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Mobilising social science in epidemics: evidence from recent outbreaks

Published on 18 July 2022

A team of researchers at IDS have edited a special issue of Anthropology in Action, bringing together a global team of anthropologists to reflect on and analyse the role of social science in epidemic response.

Operationalising Social Science for Epidemic Response’ builds on IDS’s foundational work in social science and epidemic response, draws on tensions and experience from recent epidemics including Covid-19 and Ebola, and charts a way forward at both theoretical and practical levels.

This collection includes articles ranging from methodological approaches to operationalising social science to the political economy or other context of epidemic response. Lessons learnt from past epidemics and Covid-19 are a particular focus.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed deep social and economic inequalities within and across countries which produce unequal Covid-19 outcomes. Researchers have long noted the connections between socioeconomic inequalities and infections and there is growing recognition that epidemics are also social and political events.

Anthropological and other social science research has contributed to epidemic response through attention to cultural and political-economic context, reframing community ‘resistance’, bolstering community engagement in preparedness and response, and informing response activities, including risk communication.

Epidemic response and inequalities

Contributors to this special issue engage with contemporary questions in epidemic response and show there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Social sciences can highlight the flaws of a ‘context blind’ approach and highlight which vulnerable groups (such as women, indigenous groups, the poorest in society) will be adversely affected and how to address these inequalities.

Other contributions further debate how social science can be taken up to inform and shape epidemic response, across all pillars of the response.

This special issue explores approaches to operationalizing social science from past and present epidemics for more just and equitable future epidemic responses and strengthened health systems. It discusses hierarchies of knowledge and evidence and engages with cultural, social, and political-economic forces behind epidemics and response, and the introduction to the special issue outlines these issues.

The first article in the collection (Ripoll et al.) presents a framework for social science in epidemics to enable responders to engage more deeply and systematically with the social, political and economic contexts of emergencies, ensuring they are not context blind.

Two further articles (on Brazil and Democratic Republic of the Congo) give specific examples of how vulnerable groups have been adversely affected by ‘one size fits all’ approaches and how social science can mitigate the effects of this.

This issue also includes two case studies which show the impact of anthropological involvement in the COVID-19 response in the Philippines and the UK.

The last article considers the historical and improving nature of anthropological involvement in epidemics and how to move to a critically embedded approach.

Each article is available open access to read:

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