As Covid-19 affects us all in unexpected ways, academics at Queen’s have looked back at pandemics from the past. Dr John Curran looks at pandemics in the Ancient World; Dr James Davis examines the horrific scale of the Black Death in the fourteenth century; and Dr Marilina Cesario highlights how people thought comets were a portent of disease and death. How did society cope and what was the broader impact of disease? You can access the podcasts by clicking the image below:
Month: June 2020
BA (S) Student in History
Robert Peel, Christopher Columbus, Oliver Cromwell, Cecil Rhodes… just a few names selected from a lengthy list created by activists who demand the removal of racist statues which glorify Britain’s uncomfortable but all-too evident history of systemic racism. Inspired by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis as a result of police brutality, the removal of controversial statues and monuments has once again entered our news cycle and gained significant media traction as Black Lives Matter protestors firmly fix their attention towards the public commemoration of figures who encapsulate the centuries-old narrative of white supremacy. Whether such statues belong on our public landscape is not a new conversation; in fact, it has been, for many decades, a hot topic amongst academics, government officials and activists who question the extent to which historical individuals, marred by their micro-or-macro-aggressions, deserve a prime place on our national landscape.
As a 21-year-old due to graduate from QUB this summer, I recall teachers and tutors posing the question: ‘should statues be removed?’ to me many times throughout my educational career. During my third year of secondary school, I discussed whether the statue of the much contested Field Marshal Douglas Haig outside of Edinburgh castle should be removed given his unfavourable reputation as the man responsible for sending thousands of people to their deaths during the Battle of Somme and Arras. Then, whilst completing the first year of my BA Hons. History degree, I investigated the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement which argued the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a notable British Imperialist, outside of Oriel College at Oxford University should be removed as it contradicted the university’s commitment to racial justice and equality. Now, the question arises again but on a much larger scale with over seventy statues facing the possibility of being torn from their location throughout the UK and my question is: should these statues be removed and, more importantly, if they are removed what will become of them?
Firstly, I would like to clarify that although the current debate concerning public statues is inextricably linked with the issue of racism, the focus of this think-piece is not on this social injustice, as I wholeheartedly admit I am not as educated as I want- or need- to be. As with most people, I am making a conscious effort to do better and do be better but, as of yet, I cannot confidently say I have achieved this. Instead, this piece will adopt a more generalised approach to shed light on whether the statues of individuals who represent the archaic narrative of monoculturalism belong in an age where equality is the supposed goal. Many options present as possible solutions with the two extremities which bookend these options consisting of: the complete removal of these statues in their entirety and also the option of doing nothing and allowing these symbols of oppression (which are often in prime city locations) to continue unchecked and unchanged.
Undoubtedly, the most damaging response to this issue would be to do nothing. In order to make real change, we must acknowledge our uncomfortable past with slavery and racism in general and ensure our commitment to anti-racism and inclusiveness extends beyond the realm of theory and reaches each and every one of us in our daily lives. For the glorification of these individuals to go unchecked and continue is an affront to black people for whom racism is not just an historical issue but a current life experience. As a white individual, I cannot understand how it must feel for a black person living in Bristol to walk down the harbour past the statue of Edward Colston, who made his fortune exploiting black people through the slave trade as a member of the Royal African Company. Moreover, I cannot relate to how it must feel for any student of Oxford University who is not white to walk under the statue of a white supremacist into Oriel College for their classes.
What I can do, however, is listen and it is evident that public opinion does not sit on the fence with this issue- people want these difficult statues removed, as they represent a ‘part of history that should not be glorified’. At the time of writing, a Change.org petition entitled ‘Petition to take down all statues of slave traders in the UK’ had amassed an impressive 151,914 signatories out of a desired 200,000. My mum is one of these individuals and whilst talking to her about the matter recently I remarked that statues contribute to our public memory to which she replied: ‘Germany do not have statues of Hitler but yet we all still remember World War Two and the Holocaust’ and she is right. Do statues really contribute to our historical awareness and memory and, even if they do, it is usually just the positive aspects as opposed to also including the bad and the ugly. Therefore, do we really need statues in public locations when people usually just ignore them anyway whilst going about their daily lives?
But the phrase ‘removing’ statue confuses me- where will these statues go? Are they destroyed? Hidden in a dark governmental storage unit to eventually rust and become a forgotten problem? Preserved so as to keep the legacy of the artist? Given the clear wishes of the public it is likely many statues will be removed from their plinths but my concern is with the aftermath. As we know, the statue of Robert Baden-Powell will be temporarily removed from its current location at Poole Quay for its own protection but given the current public sentiment, will it ever be safe to return it and is it right to do so? Therefore, should these statues find a permanent home elsewhere, away from public gaze? I would argue yes. As historian Ansley Heller writes:
‘Symbols, like statues and important buildings, signal social values to the public. Statues encourage individuals to look at those being immortalised in stone to understand their deeds as strong, important, and worthy of admiration’.
As such, by removing these symbols of oppression from the public domain, ‘the struggle over who gets to control the narrative of the public space is heightened’, ultimately lessening the extent to which towns, cities and countries condone white supremacy. But the mere stone, concrete and metal which make these statues are themselves apart of history, as such, I feel they should be placed where they truly belong, museums- an institution dedicated towards historical learning, inclusive of the bad and the ugly in addition to the good. No longer glorifying the individuals they represent, these statues would become an asset to museums by adding an additional visual aid to an exhibition. Moreover, in a museum setting these statues become purposeful as opposed to ornamental, as they help tell a historical narrative about the individual in question to museum visitors- much like a portrait or painting does. Moreover, by displaying these statues in an intellectual setting, museums can tell the story of why these individuals were once glorified by contemporaries through public monuments and how the reputation of these figures are undergoing constant re-evaluation as we continue to realise the actions of our shared past in the UK and slowly adapt our attitude towards social injustices to become a nation which can become proud of its current society.
Osob Elmi, ‘Edward Colston: ‘why the statue had to fall’’, BBC News (8th June 2020), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-52965803
BLM- Statues Down, ‘Petition to take down all statues of slave traders in the UK’, https://www.change.org/p/uk-government-petition-to-takr-down-all-statues-of-slave-traders-in-the-uk?use_react=false
 Ansley Heller, ‘Breaking Down the Symbols: Reading the Events at Charlottesville Through A Postcolonial Lens’, Southeastern Geographer, vol. 58, no. 1, 2018, p. 35
Devina A. Millenia
Ba(S) Student in international politics and conflict studies
he wants to scream, more than
he wishes the strangle will loosen up
just a little bit
it will be enough
it will allow him, at least to speak
to beg for help
instead of loosen up, it gets stronger
he feels it
the air inside his lungs is vanishing
he no longer feels his bloodstream
it suffocated him
it just inevitable for him to think that
this is it
the moment that sooner or later,
his heart will stop in a blink of his
at this time
there is no point of screaming
they will never listen
“what did I do wrong”
was the last time they hear him along
with his last breath
Professor Meg Russell, Director, Constitution Unit, UCL
Dr Ruth Fox, Director, Hansard Society
Professor Michael Keating FBA and Professor Nicola McEwen, Co-Directors, Centre on Constitutional Change, Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen
Professor John Garry, Director, Democracy Unit, Queen’s University Belfast
Professor Graham Smith, Director, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster
Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Co-Director, Centre for Democratic Engagement, University of Leeds
Tim Hughes, Director, The Involve Foundation (Involve)
Anthony Zacharzewski, President, The Democratic Society
This blog piece was originally posted on The Constitution Unit website at UCL: https://constitution-unit.com/2020/06/08/ending-of-the-hybrid-house-of-commons-breached-fundamental-democratic-principles/#more-9570
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has demanded the end of ‘hybrid’ arrangements allowing MPs to participate and vote remotely during the COVID-19 crisis. In this open letter, a group of senior democracy specialists – including Professor John Garry, Director of the Democracy Unit in HAPP – point out this breached the fundamental democratic principle of equality in decision-making, because the MPs most benefiting from remote participation (e.g. due to ‘shielding’) were excluded from the vote. They urge the Leader of the House to reinstate procedures allowing all MPs to participate fully in all Commons business.
