Knowing Thyself during a Pandemic: A Sociological Exploration of Retrospective Narratives on Self-Knowledge in India

Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic along with its havoc impacts on macro social institutions such as education, religion, economy, technology, etc., influenced the knowledge of self, which became a significant part of the micro experiences during the lockdown. To be specific, the prolonged “social distancing” created a rupture in their pre-pandemic busy lifestyle and gave the individuals time to introspect about the changes their “self” was undergoing. Against this backdrop, the objective of the study is to explore the ways in which the COVID-19 lockdown period affected the self-knowledge of urban middle-class young adults in India. The study analyses the macro and micro factors that influenced the perception of self in individuals, the aspects of self-knowledge in youth that were mostly affected by societal factors during the lockdown, and the significance of the time during that time.

 Keywords: Self-knowledge, COVID-19, Middle-class, Youth, Urban India.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about unprecedented global challenges at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, prompting governments around the world to implement various measures to mitigate the spread of the virus (Nilima et al., 2021). One of the most significant measures was the imposition of lockdowns, which involved restricting people’s mobility causing far-reaching consequences on individuals and societies as a whole. The lockdown not only impacted public health but also disrupted economies (Mckibbin & Fernando, 2020), education systems, working styles, social interactions, and daily routines (Singh & Singh, 2020). In this context, while middle-class employed individuals were still engaging in “work from home” (Mckee-Ryan, et al., 2020) and women were additionally performing household chores (Raju and Kumar, 2020; Alon et al., 2020), young adults got time to know their “self” as the educational institutions were closed. Morin and Racy (2021) defined self-knowledge as “information about subjective tendencies one possesses about oneself” which includes mental state, personality, relationships, beliefs, social identity etc. Earlier studies (Myers, 1986; Biss, 2011; Healy, 2015) have found that some of the factors that help individuals gain knowledge about their “self” are introspection, interactions with family, friends and larger society face-to-face and through traditional and social media among others. The nature of interactions changed during the lockdown, shifting from offline to online mode (Pokhrel and Chetri, 2021; Cauberghe, 2021). However, face-to-face interactions with the family increased a lot during this time (Raju and Kumar, 2020). Against this backdrop, the research question that the study endeavours to explore is: whether and how did the COVID-19 lockdown period influence the self-knowledge of urban middle-class young adults in India in terms of interaction with others and self? The study aims to explore macro and micro factors that influenced the perception of self in the aforementioned individuals, the aspects of self-knowledge in youth that were mostly affected by societal factors and the significance of the time during the lockdown. The research is interdisciplinary combining sociology and philosophy as the questions of self and self-knowledge have been pondered upon by philosophers such as Aristotle (Biss, 2011), Socrates, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Sartre (Jopling, 2000) and Sociologists like Mead, Cooley and others (Biss, 2011; Healy, 2015; Myers, 1986). The study is sociologically relevant as it explores how social interactions took place against the backdrop of a pandemic when mobility was restricted, affecting self-knowledge. Finally, the analysis of the relationship between time and self-knowledge contributes to the long-established sociological domain.

The next section focuses on the methodology section, which outlines the theoretical approach and methods employed in the study. The subsequent sections delve into the analysis and interpretation of the collected data. Finally, the paper ends with a conclusion based on the findings.

Methodology and Methods

The paper employs a qualitative research approach for an in-depth understanding of the lived experiences during the lockdown and the self-knowledge of youth. The research design includes in-depth face-to-face and telephonic interviews as the primary data collection method. The interviews are guided by a semi-structured interview schedule. The study adopts a convenience sampling method and is being conducted on 6 urban middle-class students (3 males and 3 females) between the age group of 20-23 from three different cities in India: Kolkata, Delhi, and Chennai to represent diverse cultural, social, and geographic contexts. The researcher sought consent from the respondents before the interviews and ensured the confidentiality of their responses. Thus, the names of the respondents mentioned in the study have been changed to maintain anonymity.

