Initial Findings on Emergent Agency in a time of Covid – launch webinar and briefing

November 6, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

In September we kicked off a really interesting project on ‘Emergent Agency in a Time of Covid’, asking people if they wanted to be part of a collective effort to share and discuss the grassroots responses to the pandemic and start to explore their longer-term legacy. The response was encouraging (even a bit overwhelming!), and we’ve spent the last couple of months digesting the resulting spate of studies, ideas and conversations. See the tab at the top of this page for some initial stories.

Next week (Thursday 12th, 12-2pm UK time), we’re holding a webinar to discuss the initial findings, with some great panellists (Laurence Cox, Yogesh Ghore, and Katherine Marshall) on social movements, livelihoods and faith organizations, respectively. We’ve also put together an initial briefing on what we’ve seen so far – here’s a summary:

‘The paper is divided into three sections: the broad shape of Emergent Agency (EA); a more in-depth discussion of the subjects and repertoires of EA, and questions for the longer term.

Under each heading, we summarize what we think we are seeing in terms of patterns, some illustrative examples (10 pages of them in the doc, but not included here for reasons of space) and the questions these raise for where the world might be headed and what responses are possible.

Section 1: The broad shape of EA

History and context

What we are seeing:  The shape of EA often reflects both longer-term historical context, and what was happening as the pandemic broke. History does not stop with C-19, of course, and already it is interacting with and shaping new movements and processes on everything from Black Lives Matter, to the EndSARS protests against police brutality in Nigeria, to demands for political reform in Thailand.

Questions: If EA differs from one country, or continent, to the next, how much can activists / practitioners really learn from reading about what their peers elsewhere are doing? Where is EA actually emergent – and where just a pivot of ‘normal’ agency?


What we are seeing: C-19 has greatly influenced the social contract between citizens and state, but in contradictory ways. In some places, the state has used the pandemic to further centralize control and close down civic space (with growing protest against state responses in some locations, including anti-lockdown protests stemming from mistrust of political and scientific elites).

In other settings, citizen’s movements have sought to push the state to respond quicker, or better (e.g. by highlighting the impact on particularly affected groups) or to carve out/defend space both for mutual aid, and for more overtly political activity, such as challenging government abuses.

Questions: Which tendencies predominate in what combinations, and where? What determines how the pandemic drives changes to the social contract?


What we are seeing: EA exhibits contrasting tendencies of hyper-localization (eg mutual aid volunteer groups springing up at the street or block level) and ‘death of distance’ via the rise of online organizing.

Questions: How do these two tendencies interact?

What we are seeing: Within the aid and humanitarian sector, C-19 has boosted efforts towards localization of responses, which had previously been frustrated by the incentives and habits of the existing institutions, governance and rules.

Questions: What will determine whether localization remains as one of the legacies of C-19, or returns to the status quo ante?

Dynamics of organization and protest

What we are seeing: As with all spikes on social movement activity, we are already seeing some kinds of activism, e.g. around mutual aid, subside.

Questions: Which new initiatives, whether outside or within existing social organization structures, are proving more enduring, acquiring lasting identities or structures, and why might that be?

What we are seeing: The focus of some volunteer groups has evolved rapidly since the early days of the pandemic, for example moving from food and medicine to mental health and loneliness, or shifting into multiple areas of support (food/political/income).

Questions: Under which circumstances are new forms of organization and agency emerging v existing organizations moving to respond to C-19? How are new/spontaneous responses interacting with those of established civil society organizations, political parties etc (e.g. are they combining, or staying separate)? Are dynamics significantly different between the first and second/third waves of infection? What else are people seeing in terms of how the space for popular agency is changing?

Section 2: Themes and Repertoires

What we are seeing: Clusters of issues are starting to emerge from the coverage of numerous individual examples of EA. These could be accurate representations of the spread of organization across society or, of course, reflect the interests of those reporting on the activity. Current clusters can be identified by: (1) social sector (women’s organizations, including self-identified feminist organizing); youth; faith organizations; refugees/migrants, Diaspora, trades unions; social enterprises; and food systems; (2) issue focus (environmentalists, anti-police violence, refugee / migrant solidarity, anti-eviction activism, anti-racism) and (3) by their choice of particular tactics (e.g. neighbourhoods/mutual aid; online activism). Clearly, there is some overlap between these categories. New alliances for collective action are also springing up.

Questions: What areas of EA are missing from the current list? What is the balance in EA between self-agency and proxy agency (acting for others)?

What we are seeing: Clusters vary in the nature of their organization and the repertoires of activities they have developed. Typical repertoires include coalition building; online activism; symbolic events and ‘happenings’, unruly and violent protest, awareness raising, mutual aid, documentation e.g. of need as an advocacy tool with state providers.

Questions: How do repertoires differ by cluster and why?

Section 3: Longer Term Questions

Which of the areas described above might have the greatest long-term significance? Early candidates could include:

  • a potential ‘youthquake’ as older generations of politicians and activists are both physically restricted by the risk of contagion, and disadvantaged compared to younger ‘digital natives’ by the move to online.
  • a definitive shift online in the nature of association and organization, with implications for repertoires, the politics of organizing, and the social contract, among many others. Is the nature of digital activism at the grassroots similar/different to that of educated elites?
  • lasting impact on gender inequality and activism, for example from heightened attention to the unpaid care economy, domestic violence, or place-based organization
  • Will the crisis finally provide a tipping point for the localization of a range of activities previously dominated by international actors in humanitarian response and other areas?’

Interested to find out/contribute more? If so, see you on the 12th November – sign up here. Download the full 14 page briefing here.