Dear Mr Rees-Mogg
We write to express our very grave concerns about the way in which the ‘hybrid’ House of Commons was suspended. As specialists in the principles and practice of democracy it is clear to us that these actions breached fundamental democratic principles.
The ‘hybrid’ arrangements, allowing for a mix of virtual and in-person participation in parliamentary proceedings were brought about by necessity, to enable the House of Commons to continue to fulfil its essential functions of scrutiny and representation during the coronavirus crisis. Parliamentary accountability is crucial at any time, but more crucial than ever when ministers have taken unprecedented emergency powers, and the broadest possible public consent for health measures, and restrictions on citizens’ usual freedoms, is needed.
At the initial stages of the crisis there were troubling suggestions that parliament might close down completely for up to five months (as reported in The Times on 5 March). Thankfully, attention soon moved on from this drastic (and fundamentally anti-democratic) suggestion, to exploring how parliament could keep working through the crisis.
Parliamentary staff have worked tirelessly to devise innovative technological solutions to allow MPs to contribute virtually, and online select committee meetings began during the Easter recess. The Speaker, and the House of Commons Commission, offered admirable leadership, with essential additional input from the Procedure Committee. At the early stages there was a clear commitment to working on a cross-party basis to ensure that the Commons could continue to function in a way which maintained essential representation and accountability, while protecting public health. The motions on 21 and 22 April to enable members to participate and vote remotely were warmly supported by opposition parties and unanimously agreed. This consultative, cross-party approach was exactly what was needed when bringing about such far-reaching changes to the functioning of our democratic process. It showed inclusivity and maximised the chances of maintaining public trust and support.
The attempt to dismantle the hybrid arrangements has, unfortunately, followed the reverse approach. Through a lack of consultation and cross-party decision-making it has sown unnecessary division. Furthermore, it has breached the fundamental democratic and parliamentary principle of equality in decision-making, excluding many MPs from the choice about how to run their own institution. It has done so to the detriment of some of those who are most vulnerable in this crisis.
Your refusal prior to the Whitsun recess to renew the temporary orders facilitating the hybrid parliament was met with widespread criticism across the House, including from the Labour Shadow Leader of the House, and her counterpart from the SNP. At this point it was clear that the cross-party approach facilitated through the House of Commons Commission had broken down. Despite appeals that the hybrid arrangements should continue in order to protect the health of both members and the wider public, the government used its power over the House of Commons agenda to prevent the renewal of the temporary orders being discussed and decided upon. As a consequence, members’ ability to vote remotely – including those members who are ‘shielding’ due to age or serious health conditions, or who are living with others in this position – lapsed.
On the return of the House on 2 June, you proposed a motion that confirmed the ending of the hybrid arrangements. This was opposed by all opposition parties, and also by the Conservative chair of the Procedure Committee, Karen Bradley, who laid amendments which were signed by 15 other select committee chairs. Due to the government’s timing, it was clear that those members most affected by the crisis, and therefore those most dependent on the facility to participate remotely, had been excluded from the debate and from the vote. This was demonstrated by the fact that only 427 members participated in the division on Karen Bradley’s amendment to restore remote voting. Although 31 Conservative members – along with all opposition party members – supported the amendment, it was defeated. But there were over 200 MPs absent from Westminster, including 90 Conservatives, many of whom were prevented from attending for age or health-related reasons. Many of them had publicly stated that they opposed the ending of the hybrid parliament. Had the absent voters divided in the same proportion as those present, the Bradley amendment would have been only very narrowly defeated. However, it is far more likely that those absent would have supported the amendment, as it promised to restore their participation rights.
In other words, the government only brought about the ending of the hybrid parliament through disenfranchising the very MPs that it was there to support.
You have indicated that you wished to end virtual participation in order to return to the necessary scrutiny of government legislation particularly in public bill committees. However, there has been no barrier to bill committees meeting in socially distant form at Westminster since 21 April. Had the government wished to do so, the Commons could also have run hybrid or virtual bill committees, as is now happening in the House of Lords.
Given that many MPs are unable to attend under medical advice, while others – particularly those representing areas furthest from London – are reluctant for fear of spreading the virus through travelling between Westminster and their constituencies, it remains unclear why the government has been so determined to end the hybrid arrangements. It certainly does not ‘set an example’ for employers, who would likely be subject to legal proceedings if they treated staff with serious health conditions in this way. In fact, the ending of online participation is even problematic for those members who attend: the time-consuming nature of the new voting arrangements (about which some also have health concerns) cuts into much-needed time for debate and scrutiny. Images of these arrangements have been widely shared in the UK and international media, causing much derision, and risking reputational damage to government and parliament alike.
During the debate on your proposals, and subsequently in Prime Minister’s Questions, you and the PM announced several adjustments to your original plans. These adjustments, approved by the House on 4 June, mean that MPs who are unable to travel to Westminster may continue to participate in questions and statements virtually and MPs classed as clinically vulnerable will be eligible to apply for a proxy vote. However, they will still be excluded from participation in legislative proceedings and those who are unable to travel to Westminster due to lockdown restrictions, shielding or caring responsibilities will be ineligible to vote by proxy. You have suggested pairing as a solution, but this requires MPs to be recorded as absent, and assumes that they would have followed the party line. In short, these compromise measures are far from acceptable solutions.
As you yourself repeatedly emphasised in winding up the second reading debate on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill on Tuesday evening, democracy rests on the principle of equality. Our parliamentary democracy requires that all voters and all parts of the country be equally represented in the House of Commons by their MP. The hybrid arrangements were introduced in order to maintain that principle in exceptional times. Ending those arrangements now, when many MPs’ movements remain restricted, clearly violates the principle. We urge you to think again and reintroduce arrangements that allow all members to participate in the full range of Commons business.
Aglaia De Angeli
Lecturer in Modern History
You may have wondered how historians can research and write about the past, explain it to a wide public, spread the knowledge to academia or to the general public, and thought I want to do that. But, where should I start? If you think that one day you will become an historian, I can tell you five good reasons how you can realize your aspiration at Queen’s University Belfast.
First: at Queen’s we teach from undergraduate to doctoral level the whole way through to becoming an historian. We teach you how to read, research, write, and publish about American, Asian, African, European, Irish and British history, from antiquity to the present, through the lenses of social, gender, race, urban, religious and political points of view. And, you can do it with the support of our dedicated staff at HAPP.
Second: we have two MA options for students interested in history: MA in History and MA in Public History. The MA in History will teach to build your own expertise across a range of modules that offer important methodological, theoretical and source-based training opportunities. You can develop your specialism in the area of your interest or try a thematic approach, or combine both with an interdisciplinary approach. We will teach you how to become an independent researcher and prepare for your PhD.
The MA in Public History offers you the opportunity to participate in class seminars, field trips, practitioner workshops, and it teaches you the ways in which history is represented to a range of public audiences. It also provides you with a guaranteed work placement. You will be trained in historical theory and research methods to work in museums, specialising in oral and digital history, contested or difficult histories and visual representations of the past.
Third: we have a Centre for Public History that provides a lively hub for people engaged in researching, teaching, and practicing public history. It nurtures excellent research, provides a forum for debate, and develops working dialogue between academics, practitioners, and the public around issues relating to the practice of history in the public sphere. The Centre hosts monthly seminars with invited speakers both global and local in scope, such as the new Histories in the Making series, the Keith Jeffery Annual Public History Lecture, and the Wiles Lectures.
