collective Chuang on the capitalism/epidemics nexus – indeed, one of the best, if indirect, responses to the (in)famous Sopa de Wuhan; and Bratton’s 18 lessons from quarantine urbanism.
The Urban Transitions Hub (https://urbantransitionshub.org/) is a group of researchers interested in exploring the urban dimension of the Anthropocene and its crises: theorising and shaping more equitable and sustainable urbanisation. The UTH is based at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon, within the research group Environment, Territory and Society. Get in touch at: firstname.lastname@example.org