by Tarah Hodgkinson
How do we understand changes in our social life during an exceptional event, like the current pandemic? Over the last several months we’ve watched the world change dramatically in response to COVID-19. Many places are experiencing second waves, further lockdowns, economic crises and the tyranny of the masses.
The pandemic raises a number of questions, in particular, what will happen to our social life? Exceptional events can be anything from the Olympics or other major sporting events, to major gatherings of people like G20 protests or natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, or pandemics.
I’ve spent much of my academic career studying these events. It comes down to three main theories predicting how crime will unfold in an exceptional event;
• social disorganization
• social cohesion/altruism
• opportunity theories.
Each theory predicts a different outcome.
EXCEPTIONAL EVENT THEORIES
Social disorganization suggests that during an exceptional event, crime and disorder will increase because the usual social order has been disrupted. Exceptional events can exacerbate social inequality and emphasize the disadvantage for certain groups.
Theories of social cohesion and altruism suggest that during an exceptional event, crime and disorder will decrease because people are more likely to help each other and act altruistically.
Opportunity theories suggest that crime trends will go up and down based on opportunities for crime that are created or removed by the exceptional event.
COVID-19 is certainly an exceptional event and cities across Canada and Australia have seen declines in most types of crime. Some crime types are up in some areas, such as domestic violence and commercial burglary.
Other crime types are stable, such as drug-related crimes and robbery. Yet in the US, both increases and decreases in crime types are underway.
All of this should support opportunity theories. However, years of reading about the sociology of exceptional events, including being present on the ground for some of them, suggests there is more going on during COVID-19 than simply a change in opportunities.
A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL
Two authors come to mind. One is Rebecca Solnit, who wrote A Paradise Built in Hell. In this book, the author provides detailed evidence that in disaster situations, people engage in altruism above all else.
The second author, Enrico L. Quarantelli has debunked numerous myths about social behaviour in disaster situations. He wrote extensively about the acts of altruism across New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
This dramatically countered much of the media coverage of the disaster. So how do we explain changes in crime during COVID-19?
COVID-19 is unlike any other exceptional event. Inconsistent with much of the sociology of disaster literature, the pandemic is acting to force us apart and isolate us in a number of ways. Social distancing is counter to basic human needs for connection.
While the fluctuating trends in certain crime types may suggest that opportunity theory might be better at explaining exceptional events like pandemics, I’m inclined to believe that the significant declines in crime more broadly, across Canada, Australia and parts of the United States are more consistent with social cohesion/altruism theories.
If this is true, people are responding in ways that help, not hurt, during this pandemic, despite the social distancing. Crime trends in COVID-19 might be indicating that even with a major shift to social interaction, our desire to connect and protect – the main premise of SafeGrowth - outweighs the opportunities that these events create.