What is the future for public sociology in and after COVID-19? Certainly it would seem, some of our practices, of community engagement, of participatory action research, and of privileging the knowledge generated by those demanding dignity from the margins of society - the subaltern counter-publics - have become more difficult if not impossible under lockdown. The voices of those who can't afford to pay are likely to be even more excluded just as they are most needed if we are to take social justice seriously.

Public sociologists at QMU are demonstrating that the discipline is adaptable and can offer possibilities for social justice under lockdown and in the post-pandemic world. For one, the public sphere has decisively shifted online. Sociologists have been studying the opportunities and threats of online communication and social media for many years: its capacity for horizontal communication outwith the gatekeepers of the mainstream media and building networks instead of hierarchies which empowers the ordinary ‘citizen journalist’; its potential for accessibility for groups excluded by physical and social barriers, overcoming the disabling impact of the 'offline' world on people with impairments or caring responsibilities. For some sociologists, the cyber-social world brings the potential for liberation from work, as technology replaces workers in many areas and so the capacity for exploitation for profit reaches its limits. The question then is, how can the medium be put in the hands of its users. On the other hand, despite the widespread availability of free software, these same technologies are in the hands of some of the biggest corporations on earth, and driven by the commercial imperative of advertising and what Leslie Sklair calls 'the culture-ideology of consumerism’.

As with any other public sphere, in the competition for space and attention, those with more power will dominate. At the same time, these are not always the same groups that dominate in the real world, and shifting boundaries of power will be happening. Subaltern counter-publics are easy to establish when groups across the world can share platforms, sometimes avoiding the scrutiny of the state or corporations, and build strategies for challenging power in society. That applies as much to emancipatory projects as to subaltern groups with distorted, asociological analyses of power, and social media has certainly been exploited by white supremacists, misogynists and conspiracy theorists. Public sociology seeks to introduce sociological analysis to areas where groups are working out how to build a better world. It doesn’t guarantee a progressive outcome, but it does provide a social critique that can challenge misplaced prejudices and can help to create that space for dialogue and analysis.

But public sociology’s role in the real world beyond cyberspace also has a future. We have all seen how students and staff alike have been exposed to the rough wind that the pandemic has blown over an unequal society. Students whose income evaporated when their jobs in bars and hotels disappeared overnight. Others whose work as care assistants has suddenly increased, as they become the key workers with inadequate protective equipment. Students, whilst caring for young children who attempt to write essays which are marked by staff in the same situation, and others left isolated, sometimes far from home, with little social contact. Those students and staff, whose mental or physical health is affected by staying at home, and those separated from their loved ones. The heightened risk of domestic violence in abusive relationships and the threat of exacerbated drink and drug problems. The university is a microcosm of social issues which have been increasingly exposed by policy responses to the pandemic.

As we emerge from global lockdown, questions will be raised about what kind of society we want. Will the re-booted economy reproduce the failures of before COVID-19 with its growing precariat of casually employed workers in the gig economy; financial challenges in the NHS, social care and public service sector; an addition to fossil fuels and toxic chemicals that is destroying the planet; an elite, impossibly divorced from the reality of society and its food banks, child poverty, homelessness? It is the voices of those in the margins, the reality of whose lives have been exposed by the experience of the pandemic who need to be at the forefront of assessing how we rebuild an economy from the relics of the old, one that puts the marginalised at the centre. How we do this, will need to draw on both the social analysis that sociologists can bring, and the collective organisation of subaltern counter-publics. As the alter-globalisation movement has said ‘another world is possible’ and public sociology can play its part in building it.

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Dr Eurig Scandrett

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