“The Virus Is Experimenting on Us” – the Corona Crisis From a Sociologist's Perspective

Man sitting on a wall © Peter Winandy

Professor Stefan Böschen teaches technology and society at RWTH and is member of the directorate of HumTec, the University's Human Technology Center. The sociologist from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities spoke with Thorsten Karbach, head of the RWTH Press and Communications Department about the real-life experiment that is the corona crisis, about the capacity of political leaders to act, and the professional expertise needed.


Karbach: As a sociologist, how do you experience this time in which the world has become a real-life laboratory?

Böschen: What we are experiencing during these weeks and months can be described as an experiment with social conditions and social situations. There have been a plethora of interventions; the contact ban being one of the more extreme ones in that family members could not even meet. Freedom of assembly and religion are also fundamental rights. For my father, it was a critical change in his life not to be able to experience an Easter service. Considering how severely our everyday routines have been restricted, it is remarkable how willing people were to go along in this situation. I feel a certain ambivalence about that.

Karbach: In what way?

Böschen: The majority of the population is acting in a disciplined manner and says: These measures make sense; we must do that now. However, I do feel uneasy about how easy it was to implement. Especially since we see that, in other countries of the European Union, this crisis has been used as an opportunity to implement far-reaching measures to strengthen an authoritarian regime. The news from Hungary and Poland certainly weren't good! Which brings me to a crucial point.

Karbach: What is this point?

Böschen: The point is that this real-life experiment is always also an experiment on the political preconditions of social orders. Social order differs among cultures, and they all react differently: How did the Chinese do it? How did Singapore react? What was the reaction in South Korea? What was different in Italy and Spain that caused the situation there to deteriorate so dramatically? This is a complicated tangle of questions, in which different social sub-areas such as the economy, the public, science, and law intertwine. The question of how state policy and control can, should, or should not be enforced takes on special meaning.

Karbach: Do you expect social pressure in Germany to reorganize the care sector, for example?

Böschen: How often has there been talk of a nursing shortage? Are we as a community ready to realign this sector after the crisis? Can and do we want to install buffers so that structures are more stable and can withstand high demands? This also applies to the supply and production chains of certain products, as shown by the dependence on seasonal workers in agriculture. We need to do more for services crucial to our society than have members of the Bundestag clap with respect. Action must follow, and buffers must be created, even if this is not cost-effective.

Karbach: What kind of action?

Böschen: Are societies ready to learn from this crisis? And will they put matters of course that often go unchallenged to the test? For example, it is an incredible turn of events that the United States is discovering the welfare state and investing two trillion US dollars. This is remarkable and also disturbing - people believe that a welfare state can be established quickly - we have been working on this in Europe for 150 years.

Karbach: Are you saying there can be no going back to “business as usual as it was before the crisis?”

Böschen: That’s what we should all hope for. However, I don't know if there will be any real changes. We were made aware of our dependence on globalization. It became apparent that a social order based purely on economic efficiency has its limits. The commercialization of health care is the wrong way – but will we find another way? A crisis can offer unexpected benefits. It lets us learn; it creates solidarity. It lets us learn that our government is not as incapable of action as is often suggested, for example, with respect to refugee policy. Our political leaders are very capable of acting - that makes us confident.

Karbach: So we can see this crisis as a great opportunity?

Böschen: We can think in new ways and thus create opportunities to evolve and grow. But I don’t want to speak of opportunity, because that might appear overly calculating. We need to train our sense of possibility. We must now show that we want to learn as a society and how we want to do it. We must learn to live with the virus in the future. How can we run restaurants in times of Corona? How can we go see a movie or to the theater? That’s where we need good ideas. We must be socially creative in the future to help us emerge from our rigid regime of social distancing and to enable social interaction, even if the virus is still present.

Karbach: Against the background of current events, what role does scientific expertise also play in forming public opinion?

Böschen: The British sociologist Anthony Giddens has characterized modern societies by the fact that they rely on the knowledge of experts. We have now observed that the public has fewer doubts about this expertise. Virologists have been noticeably present in the media and were the first to be addressed in any discussions. But what role did lawyers or psychologists play? Where are the educators or us sociologists? We see the effects of the virus’s regime on society, for example, in the rise of domestic violence. What we observe is a real-life experiment that is more than us experimenting with a virus. Instead, we also have to see it the other way round: the virus is experimenting on us.

Karbach: What active role must science play at this point?

Böschen: We must fall back on all of the sciences. An important issue to me is how social life can be made possible despite the virus and how a new normal will develop. Universities must play a pioneering role as actors of transformation. Trust in these institutions is very high, and scientists are generally listened to.

Karbach: In the climate protection debate, however, scientific findings are often called into question.

Böschen: The coronavirus poses an immediate risk to many people - it can affect anyone. This is why people believe experts when they explain the appropriate measures to us. It's different when it comes to climate change. We see the effects, but the absolute threat is not as clear as with this virus. Anyone who sees the pictures from a hospital in Bergamo or from a funeral in Italy, and then claims that the virus is harmless, must have an enormous blind spot. Climate change, however, does not affect everyone in such an obvious way.

Interview: Thorsten Karbach