Four: at The McClay Library we are proud to host a treasure in rare, early printed books and manuscripts of unpublished collections. Special Collections & Archives includes the printed collections of important figures such as the Scottish economist Adam Smith, John Foster, the last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons; books and pamphlets collected by Dr. Stanley Fowler Wright, Commissioner of Customs and Personal Secretary to the Inspector General of the Chinese Maritime Customs, Sir Robert Hart and the extensive historical medical collection of Dr Samuel Simms to name but a few, three maps collections relating to Ireland dating back to the mid-16th century and more than fifty individual collections of manuscripts including the personal papers of Edith Somerville; correspondence of the English Composer and Feminist, Dame Ethel Smyth; the personal papers and correspondence of Sir Robert Hart, Inspector General of the Imperial Customs, Peking, 1863-1908 as well as papers relating to communism in Ireland, and the history of science in the Thomas Andrews and James Thomson collections.
Fifth: at HAPP, in collaboration with the Centre for Public History and Special Collections, we work on many engaging international research projects, in particular the Sir Robert Hart project. Hart, a graduate of Queen’s and later Inspector General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs from 1863 to 1908, was the most senior Westerner in China’s metropolitan bureaucracy in the later nineteenth century. During his tenure Hart built the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs (CIMC) into the first Western-style administrative institution in China, helped to establish the postal service, lighthouses and other key elements of China’s infrastructure. He played a crucial role in China’s imperial politics, significantly influencing its internal reform and diplomatic policy.
The Sir Robert Hart Project includes the transcription of Hart’s diaries in 77 volumes and other elements of the Hart collection. The Hart Project has established collaborations with the Institute of Modern History in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing and with the China Customs Museum, Beijing.
I gave you five good reasons why you should come to QUB to study, research and explore history with us at undergraduate, Masters or PhD level. Do you want to know more? Contact us!
Lecturer in Politics and International Relations
Note: this piece first appeared as an op-ed in the Made in China journal.
When Dr Li Wenliang died from Covid-19 on 7 February, the Chinese Internet saw an unprecedented outpouring of grief and anger. The universal mourning for the reprimanded doctor, who had warned his colleagues about a potentially infectious coronavirus in late December and had been silenced by authorities, was also an expression of the public anxiety and dissatisfaction with government responses that had accumulated over the few weeks since the outbreak began. The missteps and failures that had triggered widespread outrage ranged from the official downplaying of the risk of human-to-human transmission in the earliest days, to the shortage of PPE for medical workers; from the scandal of the Wuhan Red Cross in mismanaging the distribution of donated medical supplies, to the skyrocketing numbers of new cases and victims.
The situation was so grim and criticism from ordinary citizens so prevalent that some observers dubbed the crisis China’s ‘Chernobyl moment’. However, as the epidemic has—at least for now—been brought under control, critical voices also seem to be fading away, even though anger lingers in Wuhan, where some dissidents are still fighting to resist the official victorious narrative. To be sure, it is difficult to know if and how the pandemic has influenced regime support in a country that regularly censors criticism, but discontent with epidemic responses has been largely subdued and nationalist sentiments have become more prominent. This holds true especially in those parts of China that have been much less impacted by the coronavirus—97 percent of all Covid-19 deaths in China occurred in Hubei province, where the epidemic started, while the rest of the country, with a population of over 1.3 billion, has recorded 121 deaths as of 30 April.
The relatively successful and prompt flattening of the curve, however, is not the only factor that contributed to the transformation of public sentiment. As in past crises that also evoked mounting criticism by exposing structural problems in the political system, the Chinese Party-state employs a set of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ tools to suppress dissent and overcome the trust crisis. These include censorship, crackdowns on dissidents, bureaucratic and technocratic adjustment, and a tried-and-tested propaganda formula that I would call ‘disaster nationalism’. Yet unlike past disasters, such as the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the global development of the pandemic and international power dynamics have also played a significant role in how Covid-19 has become an impetus for nationalism.
Authoritarian Resilience and Disaster Nationalism
Political scientists use the concepts of authoritarian resilience or responsive authoritarianism to describe the ways in which the Chinese regime allows a certain degree of participation and responsiveness without democratisation. In times of crisis, this responsiveness could mean rapid personnel changes to shift blame from the political system itself to individual local officials, technocratic improvement such as the reform of the epidemic control system following SARS, and strategies of political communication that respond to and incorporate public sentiments.
The Party-state, for example, wasted no time in joining the public to pay tribute to Dr Li Wenliang, going as far as to officially recognise him as a ‘martyr’ (烈士). Right after his death, a technology company based in Beijing submitted a public sentiment analysis report to the government and offered recommendations on how to respond to the online outrage. The National Supervisory Committee sent a special team to Wuhan to investigate the matters related to Dr Li, and they unsurprisingly made the decision to revoke the reprimand and hold the relevant police officers accountable. The pattern of punishing individual and local actors to ease anger and distract attention from structural problems within the system itself persists. Top Hubei and Wuhan officials were replaced in mid-February. After a prison in Shandong province was found to have covered up an outbreak, several figures—from the prison warden to responsible officials in the provincial government—were removed from office.
In terms of technocratic adjustment, there has been an ongoing debate on improving the epidemic response system and the management of public health crises, which has mostly focussed on legislation. The National Expert Panel on Covid-19 at the National Health Commission recruited two legal scholars in February. In addition to calls for amending the existing Law on the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases, 17 other legal instruments in the field of public health will be amended or adopted.
The particular mode of messaging and emotional mobilisation that the propaganda machine deploys in times of crises is one of disaster nationalism. It is epitomised by a phrase former premier Wen Jiabao famously wrote on a school blackboard in Beichuan, the epicentre of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake: ‘Disasters regenerate a nation’ (多难兴邦). Narratives of disaster nationalism focus on heroic sacrifices of individuals as well as the cohesion of the national community. State media also celebrates the contribution of ordinary citizens more than usual, indicating a more human-centred and participatory approach that scholars have termed ‘authoritarian participatory persuasion’. People’s Daily, for example, launched a series called ‘Thank You, Every Ordinary Chinese Citizen’ (谢谢每一个平凡的中国人) on its social media channel, which quickly became a trending hashtag on Weibo, with over 570 million views at the end of April.
The idea of ‘being together in this’—shared feelings of pain, sadness, love, and inspiration—can be channelled towards reinforcing the sense of belonging to the imagined community (Anderson 2006). In his study of the responses to the Sichuan earthquake, Bin Xu notes how the event became a ‘televised spectacle of distant suffering’. With Covid-19 being the first pandemic in the age of social media, the spectacle of suffering, compassion, solidarity, and even boredom is mass produced in a much more personal, decentralised, and spontaneous way. While some videos get censored, there are many others that can serve the purpose of promoting national solidarity, which are quickly picked up by the propaganda apparatus—from moving love stories of dispatched medical workers to the beautiful moment where an elderly patient and a young doctor watch the sunset together. By curating social media content it is possible to add a humane touch to the grand narrative of the ‘war’ against the epidemic. Through the daily (re)telling of heroic and compassionate stories, and the constant chanting of the slogan ‘China, add oil!’ (中国加油!), dissatisfaction with the government can become subordinate to pride for the nation, of which the Party monopolises the representation.
The staging of a national mourning day on 4 April was a crystallisation of disaster nationalism. Having momentarily witnessed the power of mourning after the death of Dr Li Wenliang, what better way to tame this power than by turning it into an official ritual with members of the Politburo joining the rest of the country in mourning together at a designated time of a designated day? At that moment, mourning was no longer destabilising, but patriotic. Meanwhile, other subversive forms of remembering, such as the creation of digital archives of censored articles, continue to be suppressed.
The Perils of Binary Thinking
The relative success of the Chinese authorities in containing the outbreak in China and the mishandling of the pandemic in other countries, especially in Western democracies, has created an opportunity for the Chinese Party-state to change the narrative both domestically and globally—achieving more success with the former than the latter. In fact, when the Chinese government’s efforts to sell its preferred story on the international stage backfired, suspicion and hostility from the West further enhanced nationalism at home.
