COVID19, once described as a great leveller, has consistently and incrementally revealed that our exposure to the virus and its related risks are anything but equal. The inequities that have been uncomfortably unveiled during the pandemic point to, in particular, the stark divisions in society in relation to social class grouping and socio-economic status.
For example, the type of paid employment we do demarcates who works at the frontline and who gets to work from home. Furthermore, many people who are on minimum wages find themselves in essential roles providing essential services in areas such as health and social care, delivery work and manufacturing. Similarly, the overrepresentation of black and minority ethnic groups in COVID death statistics signals, among other things, who is more likely to live in overcrowded housing and who is more likely to work in frontline or essential occupations.
Even for those who are able to self-isolate relatively easily with protected wages will see in the media the reporting of celebrities enjoying lockdown in their second homes alongside stories about unprecedented demand for food banks and large-scale redundancies in already economically hard-hit areas. There is no escaping that our position in society matters tenfold in a health crisis and impacts upon who is at risk and of what.
Of course, to talk about risk is complex. Risks are wide-ranging. The most obvious risk is the risk to our health. The risk of catching the virus, the risk of becoming severely ill from catching the virus and, of course, the risk of dying from the virus. But there are other associated risks that many people are concerned about.
The risk from lockdown to our mental well-being or the economic risks to livelihoods, for example. Sometimes risks compete with each other. We have seen this recently in relation to the reopening of schools. While the government have highlighted the risks for children not returning to schools, teacher unions’ and local education authorities have emphasised the risks of opening too early. One thing that can be claimed with certainty, is that the many different risks we face amidst COVID19 has become the centre of many debates in both political and public domains.
In Sociology, a world characterised by risk – like the one we see now – has been written about in detail by Ulrich Beck. His theory of the ‘Risk Society’ published in 1992 suggested that risk, and our position to it, is more relevant in understanding how we reside in the world than our social class status. His thinking has attracted scepticism for its pro-agency standpoint and the associated downplaying of social structures in peoples’ lives. However, a closer reading of Beck’s work suggests that his view was never to do away with the acknowledgment of social inequalities, but to conceive of them differently.
In modern times, social class as a descriptor has become much more slippery and ill-defined. The latest general election in which the red wall of the North fell gives testament to this change. Class structures have become blurry and less predictable. The once rigid hierarchy of working-middle-upper class groups contorts with all sorts of exceptions and anomalies. Beck’s thinking sidesteps these difficulties of trying to articulate social class categories. Instead, Beck suggests looking to the varying degrees of precarity for individuals in a way that would be better described as positions of risk.
These ideas are certainly being put to the test amidst the corona virus outbreak. The fallout from COVID19 reveals that although we are all in the storm together, we are each in very different boats. Somebody with a garden and stable income, for example, is in a comfortable and reliable boat. Those in second homes in some of the most beautiful parts of the world are in luxury yachts. Others residing in skyrise flats with no access to outdoor space are staying afloat on rafts, and people in the most dire of circumstances may only have a lifejacket to hand. But you don’t have to rely on my metaphors to notice these stark differences – they are becoming all too clear to see.
On first impression, the inequities amid COVID19 proves social class is more relevant now than it ever has been. Social class still contributes towards who gets what – the lifejacket, the raft, the comfortable boat or the luxury yacht. It is therefore too naïve to do away with social class when the current situation shows such bleak differences. Yet at the same time, positions of risk, as an alternative, does work to help describe peoples’ varying situations.
The richer you are, the more likely you are to be removed from risk. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be closer to risk. We all experience risk, but some are in riskier situations than others – something that has become very apparent in the pandemic. Thus, positions of risk can expand our understanding of social inequalities in a way that speaks both to the storm and to the boat.
What do positions of risk look like in reality?
As both a sociologist and an educationalist, I am most interested in how the notion of positions of risk can be applied to think about aspects of education amidst COVID19. For example, undergraduate students occupy different positions of risk that may correlate with, but are not solely determined by, social class. To illustrate, take the instance of a student living with a parent who is a chief cardiology surgeon. In some respects, this situation may reduce risks (such as probable good living conditions and access to decent outside space). Yet, on the other hand, living with a parent at the sharp end of the virus fight will also increase other risks (such as the strain of knowing your loved ones are being exposed to the virus and the impact this might have on the household).
Likewise, the new roles that primary and secondary teachers are undertaking to keep schools open increases their position of risk. This level of involvement is not the case for other professions of a similar status outside of the health care and medical services. Yet again, for others the situation may be far worse, such as migrant students whose foothold in schools is vitally important, but for now, is slipping away while schools are still not fully open. Also, school-aged children, living in a range of circumstances, will have varying levels of home support – not just based upon socio-economic factors but also on the employment circumstances of their caregivers.
Some parents and guardians are on the frontline, some are juggling working from home with home-schooling and some can invest more time and attention to making home-schooling their main task. Again, social class is an important influencer but it is not enough to appreciate the divergent situations that schoolchildren face during COVID19.
So what does this tell us?
I have highlighted just a few examples among many possible others – but that is the point. Positions of risk provides a language that, at once, acts as a blanket term for everyone and a differentiator for individuals. COVID19 is not a great leveller.
Some people are more at risk from COVID19 related harms than others and some people will be able to manage the restrictions of lockdown with much more ease than others. But trying to articulate the degrees of risk that people face needs to both include and extend beyond social class. This might be a reason to embrace alternative ways of viewing social class that are inclusive of intersectionality, such as race, disability, age and gender – all of which form a greater picture of where we are in society, and the subsequent position we find ourselves in with regards to COVID19 related risks.
Class structures may impose one of the greatest forms of inequality, but in order to explore the granularity and quirks of social stratification – and their shaping of individual life chances – for me, the notion of positions of risk seems to do the job.
Beck, U. 1992. Risk Society: towards a new modernity. London/California/New Delhi/Singapore: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Verity Aiken is a senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. She teaches on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate education courses, and specialises in the sociology of education with specific interest in student writing, risk and Higher Education.