Risk and Responsibility in Popular Responses to COVID-19

By Nick Clarke, University of Southampton, and Clive Barnett, University of Exeter

In the UK as elsewhere, the Covid-19 pandemic raises a whole series of geographical issues, not least because of the centrality of explicitly spatial strategies adopted by governments in response to the virus. Broad policy directives that aim to change people’s behaviour have ranged from embodied practices of hygiene, to stay-at-home orders, national ‘lockdowns’, and regionally differentiated ‘tier’ systems. And these rules and regulations have carried different normative force, from recommendations (e.g. handwashing) and authoritative guidelines (social distancing) to legally enforceable rules (restrictions on non-essential movement outside the home). These strategies target spatially defined practices of mobility, interaction, and habitation – practices of home and work, commuting and travel, neighbourliness and family. It is these practices that constitute the spaces of encounter through which people engage with wider public discourses.

In our research project, Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility, funded by the British Academy under its Special Research Grants: Covid-19 scheme, we are investigating the ways in which discourses of risk and responsibility intersect in people’s responses to the challenges of living with the pandemic.

Our starting point is the observation that non-pharmaceutical policy interventions in response to the pandemic have problematized everyday routines of action. They do so, for example, by restricting mobility through confinement to home and neighbourhood (e.g. by closing schools, businesses, and workplaces); through the circulation of spatial figures of responsible action (e.g. ‘Stay Home’, two metre rules, exercise only close to home, mask wearing); the presentation of a series of outcomes to which action would contribute (e.g. Protect the NHS, protect vulnerable people, support key workers); and the mobilisation of a range of ethical registers aimed at motivating responsible action (including guilt, self-reproach, care, shame, and solidarity). Our project explores how people have practically enacted these demands to adjust their routines and habits of everyday life.

The theme of risk has been central to the forms of expert knowledge through which Covid-19 has been addressed, but communicating the risks associated with the Covid-19 pandemic has departed significantly from the self-regarding messages of normal public health strategies. These tend to emphasise what is good for an individual (e.g. ‘Quit smoking, live longer’) and identify relatively simple causal chains (e.g. ‘Smoking increases individual exposure to risks of heart disease and stroke’). In contrast, messaging strategies such as ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’, or recommendations to wear face coverings in public space, appeal to other-regarding virtues animated by a concern to protect other people. These strategies rest on a combination of exhortation, prescription, enforcement, incitement, and incentive. They also invoke complex images of the causal relationships between individual actions and systematic outcomes. And they position people as subjects of responsible actions by virtue of serving as passive vectors of disease.

In addition to discourses of risk, then, government messaging and media coverage have also invoked the theme of responsibility to try to shape people’s response to and understanding of the pandemic. And the relationship between risk-centred discourses and responsibility-centred discourses has become central to increasingly contentious political disputes around Covid-19 strategies. The distinction between risk and responsibility is often mapped onto a distinction between individual versus collective motivations, not least through a recurring emphasis on the problem of ensuring people’s compliance to rules.

Our project proceeds from the assumption that understanding popular responses to the Covid-19 pandemic requires a more explicit focus on the complexity of practices of responsibility. The analytical focus on responsibility allows for the development of a contextually sensitive sense of the motivations and social relations that shape differential responses to pandemic public health strategies. And it shifts attention away from narrow understandings of risk, compliance, and blame, towards thicker understandings of how popular responses to the pandemic are shaped by the practical capabilities available to people. In short, the analytical shift towards understanding enactments of responsibility opens up the importance of understanding the practices through which responses to Covid-19 unfold.

Given all this, we are interested in how people have translated policy objectives and directives into the practices of their everyday lives. The translation of top-down initiatives into transformed patterns of everyday action involves intersubjective negotiations and practical adjustments to routines and habits. It suggests questions such as: How have people made sense of demands to act responsibly? How have they justified their existing or changed habits and routines in response to publicly circulating imperatives? What reflections have these novel demands generated? How realistic have people found the adjustments they have been asked or required to make? What messages, policies, and situations have people found particularly troubling from the perspective of justification and/or sustainable practical action?

Extensive research methodologies such as survey research and public opinion polling are of limited use in understanding these intersubjective processes of interpretation and sense-making. Intensive qualitative research is more appropriate, but methods such as face-to-face interviews, focus groups, and participant observation are themselves severely curtailed by the practical and institutional restrictions put in place due to Covid-19. Our research project has therefore been developed in close consultation with Mass Observation (MO) and will draw on data collected by MO during the pandemic. MO has a long history of collecting data at times of national crisis, perhaps most famously during and after the Second World War. As the UK responds to the Covid-19 pandemic, MO again represents a uniquely valuable resource. MO has a proven method for collecting data without face-to-face contact: its panel of volunteer writers. During 2020, MO collected approximately 5,000 ‘May 12th Day Diaries’ from adults and children across the UK; 1,000 ‘lockdown diaries’ from elderly people (through a partnership with u3a); and almost 1,000 ‘directive responses’ from MO’s panel of volunteer writers. These sources are particularly well-suited to addressing our research questions. They provide insights into how people reason, reflect, and respond when they are positioned as responsible subjects.

In working with these narrative-based materials to better understand practices of responsibility, we hope that our project will throw new light on popular responses to Covid-19. It will also contribute to methodological debates about the use by social scientists and historians of MO data, and by extension demonstrate the potential for broadening the evidence base available for understanding the social dynamics of crisis response more generally.

About the authors: Nick Clarke is Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Southampton and Principal Investigator for ‘Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19’, funded by the British Academy. His books include The Good Politician: Folk Theories, Political Interaction, and the Rise of Anti-Politics (Cambridge University Press) and Globalising Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption (Wiley-Blackwell). Clive Barnett is Professor of Geography and Social Theory at the University of Exeter and Co-Investigator for ‘Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19’. His books include The Priority of Injustice: Locating Democracy in Critical Theory (University of Georgia Press), Globalising Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption (Wiley-Blackwell), and Culture and Democracy: Media, Space, and Representation (University of Edinburgh Press).

Suggested further reading

Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., and Malpass, A. (2011). Globalising Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell).

Clarke, N., Jennings, W., Moss, J., and Stoker, G. (2018). The Good Politician: Folk Theories, Political Interaction, and the Rise of Anti-Politics (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Schrager, B. The geography of the US’s mishandling of COVID‐19: A commentary on the politics of science in democracies. Geographical Journal. 2020; 00: 1– 6.

Welsh, M. (2014), Resilience and responsibility. The Geographical Journal, 180: 15-26.

Devine-Wright, P. et al. (2020). ‘Re-placed’ – Reconsidering relationships with place and lessons from a pandemic. Journal of Environmental Psychology 72. doi:

Drury, J., Reicher, S., and Stott, C. (2020). COVID-19 in context: Why do people die in emergencies? It’s probably not because of collective psychology. British Journal of Social Psychology 59, 686-693.


Leave a Reply or Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: