health/medicine

It is hard to keep up habits these days. As the academic year starts up with remote teaching, hybrid teaching, and rapidly-changing plans amid the pandemic, many of us are thinking about how to design new ways to connect now that our old habits are disrupted. How do you make a new routine or make up for old rituals lost? How do we make them stick and feel meaningful?

Social science shows us how these things take time, and in a world where we would all very much like a quick solution to our current social problems, it can be tough to sort out exactly what new rules and routines can do for us.

For example, The New York Times recently profiled “spiritual consultants” in the workplace – teams that are tasked with creating a more meaningful and communal experience on the job. This is part of a larger social trend of companies and other organizations implementing things like mindfulness practices and meditation because they…keep workers happy? Foster a sense of community? Maybe just keep the workers just a little more productive in unsettled times?

It is hard to talk about the motives behind these programs without getting cynical, but that snark points us to an important sociological point. Some of our most meaningful and important institutions emerge from social behavior, and it is easy to forget how hard it is to design them into place.

This example reminded me of the classic Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann, who argue that some of our strongest and most established assumptions come from habit over time. Repeated interactions become habits, habits become routines, and suddenly those routines take on a life of their own that becomes meaningful to the participants in a way that “just is.” Trust, authority, and collective solidarity fall into place when people lean on these established habits. In other words: on Wednesdays we wear pink.

The challenge with emergent social institutions is that they take time and repetition to form. You have to let them happen on their own, otherwise they don’t take on the same same sense of meaning. Designing a new ritual often invites cringe, because it skips over the part where people buy into it through their collective routines. This is the difference between saying “on Wednesdays we wear pink” and saying

“Hey team, we have a great idea that’s going to build office solidarity and really reinforce the family dynamic we’ve got going on. We’re implementing: Pink. Wednesdays.”

All of our usual routines are disrupted right now, inviting fear, sadness, anger, frustration, and disappointment. People are trying to persist with the rituals closest to them, sometimes to the extreme detriment of public health (see: weddings, rallies, and ugh). I think there’s some good sociological advice for moving through these challenges for ourselves and our communities: recognize those emotions, trust in the routines and habits that you can safely establish for yourself and others, and know that they will take a long time to feel really meaningful again, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t working for you. In other words, stop trying to make fetch happen.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Despite calls to physically distance, we are still seeing reports of racially motivated hate crimes in the media. Across the United States, anti-Asian discrimination is rearing its ugly head as people point fingers to blame the global pandemic on a distinct group rather than come to terms with underfunded healthcare systems and poorly-prepared governments.

Governments play a role in creating this rhetoric. Blaming racialized others for major societal problems is a feature of populist governments. One example is Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus” to describe COVID-19. Stirring up racialized resentment is a political tactic used to divert responsibility from the state by blaming racialized members of the community for a global virus. Anti-hate groups are increasingly concerned that the deliberate dehumanization of Asian populations by the President may also fuel hate as extremist groups take this opportunity to create social division.

Unfortunately, this is not new and it is not limited to the United States. During the SARS outbreak there were similar instances of institutional racism inherent in Canadian political and social structures as Chinese, Southeast and East Asian Canadians felt isolated at work, in hospitals, and even on public transportation. As of late May in Vancouver British Columbia Canada, there have been 29 cases of anti-Asian hate crimes.

In this crisis, it is easier for governments to use racialized people as scapegoats than to admit decisions to defund and underfund vital social and healthcare resources. By stoking racist sentiments already entrenched in the Global North, the Trump administration shifts the focus from the harm their policies will inevitably cause, such their willingness to cut funding for the CDC and NIH.

Sociological research shows how these tactics become more widespread as politicians use social media to communicate directly with citizens. creating instantaneous polarizing content. Research has also shown an association between hate crimes in the United States and anti-Muslim rhetoric expressed by Trump as early as 2015. Racist sentiments expressed by politicians have a major impact on the attitudes of the general population, because they excuse and even promote blame toward racialized people, while absolving blame from governments that have failed to act on social issues.     

Kayla Preston is an incoming PhD student in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research centers on right-wing extremism and deradicalization.


Since mid-March 2020, Gallup has been polling Americans about their degree of self-isolation during the pandemic. The percent who said they had “avoided small gatherings” rose from 50% in early-March to 81% in early April, dropping slightly to 75% in late April as pressures began rising to start loosening stay-at-home orders.