It comes as no surprise that a hostile international environment boosts nationalism. The Chinese public often assumes that accusations from Western governments are in bad faith, especially when such international actors were silent while many in China were themselves furiously criticising the government for cover-ups and incompetence in late January and early February. The online backlash against the scheduled publication of Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary in English and German is a perfect example of how the debate quickly became distorted by binary thinking, i.e. the assumption of a binary opposition between a homogeneous China and a homogeneous ‘West’. Netizens who attack her ruthlessly claim that even though some part of the diary might be true and fair, the translation of her work for a Western audience means betrayal and cozying up to ‘foreign hostile forces’ (境外敌对势力)—a term frequently used by both state media and the general public in China to delegitimise local social movements and grassroots activism as stemming from foreign influence.
My previous research on right-wing populist discourse on Chinese social media also highlights this strategy of ‘externalising the domestic and internalising the international’ in official and popular communications. When binary thinking dominates the discussion, any criticisms of the government can be dismissed as intentionally or unintentionally ‘helping the enemy’.
The nationalist right in Western societies are informed by the same binary thinking that views the pandemic as a power game of winners and losers. Some resort to xenophobia and racism, which not only hurt Asian communities in those societies, but also helps the Chinese government and ‘wolf warrior’ nationalists to perpetuate the narrative of foreign hostile forces. While hawks on both sides feed into each other by scapegoating the foreign other for domestic failures, progressive politics everywhere must resist subjecting democratic struggles against inequality, injustice, and state violence to the logics of right-wing nationalism and geopolitical competition.
Lastly, although nationalistic sentiments now appear to be prevalent in discussions about Covid-19 in China, the diversity of opinions and the creative expression of criticism despite strict censorship should never be underestimated. Representing the country as a monolithic whole and disregarding the agency of its citizens is a key component of the binary thinking critiqued above.
About the author: Chenchen Zhang is a lecturer in politics and international relations at HAPP. Her work on the politics and international relations of China is focused on identity and discourse. She has also published on the politics of citizenship, migration, and borders. Find more about her research here.
Professor in History at University of California, Berkeley, and Fulbright Fellow at QUB, HAPP from January till June, 2020
Greetings from Berkeley to lovely Belfast,
Maruška [Svasek] encouraged me to write some reflections on lock-down and until a few hours ago, I thought I had nothing to write. Then came news of something that had never happened in our vicinity: a curfew! Protests have broken out all over the Bay Area in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and authorities here, fearing violence, want to clear the streets after sunset.If I was going to have a bike ride, it had to be before 8pm after which no one can be on the streets.
It’s a fabulous day, 60s (F) with sun, but also a very bizarre day, as most people one encounters wear masks. I should be used to it, but somehow, all those hidden faces still produce an uncanny feeling, as if we were part of a reality that until recently existed only in the minds of science fiction authors. People without faces actually qualifies as Sci-Fi kitsch.
I decided to bike from our outpost in the hills to downtown for the first time since return from Belfast on March 29. What would a city look like that was not just locked down but now converted by decree into a ghost town? The effect, again, is uncanny. Downtown streets resemble a Hollywood set with streetlights installed for effect but not to regulate actual traffic. So I did the un-Californian thing of crossing at red lights. Maybe officers will show up later to enforce the curfew, but no one seemed to mind. The shops of course are shuttered, but now some of them also sport the rough exterior design of cheap plywood. For example, Wells Fargo Bank and Starbucks. Our previous experience with plywood comes from newsreels of Floridians preparing for hurricanes.
I recalled words of a prophet, the taxi driver who took my daughter and me back from the airport on the evening of that March 29 return. He had been waiting all day for passengers, and had not been able to get out of line (of only 12 cars at San Francisco International Airport!) to get anything to eat (after we boarded he got off the freeway briefly to buy what you would call crisps).
Among other startling things, he told us that department stores in San Francisco had begun covering their windows with plywood, a sure sign of coming unrest.Why a pandemic would drive impoverished masses onto the streets was not clear. Yet two months later, the unemployment rate hovers over one quarter and last week we got a spark from a supposedly progressive Midwestern city igniting massive protest.
Then came the uncanniest event of all. As I continued uphill onto the mostly deserted Berkeley campus, I was drawn to the undergraduate library and its eye-catching display of that day’s news. Around the start of the millennium, a bright architect had the idea of placing massive cases featuring newspaper front pages in a row before the library entrance. Patrons could thus examine the headlines each day from the Washington Post, Guardian, Manila Times, Globe and Mail, Haaretz, or Irish Examiner.
My cell phone told me it was June 1, 2020, but the news was dated March 16, 2020. It was as though the university employees who dutifully put up the larger-than-life newspapers that morning had wanted to leave some last sign, a dying gasp of a world about to disappear. The headlines and front-page images evoked mystery-tinged hysteria: 8 million patients expected by NHS, socially-distanced faithful separated by yellow police tape at Manila cathedral, ominous hints that pubs were about to close across Ireland… Before biking over to those petrified news reports, I had just been thinking that the campus too resembled the set of a sci-fi world. Now, reality and fiction were indistinguishable.
As it happens, I remember March 16, 2020 very well. My daughter and I had a breakfast of pastries and coffee in still frigid Glasgow before boarding coach and ferry back to Belfast. As luck would have it, we encountered a young couple whom I had harassed on our trip out from Belfast for watching a grim detective show on their phone … without earbuds. Do we all have to listen to that? I had asked. Now I offered them a spare pair of earbuds and they declined with a smile: they had bought some during their stay. Then we got the ferry, good crowd, but still plenty of space up front to “witness” the crossing from gloom into gloom. No social distancing, lots of nice Heineken on draft.
After docking, I recall standing in the drizzle (when did it not drizzle during our stay?), waiting for the bus to Belfast Great Victoria Street station. From there, my daughter prevailed upon me to take a taxi (rather than do the short walk to Camden St.), and then we concluded the day at the lovely Italian restaurant on Botanic, already emptier than normal. I thought I would buy a nice lamp for our apartment the following day. Our stay in Belfast was scheduled to last into June. Yes, history was staring us in the face, but I at least was clueless that this chapter of our lives was suddenly about to close.
This academic year, I had the very great privilege of teaching a second year undergraduate module in business anthropology. The module is designed in such a way that it helps students to think both critically and practically about the role of anthropologists in business but also the ways in which an anthropology of business can provide an important interpretive lens on the contemporary consumerist world that we all inhabit.
Shaped thus, by the many complexities of our time, this module considers a range of topics from marketing, consumer culture, sustainability, organisational culture, precarity (through the lens of the shared and gig economy), entrepreneurship and the role of the anthropologist in design and tech worlds.
With a lively, thoroughly engaged class, we asked each other questions about the role of the anthropologist in industry settings thereby interrogating the ways in which the guiding ethics and principles from our discipline inform this kind of anthropological work. The module sits in conversation with other offerings on our anthropology degree programme which engage with the scholarly, public, policy, and creative work of anthropologists in very different kinds of settings.
In moving through this weave of scholarly and applied anthropological work in the context of a ‘business’ anthropology (or an anthropology of business), we moved to a deeper understanding of how increasingly valuable anthropology is in the sense-making and working through of a world shaped by neoliberal regimes.
Part of the assessment for this module came in the form of a series of four blog posts which students posted on an internal class blog-site and received regular feedback on, thus providing a method of ongoing engagement with topics that they found striking on a personal level.
This exercise proved to be an important pedagogical tool but also worked to nurture amongst the students a sense of how public anthropological writing is seen by many anthropologists as a moral responsibility.
This class, of course, like all others was interrupted by the pandemic, but we successfully moved online. Some of the very final blog posts took a new direction, written through concerns with how the pandemic was shaping consumer behaviour, work-place cultures, precarity, and business strategy anew.
Herein, we collectively present a small sample of these blogs from ANT2036. All of these writings keenly express the value of anthropological approaches in both a pre-Covid and Covid world.
Each contribution is framed with a brief introduction to the student-author and a comment on their views on anthropology.
Thank you for reading and thinking with us as a class.
