17. Epistemic disputes and social polarization in times of global health emergency and other emergencies

Cecilia Vergnano – FWO senior postdoctoral fellow
KU Leuven – Department of Social Anthropology

The concept of political and social “polarization” is one of the new leitmotifs of contemporary societies, especially in Western liberal democracies. Just to put a few examples, in the United States the number of books banned from schools has drastically increased during the last year as a result of pressure from conservative associations of parents (most of the banned books address topics related to racism, gender identity and sexual orientation); the debate about the origins of coronavirus divided Wikipedia’s volunteer editorial team, leading to internal accusations, bullying and harassment; in Germany, where economic inequalities between the Western and the Eastern side are increasing, some far-right eastern electors declare they miss the Berlin Wall since it was protecting them from the dire consequences of globalization.
Social fractures created by the pandemic management (between supporters and critics of
governmental measures) in some cases overlap with pre-existing fractures, such as those underlying Brexit of the electoral victory of Donald Trump in 2016. Especially since the beginning of the pandemic outbreak, the stake of the dispute between mainstream discourses and their opponents has been presented as an epistemological one, where science has been represented as a univocal source of objective knowledge from which political decisions straightforwardly derive – even if with uneven effects on the social body and strong impacts in terms of increasing inequalities. Those who do not agree with specific measures or narratives are, on the contrary, represented as “anti- science”, “irrationals” or even conspiracists.
The proposed panel, at the intersection of social anthropology, political science, sociology, social geography and social psychology, aims to give space to empirical research and ethnographic accounts on

  • The emergence of new social movements and the redefinition of old ones,
  • Protests surrounding pandemic-related measures,
  • Epistemic wars between different sectors of science, media and citizens,
  • Elites’ and subaltern groups’ production of knowledge,
  • Construction of alterity in time of post-truth politics,
  • Internal fractures within social groups in the framework of health emergency and other emergencies, Impacts of contemporary emergency policies in terms of social inequalities and divergences of worldviews

as well as more methodological, theoretical and ethical interventions concerning the challenges of research about social and political “polarization”:

  • Beyond measuring socioeconomic inequalities through various quantitative indicators, how can we qualitatively assess the distancing of worldviews?
  • How can we convey an anthropological understanding of conspiracy theories as a form of reasoning in context, or mere “social facts” (Fassin, 2021), therefore exempt from moral judgment?
  • How can we grasp the critical questions posed by those groups which we do not usually identify with (such as nativist, populist, homophobic or racist worldviews embodied by “populist” electors)?

The most promising methodologies to address these questions are “traditional” ethnography but also online ethnography, discourse analysis as well as any other methodology allowing qualitative and fine-grained insights about the groups and phenomena studied.

Keywords: polarization, epistemic battles, populism, conspiracy theories, emergency governance Sub-disciplines and areas of concern: science and technology studies, medical anthropology, philosophy of science, media studies, conspiracy theory studies, populism studies, social movement studies

Short bio: Cecilia Vergnano is a social anthropologist. Throughout her research career, she has analysed the production of marginality in various realms (mobility, housing, and labour) as well as moral panics related to the marginal “Other” (Roma, refugees, inhabitants of urban suburbs). More recently, her research expanded by including the phenomena of so-called “populism” and “conspiracy theories”, the moral panic associated with them, and the new forms of production of otherness and exclusion from legitimate political debates through the labels of “populist” / “conspiracist”.

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