Society under Stress

Is the coronavirus pandemic fundamentally changing our society? An interview with Professor Dr. Martina Löw

The rapid global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus presents a challenge, and not just for medicine. Increasingly, it is becoming a crisis affecting society. Reflecting the ancient Greek origin of the word pandemic (“pan” meaning all or all-embracing and “demos” meaning the people), it is now impacting the whole of society - and not least those sections of society only minimally affected by the illness itself.

Dr. Martina Löw, professor of sociology of planning and architecture at TU Berlin, is both chair of the DFG Collaborative Research Center “Re-Figuration of Spaces” and head of the “Social Cohesion” research focus within the Berlin University Alliance. She adopts a largely spatial perspective in her analysis of the current state of society, according to which the use of digital technologies is radically altering our notions of spaces and orientation in the world. This process is being rapidly accelerated by the current pandemic.

To find out more about this, read our interview with Professor Martina Löw.

Dr. Löw, does the coronavirus pandemic mean a break with all our established ways of living?

“No, we have been witnessing a re-figuration of society since the 1970s. Social movements, globalization, changes in the labor market and above all else digitalization are gradually bringing about a late modern society. Modern society is distinguished by a highly abstract, container-like conception of space. Spaces are conceived as boxes, containers, enclosed areas. The medieval conception of space, by contrast, focused on specific places. In the late modern age, the concept of space as a container has undergone another dramatic change. In addition to this sense of space as a container, a notion of space as a network has also been developing. Space is no longer perceived as an enclosed form or piece of land but rather as a number of different places linked by loose infrastructures. And it is in the context of this process of change that the coronavirus pandemic has occurred. In times of anxiety, people generally seek security in old ways and customs. Spaces are being closed: Bodies, living spaces, and countries are returning to being containers, locking the virus in or out. At the same time, there is an enormous increase in digital networking. The virus seems to be borderless, as does digital communication. However, people are tied to specific locations. This leads to tensions in many areas of society.

What effects do these social tensions have on individuals?

Corona is the headline word for a health crisis. But this crisis is also one affecting human relationships, which are now forced to exist within a new notion of physical distancing. People are required to keep more distance from each other than feels good. New forms of greeting have to be learned, which repeated over time appear rude. We don’t have places where we can meet and talk, share a laugh together, sense the human presence of others. The reality is that people are social creatures being made lonely by this crisis. So, we can also see corona as a keyword for a crisis in people’s personal lives. We also need to remember that for many people it also represents an economic crisis.

Different societies have found different ways of dealing with this. What is your view on this as a sociologist?

It’s interesting. South Korea has succeeded in preventing a second wave of infection and, as a consequence, a second lockdown. People are free to move as they wish. Digital control is far more widespread in South Korea. People are able to use their apps to see which places carry which levels of risk. Anyone who is ill or showing symptoms of illness is required to self-isolate immediately and this is monitored much more closely than is the case in Germany. But otherwise people plot their way through their networks themselves. Korea is a country which developed very quickly in the 1970s from an agrarian society to a modern society and then equally quickly and radically to a digitalized modern society. South Koreans experience space less as a container and much more as a highly dynamic network.

Are different social strata and groups differently affected?

The current pandemic is certainly not bringing different social groups closer together. Existential concerns, particularly those of an economic nature, are much greater in groups with low incomes and little job security. The fact that younger people are much less threatened by the virus than older people or people with a pre-existing condition is a further source of potential division. But I have actually witnessed a great deal of inter-generational solidarity in this regard. Many younger people are concerned about infecting older family members and friends.

Will this pandemic fundamentally change our daily lives or will we continue as before as soon as we have found a solution for the acute medical problem?

Nothing will be as before. We will be able to hug one another again and celebrate together. But we will be living in a digital world by then. A world where employers can decide who needs a permanent physical workplace in an office and who can work from home. Also, we won’t forget the dead so quickly.

Interview: Katharina Jung

Original publication

This text originally appeared in German on 29 November 2020, in the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper TU Berlin supplement.