Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2021 > Pandemic, Knowledge and Society | Banhi Baran Ghosh

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 38, New Delhi, Sept 4, 2021

Pandemic, Knowledge and Society | Banhi Baran Ghosh

Friday 3 September 2021


by Banhi Baran Ghosh*


Last one year, plunged into disarray and bewilderment, has caused great upheavals and rampages in the society. One way of confronting this is to embark upon how we do acquire a kind of knowledge that would guide us through this untrammeled rush of so many odds to the lasting abode. This article makes an attempt to articulate the rationality of a kind of knowledge that would, in all probability, embolden the society in pious courses to develop a persuasive argument against the incoherent subtleties engendered by this pandemic.


We experienced, last year, certain novel things at the outbreak of this pandemic ever unknown to us - lock down, quarantine, social distancing, pandemic and precarity. The last one is not included in the dictionary, meaning, in the context of sociology, a state of having insecure employment and income. It was predicted that the loss of jobs would be huge, marginalized people would be devastated- even those in the secured position economically and socially were afraid of uncertain future of them and their siblings and children, society was faced with the consequences of erosion of cohesion and the government was left with revamping its dirgiste regime making hardly any room for the people to tread along their choices.

After more than one year the scenario had undergone brutal changes and witnessing the rampage of the pandemic gaining strength with the threat of second wave to be followed by third wave while the drive for vaccination turning into fiasco, the society is beset with suppressed apprehension, presumption, discontent and we find ourselves in the most awkward predicament.

This is a turning point in the history of our society. On the one hand it is incumbent upon the government to contain the spread of the disease to minimize the death toll, on the other, to relieve the society and the economy of uncertainty likely to crop up in future. This necessitates the fortifying of governmental surveillance and rigorous imposition of laws and regulations and above all, the vaccination.

In absence of all these, it would be next to impossible to contain the indomitable power of the virus. At the same time, it should not be overlooked that the supply of essential commodities and services should not fall short of requirement, subsistence requirements are not deterred from being available to those who are incapable and who fail to secure daily earning. All these entail proper and prompt implementation of policies. The measures taken to cope up with the challenges posed by COVID 19 are ingrained with every possibility to shake the very foundation of the hitherto existing value system. In spite of that, the twin measures of restricting the people to adhere to social distancing as well as to sustain economic stability should be combined in such a way that this value system is kept intact.

Institutions, value system and society

Embedded in the social system are the actors, institutions, institutionalized value system and the limits within which this value system keeps its balance.
 “Institutions define the broad rather than the detailed conditions of the balancing of performances and sanctions; they define the conditions of maintaining a stable state in terms of meeting the functional prerequisites of the system under more or less typical conditions. They set limits within which sanctions (economic and other ones) are permitted to operate. When these limits are exceeded, not only are advantages gained or lost, but rights and obligations are violated or infringed” (Parsons & Smelser 1962:102).It is informed that “One aspect of the value pattern concerns the modes in which it is incorporated into institutions, the primary function of which is to regulate certain classes of activity. This is what we mean by “institutionalized” value patterns” (Parsons & Smelser 1962:42).

The institutional values are essential ingredients for a society. A big responsibility of the social system is to uphold the institution and value system together. These institutions are a part of the social order of society and they govern behavior and expectations of individuals. This is necessary; otherwise, the society would be vulnerable to external threat. The external threat or shocks may come from two sources - one is cultural and the other is motivational.

The impact of cultural change has to be accommodated if it is inevitable for the society. In that case the shock created by the cultural change may destabilise the society and what is required then to sustain stability is the maintenance of the existing pattern. In the language of sociology this is called ’pattern maintenance’ (Parsons & Smelser 1962:17).

Motivational shocks may arise from ‘strains’ in any part of the social system or from organic or other intra-personal sources. If out of any part of the society or from external source tension is created through these motivational shocks (created by COVID-19 in this case) and this tends to destabilise the society then what is needed for safeguarding the society is to curb the unrest generated through this tension. The sociologists term this ’tension management’ (Parsons & Smelser 1962:17). At the outset of this changing nature of interaction between society and emerging catastrophes the responsibility of the government is to fix the target and pursue the means to achieve it. For the separate individual or the society as a whole this target has to be fixed while keeping in view the changing perception in the society and emerging contingency. This may ensure stability.

Hayek appears

The resolution of the twin problems of fighting this pandemic and reinstating stability in the economy and society involve the determination of rational social order. In order to do that the objective would be set in tandem with achieving these goals. If all relevant information are available, if the preference ordering is given and if the stock of knowledge of available resources is there then it would not be difficult to decide what is to be done and how . But the problem lies elsewhere. The information on the basis of which the economic calculation would be rendered possible is not concentrated at a single point in a single person, rather, these are scattered in contradictory manner among different individuals. This view was expressed by F.A. Hayek in his seminal paper titled ‘The use of knowledge in society’ published in the American Economic Review in September, 1945.

