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Citizenship under Covid-19

As the pandemic proceeds, the first academic research on its effects is being published. Social psychologist Dr Eleni Andreouli writes about how the Covid-19 experience has changed UK political discourse and models of citizenship.

Covid-19 has certainly altered the fundamentals of the way we live our lives. For the most part, the ‘science’ of Covid-19 is about medical, epidemiological and behavioural work looking into how the virus is transmitted, what causes it and how it can be treated most effectively. With Emma Brice, a PhD student in the School of Psychology & Counselling, I have explored Covid-19 from a different perspective. 

As members of the CuSP stream of the Open Psychology Research Centre, we are interested in the cultural politics of Covid-19. More specifically, we are interested in how this global pandemic and political responses to it (e.g. restrictions on movement, lockdowns, economic policies, among many others) have created new visions of the good citizen. We have focused specifically on the UK, which at the time the global pandemic was declared by the WHO in 2020, was undergoing a ‘transition’ phase towards its highly controversial exit from the European Union (Brexit) in January 2021. The uncertainty and polarisation around Brexit (with the population very much divided into ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’) makes the UK a particularly challenging case. 

Our guiding research question was: how is citizenship re-constructed in the context of Covid-19 and what kinds of emergent citizenship(s) are taking shape? To study this, we took a social psychological approach to citizenship which foregrounds the study of citizenship, not as a legal status, but as a practice of ‘citizen-making’ which unfolds in different settings both within and outside the formal politics of the state. 

We analysed over one hundred pieces of data, including televised briefings and other relevant high-profile interviews, letters, articles and statements, which were given by the Prime Minister or his cabinet, for the period March-November 2020, covering the first wave of the pandemic in the UK. This analysis produced five themes through which citizenship was represented: the confined, heroic, sacrificial, unfree, and responsible citizen. These themes in the government’s discourse foregrounded ideas around national effort and collective responsibility as well as gratefulness towards those at the ‘frontline’, that is, for the most part, doctors, nurses and other key workers who were represented as national heroes in the fight against coronavirus. 

Looking at these findings, it can be argued that there are ‘cracks’ in the up-to-now dominant neoliberal model of citizenship that rewards individualism and the pursuit of self-interest. Through the use of ideas of gratefulness, care and sharedness, the UK government’s discourse appears to appease a public appetite for a more caring politics, as is evident, for example, in the rise of voluntarism and community initiatives to help those in need. There are, thus, opportunities to re-imagine citizenship in other-oriented ways based on solidarity. 

However, our work also points to some key challenges to any such efforts to construct a more care-based model of citizenship. Firstly, there remains a fundamental commitment to neoliberal values in the official political discourse of the UK, which feeds into calls for fewer Covid-19 measures on the basis of respect for individual freedom and economic prosperity (whilst downplaying the right to health as a fundamental citizenship right). Secondly, there is a danger that solidarity becomes wedded to the nation-state, contributing to the current resurgence of nationalistic movements. Our research illustrates some of the conflicts and the ambivalence between progressive and regressive ideas in changing political landscapes. 

Reference: Andreouli, E. & Brice, E. (accepted/2021). Citizenship under Covid-19: an analysis of UK political rhetoric during the 1stwave of the 2020 pandemic. Accepted for publication in Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology. Special issue on ‘‘Community psychology in the era of COVID-19: How the pandemic has influenced communities and communities’ reactions”

Abstract

The paper presents an analysis of the UK government discourse on citizenship during the first nine months of the Covid-19 pandemic (March-November 2020). We adopted a socio-cultural approach to citizenship drawing on the scholarly tradition of ideological dilemmas and rhetorical psychology as well as interdisciplinary work on neoliberalism. In our analysis of over one hundred briefings and other material by the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet, we identified five interrelated constructions of the ‘good citizen’: the confined, the heroic, the sacrificial, the unfree, and the responsible citizen. The paper maps these constructions onto the ideological dilemmas of freedom/control, passive/active citizenship and individualism/collectivism. We show that, through the rhetorical use of notions of gratefulness for citizens’ sacrifice and shared responsibility, the UK government’s discourse appears to challenge the dominant model of the neoliberal citizen. However, it solidifies this very same model by responsibilizing individual citizens whilst abdicating itself from responsibility. 

Read more about Eleni Andreouli’s work: http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ea3844

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