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Researching public understanding of COVID-19 restrictions

Social distancing guidelines in a supermarket

An Open University (OU) COVID-19 Rapid Response funding scheme is supporting new research into how language can shed light on how “right” and “wrong” is defined and redefined in relation to government guidance on social distancing and face-covering.

A team from the School of Language and Applied Linguistics (LAL) in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS) has been awarded £5,000 to analyse how the police, members of the general public and broadcasters discuss compliance and non-compliance with Government guidelines on behaviour in traditional and social media.

Understanding responses to changing guidelines

The pandemic has brought about unprecedented changes to everyday life. With the announcement of social distancing and lockdown guidance, people’s behaviour has become open to scrutiny more than ever. Because government guidelines do not cover all circumstances, “acceptable behaviour” during the pandemic can become open to interpretation.

By looking at how the public, police and media share examples of breaches social distancing and face-covering as well as of “good practice” the researchers will examine how moral boundaries are redefined. The team will analyse a sample of conversations that took place between March and September 2020 from traditional media like radio phone-ins and from social media comments to uncover how this has happened in relation to COVID-19 guidelines.

Professor Rosina Márquez-Reiter, Head of School in LAL said,

“By focusing on public understandings of government guidance, the findings of this project will benefit a range of stakeholders, including the police, communication advisors, and members of the government. It will offer important data on what clear communication guidelines should consist of in national emergencies for successful public uptake.”

This study will create a searchable database that can be used in future research and initial findings of the analysis will form part of a workshop with The Open University’s Centre for Policing Research and Learning.

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