Aspects of Self-knowledge in Youth Affected by the Lockdown:

Self-knowledge entails not only understanding your “self”, but also that you are aware of your knowledge of self (Rappe, 1995). The youth interviewed in this study reported that this awareness of their self happened on the last days of the lockdown or post-lockdown as a result of ‘looking back’ or ‘reflecting’ upon the distinct experiences offered to them by the COVID-19 pandemic. The definition of ‘self’, according to these youth, includes personality traits, mental health, social position (in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, caste etc.), sense of individuality, body, relationship with others (especially family and close friends), habits, productivity and a sense of purpose or meaning in life. These aspects, enmeshed with each other, were largely affected during the lockdown.

Perception of the Body:

The body became a vessel for self-knowledge among youth during the lockdown as it was the site where the virus inhabited. Their perception of the body was affected by the experiences of either their own or others’ disease and the realisation of mortality. In response to the question on how she perceived her body while suffering from COVID during the lockdown, Avilasha (23) said: “I would see myself as a threat.” Therefore, the physical experience of the body was influenced by the social experiences through which it is known (Ardener & Douglas, 1967). In other words, the societal notion of the diseased body as “danger” (ibid) was reflected in the respondent’s understanding of her body, which crossed the corporeal limits of the body and entered the knowledge of self. The idea of the body as “impure” (ibid) also led to the obsession with maintaining hygiene (Bozdag, 2020) which stayed with most of the youth even after the lockdown. Similarly, to articulate her emotions about losing a close friend during the lockdown, Janki (22) responded: “I lost a friend. It made me hyperaware of the transitoriness of our lives”. Thus, the testimonials seconded the argument that the prevalence COVID-19 virus highlighted the vulnerability of the human body, prompting these students to reflect upon their perception of self. Shakti (21), while recalling his realisation of the meaning of life, said “The lockdown made me feel that even if you work hard and achieve a lot of things, everyone will die in the end.” The imposition of quarantine or the separation of diseased bodies from other people implied social control through the control of the body (Ardener & Douglas, 1967).

            A contrasting view of the body was seen among the youth who either was not concerned about the repercussion of the virus or considered it as a source of knowledge. While Anthony (22) said “I was not thinking about COVID. I didn’t give importance to COVID,” Isha (23) revealed: “I was from biology so it only added to the knowledge of different ways of administering vaccines and learning a little bit.” They also said that nobody close to them suffered from covid or died and the news about deaths in the news did not influence their perspectives on death and disease. Hence, it can be inferred that personal experience can contribute to the value given to the knowledge of disease and death in particular and body (be it one’s own or others) in general. In short, during the COVID-19 lockdown, as argued by Ardener and Douglas (1967), “The human body (was) treated as an image of society” (p. 79). To put it differently, the entire outlook of the middle-class Indian youth towards the pandemic was reflected through their perspectives towards their own and others’ bodies which in turn added to their knowledge of the body as a part of self-knowledge.

Mental Health:

An indispensable part of a person’s body is their mental health. As mentioned in the literature (Pierce et al., 2020; Nilima et al., 2021; Al-Omiri et al., 2021; Rajkumar, 2020) and confirmed by the respondents, the lockdown harmed the mental health of the youth in India and other parts of the world including feelings of anxiousness, depression, demotivation, restlessness, and loneliness because of either social isolation, COVID-related news, social media, familial conflict, the health of loved ones, not being able to be productive or online education. These low points during the lockdown made the youth reflect on their life and self. For instance, the knowledge of the psychological aspect of self also helped Anthony to reshape the course of his actions during the lockdown – “During the lockdown, I realized that if you can have mental strength then you can manage a lot of things.”

            Although the overall experience of the lockdown was largely negative, there was a transition in the condition of mental health from happy or neutral to anxious and depressed as the lockdown progressed as acknowledged by the respondents. While elucidating his mental health during the lockdown, Soumya (21) said: “Initially, I was relaxed and happy but after some time I started feeling bored and caged”. Avilasha (23) held a similar view. Thus, contrary to a study (Bozdag, 2021) which categorised individuals as either happy (who used metaphors like “feeling safe”, or “vacation” to explain their lockdown experience) or anxious and depressed (who used metaphors like “imprisonment”, “boring” etc. for lockdown experience), the present paper found that the same person experienced different emotions at different points during the lockdown, which added newer angles to their self-knowledge.

