The Covid-19 pandemic has brought much grief and anxiety to the world. As deaths from the coronavirus mount and the invisible foe brings wealthy, technologically advanced societies to their knees, the world has learned not to underestimate the shocks viruses can deliver. The present outbreak’s implications are far-reaching to say the least—the virus has allowed some authoritarian leaders to strengthen their grip on societies unmoored in crisis, and we have barely scratched the surface of Covid-19’s impact on global economies.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England and Robert May of Oxford University—writing in a longer tradition of academics and journalists keenly aware of financial contagions—suggested using infectious diseases and biology to better understand and regulate financial systems (Haldane and May 2011). Today’s interconnected markets mean that market disturbances spread across country lines and economic systems as if they were viruses themselves; as the coronavirus swept through the world in a matter of months, financial markets too have rippled in its wake, filling rich and poor people alike with panic.
In a time of deep viral and financial distress, it seems appropriate to ask how biology and contagion can teach us a thing or two about how societies get destabilized—and how we can rally ourselves in response.
Contagion and Society
The question is certainly not new. In the nineteenth century, the British sociologist Herbert Spencer likened society to an organism governed by universal laws of evolution (Spencer 2002). The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann suggested, just over a hundred years later, that modern law operates like an immune system in guarding society’s fundamental norms and rules against challenges (Luhmann 2004). Both found in biology a glimpse into society as a self-regulating system, albeit one that can evolve, mutate, or become infected if things go wrong.
And go wrong they did. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social scientists drew heavily on theories of contagion to make sense of modern, rapidly urbanizing societies ravaged by disease and disorder. The word contagion derives from the Latin contagio—meaning “contact” or “touch”—and the packed frenzy of that era’s burgeoning cities proved the perfect demonstration of contagion’s effects on social life. New York City saw its population just about double between 1880 and 1900, while Chicago’s more than tripled, providing optimal conditions for the rash of infectious diseases.
Virologists have long recognized that dense cities can quickly become hotbeds of contagion. Social scientists writing at the turn of the nineteenth century, however, saw this happening in the psychic realm as well. In 1903, Russian psychologist and neurologist Vladimir Bekhterev—rival to the far more famous Ivan Pavlov—wrote in Suggestion and Its Role in Social Life about how “psychic contact” transmits panic much the way “living contact” transmits microbes (Bekhterev 1998). This notion of psychic contagion caused great concern among sociologists at the time, who worried about how dangerous ideas may spread swiftly in modern urban environments, turning societies on their heads.
Edward A. Ross, one of the founders of sociology in America, even saw in the myriad “mental contacts” that city dwellers receive daily a grave threat to democracy (Ross 1897). He felt that people would lose their ability to make political decisions in society’s best interest as they get overwhelmed by the city’s avalanche of cues and suggestions, enhanced by the press and modern communication technologies. Ross advocated physical measures aimed at promoting social distancing, including architecture designed to give people more space and carve out the mental and physical breathing room necessary for considered political engagement (Ross 1908).
The parallels between Ross’s measures and our own against Covid-19—ranging from quarantines and lockdowns to travel bans and stranded cruise ships—are uncanny today. Physical social distancing clearly works against contagious viruses, though it requires discipline and broad support to be effective. Mental contagion, on the other hand, is a far trickier foe, not least because it is sometimes good for us. When people sing together from their balconies amid national lockdowns or support one another on the sprawling networks of social media, the sense of solidarity this provides can uplift, comfort, and inspire hope.
Still, mass reactions such as panic buying and hoarding can shred the fragile fabric of society during trying times. When people put their own interests before those of others or join agitators in discriminating against minority groups, the solidarity that anchors democracy is sorely tested.
The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly revealed the Janus-faced nature of social and biological contagion in modern society. Of course, we are used to thinking of societies, cities, and economies as susceptible to contagion by now. But the current crisis reminds us that how we use the sweeping power of social contagion is ours to own, even if it is provoked by the biological. As governments and communities work to protect us from coronavirus via social distancing and financial resuscitation, we may perhaps consider, too, how each of us might turn the force of contagion against itself.
Christian Borch is Professor of Economic Sociology and Social Theory at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His latest book is Social Avalanche: Crowds, Cities and Financial Markets (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Bekhterev, Vladimir M. 1998. Suggestion and Its Role in Social Life, trans. Tzvetanka Dobreva-Martinova. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.
Haldane, Andrew G., and Robert M. May. 2011. “Systemic risk in banking ecosystems.” Nature 469(7330): 351–55.
Luhmann, Niklas. 2004. Law as a Social System, trans. Klaus A. Ziegert. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ross, Edward A. 1897. “The Mob Mind.” Popular Science Monthly July:390-98.
—. 1908. Social Psychology: An Outline and Source Book. New York: Macmillan.Spencer, Herbert. 2002. The Principles of Sociology. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.