Dr. Fiona Murphy
Over the first few weeks of the module, we attempted to interrogate what an ‘anthropology of business’ or ‘business anthropology’ was really about. Many members of the class conveyed some of the elements of these debates in their first blog posts. We open this collective blog with one such post by Jennifer Roets who grapples with the ethical complexities of being an anthropologist in industry. Our understandings of these ethical complexities were greatly enhanced by bringing in guest anthropology lecturers who work in business settings to describe their everyday working lives. In February, Dr. Robert Power, an anthropologist working for ALLIANZ came to speak to the class, what he had to say really resonated with the students, many of whom wrote blogs about the experience. Later in the semester when classes moved online Professor David Prendergast, a well know business anthropologist( formerly of INTEL) and now based in Maynooth University, kindly did his guest lecture online. Both Charles Finucane and Saoirse Gallen decided to write about how inspiring they found Dr. Robert Power’s lecture and the ways in which it helped them imagine their future careers as anthropologists.
Intro: Hi my name is Jennifer. I’m an undergraduate anthropology student. I enjoy reading, writing, and walking my dog. I love anthropology because of its diversity and because it fosters understanding by challenging you to look at the world from different points of view
Deal with the Devil by Jennifer Roets
As anthropology is increasingly utilised for profitable purposes, questions are raised regarding the ethics of business anthropology. In a chapter of Denny and Sunderland’s Handbook of Anthropology in Business titled “The Good Anthropologist”, Kathi Kitner describes a confrontation – just one of many similar encounters – in which she is accused of ‘selling out’ by working for Intel. The question to be tackled here is: in working for businesses, are anthropologists selling and signing away their souls?
This concern arises from a belief that in applying anthropology to business, the anthropologist may be overly motivated by profit and will come into conflict with the key ethical obligation to do no harm. In other words, data gained in research could be used to manipulate consumers into buying products and using services. Rather than working towards discovery and understanding, business anthropologists may exploit research participants in order to help companies turn a profit.
Assuming that business anthropology is harmful, whilst placing academic anthropology on a pedestal is a simplistic viewpoint. In reality, both business and academic research have the potential to be harmful or beneficial. While it is vital to keep ethical integrity in mind, the panic regarding the potential of business anthropology to cause harm is overblown. The belief that anthropology aids businesses in somehow manipulating consumers underestimates their agency.
Furthermore, if business anthropologists maintain ethical standards – such as ensuring they gain informed consent from research participants – the risk of causing harm is minimised.
Finally, anthropological methods and knowledge are not the only tools utilised by businesses. With or without the use of anthropology, new goods and services will be designed and marketed. Isn’t it better to make use of anthropology to ensure that these products will be truly useful? In this way, business anthropology can benefit the communities that businesses operate in.
Intro: My names Charlie Finucane, I’m 20 years old and I chose anthropology by accident after being cornered by a lecturer on Queen’s open day circa 2017 and thank god- as it was the best decision that I’ve ever made!! Anthropology in its simplest terms makes the world make sense to me, understanding how and why people do things is intriguing and once you understand the basics it is incredible what you begin to notice in the world around you.
“What’s Anthropology? You’ll never get a job with a degree in that!” by Charles Finucane
This is the question that I’ve been asked incessantly since I announced that anthropology was what I was putting down on my UCAS application form!
The relevance of the humanities has been debated for years. They seem to be constantly under threat, whether from politicians cutting funding, or universities trying to shut us down and whilst I’ve always believed we were relevant in the “modern business world”, it’s great to finally have a concrete example I can throw back to the doubters.
Dr. Power said his job was to “help resolve any issues deemed cultural problems” through the use of ethnography. Speaking with employees from both their Belfast and Dublin offices in order to get a better grasp of why things might be difficult-he then offers potential solutions.
Issues such as communication between different departments have been resolved by using a new structure not dissimilar to Durkheim’s society model, and the introduction of an informal weekly meeting called a ‘kaban’. All novel ideas for business emanating from anthropological premises.
He has also been examining the differences between selling insurance in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and why the existing approach wasn’t working. The quote, attributed to Shaw, that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language” probably has greater relevance when applied to the two states within the island of Ireland.
Bernard Marr, in a Forbes.Com piece two years ago, cited a Boston Consulting Group report that predicted by 2025, a quarter of professional jobs will have been replaced by smart software or robots and those most at risk of replacement come from the supposedly safe ‘respectable’ professions of Law, Accountancy, Financial and Health Analysis. When my local dairy farmer has replaced his milk hands in the parlour with robots, you realise that we are really entering into a ‘Brave New World’ and the key to succeeding is to understand it.
With this in mind, it is interesting to look at who else is employing anthropologists. According to ‘Business Insider’, Microsoft is the second largest employer of anthropologists in the world, second only to the US Government; also looking out for graduates in this field are Reds Associates, a consultancy company with over 70 staff with degrees in anthropology, sociology or philosophy, all working with companies such as Intel, Samsung, Carlsberg and Addidas to deliver a frictionless workplaces internationally, as well as a competitive edge when understanding consumers and marketplaces. This is a hiring trend replicated across many tech companies such as Google, not to mention traditional industries such as Ford Motors.
Wish I’d had these answers 3 years ago when I was filling in my UCAS forms!
Intro: My name is Saoirse Gallen and I’m from Belfast. I am a second year Anthropology student at QUB and really enjoy my anthropology programme. Anthropology is the study of humankind and culture and it has given me great insight into many cultures and beliefs around the world. I love my course as I’ve never had much experience with many of these places and anthropology allows me to learn about the differences in humans and why we all live as we do. I also love travel so anthropology is a great lens into seeing what life is like all around the world without having to physically be present.
The Role of a Business Anthropologist by Saoirse Gallen
‘Business Anthropologists’ have become highly sought after by employers within corporations and large companies. Indeed, many work to reform the ethos of the business in an ethical manner and help it run more smoothly or effectively.
On Monday last week, we received a lecture from the amazing Dr Robert Power, who is an anthropologist working in Allianz Insurance in Dublin. It was a superb lecture and really inspired me to think more deeply about the potential for anthropology in industry settings. Allianz sounds like an interesting place to do anthropological work and is an extremely successful business. The company made profits of over 100 billion euro last year, it is the 9th biggest company in Europe and one of the biggest general insurers in Ireland and the UK providing insurance through their brokers, alongside their partners.
Robert is based in Dublin but often travels around to different offices all over the world. His lecture mainly focused on his role and position within the company.
In an average day, Robert comes into work and speaks to as many people as he can to collect ethnographic data for internal usage. He then goes back and uses his notes to develop an ethnography and codes this material online. He has a lot of freedom in this role as he is able to ask any questions he likes and engages with many different levels of the organisation he works in. He works on dedicated projects thus giving him time and space to come back with a comprehensive analysis of the business and its operations from an anthropological perspective.
Dr. Power creates ideas and business models such as ‘small circles’, a form of symbolism and a concept he derived from Durkheim but which he constructed solely by himself! It was great to see how anthropology can breathe life in the cultural world of a given organisation.
Robert believes in supporting culture through inclusive meritocracy, by supporting shared values. Roberts’ creativity is indeed, powerful and I was particularly struck by the way he engages anthropology in his working space. The way he described his job and his love for what he does seemed to me to be akin to a dream working arrangement!
Thank you again Dr.Power for your inspiring lecture on the value of anthropology in real world settings!
Much of Dr. Robert Power’s lecture focused on the relationship of anthropological understandings of culture to organisational or business culture. The class learnt a great deal from his important reflections and we were able to apply some of these learnings to thinking through the role of anthropology in finance, particularly banking worlds and economic crisis. Aaron Archibald dedicated one of his blog posts to this important topic with a particular focus on the global economic crisis. Given what may be ahead as a result of the pandemic, Aaron’s reflections on the role of anthropology in understanding economic crisis and austerity carry much leverage.
Intro: Hi my name is Aaron. I am an anthropology undergrad student. I became interested in anthropology because after I left school (when I had no real interest in continuing education any further) but as someone who has always been interested in people, their behaviours and the human experience in general, anthropology seemed like the perfect way for me to explore these questions further. I am very happy with this decision.