Desire to be Productive:

One of the key aspects that kept the youth “restless” during the lockdown was the desire to be productive (Mukherjee, 2022), which included anxiety, depression, stress and a distorted self-image. The idea of productivity became extremely important for young Indian students during the lockdown just when they were about to enter the capitalist labour market (ibid). Suddenly, there was a halt in their productive days filled with deadlines, which regulated their lives and manipulated their understanding of what their self desired or what their “calling” was (from a Weberian perspective). The desire to be productive was evident in the respondents’ testimonials which highlighted the cruciality of having a sense of purpose in life. To cite some instances, Anthony remarked: I was lazy at some point in time. Then I went for an introspection. I found my habits very self-destructive. I tried to find out my priorities and tried to do things that make my life meaningful. So that’s one of the biggest changes that happened in my life during the lockdown.” Soumya, similarly, said: “After COVID, I realised I could have used the time to do something productive. Maybe some course or professional skill like web development or programming language or something constructive.” Janki responded, “I was seeing a lot of peers getting into internship programs which made me even more anxious.” Thus, a sense of regret regarding not making use of the time during the lockdown was also revealed in the responses.

            However, for the youth, the idea of productivity also included hobbies and passions, a part of their self that they had compromised or sacrificed due to the demands of the capitalist regime before the lockdown. On the one hand, Avilasha cherished her childhood hobby of knitting and painting and Janki enjoyed gardening, which she described as therapeutic; Isha and Anthony on the other hand found playing badminton and learning outside their textbooks enriching.

                                 Perception of Time as Part of Self-Knowledge

The notion of time connected the micro day-to-day interactions with the macro societal structures during the lockdown. In the study, the significance of time during the lockdown was observed concerning daily routines. The respondents had contrasting views on the effect of lockdown on their daily routines, which simultaneously shaped and was shaped by their self-knowledge. On one hand, Isha, Soumya, Avilasha and Janki’s daily routines went haywire due to the disruption of their pre-COVID routine life, which changed their understanding of self along with their usual habits. “There was no deadline for anything.” (Isha), or “You can do it if you want or else you can not do it. Time was an option.” (Soumya) were how the majority of the research participants felt about their time during the lockdown. It made them realise that time, as a determining factor in their life, has to be accounted for and the rupture in this conventional idea of time made these youth realise what Avilasha acknowledged: “I realised that I actually liked following a routine. That is when I started thinking about myself…. that I was feeling demotivated because I did not have a routine to follow.” However, the break from the routinized life contributed to the emergence of a ‘monotonous’ and repetitive life which Isha described as: “lockdown just increased the length of the day and it made a continuity between days.” or Avilasha delineated as “I would feel like time increased. Earlier it used to be 24 hours but now it became 26 hours.” or Janki perceived as: “it became very predictable as to what will happen.” In regards to knowledge of self, while some relished that free time as they did not like following a fixed routine, others found the boundless time directionless and thus meaningless. Additionally, while some students experienced irregular sleep cycles and increased screen time due to the lack of a structured schedule and physical classes, it is important to note that for others like Anthony and Shakti, the lockdown provided an opportunity to establish a new routine. To quote Anthony: “I made a routine. Then tried to invest time in that.” The new routine of their lives made them restructure their way of living during the lockdown in a ‘meaningful’ manner and work towards their future, a time that would make these youth worry. For instance- Shakti recalled: “It made me more aware of the value of time, the need for time management and aware of my future goals for which I started utilizing my time.”