In that case, the economic problem is not to make the efficient use of available resources about which the information is stored at a single point. More reasonable it is to lend credence to the perception of other members of society regarding the nature of outcome from the optimal use of a given factor. And besides governmental surveillance and implementation of policies, equal importance should be given to this decentralised form of knowledge and that might help achieve the target at this conjuncture.

The groceries, vendors of vegetables in the locality, ration dealers are in the right places to provide information regarding the type of local demand and means to fulfill this demand. The knowledge of the members of Panchayats, Anganwadis (the workers engaged as part of Intensive Child Development Services who provide basic child care), Municipalities, Municipal Corporations, may not seem to be ‘scientific’ but disregard of their knowledge may not help conceiving the plan fulfillment on the solitary basis of knowledge procured centrally, especially, in respect of acquiring knowledge of migrant labourers, disabled persons incapable of sustaining livelihood by procuring bare necessities particularly in a situation invoked by this pandemic, people debarred from or are incapable of accessing health care facilities and of those pushed to the brink of starvation having lost their jobs.

 This should not be confused with the gesture for creating knowledge society. In the latter, knowledge and capital play important role in invoking a new culture in the society to face the challenges hitherto unknown for it to cope up with. Rather what is insistent upon in this argument is to develop knowledge base premised upon the knowledge unevenly spread across the society. A necessary prerequisite for this is to initiate dialogues between these different agents. This would help pave the way for creating a culture to sort out the local problems and the problems emerging in the macro context. Here it will not be an exaggeration to cite examples.

The International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR, B) launched a Maternal Child Health - Family Planning (MCH-FP) project in 1978, covering seventy villages in Matlab Thana, Comilla district (Munshi and Myaux, 2002). This was an intensive family planning programme. All households in the intervention area were visited by a Community Health Worker (CHW) once every two weeks since the inception of the project in 1978, and contraceptives were provided to them free of cost. Despite these economic incentives, and the sustained pressure on the households to change their behavior, long delays in the adoption of contraceptives were observed (Munshi & Mayux 2002).

According to Munshi and Myaux social regulations restrained the individual behaviour to respond to new opportunities and there was social uncertainty: the individual was not certain what level of contraceptive prevalence would ultimately be sustained in her community. However, as the women began interacting with each other, they began responding to these new opportunities.

When the economic environment changes, individuals happen be uncertain about the new equilibrium that would emerge in their community. Limited initial deviation from the traditional equilibrium induces further deviation, as individuals interact sequentially with each other, allowing the community to gradually find its way to the new equilibrium.

In 1989 in MIRI BARA village in NUBA Mountains of SUDAN the Anglo-Egyptian conquest led to integration into a new political and economic order the first condition of which was the imposition of state monopoly on warfare and violence- ‘pacification’ (Baumann 1984: 459-471).

Interaction of social and cultural factors with process of rural economic development comprised the spread of labour migration from the 1930s on, an expansion of subsistence agriculture and in recent decades developments that include the provision of educational and health facilities and access to flour mills and cash-cropping schemes. The implication is that the processes of development are to be understood from their relation to social and cultural factors (Baumann 1984: 459-471).

The question that may arise is what would be the guiding principle on which these agents from different strata of the society would be interested in volunteering them to this task. Should they be guided by their ‘passion’ or they would find ‘interest’ in doing so? It is not that, at once, whenever asked to do so, these agents would be motivated to get involved but as they are ‘allowed’ and ‘invited’ to reveal their experience this would act as ‘catalyst’ to spur their ‘mental research’ for accumulating the relevant information. They begin to feel that their involvement would pave the way for saving lives, for lifting up people from distress that may even include their kith and kin.

Hayek pointed out that the sort of knowledge with which we are talking about is “knowledge of the kind which by its nature cannot enter into statistics and therefore cannot be conveyed to any central authority in statistical form” (Hayek1945: 524). He made it explicitly clear that “the statistics which such a central authority would have to use would have to be arrived at precisely by abstracting from minor differences between the things, by lumping together, as resources of one kind, items which differ as regards location, quality, and other particulars, in a way which may be very significant for the specific decision. It follows from this that central planning based on statistical information by its nature cannot take direct account of these circumstances of time and place and that the central planner will have to find some way or other in which the decisions depending’ on them can be left to the ‘man on the spot’” (Hayek1945: 524).

On the part of the central decision making authority it may be inferred that very often the decision making falls prey to a situation where there is imperfect knowledge. In particular, it occurs where one party has different information to another. Unless there is information symmetry it is difficult to hold sub-national government accountable. Since the citizens reveal their needs and demands through ‘voting’ and since they can participate effectively in decision making the more the policy-makers are able to exercise proximity to the people the more it would be possible for local governments to provide public services.

Social knowledge

An intelligent agent in society is recognized by his way of choosing of his action based upon the belief about the strategies of the others and the behaviour of collection of agents and this behaviour of the agent reduces the level of chaos in the societies. It is informed that “Mental models, even rudimentary ones, about others and knowledge of the collective behavior are sufficient to generate nonchaotic behavior. This suggests that in order for recognizable social behavior to emerge the content of individual cognition needs to contain mental models of others and knowledge of others actions. One of the key questions here is to what extent does this knowledge need to be of specific others versus the generalized other, and to what extent does this knowledge need to be accurate” (Carley2006:76).

