Social Anthropologist Klāvs Sedlenieks: Is the Crisis a Time of Opportunities for Everyone?
‘People’s attitudes towards the crisis and the state of emergency depend on the situation they’re in, their savings and material security,’ says Klāvs Sedlenieks, social anthropologist and lecturer at Rīga Stradiņš University. Speaking to journalist Rūta Kesnere for the newspaper Diena, Sedlenieks stresses that growth is not possible without crises, but that each crisis does not automatically lead to growth and development. A crisis can make you stronger, or it can break you.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you? Did you experience such emotions as fear and uncertainty?
I have to confess that I have not felt fear or uncertainty. My life has changed as my university switched to remote work and classes were actually held online already on the first day of the emergency. The process was handled very well from a technological standpoint. I spent the first two weeks in Riga and then moved out to the countryside. I have been staying in Vecpiebalga for a month already without any fear or uncertainty.
Was the university and the students prepared for the remote study process? How effective was it?
In terms of technology, we were all ready. There was some fumbling at first, but this was all quickly resolved. We also had training and seminars on the best technological approaches to organising our lectures online. Technically, everything went very smoothly and without a hitch. A lot of materials for our programme were already accessible in the e-environment, so we only needed to add the online lectures. I don’t think it’s too important to talk about whether teachers and students were ready for it as nowadays everyone is ready for video conferencing and situations where one needs to use a screen. It is much more important to talk about the pedagogical process. Many people seem to think that we have finally started to take full advantage of digital technologies and so there will be no need to attend lectures in person anymore, which is terribly boring. From a pedagogical standpoint, it is a naive to assume that studies only consist of reading a text and looking at a picture. If that were true, we could have abolished schools and universities as soon as printed books and libraries appeared. The reason why educational institutions and on-site studies still exist is that we learn a lot from one another. And this can only be done in person. It is a matter of continuous communication, which is only partially available in remote learning. It is no accident that correspondence study courses have always been seen as less valuable than regular ones. It is not a question of status, because there are objective reasons at play and there is less hands-on experience in correspondence studies, they lack full-scale interaction with teachers and, importantly, with classmates. We imitate and learn a lot from each other, which is why interaction is significant. We need a friendly shoulder and direct contact in a purely physiological way. Holding a lecture is completely different if one can look at the audience and see their reaction. I think it is the same for students who, in addition to observing lecturers, can see and feel the reaction of their classmates. The lack of interaction is the reason why older people find it difficult to learn how to use a computer and a smartphone. It is not because they are less intelligent than children, but because they need a group with which to learn and study smartphones together.
Public views on the crisis and the state of emergency are very diverse and often contradictory. There are people who are trying to see the positive side of this situation, talking about how it is necessary to take a break, slow down, and have an opportunity to meditate. Then there are others who say that people are losing their jobs and stability, receive less, and that there is nothing positive about the crisis. Which of these opinions do you agree with most?
In this context, I tweeted that there was nothing positive about remote studies (laughs). It seems to me that the views you mention are represented by two different social groups, each with its own experience. Those who see this as a great opportunity for a break represent the middle class that is rather well-off and is exhausted by the daily rat race. These people have been paying their taxes and receive state support, have savings, own an apartment, and a break like this will do them good. It is a completely different situation if we take, for example, individual entrepreneurs whose history of paying taxes is much less stable, so the benefits they receive might be close to nothing. They might have been living hand to mouth all the time, or we might be talking about someone who has been fired from their job. Of course, they can take a break and think about their lives as well, but the process might be stressful rather than relaxing. It seems to me that for a lot of people this break seems very problematic. Similarly, it is difficult for families with young children to adopt a slow and thoughtful lifestyle, as they have to combine their work with assisting their children with their homework. I highly doubt that they would find it possible to take a break and meditate. So the attitude towards the crisis and the state of emergency depends on the situation each person is in, their savings and material security.
Before the crisis, people often said they wanted to spend more time with their family. Now that it is possible, even if it is in a somewhat forced way, the news tells us there is an increase in domestic violence and moms write in forums that they cannot wait for their children to go back to the kindergarten and school again. Was it just an illusion that we wanted to spend more time with our families?
It probably depends on the specific family, as well as the number and age of the children. It is very likely that small children really enjoy staying with their family. For teenagers it might be much more difficult as they are trapped in a small apartment with their parents, who were already slightly annoying before all this.