Anthropology, Money & The World Economy by Aaron Archibald
“Money makes the world go round” as the old saying goes. But without people, the entire financial construction couldn’t exist. People devised the financial systems of which we are all subservient to today, and without people there is really no point.
Anthropology is the study of people, their rituals, systems and culture, but what is often overlooked is the biggest and most encompassing human system of all; the system of finance. “There is a lot of really, really excellent work on finance out there — in geography, political science, sociology — literature that contains insights and evidence from the worlds of finance and fiscality we would do well in anthropology to heed.”
Let’s take a look at the 2008 financial crisis for example. Often called ‘The Great Recession’, the world economy plummeted into chaos after years of over ambitious mortgage loans to people who simply couldn’t pay them back, through subprime mortgages. People rushed to blame lenders, immigrants and welfare recipients, but in reality, it was the system itself that was to blame.
Indeed, it is a pity that the world did not pay closer attention to anthropologists working on the financial system, if they had could the 2008 crash have been avoided? Perhaps, it could be argued. Indeed, anthropologist and editor of the Financial Times, Gillian Tett offered much in this regard. But what is most important is what anthropology can contribute to better human understanding of finance in order to best avoid another similar crisis in the future.
Finance has always been a very internal and self-regulating system, where common people on the outside have a very limited understanding of the machinations of the system (Hart & Ortiz 2008:1-3). Anthropologists have the ability, and arguably the duty to study these institutions on a human level and to inform the public about how they work, and indeed, for whom they work.
Anthropologists such as Keith Hart and Horacio Ortiz have spent time carrying our fieldwork within finance in order to gain a better understanding, but I would argue that more anthropologists need to concern themselves with finance. Maybe then the world will understand how valuable and necessary the discipline of anthropology really is !
History. 2017. Great recession. Internet document accessed 8.5.19 at https://www.history.com/topics/21st-century/recession.
Maurer, B. 2012. Finance. Internet document accessed 8.5.19 at https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/finance
Hart, K. and Ortiz, H. 2008. Anthropology in the financial crisis in Anthropology Today, 24(6). pp.1-3.
This module includes a dedicated week on the issue of precarity. Positioned between discussions on what the sharing economy has come to mean and a discussion on new forms of work that have emerged through the gig economy, the class contemplated how precarity is reconfiguring everyday working lives. As an anthropologist, I believe there is an ethical imperative to teaching and learning about precarity, especially given the way it infuses the everyday life of our students, our colleagues and our friends and family. This is why it is a necessary feature of this particular module on business anthropology. Many of the students understood the importance (and urgency) of thinking anthropologically about precarity. Therefore, they decided to dedicate one of their blogs to the issue. Here Rachel Griffin articulates the need for us to think more about the degree to which this form of work has become so normalised.
Intro: My name is Rachel Griffin and I chose anthropology as a last minute gamble after struggling with another subject in my first year at Queen’s. It is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Anthropology allows me to pursue a long held love of writing while studying the complexity of human life, in both a critical and celebratory way.
The 0th Hour by Rachel Griffin
Precarious. Uncertain. Insecure. Such is the nature of much of the work available in today’s world. Most starkly in the UK, as depicted here, is the rise of the notorious Zero-Hour Contract. The ZHC appears across many sectors, and is definitive of the work available for low-level workers in many companies, including most UK cinema chains (including my own employer), Sports Direct and of course, the Golden Arches.
A zero-hour contract is defined, essentially, by “flexibility”. Your employer chooses when to give you shifts, and you choose when to take them. Getting the time off you need reads as a pretty sweet deal, particularly for students.
Yet, flexibility on a zero-hour contract is seldom reciprocated. Instead, it means accepting shifts cut half-way through, often taking your initial 15-hour week quickly down to 10, or even 5 hours. That’s less than £50 a week, since you’ll rarely get more than minimum wage on a ZHC.
Oh, and expect to give a “valid” reason for every day you’re not available (even though you won’t get more than two shifts a week anyway).
Yes, perhaps for students, getting work on evenings and weekends, while getting the occasional Saturday off when you need it is quite appealing. But it falls apart quickly when your time and effort are undervalued and your income becomes contingent upon your boss’s personal opinion of you.
Some of my workmates, and many others across the UK, don’t have parents or student loans to fall back on. As Ken Loach harrowingly depicted in Sorry We Missed You, some even have families to feed.
It’s about time a change was made, and perhaps a more realised anthropology of these businesses can contribute!
Anthropologists have become very sought after in design and technology sectors. The final part of this module is dedicated to thinking about the role of the anthropologist working in these very diverse spaces, in particular with respect to the part they play in translating values and beliefs into design and technology concepts. This act of translation is of course undergirded by the ideals of collaboration and decolonisation. Adam Farhan Bin Salmaan Hussain took the opportunity to speak about the role of decolonisation in a design anthropology project in one of his blogs.
Intro: I’m Adam and I’m a second year anthropology student from Malaysia with an interest in Indigenous rights. Anthropology is a discipline which offers a unique perspective of understanding the structures and processes present in any society, and is applicable to a wide range of different contexts, which makes anthropology a useful tool in my academic and extracurricular activities.
Decolonisation Through Data by Adam Farhan Bin Salmaan Hussain
As a discipline, anthropology has its roots in the practices and missions of colonial actors. The narrative of wealthy anthropologists from prestigious western universities undertaking fieldwork in “primitive” societies and then using this data to take power of the lives of these societies is one that will forever tarnish the image of the discipline.
It is within this context that Bryce Peake, a media anthropologist, designed Tinn, an app for people with tinnitus that is designed to track, quantify and visualise the everyday factors that cause flare-ups in their condition. Tinn, through its application in communities of colour in Oregon, was implemented specifically for use by those who experience inequality due to gender, race and access, and was meant to decolonise data tracking.
Bryce sought to practice decolonisation by approaching the research project from an ethical perspective. Therefore, the Tinn app allowed the database to erase the data of the researcher, thereby placing an emphasis on those being studied rather than the researcher, and users could delete all their data at will, with the intended result of empowering the users.
Tinn was successful as an ethnographic device. It served to engage the participants in a context where long periods of participant-observation fieldwork was not possible, and through its design it attracted much engagement from participants.
As an ethnographic method, Tinn is an example of how digital developments can increase the depth of data collection with the consent of the participant and without the presence of the researcher.
However, as evidenced in the concerns of the participants as above, it is difficult to make the claim that this research design was successful in its decolonisation goals.
Regardless of its success in engaging participants, this research project was just another example of a privileged individual gathering data from the less privileged within a context that stretches beyond the concerns of just that community. As acknowledged by Bryce, he only served to mitigate structural violence rather than replace it. Despite not serving the full force of decolonisation, an acknowledgement of violent histories and a research design of this type is a step in the right direction on the path towards decolonising a discipline borne out of colonisation.
As our module moved online because of the pandemic and all of our lives changed dramatically, a number of the students decided to apply their learnings and interests to what was unfolding before their eyes. Their blogs show the importance of anthropology in understanding how our social and cultural worlds are being reshaped by the pandemic. Such insights will no doubt be even more important into the future given the many ways in which the pandemic has altered how we live in our homes, how we work, how we shop, the ways in which children are educated or play and the modes in which we relate and connect to one another in a world of physical distancing.
In this section, we begin with Hannah Murphy who situates the wearing of facemasks into a broader conceptualisation of solidarity and collective responsibility. Hannah hopes that anthropology will further open our understandings in a post-covid world. Next, we hear from Lucy McMullan who describes how working cultures have been radically altered by the pandemic. Lucy hopes for the end of corporate culture as we know it. Annie Fry reflects on the impact of the pandemic on the economy and the role of social distancing in diminishing our everyday lives within this. Annie reminds us to hug our friends and family when this is all over, to seize the day and our lives. Finally, we hear from Nathalie de Leeuw who describes the ways in which consumer behaviour has been foregrounded through panic-buying and stockpiling, Natalie hopes for more awareness of sustainable consumption post-covid.
