Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

The lower two-thirds is an oil painting style photo of an older woman with grey hair. She has her back to us and is reading a piece of paper with a magnifying glass. The top third is the title to this post

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of public sociology because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. What follows has been in the works for a couple of months. As previously promised, I’m now coming back to this because of the ongoing need to increase public awareness about the science of the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, I worked with some colleagues on an early literature review scoping policy responses to the pandemic, and I’ve provided feedback on evolving policy research. As an applied sociologist, my focus has been on how race, culture, disability, gender, and other socioeconomics impact how people understand and act on public health initiatives, as well as ethical considerations of COVID research “on the run.”

Since then, I’ve been keeping up with both the research and media coverage of public health responses. I’ve been providing summaries of unfolding information on my social media (primarily Facebook and Instagram stories, as well as Twitter). This started partly to address some of the misconceptions I was seeing amongst my friends and family and I’ve kept this up as it’s been the most efficient way to help people in my life better understand what the restrictions mean for them, or to correct confusing reports.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation. People are hungry for practical advice, but don’t know who to trust (they don’t know where to look for credible resources), or they feel overwhelmed with too many conflicting directions. This is known as information overload, and it leads to poor decision-making.

One of the patterns that has been especially concerning are people writing social media posts, op eds and even setting up consultancies to profiteer from COVID-19 without any health training or policy experience. This contributes to public distrust, conspiracy theories or poor discussion that is not based on evidence. People are choosing to confirm their pre-existing beliefs, rather than engaging critically with scientific information that challenges their perspective. This is known as confirmation bias. It stops people from considering new information and different points of view that might be helpful to their wellbeing.

Reading original scientific journal articles is not always possible as there is often a paywall. Plus, science papers are, by definition, published for the academic community. The language is technical, and the principles can be hard to follow for people who are not subject matter experts. This makes it more important for scientists who have access to write about science research in an accessible manner and to share findings through different communities.

While data on COVID-19 are evolving, and no one can claim to be a definitive COVID-19 expert, the best sources to trust are official sources, such as state Health Departments, epidemiologists, virologists, health practitioners who are providing front-line services (such as Aboriginal-controlled health organisations), and policy analysts who work on COVID-19 responses. Additionally, reliable news sites include the ABC News Australia live blog, Croakey and individual health researchers, such as epidemiologist Dr Zoe Hyde (University of Western Australia) on Twitter.

If you read about a study, how do you know if you can trust the conclusions? What’s the best approach if you wanted to write about a study’s findings for a broader audience, whether it’s your friends and family reading your Facebook feed, or an article in a major news site? Today’s post gives tips for how to read a study using critical thinking principles from sociology, and things to consider if you want to write about, or share, studies that you read about.

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Pandemic, race and moral panic

An Asian woman wears a surgical mask. She's touching her hand to the bottom of her chin as she looks off to the side

Since the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic reached Australia in January 2020, I’ve been working on a couple of COVID-19 research posts for you. I was ready to post one of these on Monday, but I have decided to first address a race and public health response that is presently unfolding.(1)

In the afternoon of 4 July 2020, Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, gave a press conference announcing that two more postcodes are being added to COVID-19 lockdown (making 12 in total) (McMillan & Mannix, 2020). The new postcodes under Stage-3 lockdown are 3031 Flemington and 3051 North Melbourne.

Additionally, the Victorian Government is effectively criminalising the poor: nine public housing towers are being put into complete lockdown. The Premier said: “There’s no reason to leave for five days, effective immediately.” This affects 1,345 public housing units, and approximately 3,000 residents.

Public housing lockdown is made under Public Order laws. Residents will be under police-enforced lockdown for a minimum of five days, and up to 14 days, to enable “everyone to be tested.”

How do we know this public housing order is about criminalising the poor, and driven by race? The discourse that the Premier used to legitimise this decision echoes historical moral panics and paternalistic policies that are harmful.

Let’s take a look at the moral panics over the pandemic in Australia, and how race and class are affecting the policing of “voluntary” testing.

I support continued social distancing, self-isolation for myself and others who can afford to work from home, quarantine for people who are infected so they can get the care they need without infecting others, and widespread testing for affected regions. These outcomes are best achieved through targeted public communication campaigns that address the misconceptions of the pandemic, the benefits of testing for different groups, making clear the support available for people who test positive, and addressing the structural barriers that limit people’s ability to comply with public health measures.

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Corporate Responsibility in Health Campaigns

Oil drawing of the tops of coke bottles against a red background with the title, 'Corporate responsibility in health campaigns'

When Coke launched its obesity campaign in Australia, social scientists spoke out about the problems with the messaging and strategy. The company says they are helping to combat weight-related illness by releasing smaller cans and by selling its low calorie Coke varieties. Coke also says it is providing nutritional information on its vending machines and it has teamed up with a bicycle group to encourage exercise.

Today’s post discusses the problems with Coke’s social media marketing strategy to appear more socially conscious about public health. The issue is not about whether or not you or I drink cola occassionally; the issue is broader, about how companies blur the lines on health and junk food.