    Impact of Macro and Micro Societal Factors on Self-Knowledge among Indian Youth

Self-knowledge is not only an individual perception but a social construct since it is shaped by an intricate interplay of macro and micro factors with the self of a person within the sociocultural context. The section delves into the influences of social isolation and interaction with self, interactions with family and friends, traditional and social media, and education on the self-knowledge of urban middle-class youth in India. From a sociological perspective, it untangles the social influences that mould self-knowledge.

Social Isolation, Introspection & Self-Knowledge:

The lockdown imposed ‘social distancing’ necessitated introspection, a form of observation imposed upon pre-existing awareness of self (Myers, 1986) among urban middle-class youth. In other words, while the awareness of self had been present in them before the lockdown, it was the social isolation that led to feelings of detachment from society encouraging the youth to reflect on that awareness. Avilasha revealed the reason: “I had done self-reflection before the pandemic also but I did it way less frequently than I did during the lockdown…. since my work would not let me think about myself much.”

In the opinions of Shakti and Anthony, immersing in introspective thinking allowed the youth to gain insights into their values, passions, and life goals, as part of self-knowledge, while also making them value their relationship with family and friends. Similarly, for Janki and Avilasha it was a means to know about what their ‘self’ desired in the absence of social interaction, which contradicted the way they usually defined themselves. In other words, while they were introverted by nature, Janki held that “the lockdown made me crave more interaction, which is quite strange because I think before the lockdown I was more of a quieter person” while Avilasha regretted that “with some people that I am close with, like some of my friends, I interacted on a surface level without involving too much before the lockdown. I realised that I needed to change that to add value to my life.” Thus, Janki and Avilasha’s observation highlights the potential effects of macro external circumstances, such as a lockdown, on individual social behaviour and the nature of self, underscoring how social interactions played a role in a person’s personality, resulting in the reinterpretation of self-knowledge.

Interactions with Family and Friends & Self-Knowledge:

The abundance of time let the youth mingle and know their immediate families, especially their parents and siblings better. In the case of familial interactions or relationships and their effects on self-knowledge were also dichotomous. On the one hand, Isha, Shakti, and Anthony perceived their interactions with family as ‘healthy’, which positively strengthened their relationships and made them prioritise their families even more. Cooking together in the kitchen, eating, watching films, taking walks in the neighbourhood and sharing heart-to-heart for hours became a part of these youths’ lives during the lockdown, which in turn gave them the mental strength to cope with the adversities of the time and enriched them with a new knowledge of self. This self-knowledge included the sense of belonging to the social unit of the family. Shakti reminisced “The interactions with my family during the lockdown had a significant impact on me. We engaged in domestic chores together and I heard stories from my parents about their childhood. These interactions deepened my understanding of my family members and strengthened our bond.” Anthony, a migrant student, who got to spend a considerable amount of time after some years with his family during the lockdown, shared: “We would sit and talk for hours. That happened a lot while having food…. we had good communication because usually, I go home during the semester break… So that time I was with them for 1.5 years after a long time.” Additionally, after tasting the freedom of living alone, Anthony realised the importance of family bonding in his life during that time. Janki’s experience as a migrant student was distinct from Anthony’s as she thought: “You don’t want to stay under parents, who control, for a long time. You want to go especially if you have had that kind of freedom after staying in a hostel which felt very freeing…. So I was kind of glad when the call to Delhi came and I said, OK, I need to leave now.”

            Isha’s perspective highlighted the role of extended family in her experience of social distancing and contrasted her familial interaction with that of Soumya, who had spent the lockdown with his parents. Isha commented: “It (social distancing) was fine because of my family. If maybe I was a single child in a nuclear family, then I think it would have been a problem”. On the other hand, Soumya said “I would not interact with my parents much as I would do my own work or talk to friends.” Sometimes the repeated interactions with parents negatively impacted the mental health of the youth and influenced their future life decisions as argued by Avilasha who said: “During the lockdown, it started becoming frustrating to interact with the same people every day. Little things would give rise to arguments… sense of personal space was affected negatively. It would trigger me a lot. That made me think that I would move out.” This experience was exclusive to the lockdown period since the post-lockdown busy life again made the interactions back to ‘normal’ like the pre-COVID situation. Thus, the differences in the nature of familial interactions and the impacts on self and self-knowledge also suggest that the structure of the family (nuclear or extended) had a determining role in these factors during the lockdown.

