Covid-19 and exclusion. Discourse approaches and a plea for a media-aesthetic perspectiveBy
Crises are transition phases from one political, institutional and normative ordering regime to another. These periods of change come along with a loss of certainties, intensive knowledge negotiation and (new) knowledge formation that take place – and become graspable – in discursive practices and events, such as in day-to-day interaction, political discourse and media communication. Far from being objective givens, crises are thus inherently discursive phenomena being discerned, constructed and handled/dealt with as current states of affairs with particular features, potential causes and noticeable impacts on everyday life. As such, crisis discourse bears witness to, and provides fundamental insights into a world that is subject to negotiation.
The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic constitutes a paramount example of critical loss of continuity, certainty and control on various levels, be it political, cultural or social. In order to cope with these challenges, governments took a variety of measures that are not only intended to control the pandemic, but at the same time end up shaping our everyday perceptions and experiences. One overarching and recurrent example is the mask – a measure that addresses a broad group of people who by wearing it are considered to be protecting both themselves and others and in an act of solidarity. However, what we find are also measures and actions that do not address the general public, but are geared to particular groups of people.
To us, this became particularly obvious when we saw the pictures and news reporting on the Covid-19 outbreak in the Tönnies slaughterhouses in Germany in mid-2020. The factory and the collective accommodations for – mostly – migrant workers were barricaded by fencing and controlled by the police – a rather exceptional measure that has not often been used in Germany in regards to other sites where large outbreaks occurred. This example is also particular as it is often migrant workers who work in these slaughterhouses under quite precarious working conditions. This led us to reflect on how diverse social groups are addressed differently during the crisis and how speeches, legislative texts, media reports, but also pictures and public signs not only target, but also produce the “groups” and ascribe certain characteristics to them.
From this perspective, crisis discourse is based on differentiations between various social groups: vaccinated and non-vaccinated people, system-relevant professional sectors and ‘others’, businesses that need or deserve government aid and those that do not, etc. In doing so, Covid-crisis discourse raises and negotiates questions of community and solidarity, as well as of their respective boundaries. The groups themselves and the ‘knowledge’ about them, their relevance and visibility and particularly the inclusion and exclusion processes associated with them, however, do not represent objective realities but are discursive constructions of the pandemic.
Discourse analytical perspectives on exclusion: an overview
Unsurprisingly, such constructions of ‘knowledge’ have attracted scholarly attention, especially the emergent constructions of who constitutes a ‘group’ and the attribution of certain group ‘characteristics’. For the purpose of gaining an overview of the body of literature existing to date, we searched for titles, abstracts and keywords in SCOPUS using the search string (covid AND discourse AND (othering OR exclusion OR inclusion OR ingroup OR in-group OR outgroup OR out-group)) (search date: November 13, 2021). This search yielded 72 results in total from which we excluded publications not discussing our core topic, research notes and non-English publications by screening the abstracts.
The word cloud of keywords gives a first impression of the diversity of perspectives: the publications choose a wide range of theoretical approaches, concepts and perspectives (such as “stigma” or “prejudice”), concentrate on specific countries or arenas and draw on different discourse theoretical schools or methods (such as Critical Discourse Analysis or Corpus-assisted Analysis).
In the following, we will focus on two aspects:
- Who is being constructed as a group in ex-/inclusionary discourses. The word cloud already provides us with some indications as it contains keywords such as “immigrants”, “employees” or “asian” [sic].
- How and where does the in-/exclusionary discourse materialize. Here, the word cloud shows that there seems to be a strong focus on “media” as a discursive forum.
Whereas the first aspect aims at giving an overview of the group constructions that discourse analytical research is directed at, the second one summarizes what kinds of discursive manifestations are investigated – and thus also which inclusions and exclusions are produced in which discursive arenas.
WHO: Discursive constructions of groups
Some of the 24 studies identify and discuss exclusionary practices and/or stigmatization of various groups; the majority of analytical work is carried out with regard to processes of in- and exclusion and othering of particular groups.
