Social Sciences in the COVID and Post-COVID Eras

By Kelly Tabbutt

In this article, Fancy Comma’s Kelly Tabbutt, a sociology researcher, discusses the role of social sciences during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. As she notes, there is a very significant role for social sciences in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that will only increase in importance as time goes on.

picture of road sign telling drivers to social distance
Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

The Importance of Social Sciences in the COVID-19 Pandemic

In her article, “What is the role of the social sciences in the response to COVID-19? 4 Priorities for shaping the post-pandemic world?,” Dr. Rachel Middlemass discusses how the social sciences complement the work of natural sciences and the medical field in the COVID-19 pandemic. The medical and scientific fields have worked nonstop to attempt to get ahead of COVID-19, but this work has been made challenging by issues relating to the proliferation of fake news and attitudes towards new COVID-19 therapies and vaccines, for example. That’s where social science has the power to make the work of these scientists and those in the medical field more effective.

As Dr. Middlemass explains, social scientists’ work can help explain what compels people to follow (or ignore) quarantine orders. Social science can also help explain how perceptions of vaccines are formed and changed. Finally, social scientists are in a unique position to give voice to those communities impacted by COVID-19. Altogether, social scientists are positioned to inform both the creation and the implementation of policies and medicines to battle the spread of COVID-19.

Social scientists have a significant role to play in the COVID-19 pandemic, from understanding how anti-vax beliefs shape society, to giving voice to those communities impacted by the pandemic.

To the already thorough overview provided by Dr. Middlemass, I would only add this to her list: the role of social scientific research in understanding the role of political and religious ideology in shaping perceptions of the legitimacy of science and health research. Many people are ignoring or outright attacking masking, social distancing, and quarantining policies. The threat of anti-vax and anti-medical ideology also looms in the wake of rapid movement toward a COVID vaccine. In this type of environment, understanding this relationship between ideologies and perceptions of science legitimacy becomes paramount.

Post-COVID, Social Sciences’ Role Becomes Even More Significant

As Dr. Middlemass explains, the post-pandemic world is not pre-determined. Many, if not all, countries will need to be prepared to re-build and improve key social institutions like the economy and governmental structures. As Dr. Middlemass discusses, the role of social scientists may be at its more pertinent in the post-pandemic world. The methods, findings, and applications of social science work can inform public perception and the creation and effective application of policies.

Social scientists’ role may be most pertinent in a post-pandemic world, informing public perception and the creation and effective application of policies.

With their focus on human experience, the social sciences are positioned to inform government, organization, and business processes in a way that focuses on inclusion and equality building. Social scientists are also poised with insights into the functioning of the current democratic and economic systems, which can help improve the resiliency of these institutions in the post-pandemic world. Finally, social scientists are in a position to inform policies to promote the health of the individual and the environment.

In the discussion offered about the vital role of the social sciences in the post-pandemic world, I would re-emphasize the value of the social sciences – a field built largely upon interacting with the very people and communities they are researching – for collaboration, specifically among the general public. In order to rebuild and improve upon our societies, we need more than policies and funding — we need the cooperation and legitimation of the general public.

In order to rebuild and improve upon our societies, we need more than policies and funding — we need the cooperation and legitimation of the general public.

Four Priorities for Bringing Social Sciences into the Limelight

Dr. Middlemass offers four priorities or focus areas for the social sciences to make it a valid and valuable tool during the pandemic and in the post-pandemic world.

  1. Collaboration: Social scientists need to work to build collaborative connections with government, non-government organizations, and businesses. To this list, I would add that social scientists should also focus on, and advertise, their expertise around public collaboration with the individuals and communities they study and affect with their research.
  2. Visibility: Social scientists must make their research more visible and applicable outside of the social scientific world. They must endeavor to make themselves and their work more approachable to, and applicable by, other disciplines and non-academic audiences.
  3. Credibility: Social scientists must endeavor to strengthen the means of determining social science validity. They should also calibrate their methods to meet high standards for validity. It’s not possible for social scientists to have research methods that are 100% valid, but social scientists can work harder to communicate the value of their research to the public to improve credibility.
  4. Incentives: Social scientists need to work to increase the incentives within their field for non-academic, or “public,” social scientific work to compel cross-discipline and cross-sector collaboration among social scientists. I would add that, on the other side of this, other disciplines, government, non-government organizations, and the private sector need to work to enhance the incentives they offer to draw in social scientists. 

In her blog, Dr. Middlemass provides compelling reasons why social sciences should stand next to natural scientists and medical field experts in the ranks of those most sought after to answer the pressing questions of how to deal with the pandemic. Both social sciences and scientists will only become more valuable in the post-pandemic world of rebuilding and revamping social institutions and organizations.

Kelly Tabbutt is currently a PhD student in sociology at the University of Oklahoma. You can read more about her here.

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