Sociologists study how individual choices impact population behavior, sometimes in counterintuitive ways; they also study how government interventions influence individual and collective behavior. The current intervention of physical distancing (also known as social distancing, see Mejívar, Foster & Brand 2020) is a case in point. Physical distancing is being practiced to a varying degree in many countries globally during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Its definition varies from simply keeping a 6-foot/2-meter physical distance from one another to a broad range of measures.
Compared to natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, floods—pandemics are comparatively rare. British sociologist Phil Strong (1990) was one of the few to study pandemics. He developed a framework based on accounts of pandemics back to the Black Death in 14th century Europe. Pandemics represented moments of transparency in the social order. All sorts of institutions, relationships, and interactions suddenly became problematic. The taken-for-granted assumptions of everyday life were exposed and became uncertain and questionable.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mathematical sociology community has been active in contributing its expertise to both combat and better understand the implications of this unfolding disaster. The following is a brief sample of some of the work being undertaken by our community.
Modeling SARS-CoV-2 Diffusion
Charles Perrow described the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown as a Normal Accident. Normal accidents are a class of events produced when subsystems in risky, complex and tightly coupled systems fail. Tight linkages between subsystems propagate failure, and local breakdowns cascade into systemic collapse. Diane Vaughn applied the normal accident metaphor to the 1986 Challenger Disaster.
Section members responding to this question drew on past crises for warnings and exemplars for contemporary sociology. Full versions of these responses can be found in Timelines issue 29.
The Cholera Pandemic 1854-1860
Tropes and stereotypes exist in the many comparisons of the responses to COVID-19 in China and the United States. I focus here on a less mentioned reason: the differing imaginaries of the public held by policymakers and scientific and medical experts.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its devastating march around the globe and across the United States, only those who dismiss statistics about its deadly toll or denigrate the pain of those afflicted can ignore the handwriting on the chalkboard: We ignore at our peril the biological foundations of our being and the evolutionary processes that have shaped and continue to change our natural and social worlds. From the functioning of our social institutions to the consequences of our social divisions, nothing about us stands apart from nature.
The COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of what we do as sociologists, throwing into sharp relief the dangers of adhering to individualism and disregarding the social mechanisms of cooperation and scientific/occupational expertise that organize the myriad situations of everyday life. As the pandemic reveals the inequalities and contradictions in our society, sociologists engaged in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (EM/CA) are uniquely placed to examine what happens when taken-for-granted assumptions and interactional practices change rapidly.
The work of a non-profit in rural Montana, Blackfoot Challenge (BC), to coordinate a community response to threats posed by carnivores, can provide insight on how to manage the social dynamics of the pandemic. A grizzly bear and a coronavirus are quite different, but collective action is needed to handle both, requiring agreement on the definition of the problem and enough participation in the solutions that they are effective.