American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Sociology as a Lens on the Pandemic and Responses to It (Medical Sociology)

Harry Perlstadt, Michigan State University
Robert Dingwall, Nottingham Trent University, UK

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. Sociology has opportunities both in understanding the societal responses to the pandemic itself and in learning from the moment of transparency about the roots of the observable order. 

According to Strong, pandemics generate parallel social epidemics of fear, explanation, and action. The novel disease and the ways in which it moves through societies creates fear as it threatens peoples’ lives, livelihoods, and fortunes. This drives suspicion of people, animals and the material objects with which they interact. Masks are worn as a symbol of the threat from interactions with other people. People seek to explain the pandemic in whatever terms come to hand — divine retribution for sin, a conspiracy by an alien power, an escape from a secret laboratory. Finally, they demand action: ‘something must be done’ from restricting personal liberty to demonstrations against restrictions, taking temperatures of airport arrivals or diners at restaurants, and ill-founded treatments like drinking disinfectant.

Pre-existing social divisions are thrown into clear relief. The fear of others settles on minority groups — people from different ethnic backgrounds, homeless people, mobile workers. Existing social tensions are exacerbated: Rural people resist the incursion of urban people into the supposed purity of the countryside. Conflicts arise over access to beaches and the use of bike paths. Tacit structures of power and control become highly visible. Policies about the use of urban space do not impact people who live in spacious accommodations with private gardens as much as people in overcrowded housing who depend upon access to street life and public parks and use public transportation. Law enforcement agencies get new powers to micro-manage everyday life from sunbathing or playing ballgames outdoors to holding religious services or private celebrations. At the same time, previously unthinkable social policies become thinkable. The emergency economic response in many European countries has been more akin to a universal basic income than the conventional social insurance programs. In the US, the pandemic has revived similar debates about access to health care and employment security.

It should be clear how much sociology can contribute to public debates about the pandemic and its management and its impact on individuals, families, organizations, and communities. Unique opportunities for research have suddenly become available. The U.S. is particularly rich in natural experiments as the absence of federal leadership has left considerable space for each state to pursue its own stay-at-home orders, testing and treatment protocols and process for reopening the economy and social gatherings. Sociologists should be critically examining the social and cultural trajectory of the pandemic: are supermarket shelves being emptied by panic buying or by a wobble in the supply chain? Who panic buys and stockpiles? Which groups have the greatest concern about family, job loss, housing, and school closings? What accounts for differences in risk perception, trust in institutions, and compliance with social distancing? Are there selective patterns of pandemic-related media coverage, and if so, what is the impact?  

Sociology also has a place in offering visions of a post-pandemic future.

If we can house the homeless, why would we send them back to the streets? If children can learn more imaginatively at home, why would we go back to rote learning and testing in schools? Given their death rates, what is the future of assisted living facilities for senior citizens?

Where, though, is the public voice for any social science, let alone sociology specifically? While physician and immunologist Anthony Fauci, advisor to six presidents, has become the voice of biomedical science, the social sciences have gone missing. Pandemics will not be beaten by biomedicine alone. Social interventions are the first line of defense, but even a vaccine will need social science support when it leaves the laboratory and encounters near universal demand. The pandemic will leave a legacy of social and economic disruption for a generation. The challenge to society, and the social sciences, will be constructing a ‘new normal,’ one that works better for more people than what was in place before. This is sociology’s historic mission and it is time to reignite the torch that was lit by our founders.