Covid and ‘lay normativity’

medrabotnik slays the covid beast

spotted on a Moscow wall – the medrabotnik slays the covid beast

A major problem in my writing about Russia is trying to communicate the idea of ordinary Russian people as politically sophisticated. Related to that is the attempt to show that most people are more sensitively reflexive to the meaning of language than we give credit for. If given the chance, people show an understanding of the framing of the political – albeit this is almost always dependent on their preconceptions and more or less consistent ideas about the world.

I’ve tried to do that in writing about the Ukraine conflict, and more recently in writing (an unpublished article) about homophobia. The point is not to romanticise what the sociologist Andrew Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’. When I talk to people about Ukraine and about homophobia they more often than not take up the framings presented to them by the media, and in turn the Russian political elite. However, they very quickly move beyond these impoverished framings, and often end up endorsing far more ‘contingent’ (it depends) and often sociological perspectives (that things have complex causes and that judgement might be reserved).

This post is prompted by what Covid shows about the mismatch between what elites expect of most people – based on those elites’ internalisation of narrow and stunted ideas about rational actions of others. This happens because they themselves are (often) utility maximisers, instrumentalist in their dealings with most others, focused on gain and loss materially in their choices, lacking empathy or a wider ‘sociological imagination’ about the places they live. I know people will object to this, but I like to call this ‘living neoliberalism’.

Covid illustrates how elites and particularly their courtier journalists are usually behind the curve and not ahead of it. Thus with typical hubris, we see it too right now in the UK with the ‘lag’ in the response of journalists – cocooned in their WhatApp bubbles. The majority of people self-isolated here before the government advised them too and despite the media/govt attempts to frame the social response to the virus as ‘keep calm and carry on’, otherwise known as ‘let the old and weak die to save our inequitable way of life’.

Now my thinking is focused on the UK because that’s where I’m currently stuck. But this all reminded me of how much I was struck with Andrew Sayer’s work when I first encountered it and how much – in one way or another – it has stuck with me. Sayer is interested in rescuing Bourdieu – allowing for the ‘habitus’ to generate action – particularly for the most insulted an injured in society. Sayer draws attention to how sociology seems to ‘deny the life of the mind in working class’ people. He tries to strike a balance between resistance and compliance by using the term ‘longing’. In doing this he starts developing the idea of lay normativity as a set of discriminative values people have about flourishing and suffering – in a ‘practically-adequate way’. From there he talks about ‘ethical dispositions’ and their potential for activation. I would say we see this quite significantly with a disease mainly affecting the weak and vulnerable – that pretty quickly the balanced favoured a general recognition that one’s own needs were outweighed by the needs of others – however grudgingly and difficult this was to bear (and only made possible thanks to belated financial concessions by a callous government).

What I like about the potential of ‘lay normativity’ is that it both allows for a rationality that escapes rational interest calculations of ‘homo economicus’, AND allows for the kind of ‘moral economy’ approach now current in anthropology that sees people as more than individuals – caught up, for better or worse in chains of sociality as ethical beings. For Sayer this is a double-layered form of interpreting the world – both ‘sociological’ – looking for structural causes, but tempered by normative ethical reasonings that cannot be reduced to habitual action or internalisation of discourses. It’s focused on emancipatory potential within ourselves for sure, but what else should sociology be ‘for’? Sayer comes back at the end of his book to the question of ‘whose normativity’, acknowledging that ethics can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. His attempt around this is to focus on the issues of suffering and flourishing – and that the Foucauldian ‘everything is dangerous’ response to the social is a misguided evasion of the inevitable need for the normative.  He also builds on Nancy Fraser’s perspective that equality means not just redistribution but also recognition as social participants. A lot of the pot banging going on at the moment (the local public vocal displays of support for healthcare workers) reflects a wish for lay normativity to be heard – it’s not just performative virtue.

Anyway, to bring this back to Russia, I just want to share a few of the ways I’ve been influenced by these ideas in my writing. I’m writing about suffering and recognition at the moment for my future book, but now I’ll look back to ways I’ve developed these ideas:

Most recently on homophobia [draft article] I found it useful to problematize a view that homophobia is weaponized in a ‘culture war’ against the West by drawing on how fear of difference reveals more about social trauma, the distrust and loss of the social state and attitudes about ‘moral education’, as it does about the successful inculcation of the idea of the ‘decadent west’.

When I wrote about the meaning of working-class craft in Russia I was very influenced by the idea of recognition and practices involving shared values which escape, more or less, the circuits of commodification, consumption and value  as wage-labour. Here I also used Sayer to prompt me to explore Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘virtue ethics’ – I still think anthropology is really missing a connection to this.

Around the same time I wrote about ‘lay reasoning’ in relation to memory of the socialist past – to show that people had significant mnemonic resources that were not constrained to ‘public memory’ of socialism (good or bad), nor were they nostalgic in the restorative or reflective senses popularised via Boym. They were however, morally normative in that they often activated political thoughts about social justice.

Finally in my book from 2016 I revisited some of the memory materials to explore how those activated reasonings about loss and trauma from the transition period play out – in practical but ethically based actions to further the ideas of autonomy and recognition – if only in the socially local.

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