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Viral language? The discourses of COVID-19

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In this blog, Professor Stephanie Taylor considers the language of COVID-19 and its wider implications.

 In 1978, the critical theorist Susan Sontag wrote about the metaphors of cancer. She argued that the language used to discuss cancer, which at the time was considered an almost untreatable disease, echoed that of the so-called war against communism, centred on the Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. Later, Sontag extended her original book to note similar trends in the language used to refer to AIDS. 

Few people are now preoccupied with the war against communism but the 'war' metaphors that Sontag noted still persist. For instance, it is usual to refer to people who have cancer as 'brave' and to speak admiringly of how they are 'battling' their illness. Some cancer patients have been critical of such language, noting the implication that their recovery will depend on their own efforts, as if those who eventually die of the disease are somehow at fault because they have failed to fight hard enough. 

Critical discursive psychologists and other discourse analysts approach such metaphors as part of the discourses of cancer, and illness more generally. A dominant discourse, for instance, of illness as conflict, may be superseded over time, although it seldom disappears completely. It remains available to be taken up again in new situations, often carrying an extra authority because it is familiar, as if a lost 'truth' is being recognised. 

Discourses can also alter over time. For example, Shani Orgad (2009) has discussed the changing meanings of surviving and being a survivor. From referring simply to those have not died (for instance, when an inheritance passes to the surviving legatees), being a survivor has come to denote 'a desirable mode of being or identity that people are encourage to comply with and take on'. Orgad notes that the statement 'I'm a survivor' is now likely to be a claim to certain personal qualities, like 'individual strength, bravery, self-sufficiency, and determination'. In this sense, it shifts from referring to a past experience (such as, again, cancer or another illness) to a person's potential for the future.

 The reporting and discussion of COVID-19 of course invite careful attention. The point of interest for discourse researchers, including critical discursive psychologists, is to draw out and make visible the implications of metaphors and the other language that is being used. For example, measures involving distancing and 'lock down' inevitably suggest that the threat comes from those outside, some 'other' people, who are different to 'us'. In the rapidly evolving situation, the people who need to be kept out have been those who are, variously, from Wuhan, all of Mainland China, Northern Italy, all of Europe and now, for Australia and New Zealand, everyone else in the world.

 Sometimes the implications of the language themselves become a point of public debate. UK government ministers are currently having to explain that 'self-isolation' does not mean the complete severing of connection with other people, as if you are on an island ('isola' in Italian). Even the change of preferred name, from coronavirus to COVID-19, seems significant. COVID-19 sounds more scientific. Perhaps it also reduces the status of the virus by implying a succession of earlier forms (1-18?) that may already have been successfully dealt with!

The instruction to 'self-isolate' or 'self-quarantine' emphasises everyone's own responsibility for managing the COVID-19 situation. This is consistent with the prevailing individualist discourses associated with neoliberalism. (Orgad also links the new meanings of 'survivor' to neoliberalism, noting the implication of 'a self-responsible individual with a considerable degree of agency'.) Social theorists and researchers have explored how these discourses operate in multiple contexts so that issues like unemployment, racism and inequality are defined not in social or structural terms but as the personal problems of individuals. 

Yet COVID-19 can also be seen to have challenged such individualist discourses by reminding us that our welfare is linked to other people's. Neoliberalism rests on the logic of the market i.e. that individuals must compete with each other, and the winners will obtain the greatest benefit. But when even the wealthiest and starriest celebrities (Tom Hanks!) have been shown to be vulnerable, we are reminded that winners are still part of a larger society. One person's infection is potentially everyone's problem. We can't get away from each other or, to express the point in another way, we are inevitably connected and interdependent. Perhaps, despite the undoubted threat and difficulties it is causing, COVID-19 will have the positive effect of reminding us that we are social beings and our survival, in any terms, depends on our working together.