What makes this curve sociologically interesting is our leaders generally made the restrictions largely voluntary, hoping for social norms to do the job of control. Only a few state and local governments have issued citations for holding social gatherings. Mostly, social norms have been doing the job. But increasingly the partisan divide on self-isolation is widening and undermining pandemic precautions. The chart, which appeared in a Gallup report on May 11, 2020, vividly shows the partisan divide on beliefs in distancing as protection from the pandemic. The striking finding is the huge partisan gap with independents leaning slightly toward Democrats.  

Not only did the partisan divide remain wide, but the number of adults practicing “social distancing” dropped from 75% in early April to 58%. This drop in so called self-reported “social distancing” occurred in states both with and without stay-at-home orders. Elsewhere I argue that “social distancing” is a most unfortunate label for physical distancing.

Republicans have been advocating for opening up businesses early, but it is not a mere intellectual debate. Some held large protests while brandishing firearms; others appeared in public without masks and without observing 6-feet distances. Some business that re-opened in early May reported customers acting disrespectful to others, ignoring the store’s distancing rules. In another incident, an armed militia stood outside a barbershop to keep authorities from closing down the newly reopened shop.

Retail operations in particular are concerned about compliance
to social norms because without adequate compliance, other customers will not
return. Social norms rely on social trust. If retail operations cannot depend
upon customers to be respectful, they will not only lose additional customers
but employees as well.

The Sad Impact of Pandemic Partisanship    

American society was highly partisan before the pandemic, so it is not surprising that partisan signs remain. For a few weeks in March and April, partisanship took a back seat and signs of cooperation suggested societal solidarity.

We are only months away from the Presidential election, so we do not expect either side to let us forget the contest. However, we can only hope that partisans will not forget that politics cannot resolve the pandemic alone. Without relying heavily on scientists and health system experts, our society can only fail.

Unfortunately, lives hang in the balance if there is a partisan failure to reach consensus on distancing and related precautions. Economists at Stanford and Harvard, using distancing data from smartphones as well as local data on COVID cases and deaths, completed a sophisticated model of the first few months of the pandemic. Their report, “Polarization and Public Health: Partisan Differences in Social Distancing during the Coronavirus Pandemic,” found that (1) Republicans engage in less social distancing, and (2) if this partisanship difference continues, the US will end up with more COVIC-19 transmission at a higher economic cost. Assuming the researchers’ analytical model is accurate, the Republican ridicule of social distancing is such an ironic tragedy. Not only will lives be lost but what is done under the banner of promoting economic benefit, is actually producing greater economic hardship.

Ron Anderson, Professor Emeritus, University of Minnesota, taught sociology from 1968 to 2005. His early work centered around the social diffusion of technology. Since 2005, his work has focused on compassion and the social dimensions of suffering.

Can political leaders put partisanship aside to govern in a crisis? The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a crucial test of politicians’ willingness to put state before party. Acting swiftly to slow the spread of a novel virus and cooperating with cross-partisans could mean the difference between life and death for many state residents.

The first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the United States was reported in Washington state in January 2020. New cases, including incidents of community spread, continued to be recorded across the country in February. However, federal-level efforts to “flatten the curve” did not begin in force until March. Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer was among the first governors to openly criticize the Trump administration’s slow response. Her criticism led to an open partisan feud on Twitter between the two leaders.

In the absence of a national
order to limit the virus’ spread within the country, state governors took
action. Leaders in states with some of the earliest-recorded cases – such as
Washington, Illinois, and California – put stay-at-home or shelter-in-place
orders into effect shortly after the US closed its northern and southern borders to non-essential travel. In a matter of weeks,
most states’ residents were under similar orders.

Did governors’ decisions to order their states’ residents to hunker down vary by party? In the figure below, I have plotted the date stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders went into effect (as of April 15, according to the New York Times) by the date of the state’s first reported confirmed case of COVID-19 (according to US News & World Report). States with Democratic governors are labeled in blue and Republican governors are labeled in red. As of April 15, no statewide stay-home orders had been issued in the Republican-governed states labeled in grey on the plot.

Of the 50 states plus
Washington DC and Puerto Rico, a total of 44 governors have issued stay-at-home
or shelter-in-place orders. All Democratic-governed states were under similar
orders after Governor Janet Mills called for Maine’s residents to stay home
beginning April 2. By contrast, just over two-thirds of states led by
Republican executives have mandated residents stay home. Eight states – all led
by Republicans – had not issued such statewide orders as of April 15, 2020.
States without stay-at-home orders have had substantial outbreaks of COVID-19,
including in South Dakota where nearly 450 Smithfield Foods workers were infected in April
causing the plant to close indefinitely.

