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Sociology in Times of Pandemic: Metatheoretical Considerations and the Example of the Covid-19 Crisis

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Abstract

The Covid-19 crisis initiated debates among sociologists concerning metatheoretical principles of sociology and how sociological analyses should be done in times of pandemic. We discuss the methodological basis of the explanatory sociology approach and demonstrate its relevance in times of pandemic. We start with the paradigm of realism and then proceed to the guiding principles of causality and methodological individualism. It is argued that this is the appropriate and reasonable epistemological basis for sociology and enables explanation of social phenomena as well as prediction of unintended consequences of social interventions associated with the Covid-19 crisis. We state that this sort of sociology now is disputed neither within the scientific community nor outside in the media and the general society, although this had been the case constantly before the pandemic.

Keywords

  • Covid-19
  • Pandemics
  • Sociological methodology
  • Sociological analyses
  • Causality
  • Collective goods
  • Social norms

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Covid-19 is a viral disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

  2. 2.

    Revers and Traunmüller (2020) show that such ideological pressure is not confined to the University of Leipzig, but takes also place at other German universities.

  3. 3.

    We are happy to point out, that this has not been the case for the Institute of Sociology in Leipzig that always has been a backing for Thomas Voss in this respect.

  4. 4.

    According to Merton, one key element of the “ethos of science” is universalism (Merton 1973). That is, truth claims result from the application of impersonal methodological rules (for example, theories should be logically consistent and be in accordance with empirical observations).

  5. 5.

    Recent empirical research studies that focus on real losses show that actors are more egoistic when interacting in the loss domain compared to gains (Neumann et al. 2018; Windrich et al. 2020).

  6. 6.

    Especially the gender ideology has a major influence on contemporary sociology and science in general (cf. Heying 2020 for an extreme example). And, more than once Thomas Voss was attacked for not giving into this position—especially by representatives of the student body—and had to defend his methodological principles.

  7. 7.

    Because many of these countries belong to the main hubs for the worldwide air traffic closing the borders would have been even more important for these countries.

  8. 8.

    In parentheses in each case the formal expression of the verbal statement beforehand using the terminology of Winship and Morgan (1999) is presented. We resign a further explanation of these formal terms and only point to the fact that formal analysis can and should also easily and sensibly be done in social science.

  9. 9.

    One key parameter in monitoring the course of a pandemic is the basis reproduction number R0, which indicates how many more people an infected individual infects on average. Government measures aim to reduce the basis reproduction number of infections below a value of 1 (the parameter depends not only on the characteristics of the virus, but also on characteristics of the social network, the contact behavior of a population and how long an infected person has been infected, cf. Krämer 2020).

  10. 10.

    Collective goods are goods no actor (practically) can be excluded from. Contributing to the collective good is individually costly.

  11. 11.

    Both types of actors are assumed to act self-regarding and egoistic avoiding costs and striving for benefits.

  12. 12.

    Selective incentives (cf. Olson 1965) are private (non-collective) advantages or disadvantages that are linked to a contribution or non-contribution to the creation of the collective good, e.g. state coercion (fines, prison sentences) or social incentives (social recognition or disapproval).

  13. 13.

    Containing the pandemic with governmental coercive measures that paralyze social and economic life and claim additional lives versus doing nothing with the risk of a fatal spread of the virus, which can also cost additional lives (risky decisions between losses; see also the seminal contributions of Kahneman and Tversky, e.g. Kahneman 2011).

  14. 14.

    Possible explanations for an increased risk of suicide in times of crisis can be found in Durkheim's anomie theory (cf. Durkheim 1973; anomie as a growing gap between expectations and opportunities under changed economic and social conditions) as well as in theories of relative deprivation (cf. Williams 1975).

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to Werner Raub and Andreas Tutic for valuable and detailed comments on former versions of this paper.

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Berger, R., Krumpal, I. (2021). Sociology in Times of Pandemic: Metatheoretical Considerations and the Example of the Covid-19 Crisis. In: Krumpal, I., Raub, W., Tutić, A. (eds) Rationality in Social Science. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-33536-6_5

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