Sunday, 13 December 2020

How the pandemic made visible a new form of power

By Engin Isin and Evelyn Ruppert

The political pandemic known by its biomedical name COVID-19 has thrown us off balance. We have steadied ourselves (somewhat) by taking a historical view on forms of power and re-evaluating some long-held assumptions about power in social and political theory to see what the present might reveal. The result is this article where we broadly provide an account of three forms of power (sovereign, disciplinary and regulatory) and suggest that the coronavirus pandemic has brought these three forms of power into sharp relief while making particularly visible a fourth form of power that we name ‘sensory power’. We place sensory power within an historical series straddling the 17th and 18th (sovereign), 18th and 19th (disciplinary), and 19th and 20th (regulatory) centuries. The birth of sensory power straddles the 20th and 21st centuries and just like earlier forms of power neither replaces nor displaces but nestles and intertwines with them. So, rather than announcing the birth of a new form of power that marks this age or epoch we articulate its formation as part of a much more complex configuration of power. We conclude the article with a discussion the kinds of resistance that sensory power elicits.

This article follows the second edition of our book, Being Digital Citizens, which was published a few months earlier. Its new chapter examines various forms of digital activism. We were inspired by the range, spread, and diffusion of such acts of resistance and yet were unclear what form of power to which they were a response. Having examined these acts of resistance compelled us to take a historical view and to name a fourth form of power. With the onset of the pandemic, that form of power became visible and through the article we came to name it as sensory power.  


Both the article and the book are available at the links below and are open access.


Isin, Engin, and Evelyn Ruppert. 2020. ‘The Birth of Sensory Power: How a Pandemic Made It Visible’. Big Data & Society 7(2). Open access.


Isin, Engin F., and Evelyn Ruppert. 2020. Being Digital Citizens. Second edition. London: Rowman & Littlefield.  Go to tab 'features' to download open access pdf.