 References

Shani Orgad (2009) The Survivor in Contemporary Culture and Public Discourse:  A GenealogyThe Communication Review vol.12 issue 2

Susan Sontag (1978) Illness as Metaphor Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 


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Social psychology as a social and cultural field

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 26 Jan 2018, 14:43

This week's blog for DD317, Advancing social psychology, introduces a new academic group in the School of Psychology and explains why its members see society and culture as central concerns for psychology.

Social psychologists in the School of psychology at the OU have formed a new group to promote their shared interests. The group is to be called CUSP which stands for 'Culture and Social Psychology'. Culture and society might seem surprising foci for psychologists – shouldn't they just be looking at people? But in the group's view, people are always in society – whether we think of that as the micro- or local level of being with other people, perhaps interacting one to one, or, alternatively, as referring to a larger scale context of more complex interconnections. Social situations vary in scale and kind, and nowadays, of course, they include virtual interactions, for instance, on social media.

Society is important for the research of CUSP academics engaged in some very different projects. For example, they examine society in terms of groups, and particularly the 'us' vs 'them' groups invoked in discussions of migration, or sectarian tensions. Their research addresses high profile social issues, like sexual harassment. And recently they have been studying Brexit, viewing it as an issue for British society, and the societies of other member-states of the EU, and also an issue for a European society (though of course some people would question whether that last version of society actually exists, while others would claim it as an important context of their experience). 

For CUSP academics, culture generally refers to knowledge and practices which have developed over time, persist into new situations and also change. Most people have a fairly clear idea of what constitutes a family, for example, and the roles of family members, like parents and children – but what cultural change is involved when, say, children in multilingual families take on the role of interpreting for their parents? Or when a child's peer interactions take place on social media so that, suddenly, an enormous audience of strangers may be influencing their self-image and confidence? What 'culture of silence' is operating in situations when young people who are 'at risk' can call for help but somehow go unheard? How are work cultures, and working lives, changing in the era of the gig economy when 'work' can refer to a job lasting a few hours, made available through an app, rather than a permanent contract with an employer? And what is the relationship of knowledge and practices to the things, or artefacts, associated with a particular culture?

CUSP's interest in culture is therefore not a reference to art, music and literature (sometimes distinguished as 'high culture') although those can also be of interest, for example, because of their relevance to the identities of groups in society. Similarly, cultural artefacts like books, film and photos can be intimately linked to history and our view of what happened in the past, remotely and recently. For example, if one picture can tell a story, as the saying goes, there can be questions about WHAT story is being promoted by a particularly vivid image (like a child in a war zone), and who has made the decision that we will see it, and what interests are attached to our acceptance of that story and not a different version. So culture becomes linked to power and to values, including who or what is (accepted as) good or right or important. These are all concerns for CUSP academics.

You can read about the work of the School’s social psychologists on our webpage. We teach it in our new Level 3 module DD317 Advancing social psychology. To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk and you can do this short course available on Open Learn: DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0


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Social psychology at the Open University

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The Open University has a long history of innovative work in social psychology, including through its Level 3 social psychology modules. Many of the textbooks from earlier modules have become teaching 'classics', used in universities worldwide. We've called our newest module, DD317, Advancing social psychology because we want to convey the dynamic nature of the discipline, moving into new areas of theory and research, often informed by contributions from other disciplines.

This new module, DD317, is the teaching 'voice' of the large social psychology research group in the OU's School of Psychology. It includes the research of the academics who produced the module – Eleni Andreouli, David Kaposi, Rachel Manning, Paul Stenner and Stephanie Taylor – and also contributions from other social psychologists in the School - Rose Capdevila, Johanna Motzkau, and our Emeritus Professors, Wendy Hollway and Margaret Wetherell. You can look us up on the School of Psychology website http://fass.open.ac.uk/psychology . In addition, of course, the module presents theory and research from academics in many other universities in the UK and elsewhere.

As we move into DD317's first presentation, we'll continue this blog to update you on new developments in social psychology at the OU, including the publications and research activities of the module team and our colleagues. So keep checking the blog. And for all of you who have registered for the new module, good luck and enjoy your studies!

To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here   https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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