To date, Coke has tried, and failed, to improve their corporate responsibility. Coke invests a great deal of money in science as a means to address health concerns, however none of this marketing speaks to the social and health problems associated with sugary soft drinks. Addressing social science concerns would better serve Coke’s corporate change, if Coke is indeed committed to its campaign of healthy living.

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Sociology of the Natural Food Industry

A White woman buys food from an organic food stall. The seller is an Asian woman of colour

An article on how large corporations get away with labelling food as “natural” was passed onto me by one of my former clients (first published by 2DayFM, now taken down). It makes me think about the importance of the social science of food. It’s sociologically interesting that the article appears on the blog of a popular radio show in Australia, but the article is hardly scientific. Nevertheless, it does have very good links to follow up, and I’ll discuss these issues with respect to empirical research. The fact that the article appears on a radio station blog aimed at a mass commercial audience makes me reflect on my work as a research consultant.

On the one hand, the article represents how consumer awareness of food products has become a social movement. On the other hand, my prior life working with the public as a consultant to businesses has shown me how the public’s need for health and nutritional information is a confusing and fraught process for ordinary people. People who aren’t trained to read research critically pass on information and act on advice by non-experts with a popular following.

My post today explores each of the claims in this popular article. I use a sociology of food to place the “natural” food movement into socio-economic perspective. I end with a reflection of how I used the sociology of public health perspective to inform my work with clients in mass communication with large consumer audiences.

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Aboriginal Families Seek Action Over Uranium in Drinking Water

Racist policies are making remote Aboriginal communities sick. At least three communities in central Australia have levels of uranium in drinking water that exceed health guidelines, with dozens more not meeting good quality.

“It’s an international scandal that this is allowed to happen in a country like Australia — a rich country like Australia… If that was happening in Victoria, you’d have a hell of a row… Because they’re bush people and not a concern to politicians, they don’t worry about it.”

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Accessibility in Urban Planning

When I first arrived in Brisbane for a work trip, I was impressed to see braille on every major street sign. Sydney has many such signs; Melbourne and other cities have fewer or none.

On my second day in Brisbane, I came across an elderly woman who said the lift to cross this major bridge was broken and she was braving up the stairs to get to her bus stop. I asked if she wanted help but she said “I can do this. I’ll just go slow.” She said she couldn’t believe the lift had not been looked into. Many other people were struggling without the lift.

Brisbane is not alone here;

I travel a lot around Australia and few major cities are planned around accessibility, despite our diverse needs as a society, and in spite of the fact that our population is ageing rapidly. This is as much an issue of urban planning as it is about equity and social inclusion. A ripe area for applied sociology to make a useful contribution.

[Photo 1: street sign at night with braille reads “George Street to Brisbane Square. Photo 2: Aerial view of busy Brisbane road.]

Sociology of Trophy Hunting

The despicable practice of trophy hunting has unique social practices that sanitise the language and images of animals killed for sport.

Ulrich Seidl, the director of “Safari,” a film that documents trophy hunting, says the language used by trophy hunters:

“‘create[s] this certain emotional distance between the act of hunting and the animals.’ ‘Piece’ becomes a byword for animal; ‘sweat’ for blood. Blood, Seidl says, is of particular significance: ‘They remove the blood from the photos so no one can see … It’s an indication for me that blood is very much a taboo in our society.'”

Source: CNN.

Barcodes for Tokyo’s Ageing Population

This is not the best way to deal with an ageing population. Barcodes and similar types of identification have been exploited throughout history.

“A company in Iruma, north of Tokyo, developed tiny nail stickers, each of which carries a unique identity number to help concerned families find missing loved ones, according to the city’s social welfare office.”

Source. My analysis of ageing population policies in Japan, Sweden and Australia, on Social Science Insights.

Sociology of Small Scale Farming

Woman farmer in Sapa, Vietnam

By 2013, Vietnam had halved malnutrition by investing in small scale (family) farming in just 12 years. Can the same happen in other nations? The United Nations believes so. What are some of the sociological considerations to boost the success of small scale farming? While this agricultural enterprise may be able to help families reduce hunger, it may not necessarily help households rise above the poverty line, unless social issues such as gender inequality are also addressed.

Sociology of the National Arboretum

Playground at the National Arboretum Canberra

One of the themes of my visual sociology is the representation of science. Conservation is as much about social practices as it is about earth science, biology and other natural sciences. Today’s post is about the sociology of the National Arboretum, which sits on Ngunawal country. Ngunawal people are the traditional custodians of this part of Acton, west of the city in Canberra. Less than a seven minute drive central business district, this is one of the world’s largest arboretums for rare and endangered trees. I am no arborist. I cannot even claim to be a fan of gardening. I was interested in the Arboretum first in an attempt to capture a visual sociology of Canberra, and second to see how people interact with this place as a science centre. The focus of my post today is on the social dynamics of the Arboretum, especially on community aspects of conservation and the trees that drew the greatest interest amongst the crowds I saw: the Bonsai and Penjing Collection .
National Arboretum (18)

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