photo: COVID vaccine Clinic parking from Joshua Hoehne unsplash

As has become abundantly clear over the last few years, pandemics are social as well as biomedical. Their effects ripple through societies and communities, the result of – and further affecting – societal processes. Consequently, the social sciences have much to offer regarding both the management of and recovery from pandemics – and the concomitant reimagining of social and political institutions and infrastructures.

In varying contexts and to different extents, social scientific research and analysis have informed decision-making by policymakers about how to tackle the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, included social science research as one of the priorities in the Coronavirus Global Research Roadmap. In 2020, it created the COVID-19 Research Roadmap Social Science Working Group to generate evidence relevant for epidemic response. By July 2023 over £1200m had been spent on social science research related to COVID-19 worldwide. In sociology, science and technology studies, cultural studies, gender studies, anthropology, and beyond, academics have worked hard to craft new conceptual and empirical understandings of our current situation, often generating and grappling with a range of data to do so.

Globally, an absence of social science voices, expertise and evidence would surely have made a terrible situation even worse. Yet, even though social science research on COVID is extensive there can still be a striking gap between it and policy decision-making regarding both current management, recovery roadmaps, and preparedness plans for future disease outbreaks.

Regrettably, some policymakers are still to fully embrace the valuable insights and knowledge that emerge from the social sciences. Too many have limited their engagements with the knowledge and insight emerging from traditions like sociology. This often includes much work on gender and ethnicity, which should be central to any pandemic response.

When the social sciences are looked to, it is too often as purely technical disciplines which are understood to exist merely to provide data to address particular claims or questions about the social world that elide its complexity. This is a particular problem when social science shakes the very foundations upon which those claims are made or questions asked. As such, critical social science is vital to framing questions – not just addressing them.

A more behaviouristic approach can be prioritised within policy that frames out the complexity of social practices, norms, and experiences. The way the term ‘vaccine hesitancy’, for instance, is often used can end up operationalising a focus on individuals and their supposedly ‘irrational’ decision-making. In the process, research into the political and social discourses and institutions that have acted to disengage or overtly exclude minoritised groups is framed out. Let us be blunt: if someone’s predominant experiences of healthcare provision, for instance, has involved many years of covert and explicit homophobia, racism, or other forms of abuse, their ‘hesitancy’ might be nothing at all to do with vaccination per se. Social scientific research, co-produced with affected communities, is vital to understand these issues and to produce a far more nuanced picture that can inform policy.

As we’ve previously argued in The Lancet, the tendency of policymakers and even some in public health to dismiss social scientists as simply ‘overcomplicating things’ is lamentable. Pandemics are complicated, and not just in immunological and epidemiological terms. The social world is highly complex and if pandemics are social – which they clearly are – then the social scientific advice on how to prepare for, respond to, and recover from them needs space in which it can be enunciated. The annexing of social science because it reveals the complexity of a situation that some politicians and commentators erroneously regard as simple is not only unacceptable, it is outright harmful to public health.

Over the last couple of years, the de-prioritisation of social science within pandemic policymaking has been evident within various reflective articles and interviews with highly visible policymakers and public health commentators. Some of these have shown surprise by certain aspects of public responses to pandemic measures – like the ‘politicisation’ of mask-wearing and vaccination, for example. This surprise is itself shocking, given how easily anticipated by social scientists many responses were. It speaks volumes about the extent to which social science expertise was framed out by a range of actors and institutions with advisory roles or decision-making power.

So, while routes to policy sometimes exist, there are not enough of them – and there are too many hurdles. It is vital that paths are cleared and new roads are laid as we seek to manage and recover from this pandemic and prepare for the next one. Complicated issues cannot rely on simple, technocratic solutions – and context always matters.

As we transition from pandemic policymaking to recovery and preparedness, it is imperative to acknowledge that the repercussions of political decisions that caused division prior to covid-19 will persist and continue to affect societies. Mere restoration of the pre-pandemic state is insufficient as it merely reinscribes the same social structures and norms that led to the catastrophic situation we encountered. To move ahead, we must pave new paths and brace ourselves for future pandemics through close engagement between policymakers and the full range of disciplines. Social scientific evidence and insights are critical for creating a more equitable and just world.

About the authors

Martyn Pickersgill is Professor of the Sociology of Science and Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. His research is concerned with the social dimensions of biomedicine and public health, including recent projects examining epigenetics, psychiatry, and mpox. He is currently supported by the AHRC, ESRC, MRC, Leverhulme Trust, and Wellcome Trust.

Lucinda Manda-Taylor is an Associate Professor of Applied Ethics and Social Science Scholar at the Kamuzu University of Health Sciences. Her research program and work are focused on promoting maternal and child health and examining research’s social and ethical implications in low-middle-income contexts like Malawi, using empirical approaches to contribute to the academic discourse and policy practice on appropriate research customs that respect cultural norms and research ethics guidelines. She works on Wellcome Trust, EDCTP, MRC and BMGF-supported projects.

Natalia Niño-Machado is a researcher at the School of Medicine at Universidad de los Andes. Natalia is an anthropologist and a Science and Technology Studies scholar whose research explores the social production and use of metrics, standards and classification systems, especially at the interface of data science, AI, and public and global health in Latin America. She currently works in research projects supported by the International Development Research Centre of Canada.