Meanwhile, the increase in violence is characteristic to relationships that already had problems before the crisis. It should be noted that for many people work is an essential part of their identity and, if they are deprived of professional fulfilment, in simple terms, it drives them up the wall.
There is a joke that we will come out of this crisis fat and divorced. It is because many of the problems that were not solved previously due to lack of time and that were swept under the carpet are now getting out and we can no longer hide from them with the excuse of being busy.
There are many couples, happy ones for that matter, who enjoy each other's company for short periods of time if it is not too intense. During the state of emergency, our close ones seem omnipresent and we have no choice but to spend time with them. I have spoken to people who have raised wonderful children and are about to celebrate wedding anniversaries and many of them say that they are doing so well only because they are in different cities. It is only an assumption that marriage is a union of two lovebirds cooing together all the time. Marriage can, in fact, take a multitude of forms, including those in which a partner's presence is not intense and prolonged. Of course, when the crisis forces it, there may be problems. Keeping some distance is a classic solution to conflict situations that has been used throughout history and it works. If this is not possible, difficulties arise. Prolonged contact with a very limited range of people is highly unusual. This is why many people are having a hard time due to the crisis.
Can a crisis be an opportunity, or will it always be a threat? And, if it is an opportunity, then what kind of opportunity is it and for whom?
One could half-jokingly say that crises are an opportunity for those who want to meditate and can afford it. But seriously speaking, a crisis is always an opportunity for those who see the public good as only of secondary importance and who might engage in all sorts of dodgy transactions, such as selling face masks and disinfectants at absurdly high prices. Of course, it is also an opportunity for fair businesses, for instance, all delivery services and platforms such as Bolt and Wolt, and all kinds of innovative technological solutions. I have a good example regarding one of the graduates of our program who created specially designed face masks that are in great demand. So the crisis can also be an opportunity for innovative solutions and technological advancement.
I was more hoping to discuss the mental effects – there are psychologists who say that crises are an opportunity for personal growth, that growth is basically impossible without them.
It might be true to claim that growth is enabled by crises, but this does not automatically mean that each crisis will lead to growth. Crises can also lead to a decline. Some people will become stronger after facing challenges, others will break. We usually see those who have survived and become stronger. For example, when we listen to veterans talking, it seems that the war must have been easy because nobody died in battle. That is because those who did cannot speak for themselves. The same applies to octogenarian smokers, it all seems fine because we do not know those who died young. So everyone has a different way of going through a crisis and this produces different consequences. It is just like in the case of a disease: you can recover from a dangerous disease and become immune to it, but you can also die from it. Consequently, I would not say that crises necessarily contribute to personal growth. It may be so, or not.
Why is it so difficult for many of us to enjoy our own company when the daily rat race is put on pause?
People are social being we are created to feel good from communicating. The next most horrifying punishment after the death sentence is solitary confinement. Prolonged solitude, especially when it is involuntary, is an extremely demanding test. In many societies outside Europe, lonely people are seen as hurt or ill, so it is the responsibility of others to include them back into society. For Europeans this concept is difficult to understand. In our culture, being alone is often seen as a privilege. It is great if, under favourable circumstances and without being forced, you can choose to spend time alone, sit on the top of a cliff, gaze at the sea, meditate, and then return to society. If the solitude is imposed, if it is not a matter of choice, then it is a completely different situation.
Do you understand the people in many parts of Europe and also in the USA who are protesting against the restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 by appealing to economic arguments and human rights?
Yes, I can see their point even if I do not agree with them. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz said that ‘man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’. We attach great importance to significance we create ourselves. If people think they are unduly made to obey restrictions, of course they will protest.
For other people, it looks different. As for the USA, what surprises me is that President Donald Trump is seemingly not getting any less popular. The USA currently has the most deaths from COVID-19 in the world, and this is largely because of President Trump's policies. Paradoxically, his circle of supporters is not really shrinking, although there have been deaths in supporters' families as well. I have no explanation for this, but it is a topic worth thinking about.
The whole world seems to be holding its breath waiting for a vaccine against COVID-19. However, Facebook is full of belligerent anti-vaxxers from different countries who think that vaccines are made to implant microchips to track people. Where do these theories come from?
In a situation of uncertainty and ignorance, people have the tendency to create their own theories to explain what is happening. Often these are conspiracy theories. Our minds are designed in a way to try to decipher what other people are thinking. We are constantly trying to decipher and interpret and to connect the dots of meaning so that they make sense. Distrust of vaccines is not new, it already started with the first smallpox vaccines. Among all the scenarios, the worst one is believed to be true. No one believes in good conspiracy theories.
