Collective emotions and Covid-19

Gavin Brent Sullivan (Centre for Trust Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University).

The imposition of social distancing and regulations to prohibit mass gatherings by the UK government (and many others) created an oft-repeated ‘new normal’ that has had a multitude of ongoing effects on families, organisations and communities (some of which may not be apparent for months or years into the future). The global public health response to the pandemic has come to represent a kind of massive ‘natural experiment’ which has provoked many to extend existing theories and studies (e.g. of reactions to previous pandemics, disasters etc.). Social and political features of the pandemic can be addressed via research on collective emotions and efforts to analyse related forms of personal and communal affective practices (Wetherell, 2012; Sullivan, 2015, 2018); including work on particular types of collective emotions (e.g., collective pride; Sullivan, 2014) and their changes in intensity, differences in time course, valence and ‘quality’ (Goldenberg et al., 2020).

Collective emotions include group-based emotions and affect-laden collective practices

When people feel emotions there is often an urge to express emotions with others, to talk about them in order to seek further information, make sense of those emotions and form a common reaction (Rimé, 2009). In this pandemic, the loss of a wide range of normal practices has been described by some as a form of ‘collective grief’ (Weir, 2020). Loss of previous forms of life and sources of security, along with concerns about the numbers of deaths and the impending global economic crisis, have involved a complex mixture of grief and anxiety.

Collective grief is a plausible candidate for an emotion that can be attributed towards whole groups and used to identify forms of group behaviour and collective action. It contrasts with the widely used but deeply problematic notion that the initial impact of the virus was felt in terms of a widely shared or even collective panic (Rubin & Wessely, 2020). For example, initial complacency about the pandemic in China was quickly replaced by widespread concern and fear about the potential national and international consequences. Such group-based concerns were reinforced by different social and behavioural policies enacted at a national level, including the closing of borders to non-nationals. While support for preventive behaviours and related pandemic policies is often generated by concerns about friends and family than society (Raihani & de Wit, 2020), group-based and collective concerns still have considerable potential to generate emotions that are shared with others and help to understand intra- and intergroup relations (Mackie & Smith, 2017).

In an early review of  the role of social and behavioural science in responding to the pandemic, Van Bavel et al. (2020) highlighted several collective emotion processes: describing groups in terms of widely shared concern or fear rather than panic is strongly preferred; emotional sharing of online content contributes to political polarisation during health crises; and individual and collective interests should be aligned in mitigating the worst effects of a pandemic. However, there is much highly relevant research demonstrating the importance of collective emotions, and highlighting how they are felt, articulated, acknowledged, managed in collective practices and action.

Collective emotions includes analysis of what people feel on the basis of group membership (their social identity or identities) and the communities that they are bonded or feel bound too (i.e., groups that provide sources of bonding capital and that a subset of individuals may feel themselves to be personally ‘fused’ with). For example, a Conservative voter may feel dismay about the way that the government has managed the pandemic and in sharing group-based feelings with others, a wider collective emotion can emerge and become 'sedimented'. 

Co-presence and the consequences of its absence

In Durkheim’s (1912/1995) highly influential early theory of the affective power of the participation of Indigenous Australians in religious rituals, co-presence of others is crucial to the phenomenon of collective effervescence. Durkheim described the feelings as “a sort of electricity … generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation” (p.217).

The empirical literature from sociology and social psychology has added convincing detail to aid understanding of the causal processes involved. Synchronized actions and verbal expressions can generate feelings of affiliation and more intense emotions, particularly when they are combined with awareness of the physical presence of others. For example, Garcia and Rimé’s (2019) analysis of tweets after the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015 highlights how mediated peer-to-peer sharing of emotions reaches ‘astronomical’ levels that are not possible through in-person conversation alone. Such ‘emotion-sharing feedback loops’ (p.618) indicate a kind of direct access to emotion expression and sharing, with collective emotion here seeming to be what most people perceived others were feeling. However, this perceived synchrony of one’s feelings with the emotions of others via Twitter did not take place during a lockdown. 