We classified four types of groups of special interest. Most of the publications in our sample concentrate on (1) ethnic categories. They discuss the construction of these groups and of the ‘knowledge’ about them against the background of othering, orientalism, Western hegemony, white supremacy and (historically embedded) racialized discourse. Most often this is referred to Chinese or Asian people, sometimes also to nation states, which are presented as being “responsible” for the outbreak. Or, the discourses are analysed with a view on how they reinforce nationalist discourse and constructions of national solidarity. Generally, ethnic minority groups are demonstrated to have gained visibility during the pandemic but are represented in a way that reinforces existing discrimination or presents them as far/close to the rest of the population/society.
The discursive foregrounding of particular groups within societies is another central object of research. A recurring topic is (2) generational groups. Most often the focus is on elderly people who are being represented as being at risk, whereas young people are depicted as prone to risky behaviour and/or as a threat to elderly people. This construction of particular groups as a threat is not restricted to the youth but also applies to visitors and personnel in e.g. residential care. Cook et al.find these practices of othering in Australian news media, Giritli Nygren et al.in the Swedish discourse. By drawing on Critical Discourse Analysis and thematic analysis, Allen et al.reconstruct the paternalistic discourse in American newspapers on people in residential care and argue that they lack voice. Instead, it is the voice of family members which is being heard. Katz and Cohen explicitly focus on another generational group and observe discursive shifts in the visibility of children in the news and policy discourse in Israel.
Discourses on (3) disabled persons constitute another main topic. According to Akerkar, this group is generally represented as a “burden”, while Abrams and Abbott, by focusing on news reports from Canada and the UK, find that disability is displayed as “non-life”.
The last recurring group we identified in our sample is (4) low skilled workers. Kaur-Kill observes discursive shifts in Singaporean press articles from “control”-frames to “vulnerability”-frames. Mejia et al.observe a discursive shift in US-newspapers where formerly stigmatized essential service workers are attributed a status as “heroes”. A similar reshaping of stereotypical representations is observed by Poole and Williamson with respect to Muslim essential workers in British newspapers.
HOW and WHERE: Discursive arenas
The body of literature hitherto existing on discursive constructions of various groups and communities within the context of Covid-19 has a strong discourse-analytical and semantic focus and is inspired by various discourse-analytical schools, traditions and approaches. Inter alia, they draw on various schools of Critical Discourse Analysis, on corpus linguistics, framing approaches or thematic analysis and topic modelling. What they share is a clear emphasis on verbal manifestations and a focus on the analysis of discourses that materialize in official and institutional texts, for instance of governments, and in media coverage. Even though some studies include pictures, memes and/or social media discourse in the analysis, the large majority concentrates on verbal manifestations in media, especially in newspaper articles.
However, it should be mentioned that the overview provided here is based on a literature review using the search terms and criteria described above. This procedure certainly restricts the literature analysed. Nevertheless, to the best of our knowledge there is no huge body of literature considering social (re)configurations during the pandemic from a media-aesthetic viewpoint. Further literature we are aware of (that is: literature that did not appear in our SCOPUS search, e. g. grey literature, or has not been selected, e. g. non-English publications) resembles our findings.
Certainly, one main advantage of linguistic data for the purpose of studying Covid-crisis discourse consists in the possibility of relying on text analytical tools that provide insights into cross-situational phenomena of meaning production and discursive orders in the context of the pandemic. This way, the named as well as further studies clearly reveal discursive reconfigurations of sociality or the emergence of new socialities in various types of communicative contexts, both locally and more globally.