On the other hand, during the lockdown, the youth’s interactions with friends not only became restricted (Cauberghe et al., 2021) to online spaces but also reduced to a few close peers, which was a huge source of self-knowledge for the youth as it made them realise about their nature of the self (Mary, 2015) and the changes it was going through. Shakti in this regard said, “I was an extrovert and spent time with friends, would participate in college activities etc. However, during the lockdown, I developed a deeper understanding of the value of relationships as most people I would hang out with in college stopped talking during the lockdown. My interaction was limited to a few close friends with whom my bond became stronger.” These interactions not only brought the youth closer to their peers but also positively impacted their mental health. The youth also learnt immensely about themselves while learning the difference between their peers and themselves (Biss, 2011). Soumya recounted that “The increased interaction during the lockdown made me closer to her (friend). That made me realise that I get attached to people very easily…. I got to know that she is a very ambitious and competitive person, she will forget everything if she has work. But I am not like that. I would never compete with people that are close to me. For me, emotions matter more.” One of the primary means of communication with peers was social media and the internet which bridged their physical distance.

Media Influence & Self-Knowledge:

The reason for high internet usage by middle-class youth during the lockdown was interaction with friends, which helped the students cope with the dreadful repercussions of the pandemic such as loneliness, anxiety and lack of social interactions (Cauberghe et al., 2021). Internet usage, primarily the constant use of social media, made the youth feel ‘worthless’ or ‘unproductive’ or that they were ‘wasting time’. Janki commented: “I was seeing a lot of peers getting into internship programs and getting doing all those other things…at that point, I sort of felt anxious that I didn’t do anything about it” The beauty standards promoted on social media also impacted the self-image and thus mental health of youth. Anthony in this context said: “I was addicted to mobile during that time, not the whole lockdown. But for some time…it impacted a lot, impacted a lot, especially Instagram. especially that the social construction of your beauty or handsomeness. And yeah, your colour, your skin, your hair. I don’t have hair. I was very sad.” Thus, Social media platforms served as virtual spaces for social comparison more than self-expression, further influencing youth’s knowledge of self.

On the other hand, while Soumya used the internet for gaming and sharing memes for entertainment, Isha found the internet helpful for learning purposes (outside academics): “On YouTube, I used to spend some time. Most of the videos also were, you know, like video essays, so nothing time-wasting”. Avilasha said: “The memes would be about how we were before COVID vs. during lockdown so those I think made me think about the changes that I had gone through. I related to those posts because many realisations happened or I thought about myself.” “Thus, while for some of the respondents spending time on the internet was ‘time-waste’, for others it was a medium of learning about the world or themselves, which suggests how the youth connected their time during the lockdown with the idea of (discussed above).

 Traditional media like newspapers and television had an important role during the lockdown as it was the primary medium for individuals to access COVID-19-related news. Exposure to COVID-related news, both accurate and misleading, impacted their perceptions of health, risk, and self-identity. It instilled fear, anxiety, and a heightened sense of vulnerability. Therefore, two tendencies were observed among the youth, which followed previous literature on COVID news and its impact on individuals (Ytre-Arne, B. et al., 2021). While Janki, Avilasha, Soumya and Shakti got anxious or depressed seeing the COVID-19 death-related news, Isha and Anthony remained unaffected or avoided the news. Interestingly in terms of impact, COVID-related news affected the youth much less than the news of the disease or death of their relatives or friends. Avilasha responded: “In the first lockdown, I would see only statistics that in this city or country these many people died so those number did not bother me that much as nobody close to me were affected but in the second lockdown there is a saying na ‘it hit home’ so that feeling happened.”

