The Need for De-Integration in Pandemic Times

By Elena Esposito

The Corona virus crisis highlights the dangerous interconnectedness of society. In the space of a few weeks, the virus spread everywhere, affecting all domains of society and each of us. From Hubei to Italy to New York to Rwanda, governments must deal with it, the economy is in trouble, schools are closed, interpersonal relationships are blocked, sports competitions and concerts are suspended, and emergency laws are laid down.

The most common response to this challenge is a call for integration between social domains – the idea that interventions in different fields should be coordinated with a unitary approach. A sociological perspective guided by systems theory, however, warns against a simple call for harmonization. Modern society, differentiated among autonomous systems like the economy, politics, science, the law, families, and medicine, risks being endangered by an excess of integration. The diversity of reactions and criteria in different systems is a crucial resource for resilience under complex conditions.

In a crisis, interconnectedness is unavoidable. The emergency has repercussions in all systems, restricting the degrees of freedom in each of them. The medical need to limit the movement of people has economic, political, legal, family, and media relevance and affects all areas of society. Even if they react to the same event, however, the systems are not bound to follow the same principles and do not stick to each other. Each of them independently determines the consequences of the irritation and learns differently.

The real challenge is to not to strengthen integration, but rather to favor enough de-integration – i.e., the possibility for each system to autonomously unfold its own operational mode. Autonomy can be either limited or encouraged. Both options are possible, as can be observed in the management of the Corona crisis. For example, in the relationship between law and politics: the legitimation of measures that restrict the freedoms and fundamental rights of people can lead to authoritarian measures permanently constraining the debate between government and opposition (as in Hungary) or be restricted to a limited period under specific conditions, allowing politics to restore its autonomous dynamics. Or in the relationship between politics and the economy: the necessary aid can be dispensed with a horizontal plan of subsidies to citizens (Trump’s $1,000 sent to all) or, by contrast, with supports to companies aimed at maintaining jobs and enabling the economy to independently resume its activity once the emergency is over.

The consequences of the Covid-19 emergency show that the possibility of social coordination lies primarily in the management of differences and in the effort to increase reactivity to surprises – fostering diversity rather than integration.

This text is part of the #DossierCorona thread #workingfutures and was first published as part of the series “Wiko Briefs – Working Futures in Corona Times” of the Working Futures Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The authors are members of the transnational network “Working Futures” or Fellows of the Wissenschaftskolleg.


Elena Esposito is Professor of Sociology at the University of Bielefeld, Germany and the University of Bologna, Italy. Since 2020, she has coordinated the ECR Research Project “The Future of Prediction. The Social Consequences of Algorithmic Forecast in Insurance, Medicine and Policing”. In 2019/2020, she is a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.


Further articles in the thread #workingfutures of the #DossierCorona on TRAFO:

Introducing #DossierCorona #workingfutures, 14 May 2020.

Lisa Herzog, How Can We Strengthen the Contributory Logic of Work?, 14 May 2020.

Martin Krzywdzinski, The COVID 19 crisis accelerates structural change in the world of work, 15 May 2020.


Citation: Elena Esposito, The Need for De-Integration in Pandemic Times, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.05.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23985.


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1 Response

  1. 2. June 2020

    […] Esposito, The Need for De-Integration in Pandemic Times, 18 May […]

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