Socially Distant: Writing History in “Unprecedented Times”

“We Grieve Together.” Dark background with bright illustrations of a number of grieving people holding candles, scattered across windows and computer screens.

Image Credit: Art by Molly Costello (
Image Description: “We Grieve Together.” Dark background with bright illustrations of a number of grieving people holding candles, scattered across windows and computer screens.

This is the sixth post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

By Johanna Lewis and Daniel Murchison 

We are part of academia’s COVID generation – ours is a cohort of scholars whose graduate studies coincided with the global pandemic. COVID has produced many challenges, at micro and macro levels, and textured how we practice history and what meaning we make from it. As historians studying the forces of capitalism and colonialism, and as graduate students witnessing and navigating how the pandemic has worsened precarity and inequality, we are collaborating here to reflect on the wider context of the COVID crisis, and to trace its consequences for our work – both the conditions of our labour and the content that we produce – in “unprecedented times.”

The COVID Context
We understand the COVID moment as more than a year and a half long health crisis; the global pandemic emerged from a wider context and its impacts will continue to play out across both individual trajectories and collective histories. The volatility of advanced capitalism and the uneven austerity of neoliberal governance had, in several ways, set the stage for the COVID crisis. These developments have not only facilitated declines of intergenerational social mobility and the continued concentration of wealth, but also turned our homes and schools into sites of financialization and struggle, institutionalized precarious work, and marketized healthcare. In the context of an inadequate social safety net, the state responses to the global pandemic prioritized accumulation for some at the expense of the lives and wellbeing of the many, spawning crises of evictions, impoverishment, and mental health alongside waves of deadly and inequitably borne public health emergencies. Industrialists and financiers are reaping record profits while the working-class, particularly low waged and racialized workers, earn less than a living wage and face a deadly virus on the job. Private for-profit care facilities are paying huge dividends to shareholders even as elderly and/or disabled residents died in their beds. Growing class divides are being both exposed and exacerbated.

Historians’ Labour Conditions: Production & Reproduction
For academics, these forces differed. Institutions of higher education, although transformed by neoliberalism and too often oriented towards market incentives, did shutter classrooms, offices, and meeting rooms. This pushed some of the constitutive elements of our intellectual labour – teaching, conferencing, and conversing – into virtual spaces. The process of our research, namely the examination of documents held at physical repositories of records, faced the closure of archives and borders, and the unevenness of digitization. The effect has been two-fold. On the one hand, the transition to remote work protected us from both the health risks faced by working people in frontline settings, and from the financial crises faced by workers experiencing lay-offs and job losses, particularly those deemed ineligible for state assistance. On the other hand, the delays and cancellations of research projects have had material consequences for those of us who rely on our intellectual labour to pay our rents, and the deepening isolation and estrangement from colleagues and community has taken a mental health toll. Many graduate students and early career scholars are also looking anxiously to a period of financial uncertainty and employment precarity as our sector reels from the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. A year and a half in, the gradual reopening has brought academics and educators into wider conflicts over workplace health and safety, with these often tense moments centred on the responsibilities of employers to adequately protect the most vulnerable workers.

From the beginning, COVID has had particular implications for people with caregiving responsibilities. Between prolonged school and daycare closures, the safety needs of medically vulnerable families, and the constant anxious cycles of symptoms, exposures, tests, and isolations, countless parents and caregivers have had young kids at home, on and off, for over 18 months. As academics, the situation has forced caregivers to adapt our research and writing methods and processes, and navigate, even more than usual, competing needs and forms of labour. For most parents – and especially, due to ongoing gendered disparities in how care work is organized, for women with children – research has slowed, stalled, or even stopped altogether. This question of pace is not immaterial in a sector where producing on particular timelines is directly tied, depending on career stage, to graduate funding, job market success, or tenure review. For some, COVID’s multiple caregiving burdens and the lack of structural supports and accommodations from academic institutions have even made continuing in academia untenable.

This crisis of reproductive labour hit parents, families, and households across different sectors and, in different ways, across both the working and middle classes. This shared basis of experience has the potential to spark solidarity, mutual aid, collaboration, and powerful conversations about the conditions we all need to survive and thrive. But it has also exposed profound gaps between those struggling to juggle work-and-childcare-from-home, and those struggling to keep their families safe and cared for while labouring in frontline workplaces.

Historical Analysis
How has living through this moment shaped our understanding of the past? How does writing from this particular historical moment impact the way we make sense of previous ones? Does a return to normalcy, so often called upon in popular discourse, necessitate a return to our prior frames of reference and analysis?  We can only speculate at this point: if the historical moment and conditions of academic labour are somewhat clear, COVID’s impact on the conceptual vocabulary and theoretical frameworks of historical analysis is less so. It may only be in retrospect that we can appraise the collective trends, shifts, and new directions that emerged in historical writing from the COVID-era. To make sense of the circumstances we are witnessing and experiencing, some have fruitfully revitalized older concepts like “social murder”. The crisis of social reproduction, meanwhile, may call for critical use of “care” as an analytic principle. This requires reconsidering some of our assumptions about social, economic, and political change, and prioritizing the lens of care in our understanding of class, gender, and race relations, state governance, and community formation, and the transnational yet uneven circulation of people, pathogens, commodities, resources, affects, and ideas. Together, such shifts have the potential to contribute to both cultural and materialist analysis of histories, nuance our assessment of the ruptures and continuities that have brought us to the present moment, and shape our visions and demands for the future.

The inequalities of capitalism and the breadth of state power have been laid bare, while alienation and anxiety mingle alongside the losses experienced by many of our communities. During this time, popular conversation, community organizing, and public policy deliberations have integrated questions of an historical nature, ranging from, for example, the dynamics of public health interventions in previous pandemics to the evolution of racism and carcerality. At the same time as our work as historians has become more challenging, the stakes have become clearer. Whatever period of history we research, our approaches will have been shaped pragmatically, affectively, and analytically by the circumstances we are facing now.

Johanna Lewis (they/them) is a queer parent of two, a community organizer, and doctoral candidate in the Department of History at York University.

Daniel Murchison (he/him) is a doctoral candidate and social historian in the Department of History at York University, and an editor with Left History.

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