Innovation Incubator

Day 2: Wednesday, 14 September


From Pandemics to Syndemics: From Methodological Fragmentation to Methodological Dialogue in the Face of Systemic Structural Crises

Session convener: Ciara Kierans, The University of Liverpool

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we can’t draw neat lines around cause-effect relations and that discrete disease categories are almost impossible to locate, making behavioural and individualised interventions problematic. Indeed, our most recent pandemic continues to throw into relief a wide range of critical concerns: the fragility of healthcare infrastructures, supply chains and human resource management; the precarity of employment; the availability of childcare; gender and racial equality; the processes of production and consumption; the interconnectedness of economies; and our entangled more-than-human relations, with raw materials, with animals, with the climate, with new technologies. COVID-19 has been a multi-species pandemic, one where ecosystem degradation has played a crucial role in rising zoonoses and the conditions of disease emergence but also one where our responses may well have exacerbated the very systemic structural issues which gave it such terrible implications at a global level. When policy makers have to take such an extended range of factors into consideration and deal with their very real interconnections, what does that tell us about the nature of the phenomenon we are actually encountering?; how can we understand it?; what methods and methodologies are appropriate to the task? Understanding the links between the what and the how are critical to any meaningful interdisciplinary discussion but it is also important to acknowledge that our long-standing intellectual divisions of labour with their standardised disciplinary methods silos serve us extremely poorly when we are attempting to understand the links between, for instance, such diverse things as lockdowns, the recruitment, training and payment of seafarers and truck drivers, viral waves and socio-economic and environmental recovery. This is why many researchers are taking up the concept of ‘the syndemic’, a concept originally introduced by the anthropologist Merrill Singer (1994), to emphasise the interactions between the biological aspects of illness in interaction with wider social, political and economic contexts and COVID-19’s multi-scale, multi-dimensional character has clear syndemic qualities. However, while important, on their own, reconceptualisations are not enough. Without new methodological settlements, we will continue to be blind-sided by unforeseen effects but also underestimate areas where concerted action can prove valuable. This panel will seek to flesh these issues out in interdisciplinary debate by inviting provocations from, for example, anthropology, sociology, public health, epidemiology, economics, environmental studies and/or history. The aim will be to examine opportunities to, for instance, mix methods, create interdisciplinary contexts where methods can be used in dialogue or, indeed, to develop entirely new methods adequate to the analysis of syndemic crises.