Intro: I’m Hannah Murphy. I have studied language and linguistics for quite some time and over the past two years, I’ve found that studying anthropology alongside these has greatly enhanced my understanding of the ‘other’- both within and outside of my own society and culture. The ability to use an anthropological perspective can completely alter previously-held beliefs and opinions, and I think that’s why I have enjoyed studying anthropology so much- it has challenged me to acknowledge the systems behind my thought processes and step outside of them.
Face masks: Protection, representation and solidarity by Hannah Murphy
For this blog, I decided to focus on an issue which has rapidly started to affect all our lives: COVID-19. The unprecedented virus has spread at an immense rate across the world and has really put into question our daily practices and rituals. We are now living in a situation which is new and uncertain.
The situation surrounding coronavirus is constantly changing and evolving and with this, social attitudes are adapting, and new social phenomena are emerging. The phenomenon of “Mask culture” is something which is particularly striking in all of this and the significations that it carries with it.
Face masks have been an important aspect of Asian culture since the beginning of the 20th century, but unfortunately in the Western world their use has been negatively stigmatised and seen as visual representation of ‘otherness’- at least until very recently. When looking at the historical context behind the use of face masks in China, it is apparent that their use is not solely medical, but also an indicator of “medical modernity” and citizen cooperation in helping society to remain afloat during epidemics.
Perhaps, as the purchase of face masks rises globally, COVID-19 has formed a global link between cultures, allowing them to overlap. It appears that once we look beyond the assumption that the purchase of masks is a form of unnecessary panic-buying and materialism (at least in Western societies), we can see how the masks are now being used as a universal form of communication, symbolising solidarity. There is a sense of calm and togetherness that comes from being able to see a visual representation of people taking precautions to combat coronavirus.
Living in the knowledge that everyone is performing the same rituals and practices every day creates some solace amongst the fear and uncertainty. I hope that out of this small act of global understanding comes a better understanding and acceptance of the ‘Other’ in Western societies.
Intro: I’m Lucy McMullan. I enjoy reading, rollerskating, fashion and video games! I enrolled in a degree in Anthropology as I was always that ‘but why? Why? WHY?’ child, hellbent on gaining a deep understanding of the world. That drive to understand and explore the world really stuck and now I am a ‘but why?’ adult, thoroughly enjoying the in depth anthropological examinations of various cultures and social phenomena.
Covid-19 Killed Corporate Culture by Lucy McMullan
The Coronavirus pandemic has barely even begun and has already shaken the globe in an unprecedented way. With the world around us changing daily, it is naïve to think that COVID-19 won’t have a long-lasting effect on our everyday lives. Already we see a huge spike in streaming services, food delivery services and online shopping as virtual consumption changes from a matter of convenience to a government advised safety precaution.
But what does the Covid-19 crisis mean for how we conduct business? Already there are people criticizing the corporate culture they adhered to just weeks ago before armies of employees were advised to work from home in the name of social distancing.
This statement is one of the most widely reported criticisms from office workers as they lightly poke fun at their workplace’s wastefulness and poor time management. However, more serious criticisms of the corporate system have been made in the same vein as this passive comment.
From my own experience as a university student, in the last few days, I have been attending online video lectures from remote areas, joining group video chats to discuss work, emailing rather than meeting with my supervisor and have found virtual teaching more convenient than my regular pre-pandemic education. This is not to diminish the struggles that come with our swift move to virtual learning, as many students are struggling to gain access to laptops, books and a decent internet connection from home.
What I want to focus on is the relative ease that the universities and wider corporate world moved from office based employment to remote employment, and the fact that full time telecommuting was seemingly viable this entire time and just wasn’t being utilized due to the apparent lack of need for it. However, several students and employees have been outraged at this sudden jump into the 21st century while their disabilities and changing circumstances in the past have excluded them from university and work in which telecommuting or virtual participation was never an option.
The Covid-19 outbreak has brought to light some of the flawed ways in which we visualize work, productivity and the corporate community. The harsh truth is that most digitally based companies do not need employers to work in an office space 5 days a week in order to be a productive team player. Telecommuting should always be an option in order to accommodate disabled, ill or immobilized employees.
Companies do not need to spend thousands of pounds flying colleagues to meet with international buyers or associates, a phone call or skype meeting is sufficient and will save money, time and carbon emissions. The Coronavirus has been detrimental to so many lives and businesses, but at least when we come out the other side of it perhaps the outdated, wasteful and ableist corporate culture we once knew will be forced to raise its standards and become a more inclusive and sustainable system that benefits everyone.
Intro: My name is Annie Fry, I’m in my second year studying Anthropology. I’ve just come back from a semester abroad in Canada which has really enhanced my love and interest in the subject. I love learning about people, their cultures, and why people do things, as well as the business side of anthropology.
Impacts of COVID-19 by Annie Fry
COVID-19 is a completely new territory which has seeped through our society, leaving people around the world worried about the health of their families, loss of freedom and a worry to whether they can buy for their basic needs.
The challenge was to delay and stop the spread of the contagious virus at the beginning of the outbreak, but some anthropologists argue that the early warning in December about the new virus were not promptly paid attention to resulting in this now, global pandemic. Not only this, but it has led to an enormous economic and social disruption, which has been described in close relation to the 2008/9 financial crisis, with millions losing their jobs or being furloughed until further notice.
The pandemic has shown the world how unstable our food supply chain can be, with our dependence on imported food being exposed and panic buying becoming a serious issue around the UK and £1billion extra being spent on food in the first three weeks of March. It has left shelves empty, with the basic necessities unavailable to buy, causing immense worry for those who are most vulnerable, the elderly and especially the key workers who are not able to buy their food after long shifts on the front line.
Further, the term ‘social distancing’ has recently emerged in the global imagination and global vocabulary through public discourse. It is broadly used to refer to the practice of avoiding physical contact with other people in order to minimise the risk of transmitting the contagious disease, and has been associated with the ‘2m apart’ in social spaces (Presterudstuen, 2020). Anthropologists have provided a lot of important commentary on this in recent months.
Although dividing the nation geographically, it has brought us together in new forms of community and sought a new sense of social responsibility to which we want our loved ones to be safe.
Finally, although current situation is tough and everyone is waiting for lockdown to end, there are some silver linings which are as a result of this global pandemic. Climate change. Air and water pollution are down as much as 30% around the world, leaving waters in Venice becoming more transparent and less contaminated, the air pollution over the main cities around the world clearer, and wildlife venturing out and re-emerging. Believe it or not, this lockdown is doing the world some good.
Concluding this brief blog on the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 is difficult as there is a lot left to be said. The future is uncertain and life will not go back to the way it has been for a while, businesses will have to use alternative ways to speak to clients and few consumers will be able to go back to their old behaviour anytime soon.
Lastly, take nothing for granted. When the world begins to open up again, hug your friends and families a little tighter, and appreciate shopping and eating out where and when you want, as well as the freedom of movement and socialising without distance.
Intro: Hi my name is Nathalie and I am half Dutch half English. During high school I was always really interested in human Geography and Business, but also the human side of business not the mathematical side. Anthropology as a course seemed to be a kind of a synthesis of the two, which is why I decided to study it. So far I have really enjoyed the course, especially the Business anthropology module I took this past semester. I am working towards becoming a Business Anthropologist and plan to do a masters in either Human Resource Management or Marketing when I have finished my undergrad. As you can tell from my blog I am very interested in fashion and am currently writing my dissertation on how Nike as an iconic brand cultivates and sustains brand loyalty. I would love to someday work in the business side of a fashion company or magazine. I have found that studying Anthropology opens you up to a lot of opportunities and provides you with the flexibility to specialise in other areas like I am planning to do, as well.