Examples of the role and importance of co-presence and the understudied potential of altered relations between offline and online practices to generate socially and politically significant group-based and collective emotions include:

  • Forms of ‘identity leadership’ (Van Bavel et al., 2020) and ‘top-down’ evocation of emotion norms that can take place using traditional media. For example, in the Queen’s televised speech to the UK, she anticipated future collective pride in current actions: ‘I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge’ (Telegraph reporters, 2020). She also suggested a genuine collective pride rather than what sociologists describe as the diffuse but high-energy affective state of collective effervescence: ‘We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us’. Such top-down narratives are likely to have an effect on group membership and collective action; especially when they are consistent and coordinated with emotions generated in bottom-up emotions shared, amplified and coordinated by others, often in the form of hybrid offline and online discussion, enactment and aligning of group norms.
  • Restrictions on gathering in public have not undermined people’s enthusiasm for public political protest. The @MOBILISEProject has reported preliminary findings that people in Argentina and Ukraine were still willing to protest during the pandemic despite 55% being afraid or very afraid of getting sick (Onuch, 2020). There have been protests in the USA, Germany and the UK about the lockdown as an infringement on people’s freedom and civil rights (Parveen, 2020). Thus collective action tendencies to assemble publicly to address matters of political importance continue to be an important litmus test of depth of feeling. Social media can spread emotions quickly and widely because of the availability of social media, but the emotional availability of others online can create a false sense of how intense and widely shared those emotions are.
  • New forms of collective action have also been organised online (Chenoweher et al., 2020) and have subsequently led to public protests before the end of restrictions on public gatherings. The Black Lives Matter protests in the UK have also shown that concerns about Covid-19 and the lockdown restrictions were not enough to dissuade people from assembling in public to protest. Criticism that such protests were ‘risking’ the hard won gains of the lockdown and potentially encouraging a second wave of the virus, proved ineffective in discouraging many people from assembling. Lack of compliance with social distancing at these events also appeared to be a result of mixed government messages about correct actions (e.g. mask wearing) and a ‘nested collectivisation’ in which the importance of protesting over the death of George Floyd and commitment to highlighting this cause with strangers or committed colleagues outweighed previous concerns about contributing to the national ‘fight’ against Covid-19.
  • The Clap for Carers ritual that began on Thursday March 26th at 8pm, and continued in some places for 10 weeks, was a collective public ritual that spread online and via traditional media that created widespread feelings of solidarity. By clapping from windows, doorsteps and balconies (Brooks & Morris, 2020), many communities connected with their neighbours and overcame initial feelings of self-consciousness to express gratitude for carers and key workers. As the objects or targets of those emotions, many carers and keyworkers appeared to initially enjoy or accept this gratitude and raised (or inverted) status in the community. Performing the ritual contributed to feelings of unity, increased feelings of agency among people who otherwise had no opportunities to take part in collective action and participation; it generated intense respective emotions of pride and appreciation. However, as the lockdown went on and it became clear that not all key workers were ‘in the same boat’, resistance to this support became evident (e.g., doctors ‘took a knee’ in a protest close to Downing Street during the clapping). It is significant that the woman who initially proposed the clap subsequently asked to ‘stop it at its peak’ because the narrative was becoming politicised and negative (Addley, 2020). 
  • The temporary use of video monitors in the British Parliament removed the role of the possibility of co-present parliamentarians coordinating their vocalisations in affective practices that can be broadly defined as supportive and affiliative or derisory and disaffiliative (Wells & Bull, 2007). The noisy style of debate which became intensely polarised and febrile during the Brexit process could not be enacted without immediate bodily co-presence during the virtual proceedings of a ‘hybrid’ House of Commons. Mortimer (2020) lamented subsequent attempts to stifle this innovation: ‘If the reason for shutting down the virtual proceedings is because there’s not enough cheering and jeering behind the PM, this is a travesty’.
  • The potential for group-based emotions to result in broader patterns of collective emotion is evident in potential conflicts over the imposition of new lockdowns; that is, in a situation where there were ‘new rules’ and ongoing restrictions governing public assembly and there is every possibility that local and national infection rates could lead to the reimposition of social distancing restrictions for specific groups or regions, strategies that consider widespread emotions such as anger and resentment need to be adopted.

- Professor Gavin Sullivan, CTPSR, IV5, Cheetah Ave., Coventry CV1 2TL, United Kingdom, (e-mail: [email protected]). 

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