Outlook and a plea for a media-aesthetic perspective
These configurations and reconfigurations, however, are worth being considered also in small-scale instances and, more importantly, they are not solely created in spoken and written words. The Covid-crisis and its discourses exhibit a strong visual component that manifests distinctly in different scopes (locally, regionally, globally etc.). Whereas some prominent pictures such as the numerous coffins from Bergamo or the fences in front of the Tönnies slaughterhouse after the Covid-19 outbreak might be more iconic to a certain local or regional area, others might be more global: Statistical or diagrammatic representations of infected or vaccinated people as well as directive signs instructing us to wear a mask and keep distance are still present in everyday life in many geographical regions and societies. Visual elements thus make the crisis visible, tangible and utterable as aesthetic articulations and, in so doing, constitute sensible (re)configurations of sociality as experiential modes of togetherness and separation, inside and outside, centre and periphery in times of crisis (cf. Iveta Žákovská’s contribution for Covid-19-related humour in memes). In this light, media images constitute highly relevant and fruitful objects of research that are worthwhile considering, especially with regard to their (media-)aesthetic composition. Such a focus differs fundamentally from multimodal approaches that generally tend to proceed primarily from language or concentrate exclusively on an unquestioned ‘content’ that media images are representing and communicating through various senses. Starting instead from the media-aesthetic framing of these images opens a perspective for considering their production and reception as socially, culturally and historically situated appropriations or creations of shared but particular worlds of perception in heterogeneous and disparate societies. These aesthetic creations can be classified as what Richard Rorty has called a “poetic doing” of political communities, i.e. the constant reconfiguration of a sense of commonality in aesthetic – and, thus, also in media – practice. “Poetic doings” of this kind can be understood as boundary work, as stabilizing but also shifting boundaries of the visible and the sayable. Such disagreement-based shifts are instances of the political itself, as they intervene in established orders and redefine the ”partage du sensible”, the distribution of the sensible, its political subjects and their attributions and power relations. In order to gain a more comprehensive idea of the discursive construction of the pandemic and the sense(s) of the world created, visual as well as audiovisual images (such as special programmes on TV, public signs regulating behaviour, charts, etc.) should be included into the analysis of Covid-19 discourses of in-/and exclusion.
Furthermore, it should be mentioned that it is not only governments and media outlets who contribute to the stabilization and destabilization of identities of certain groups by attributing ‘characteristics’ to them – be it in written or spoken words or in audiovisual images. Most of the authors cited above (the two authors of the blog post included) are also not free from drawing boundaries: They use assumed characteristics of persons (such as age or ethnicity) to identify their research object, to delineate one group from another and they draw on categorizations that might appear ‘naturalized’ to describe the focus of their study. It is, therefore, an important endeavour to critically reflect discourse scholars’ entanglement with and contributions to the perpetuation of (parts of) the discourse they (critically) reconstruct.
 We are indebted to the participants of the authors’ workshop, to Rita Vallentin and Julia Behringer for valuable comments and their help with language editing. All remaining flaws are in the responsibility of the authors.
 Cf. Wengeler, M., & Ziem, A. (2013). „Krisen“ als diskursgeschichtlicher Gegenstand: Zugänge, Fragestellungen, Konzepte. In M. Wengeler & A. Ziem (Eds.), Sprachliche Konstruktionen von Krisen. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf ein fortwährend aktuelles Phänomen (pp. 1–16). Hempen, p. 4.
 Bluhm, F., & Birke, P. (2021). Eine Risensauerei: Prekäre Beschäftigung in der Fleischindustrie. In N. Mayer-Ahuja & O. Nachtwey (Eds.), Verkannte Leistungsträger:innen. Berichte aus der Klassengesellschaft (pp. 281–303). Suhrkamp.
 The remaining 26 results contained two “outliers”: One rather focusing on the exclusion from discourse and the (perceived) validity of truth-claims instead of the construction of group exclusion, and the second one studying effects of (types of) media consumption on prejudices against Asian and Chinese people Tsai, J.‑Y., Phua, J., Pan, S., & Yang, C.‑C. (2020). Intergroup Contact, COVID-19 News Consumption, and the Moderating Role of Digital Media Trust on Prejudice Toward Asians in the United States. Cross-Sectional Study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(9), e22767. https://doi.org/10.2196/22767). We also excluded these publications, which resulted in a total of 24 publications considered.