Izņēmums varētu būt Pauls Koelju ar savu slaveno teicienu, ka, ja kaut ko ļoti vēlies, visa pasaule sadosies rokās, lai tev palīdzētu.
I do not think many people believe that (laughs). If we are discussing conspiracy theories related to vaccines and digital microchips, they have some sort of appeal because it is somewhat exciting to be scared and be the one alerting others at the same time. It is like having religious or scientific revelations. Conspiracy theorists think they have discovered a truth that is extremely dangerous. They have spun their webs of significance so that they appear more interesting to them. Why do people like to believe in magic? It is because it allows you to look beyond the everyday reality and see things that are hard to imagine. Those who spread conspiracy theories are united by a certain sense of exclusivity and by being convinced that they see more and more deeply than ordinary people who have their eyes wide shut.
Many say that the world will change after COVID-19. Do you agree with this view and, if so, in what way will it change?
I do not think it will change very much. It is not surprising that people think there is something new to come after this crisis. In anthropology, there is the concept of “liminal or threshold states” when we face a new situation and leave the previous one behind. Evolution really needs crises, or at least transitions. These transition phases are mostly complicated and difficult and they are followed by a new evolutionary stage. It must be stressed, however, that all evolutions need crises, but not all crises result in them. The peculiarity of the way people think consists in believing that all difficulties will lead to something new and beautiful. It is, nevertheless, a logical fallacy. It is one of the reasons why I think nothing will change that much. The second is that this crisis is not designed to be a rite of passage to a higher state, unlike, for example, initiation rites specifically designed as an instrument of passage. Moreover, it takes a very long time to change human thinking. Our actions are not only driven by our minds, but also by certain reflexes that cannot be reoriented within a short period of time. A classic example is when you get new pants with a pocket on the other side. In the beginning, out of force of habit, we automatically want to put our hand where there used to be a pocket, although now it is placed elsewhere. Fundamental cultural changes take place very slowly. For example, people still follow many Soviet-era customs even though the Soviet Union itself has long ceased to exist. A single crisis will not bring about significant change, although there will perhaps be some small adjustments. For instance, people might be more supportive of wearing masks and covering their faces in public spaces. It turns out that the principle that one's face must be exposed in public space is not of as important as it was made to seem.
Now that work, studies, entertainment, and cultural events take place remotely, will the digital divide widen or get narrower with everyone getting the hang of technology?
I think neither of those will come true. If we are talking about remote learning, there are families who can provide their children with all the necessary technological equipment and sufficient space. If it is not the case, if they have a small apartment and there is one smartphone for the whole family, then learning is more complicated. How prepared schools are for remote learning is also crucial. There are schools that rely solely on traditional remote learning without any interactivity. And the less interaction students have with the teacher, the worse the learning outcomes could be. As was already mentioned, I believe that remote learning cannot in any way replace on-site classes.
To conclude our conversation, how will this crisis impact inequality?
The crisis is likely to have the least impact on the poorest segments of the population, because those who do not have anything also have nothing to lose. If we are talking about state support during the crisis, the impact it will have on inequality remains to be seen. When assessing the original design of the benefits, it must be said that those who were already at a disadvantage were hit the hardest. That is, workers who received their wages under the counter through no fault of their own, and which consequently resulted in negligible benefits because benefits are linked to the amount of taxes paid. Recipients of illegal wages were held hostage both before the crisis as well as now. There were experts who suggested that governmental aid should not be linked too closely to tax rates. I am also inclined to agree with that because society is threatened by desperate people left with no means of support. This should be avoided. However, if we provide equal support to those who have paid their taxes conscientiously and those who did not care about them, then taxpayers could be left with a certain sense of confusion and unfairness. There is no easy solution to this situation. A possible answer could be that for people who have not paid taxes the benefit is accompanied by some kind of contribution made by these people, such as community service or something of the sort. In any case, we need to consider how the situation should be handled.
- Social anthropologist, Assistant Professor at Rīga Stradiņš University
- Established the first master’s programme in social anthropology in Latvia n 2008, and headed the programme for more than 10 years
- Visiting lecturer and visiting researcher at the University of London, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and a long-standing visiting lecturer at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga
- Founded the Latvian Association of Anthropologists with peers in 1998 and twice been Chairman of the Board
- Defended doctoral thesis at the Tallinn University in 2013 on a field study carried out in Montenegro
Source: 18 May 2020, newspaper Diena
Journalist: Rūta Kesnere