Science – Between Pests and Decameron – District of Munich

A deadly virus that anyone can carry and spread without anyone noticing. The Covid-19 outbreak over a year ago came as a shock to many people, and certainly a whole new experience. But how do you understand a pandemic, how can you accept such an encroachment on private and public life if you have not experienced it before? Many media outlets have taken advantage of this to compare the current situation with scenes from books and films. Now Sina Farzin and Fabian Hempel of the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Neubiberg are taking a closer look at this aspect with colleagues from the Karl von Ossetsky University in Oldenburg on the research project Epidemiology Meets Science.

The Professor of General Sociology and Research Assistant is investigating how the leading press media, particularly in the Features Department and the Science Department, use these references to fictional narratives to describe, understand, and explain the pandemic. Oldenburg researchers focus on social media. “Some very old works like Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague’ have been referred to in order to understand the crisis,” says Farzin. Specifically, she and Hempel collected data from eight German and English-language newspapers and magazines. Among them are the newspapers “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and “Zeit” as well as “The Guardian” and “The Economist”. “We don’t just want to investigate whether reports in newspapers refer to cultural products such as novels, films or paintings, but above all,” Hempel says. So whether the references are only part of the description of the pandemic or whether they are substantive in the discussion to explain aspects of the epidemic. The project is still in its infancy, starting in April. Hempel is still in the process of compiling and analyzing data for relevant references.

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But he did find some interesting passages in the text. In an interview in Spiegel, for example, interviewed medical historian Frank Snowden confirmed the reporter’s question if he saw parallels with the plague. For example, that the wealthy are now fleeing from Covid-19 to secluded places, as in the famous work “Decameron” by Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, in which ten young men in a country house at the gates of Florence escape from the plague,” answers a text by sociologist Rudolf Steschwe In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which uses the novel “Die Buddenbrooks,” which describes some 1,900 physicians who were seen as supporting actors, he shows “how the physician’s ability to act has expanded,” says Hempel.

He draws his first cautious conclusions from his analyses. “So far, I have mainly found references to cultural narratives from philosophers, sociologists, and journalists who are at home in the features section,” says the scientist. But he is as convinced as he is that he will also find such references in texts that can be devoted to scholarly journalism. In addition, it has been proven so far that science is trusted in texts in order to derive knowledge, and is not viewed with suspicion. Farzin also assumes that they will find texts in which the authors themselves deal with the crisis by writing. Remember, for example, a blog by French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani, which she wrote from her country home and which is not only praised. “That closes the cycle again,” she says. “It’s similar to the situation in the Decameron story.”

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Scientists don’t care about completeness, but rather want to represent the “big picture,” says Hempel. This also relates to the fact that the project is intended to run for only one year. It is conducted within the framework of the international interdisciplinary research program “Imagination meets science”, where above all an examination of the representation of the natural sciences in literature is carried out.

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