One of the greatest professional challenges facing sociologists dealing with the coronavirus is to quickly analyze and interpret the vast amounts of relevant epidemiological, demographic and social data, and present those data to both the academic community and, most importantly, the public at large. This is especially important given the tendency by some politicians and social media outlets to present misinformation to the public.
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 unemployment skyrockets during the COVID-19 pandemic, our occupational identities may not be the first thing on our minds. But the social changes we are facing may threaten these core identities, which endangers our mental health. The reality of unemployment, reduced hours, or furloughs is pervasive. For those of us fortunate enough to remain employed, the nature of our work has changed. Many white-collar workers are suddenly working from home, in a virtual environment, often while trying to balance work with parenting.
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.