Through analysis of the UK government’s management of the Covid-19 outbreak, this paper offers an empirical demonstration of the principle of culture’s relative autonomy. It does so by showing how the outcome of meaning-making struggles had real impacts on political legitimacy, public behaviour, and control over the spread of the virus. Ultimately, these impacts contributed to the avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of UK citizens. Dividing the crisis into phases within a secular ritual passage or 'social drama', it shows how each phase was defined by struggles between the government and other actors to code the unfolding events in an appropriate moral way, to cast actors in their proper roles, and to plot them together in a storied fashion under a suitable narrative genre. Taken together, these processes constituted a conflictual effort to define the meaning of what was occurring. The paper also offers more specific contributions to cultural sociology by showing why social performance theory needs to consider the effects of casting non-human actors in social dramas, how metaphor forms a powerful tool of political action though simplifying and shaping complex realities, and how casting can shift responsibility and redefine the meaning of emotionally-charged events such as human death.
- Coronavirus (COVID-19)
- social drama
- narrative genre
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- School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies - Senior Lecturer in Sociology