Republican governors have generally been slower to issue restrictions on residents’ non-essential movement. Democrats and Republicans govern an equal number of states and territories on the above plot (26 each). Fifteen Democratic governors had issued statewide stay-home orders by March 26. The fifteenth Republican governor to mandate state residents stay home did not put this order into effect until April 3. This move came after all states with Democratic governors had announced similar orders and over two weeks after COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in all states.

The median number of days Democratic governors took to mandate their residents to stay home after their state’s first confirmed case was 21 days. By contrast, the median Republican governor took four additional days (25) to restrict residents’ non-essential movement, not accounting for states without stay-home orders as of April 15.

In short, the timing of
governors’ decisions to mandate #stayhomesavelives appears to be partisan.
However, there are select cases of governors putting public health before party.
Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine has been heralded as one example. He was
the first governor to order all schools to close, an action for which CNN
described DeWine as the “anti-Trump on coronavirus.” These deviations from the norm suggest that
divisive partisanship is not inevitable when governing a crisis.

Morgan C. Matthews is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She studies gender, partisanship, and U.S. political institutions.

Who’s afraid of a global pandemic? We all are, at the
moment. But like so many other forms of fear, concern about medical issues is
much more acute for people in precarious and vulnerable social positions. The
privileged—particularly those who are white and upper class—can more afford not
to be preoccupied with health and medical concerns, including pandemics.

In our new book Fear Itself, we found consistent support for updating our classic theories about vulnerability. Classic theories often understand vulnerability in physical terms. But risk and vulnerability are also social, rather than primarily physical, and we found consistent evidence that members of disadvantaged status groups—particularly women, racial and ethnic minorities, and those with lower levels of social class—had higher levels of fear across many domains.

Using pooled data from six waves (2014–2019) of Chapman Survey of American Fears (CSAF), we examined the sociological patterns of fears about disease and health. We looked at fear about four specific issues: global pandemics, fears of becoming seriously ill, and fears about people you love becoming seriously ill or dying.     

The racial and ethnic disparities across these four outcomes
are striking, with white Americans being significantly less likely to report
being “very afraid” of pandemics and medical issues involving themselves or
their families. Hispanic Americans reported the greatest concern about all four
issues, likely a reflection of lower rates of health care insurance and access
among Latino/a communities and individuals.

Likewise, we find clear disparities in fears about health and pandemics across different levels of education and family income. Again, the mechanisms are clear, with vast disparities in health care access in the United States, as well as the well-known social determinants of disease both playing a role.

While these patterns are not necessarily surprising, they are nonetheless disconcerting, for a number of reasons. First, in terms of the epidemiology of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is the disempowered who will disproportionately bear the brunt of the negative health effects, and who will be least equipped with the resources to adequately respond if and when they get sick. Second, when preventative public health measures such as quarantines are put in place, it is people in the working and lower classes who can least afford to take time off of work or keep their children home from school in order to comply with public health procedures.

Not only does fear disproportionately prey upon people in less powerful social positions, it also exacerbates and deepens inequality. Higher levels of fear and anxiety are strongly and significantly related to harmful health outcomes, even after accounting for the social inequalities that structure who is afraid in the first place. In Fear Itself we created an omnibus fear metric we called the “Sum of All Fears” that combined levels of fear across a wide range of domains, including but not limited to health, crime, environmental degradation, and natural disasters. Scores on this global, summary fear metric once again produced strong support for social vulnerability theory; but levels of fear were also strongly connected to steep declines in quality of life across a range of domains, including social, personal, and financial well-being.

Taken together, fear is both a reflection of and a source of social inequality. This is true for the current global Coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying concerns, but it will also be the case long after the pandemic has passed. Our hope is that sociologists, social psychologists, and public health officials begin to consider how fear factors into and deepens social inequality.

Joseph O. Baker is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at East Tennessee State University and a senior research associate for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Ann Gordon is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Ludie and David C. Henley Social Science Research Laboratory, Chapman University.