Consumer Behaviour and Panic Buying in Response to Covid 19 by Nathalie de Leeuw
Recently, I have been doing a lot of research on consumer behaviour for my dissertation. With everything that is currently going on it is very relevant and interesting to look at that in the context of the current coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic will have a profound impact on consumer behaviour as people have to change every aspect of their life causing lots of disruption. At the start of the pandemic there was a huge issue with consumers panic buying and stockpiling essential items, with supermarkets being stripped bare of product.
This has put immense pressure on production and the supply chain. People in the UK were queuing for hours to get into a supermarket as seen in figure 3, and this was something that hasn’t happened since the war.
It can be said that consumer behaviour in response to COVID 19 varies based on wealth. It is important to note that panic-buying and stockpiling is only possible for people who have the money to buy products in bulk and have a surplus. It is a luxury to be able to buy enough for over a month as some consumers can only afford to buy what they need on a day to day basis. This is especially prevalent as due to the pandemic many people have lost their jobs or have been furloughed and with that reduced income people won’t be able to buy as much.
As a result, there is a focus on buying basic essential goods like food and not goods like clothing or luxury goods like cars for example. This could incentivise people to reuse, repair or upcycle things and could potentially be a challenge to fast fashion with many retailers having to close down shops. It will be interesting to see how large MNCs react to this and the subsequent impact on fast fashion. Anthropologists will surely have much to contribute regarding the reshaping of our consumption driven world post-Covid.
PhD in Anthropology
It’s been more than two months since the lockdown in Northern Ireland was imposed on March 23rd 2020. The pandemic has demonstrated that we live in a globalised world and the fact that parts of world are interconnected due to the mobility of people (Held and McGrew 2002). This has accelerated a quick spread of the disease. In the context of global pandemic, the World Health Organisation emphasises it is important that the countries unite together in the fight against Covid 19.
However, as time goes on the global outbreak has actually fuelled a backlash to globalisation. Governments are closing borders and more often Covid-19 is feeding into nationalist narratives. For example, Donald Trump repeatedly stated that Covid-19 is a `Chinese virus’. Conspiracy theories are circulating that the virus is a bioweapon that leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. There has also been a spike of racist incidents worldwide.
In the early days of the pandemic my friend confessed to me that her partner, a Black American living in London was avoiding the Chinese people on the subway. The fear of coronavirus has strengthened the fear of the other. Paradoxically, in this context, a member of BME ostracized another BME person. Even before the lockdown started, I heard of people avoiding Chinese restaurants in Belfast.
The lockdown itself and the new culture of containment in this context feeds into the Western rhetoric about health and safety/risk. It fits very well with socio-spatial practices of immobilizing humans in camps, behind security walls or in ‘gated’ communities (Bauman 2000). This puts forward an idea of the sterile as an image of order and enact the politics of difference and separateness that define contemporary Europe’s relationship to the ‘other’ (e.g. Diken 2004).
Another arena where coronavirus shows fragility of the global lies in the protests against the lockdown by right-wing groups. As time ensued, these have emerged as a result of social fatigue with the lockdown, and fed very well into the anti-globalisation narrative. Serendipity plays a great role in social scientific research and my interest in the topic emerged as a result of following carefully discourse on one of facebook forums for Polish migrants in Northern Ireland.
Nolens volens, I embarked on cyberethnographic endeavours (Hine 2015). I felt it was important to follow social media during lockdown as it facilitates civic engagement in the context of social isolation and confinement. I first had received a shared link from a colleague of mine strongly involved in anti-far right movements in Ireland about the unified mass gatherings to take place at Ormeau Park and Millenium Park on Sunday 16th May. That protest was organised by the Britain First movement, whose leader Jayda Fransen from had been convicted of stirring up hatred during a speech about Islam in Belfast at a rally in August 2017. Not long after that I have noticed the same invite on a Polish community Facebook forum. That post has sparked arduous public debate on the internet where members of the Polish diaspora were sharing their comments. The group had divisive opinions on the topic.
Whilst I don’t want to quote specific exchanges because of ethical considerations, I think what was interesting here, was a debate on globalism – that it’s not the British or Polish governments that imposed the lockdown but the global superstructure. Furthermore, the same people followed events in Poland, and exactly the same weekend, protesters in Poland were assaulted with pepper gas by the police. The far right group was reflecting on these ‘injustices’ and ‘oppressive regimes’, saying that the problem exists everywhere, and their aim is to undertake a struggle against the governments, who want to exert their power over citizens by ‘scaremongering’.
Furthermore, this group clearly sees the imposition of containment, social distancing and hygiene rules as a way of exerting power over people. As one of my interlocutors commented, ‘The best way to exert political power is to instil fear among people’. They have protested against public broadcasting and ‘moral panic’ induced by media. As the fact that media construct, shape and influence the public opinion (Habermas 2014), the right-wing group aimed at opposing the mainstream media discourses (Foucault 1979) through acts of sharing content on Facebook (Castells 2012). It’s important to highlight that these acts are performative and migrants are active agents, choosing what to share and how to share it. Following this protest, there were a series of initiatives directed against the lockdown: an online petition to the UK government, and a ‘hug me’ action to name a few.
What transpires from this is that covid 19 on one hand triggered off backclash to the globalisation, with a spike of racial attacks and fear of the ‘Other’ following the outbreak. On the other hand though it is worth noting that in a paradoxical twist the Polish community in Belfast became actively and politically engaged in the Britain First movement. Despite the fact that the Britain First movement in itself is a right-wing movement that goes against any categories of ‘Otherness’, the fact that the Polish community got actively involved in the protests, questions its mere foundation. It seems that we cannot escape globalisation forces after all, and mass media communication is at the centre of processes of cultural convergence in the context of the global pandemic.
Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid modernity. Cambridge, Polity Press.
Castells, M (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, Cambridge: Polity.
Diken, B. (2004). “From Refugees Camps to Gated Communities: Biopolitics and the End of the City.” Citizenship Studies 8(1): 83-106.
Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books
Habermas, J. (2014). The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, UK: Polity
Held, D., & McGrew, A. (2002). Globalization/anti-globalization. Cambridge: Polity.
Hine, Ch. (2015). Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing
Church in lockdown
MA Candidate in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice
Never before has the statement that church is more than just a building been more relevant.
Many church buildings have been closed for congregational worship since mid-March with some now opening for private prayer. Now ‘doing’ church can look like anything from pyjamas and breakfast on the sofa with a livestream playing, quiet time on a Tuesday morning or listening to worship music on your daily walk.
Part of church is building community and relationships; face to face this has changed but there has never been more space for creativity and new ideas than there is today. Homegroups on video conferencing platforms and churches partnering with local community groups to deliver essential items to those in need. I’ve even seen churches ‘meeting up’ online after the online service for coffee and a chat!
The distance recently travelled in the use of technology within the church is particularly exciting as so many people regard church as being behind-the-times. Maybe some church buildings are behind a bit and do offer that musty church smell… but the talents and gifts of people often found within these buildings are being showcased during this strange time.
One thing that interests me is seeing social media posts of people enjoying their live or pre-recorded church services. I’ve never thought of taking a photo of the minister or praise band when in the church building yet seeing these photos throughout the week offers a sense of community and of hope.
Entering church buildings for the first time (or first time in a while) can be threatening for some, not knowing anyone or sometimes worse – seeing someone you know. Now, this threat is removed as people, if they want to, can watch at home. If you have access to the internet, radio or television you will be able to find some form of church service either live or pre-recorded.
And what’s to stop regular church goers from listening or watching a different church’s service? Maybe somewhere you’ve been wanting to visit or somewhere you’re interested in how they do church. Somehow, despite what Covid-19 has stopped us from doing, it has opened doors to experience the new.
With summer approaching we can think of the loss of many large Christian gatherings and festivals across the island of Ireland. But seeing how far the church has come digitally in the last few months I am comforted in knowing that there will be much online to take part in.
Of course, it would be nice to actually ‘go’ to church but this experience so far has reminded me that church is still relevant and has shown that the message of hope it aims to share is worth learning new skills for and being present on new platforms.