 Farrimond, H. (2021). Stigma Mutation. Tracking Lineage, Variation and Strength in Emerging COVID-19 Stigma. Sociological Research Online, 3(2), 136078042110315. https://doi.org/10.1177/13607804211031580, Rosa, A. S. de, Mannrini, T., Montes, L. G. de, Holman, A., Lauri, M. A., Negura, L., Giacomozzi, A. I., da Silva Bousfiled, Andréa Barbará, Justo, A. M., Alba, M. de, Seidmann, S., Permanadeli, R., Sitto, K., & Lubinga, E. (2021). Sense making processes and social representations of COVID-19 in multi-voiced public discourse: Illustrative examples of institutional and media communication in ten countries. Community Psychology in Global Perspective, 7(1), 13–53.
 e.g. Berrocal, M., Kranert, M., Attolino, P., Bonatti Santos, J. A., Garcia Santamaria, S., Henaku, N., Koffi, A. D. L., Marziani, C., Mažeikienė, V., Olivera Pérez, D., Rajandran, K., & Salamurović, A. (2021). Constructing collective identities and solidarity in premiers’ early speeches on COVID-19. A global perspective. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8(1), 519. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00805-x, Chan, C., & Montt Strabucchi, M. (2021). Many-faced orientalism. Racism and xenophobia in a time of the novel coronavirus in Chile. Asian Ethnicity, 22(2), 374–394. https://doi.org/10.1080/14631369.2020.1795618, Koba, A. (2021). Discursive othering of Asian Americans: A preliminary reflection of a foreshadowing COVID-19’ related hate. Language, Discourse & Society, 9(1), 15–32, Rosa, A. S. de, & Mannarini, T. (2020). The “Invisible Other”: Social Representations of COVID-19 Pandemic in Media and Institutional Discourse. Papers on Social Representations, 29(2), 5.1-5.35.
 Flores Morales, J., & Farago, F. (2021). “Of Course We Need to Help the Undocumented Immigrants!”: Twitter Discourse on the (Un)deservingness of Undocumented Immigrants in the United States during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Sociological Perspectives, 64(5), 765–785. https://doi.org/10.1177/07311214211005494, Rosa, A. S. de, & Mannarini, T. (2020). The “Invisible Other”: Social Representations of COVID-19 Pandemic in Media and Institutional Discourse. Papers on Social Representations, 29(2), 5.1-5.35.
 Cook, P. S., Curryer, C., Banks, S., Neves, B. B., Omori, M., Mallon, A. H., & Lam, J. (2021). Ageism and risk during the coronavirus pandemic. In D. Lupton & K. Willis (Eds.), The COVID-19 Crisis (pp. 207–218). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003111344-22.
 Giritli Nygren, K., Klinga, M., Olofsson, A., & Öhman, S. (2021). The Language of Risk and Vulnerability in Covering the COVID-19 Pandemic in Swedish Mass Media in 2020. Implications for the Sustainable Management of Elderly Care. Sustainability, 13(19), 10533. https://doi.org/10.3390/su131910533.
 Allen, L. D., & Ayalon, L. (2021). “It’s Pure Panic”. The Portrayal of Residential Care in American Newspapers During COVID-19. The Gerontologist, 61(1), 86–97. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnaa162.
 Katz, C., & Cohen, N. (2021). Invisible children and non-essential workers. Child protection during COVID-19 in Israel according to policy documents and media coverage. Child Abuse & Neglect, 116(Pt 2), 104770. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104770.
 Akerkar, S. (2020). Affirming Radical Equality in the Context of COVID-19. Human Rights of Older People and People with Disabilities. Journal of Human Rights Practice, 12(2), 276–283. https://doi.org/10.1093/jhuman/huaa032.
 Abrams, T., & Abbott, D. (2020). Disability, Deadly Discourse, and Collectivity amid Coronavirus (COVID-19). Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 22(1), 168–174. https://doi.org/10.16993/SJDR.732.
 Kaur-Gill, S. (2020). The COVID-19 Pandemic and Outbreak Inequality. Mainstream Reporting of Singapore’s Migrant Workers in the Margins. Frontiers in Communication, 5, 346. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2020.00065.