In the area of social knowledge is observed a related breakthrough. When the memory system a group is able to have, exceeds that of the individuals in the group, it is referred to as Transactive Memory (Carley2006:76). The basic idea of it is summed up as “knowledge is stored as much in the connections among individuals as in the individuals. Wegner argues that factors that are relevant in linking computers together such as directory updating, information allocation and coordination of retrieval also are relevant in linking the individuals’ memories together into a group memory. Empirical evidence provides some conformation and suggests that for a group, knowledge of who knows what is as important as knowledge of the task. Transactive knowledge can improve group performance. Thus, in order for recognizable social behavior to emerge, part of the content of an individual’s mental models needs to be knowledge of who knows what and presumably knowledge of who knows who” (Carley2006:76).

A paradigm shift has taken place by virtue of these findings that inform “social agents are information processors and interactors with internal mental models containing a model of self and others (specific and generalized) and others’ interaction that can be used to predict others performance, to determine who to interact with, and to select among alternative actions” (Carley2006:76).

 In 2014, The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) published a report (Technical Report no.83) titled Experiencing and coping with change: women-headed farming households in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (Dutt 2014).

The customary view of portraying women as victims, getting overburdened with work, having little power to take decisions in spite of making contribution to farm management, are countered in the report. Regarding Women Headed Household (WHH) the survey finds that individual and collective understanding of the environment is the determinant shaping their farm practices. Forging ahead for climate resilient agriculture the women’s perception and role were emphasized in the report.


The ongoing outbreak of this pandemic underpins the utility of developing a strong base for disaster management. The prerequisite for this is to prepare sound database and without taking cognizance of building it up on the basis of information collected and stored from the grassroots level to the districts, from there to the centres would not suffice to provide all- encompassing solution. The government is left with alternative combinations out of which it has to choose the desired ones, namely, continuing lock-down and opening the market, persistence of lock down and restriction of the daily trade, lifting lock down and bringing in normal activities, lifting lock down but propagating social distancing, lifting lock down but proliferating the process of testing, lock down and smoothing out the social processes, phase wise vaccination, etc. The failure or improper selection of desired ones would stultify restoration of social order and even if it succeeds in determining the proper ones the question remains whether that would be pursued through restoration of social order resting on the general recognition of certain principles of social organization or through a system in which order is created by direct commands.

 If it happens that the crisis and the struggle for coping up with it get prolonged there is no other alternative than taking recourse to this decentralised knowledge base to triumph in the long run. Which rekindles hope is that health education campaign and awareness events targeting the general population seem to be instrumental for facing the crisis as revealed by a study (Kutikuppala, Kiran & Suvvari 2021:88-92).

Zizek (2020:7-9) reminded that Mao’s motto was ‘Trust the people’. The government may love the people, protect them, take care of and control them but if it disinclines to trust them then an ‘extra sense of solidarity’ is difficult to crop up and thus we are left with the message from Zizek(2020:10) ‘There should be more than one voice in a healthy society, said doctor Li from his hospital bed just prior to his death, but this urgent need for other voices to be heard does not necessarily mean Western-style multiparty democracy, it just demands an open space for citizens’ critical reactions to circulate. The chief argument against the idea that the state has to control rumors to prevent panic is that this control itself spreads distrust and thus creates even more conspiracy theories. Only a mutual trust between ordinary people and the state can prevent this from happening’.

* (Author: Banhi Baran Ghosh Associate Professor of Economics, Sreegopal Banerjee College, Bagati, Magra, Hooghly, West Bengal)


1. Baumann, G. (1984): “Development as a Historical Process: A Social and Cultural History of Development in a Nuba Mountains Community”, Anthropos, Bd.79, H. 4./6, pp 459-471.
2. Carley, Kathleen M. (2006): “Computational Approaches to Sociological Theorizing” in Jonathan H. Turner (Ed.) Handbook of Sociological Theory, United States of America: Springer pp 69-84.
3. Hayek, F.A. (1945): “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, American Economic Review, Vol 35, No1 pp 519-30.
4. Kutikuppala, Lakshmi Venkata Simhachalam, A. N. Syamasundara Kiran and Tarun Kumar Suvvari (2021): “Knowledge, Attitude, and Practices toward the COVID19 Pandemic among the Indian General Population: A Cross-sectional Survey”, Indian Journal of Respiratory Care, June: 88-92.
5. Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala (2014): "Experiencing and coping with change: women-headed farming households in the Eastern Gangetic Plains", ACIAR Technical Reports Series 83.
6. Munshi, K. and J. Mayux. (2002): “Development as a Process of Social Change: An Application to the Fertility Transition”, Retrieved January 1, 2013 from
7. Parsons, Talcott and Neil J.Smelser (1956): Economy and Society: A Study in the Integration of Economic and Social Theory, United Kingdom: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
8. Zizek, Slavoz (2020): Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World, New York & London: OR Books.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.