Education & Self-Knowledge:

The biggest aspect that weaved the experiences of young urban middle-class students was education. While education is significant for acquiring the self-knowledge of individuals, the impact of the transition from offline to online education on students during the lockdown was noteworthy. Using virtual classrooms, interacting with teachers and peers online, and utilizing electronic resources, network issues (UNESCO, 2020) negatively impacted students like Isha, Shakti and Anthony who missed a lot of classes or could not focus due to these issues. The increased screen time caused health problems such as neck and back pain, eye fatigue etc. Additionally, the transition also lowered their self-confidence and skills – “The online mode was not at all strict so I lost that habit of studying rigorously as the online exam was open-book only….but when I again had to write exams offline it really took a toll on my mental health and confidence. I felt like I could not handle the pressure.” (Soumya). From Soumya’s responses, it was also found that students who studied practical-based subjects were more affected as the online mode lacked practical training and thus failed to polish the skills of these students that were necessary for their careers. Janki additionally found online education dehumanizing and full of inequalities in terms of accessing technology and resources based on socioeconomic status which bothered her and made her realise her privileged social position, a significant part of the self. Additionally, in terms of perceiving self, she commented: “You’re sometimes a video or you’re just like a big profile picture or an alphabet on the screen.” Thus, without any exceptions, all of them thought that the offline mode of learning was more suitable for them because they could interact with each other, discuss their learning and get practical knowledge as compared to online education, which they found very “individualistic” (Janki) and “isolating”(Isha).


To recapitulate, the paper starts by investigating the research question: whether and how did the COVID-19 lockdown period influence the self-knowledge of urban middle-class young adults in India in terms of interaction with others and self? The in-depth interviews with 6 middle-class urban Indian students in the age group reveal that the unique experiences during the lockdown did influence certain aspects of their self-knowledge – especially their mental health, routine, habits, thoughts, relationships, and perception of the body about disease and death. The effects were caused by the macro and micro societal facets such as the social isolation and interaction with self, the changed nature of the interactions with family and peers, the influence of social and traditional media (news), and the transition from offline to online mode of education.

During the early phase of the lockdown, the participants did not differentiate between themselves and the experiences they encountered. They were completely immersed in their experiences without much conscious thinking about the fact that they were gaining knowledge about their ‘self’. Thus, it can be called “immanent” knowledge from the perspective of Mannheimian sociology (Hunter, 1971). However, the active looking back or retrospection of the memories of the lockdown in the end or even during the interviews separated the respondents from their experiences of the lockdown. The detachment made them reflect on their actions, interactions, thoughts, feelings and experiences and associate meaning with them, which ultimately produced their knowledge of self and the changes that the self went through during the lockdown. In other words, the ‘awareness of self’ became ‘knowledge of self’ when the participants thought about that awareness from a “non-immanent” or detached position. An individual’s self and self-knowledge are dynamic in nature and constantly changing as reported by the respondents who said that their selves have again changed in the past two years since the lockdown ended. Thus, following the Mannheimian sociology of knowledge, it can be argued that self-knowledge (non-immanent) cannot be used interchangeably with self-awareness (immanent).

Simultaneously, it is important to note that the experiences that ultimately resulted in self-knowledge were contingent upon the class position (middle-class) of the research participants, who got the ‘free time’ to ponder over their ‘self’. Janki seconded the argument: “Certainly, we have access to a lot of things that most people don’t, so I think that’s a huge impact of your class on your experiences”. Isha held a similar opinion: “I was living comfortably in my home. My father had a government job, so we didn’t have any business failing so class definitely had an impact.” The experiences and perspectives of other classes on self-knowledge and the COVID’19 lockdown’s impact on it are beyond the scope of the present paper and can be explored in future research.

The study presents additional opportunities for further research such as a generational study that would encapsulate the perspectives of different age groups on how the time during the COVID-19 lockdown impacted their self-knowledge; and incorporation of experiences of individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, or genders would provide insight into how intersectionality affects self-knowledge in midst of a pandemic.

Also Read: Sociological Understanding of Pandemic.


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Yagyaseni Bhattacharya is a student currently pursuing an M.A. in Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She has authored a write-up for the social sciences writing competition 2023.

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