 Mejia, C., Pittman, R., Beltramo, J. M., Horan, K., Grinley, A., & Shoss, M. K. (2021). Stigma & dirty work. In-group and out-group perceptions of essential service workers during COVID-19. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 93(4), 102772. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhm.2020.102772.
 Poole, E., & Williamson, M. (2021). Disrupting or reconfiguring racist narratives about Muslims? The representation of British Muslims during the Covid crisis. Journalism, 146488492110301. https://doi.org/10.1177/14648849211030129.
 Miyake, T. (2021). ‘Cin ciun cian ’ (ching chong). Yellowness and neo-orientalism in Italy at the time of COVID-19. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 47(4), 486–511. https://doi.org/10.1177/01914537211011719.
 Salgado Andrade, E. (2020). Memes y procesos de semiosis de la pandemia en México. Comunicación Y Sociedad, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.32870/cys.v2021.7906.
 e.g. Caiani, M., Carlotti, B., & Padoan, E. (2021). Online Hate Speech and the Radical Right in Times of Pandemic. The Italian and English Cases. Javnost – the Public, 28(2), 202–218. https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2021.1922191, Flores Morales, J., & Farago, F. (2021). “Of Course We Need to Help the Undocumented Immigrants!”: Twitter Discourse on the (Un)deservingness of Undocumented Immigrants in the United States during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Sociological Perspectives, 64(5), 765–785. https://doi.org/10.1177/07311214211005494.
 It would exceed the scope of this contribution to present all of the further contributions, rather we include some examples to show that their approaches confirm the findings obtained from our literature review: Soich, M., & Mireles, M. (2021). Derechos vulnerados en pandemia. La representación sociodiscursiva del colectivo travesti y trans en dos discursos sobre acciones de asistencia en la Ciudad de Buenos Aires. Discurso & Sociedad, 15(1), 112–142, for instance, focus on linguistic means employed in the sociodiscursive representation of transvestite and transgender collectives, Mohammed, S., Peter, E., Killackey, T., & Maciver, J. (2021). The “nurse as hero” discourse in the COVID-19 pandemic: A poststructural discourse analysis. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 117, 103887 investigate the discourse around a certain professional group and reconstruct how nurses are being constructed as heroes, whereas Yang, J., & Wang, H. (2020). Discursive Othering in the Fighting Against COVID-19: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the China-Related Coverage of COVID-19. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 537, 31-35 (Proceedings of the 2020 International Conference on Language, Communication and Culture Studies (ICLCCS 2020)) employ corpus-analytical methods and an analysis of newspaper headlines to reconstruct how China has been othered in news coverage in the US and the UK. Sitto, K., & Lubinga, E. (2020). A Disease of Privilege? Social Representations in Online Media about Covid-19 among South Africans during Lockdown. Papers on Social Representations, 29(2), 6.1-6.29, in their study on social representations in online media in South Africa, include visual representations, but do not analyse them in detail.
 e.g. Pflaeging, J., Wildfeuer, J., Bateman, J. A., Seizov, O., & Tseng, C.‑I. (Eds.). (2019). Multimodality: Disciplinary Throughts and the Challenge of Diversity. De Gruyter.
 Rorty, R. (1998). Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. Harvard University Press.
 Rancière, J. (2000). Le partage du sensible. Esthétique et politique. La Fabrique-éditions.
 Rancière, J. (1999). Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy. University of Minnesota Press.
 In this respect it should be mentioned that research is apparently defining “discourse” as national discourses. Even though this might be due to pragmatic considerations (e.g. language skills of the respective authors), it should be considered that Covid-19 is a global phenomenon and the topics are affecting many nationalities. We are grateful to Rita Vallentin for this remark.
How to cite this blog post:
Barnickel, Christiane & Horst, Dorothea (2022), “Covid-19 and exclusion. Discourse approaches and a plea for a media-aesthetic perspective”, Crisis Discourse Blog (CriDis), URL = https://www.crisis-discourse.net/en/2022/04/discourses-of-covid-19-and-social-exclusion-a-plea-for-a-media-aesthetic-perspective/.