American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

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

Theorizing Social Response to COVID-19 in the U.S. (Political Sociology)

Jeffrey Broadbent, University of Minnesota

Nearly 90 percent of Americans are under stay-at-home and organizational closure orders from their state governors or city mayors (Washington Post, April 2, 2020). These orders may carry legal weight but have rarely been strictly enforced by police. Yet as of March 30, 53 percent of individuals were complying (CNN Ipsos poll, April 1). By April 7, 87% practiced social distancing (Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, April 17); 80% supported social distancing even if it damaged the economy (Politico poll, Star-Tribune, April 18). 

As empty streets mutely testify, the bulk of the population has suddenly changed behavior patterns from active social engagement to sheltering in place and avoiding gatherings. Compliance likely varies by region, age, class, socio-economic status, health status, beliefs, ideology and other factors. But still, a dramatic shift in collective behavior has just occurred. How can we explain it? Which among sociology’s theories of social order and social change meet or fail this test? 

Theories that emphasize institutionalized routine in thought and behavior, the laws of economic profit, obedience to political authority, or functional requisites lack purchase here. They don’t adequately account for the sudden, largely voluntary mass changes in social behavior observed in response to the coronavirus. If not these, what social theory or concept could adequately explain the sudden changes? Economic, educational, religious, and other social activities have reoriented, moved onto alternative virtual platforms, or ceased to operate. To comply with distancing, many people suffer significant financial hardships. 

This change in activity displays acute human agency, a capacity to shift behavior suddenly. What drives this agency? Perhaps foremost is fear. People fear illness and death from COVID-19, so they self-isolate. But people also fear a loss of income and livelihood due to such self-isolation. Low-wage workers have no savings; small businesses teeter on bankruptcy. Two material terrors--health and economics--drive us in contrary directions. Responding to either, people optimize personal benefits and costs, as individual rational choice theory argues. According to Mead’s theory of action, when new problematic circumstances undermine interests, people consciously re-assess and produce new behavioral patterns. Habits readily crumble. For now, rational responses to fear for health predominate.

But selfish rationality alone is not a sufficient explanation. Many people also seem to be acting rationally for non-selfish reasons, as Etzioni stresses. People often rationally discipline their behavior to achieve goals dictated by higher ideals, not immediate self-protection. Weber identified this as value-rationality. For instance, people may want to keep others--family, friends, and people in their communities--from contracting the virus. Most poignantly, front-line medical professionals and workers in essential services put their health at risk to take care of others. 

However, selfish and selfless rationality is still not the whole explanation. For most people, the virus threat is not immediate. Instead, most people are responding to their own beliefs about its severity. Political leaders, mass media, and internet bloggers circulate contradictory assertions. How do people choose what to believe? Their pre-existing ideologies--identity-defining values--intervene. Networks of friends and media confirm initial preferences. One cluster of ideologies disparages experts, places faith in a higher power, sees government action as a threat to individual freedom. Such beliefs lead people and leaders to dismiss epidemiological evidence, vacillate, refuse to sequester, and demand rapid reopening. In contrast, an alternate cluster of ideologies respects scientific conclusions and government orders as the best guide for action. Such ideologies support a kind of group pragmatism, leading people to sequester willingly. Surprisingly, given national polarization, group pragmatism has generally prevailed. Mounting economic dislocations, though, may induce further shifts.

In summary, then, what lessons does the American response to the COVID-19 virus hold for social and political theory? U.S. society suddenly reorganized its seemingly habitual and institutionalized collective routines; it suddenly changed its most essential function from one of economic activity to one of health protection. The sudden general transformation casts doubt on structural, systemic, functional, and institutional explanations of social order and change. Rather, it indicates that social order is a function of both selfish and selfless rational behavior springing from beliefs about how the world works, what society needs and who to follow. The world often gives considerable latitude to believe in different ideologies. Material, organic feedback is rarely so evident as in the case of COVID-19. The fact that medical science has become widely trusted and social distancing broadly practiced, often even by those initially skeptical, indicates an influential underlying culture of American pragmatism. But frustrated by prolonged sequestration, a mounting conservative backlash is demanding “freedom” and reopening, even if it will cause a huge second wave of disease and death. In theoretical terms, these findings suggest a crucial causal interplay between material threat and cultural content in the construction of social order and change.