L. Edward Day is Associate Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at Chapman University.

Christopher D. Bader is Professor of Sociology at Chapman University and affiliated with the Institute for Religion, Economics and Culture (IRES). He is Associate Director of the Association of Religion Data Archives (www.theARDA.com) and principal investigator on the Chapman University Survey of American Fears.

Sociologists spend a lot of time thinking about lives in social context: how the relationships and communities we live in shape the way we understand ourselves and move through the world. It can be tricky to start thinking about this, but one easy way to do it is to start collecting social facts. Start by asking, what’s weird about where you’re from?

I grew up on the western side of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, so my eye naturally drifts to the Great Lakes every time I look at a map of the US. Lately I’ve been picking up on some interesting things I never knew about my old home state. First off, I didn’t realize that, relative to the rest of the country, this region is a hotspot for air pollution from Chicago and surrounding industrial areas.

Second, I was looking at ProPublica’s reporting of a new database of Catholic clergy credibly accused of abuse, and noticed that the two dioceses covering western MI haven’t yet disclosed information about possible accusations. I didn’t grow up Catholic, but as a sociologist who studies religion it is weird to think about the institutional factors that might be keeping this information under wraps.

Third, there’s the general impact of this region on the political and cultural history of the moment. West Michigan happens to be the place that brought you some heavy hitters like Amway (which plays a role in one of my favorite sociological podcasts of last year), the founder of Academi (formally known as Blackwater), and our current Secretary of Education. In terms of elite political and economic networks, few regions have been as influential in current Republican party politics.

I think about these facts and wonder how much they shaped my own story. Would I have learned to like exercise more if I could have actually caught my breath during the mile run in gym class? Did I get into studying politics and religion because it was baked into all the institutions around me, even the business ventures? It’s hard to say for sure.

What’s weird about where YOU’RE from? Doing this exercise is great for two reasons. First, it helps to get students thinking in terms of the sociological imagination — connecting bigger social and historical factors to their individual experiences. Second, it also helps to highlight an important social research methods point about the ecological fallacy by getting us to think about all the ways that history and social context don’t necessarily force us to turn out a certain way. As more data become public and maps get easier to make, it is important to remember that population correlates with everything!

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

My gut reaction was that nobody is actually eating the freaking Tide Pods.

Despite the explosion of jokes—yes, mostly just jokes—about eating detergent packets, sociologists have long known about media-fueled cultural panics about problems that aren’t actually problems. Joel Best’s groundbreaking research on these cases is a classic example. Check out these short video interviews with Best on kids not really being poisoned by Halloween candy and the panic over “sex bracelets.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bav01pAZrNw[/youtube]

In a tainted Halloween candy study, Best and Horiuchi followed up on media accounts to confirm cases of actual poisoning or serious injury, and they found many cases couldn’t be confirmed or were greatly exaggerated. So, I followed the data on detergent digestion.

It turns out, there is a small trend. According to a report from the American Association of Poison Control Centers,

…in 2016 and 2017, poison control centers handled thirty-nine and fifty-three cases of intentional exposures, respectively, among thirteen to nineteen year olds. In the first fifteen days of 2018 alone, centers have already handled thirty-nine such intentional cases among the same age demographic.

That said, this trend is only relative to previous years and cannot predict future incidents. The life cycle of internet jokes is fairly short, rotating quickly with an eye toward the attention economy. It wouldn’t be too surprising if people moved on from the pods long before the panic dies out.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

The CDC recently issued a press release announcing that rates of reported cases for sexually transmitted diseases are setting record highs. The new report offers reports of rates going back to 1941 in a table, so I made a quick chart to see the pattern in context and compare the more common conditions over time (HIV wasn’t included in this particular report).

It is important to note that a big part of changes in disease rates is usually detection. Once you start looking for a condition, you’ll probably find more of it until enough diagnoses happen for treatment to bring the rates down. Up until 2000, the U.S. did pretty well in terms of declining rates for cases of gonorrhea and syphilis. Zoom in on the shaded area from 2000 to 2016, however, and you can see a pretty different story. These rates are up over the last 16 years, and chlamydia rates have been steadily increasing since the start of reporting in 1984.

STDs are fundamentally a social phenomenon, especially because they can spread through social networks. However, we have to be very careful not to jump to conclusions about the causes of these trends. It’s tempting to blame dating apps or hookup culture, for example, but early work at the state level only finds a mixed relationship between dating app use and STD rates and young people also have higher rates of sexual inactivity. Rate increases could even be due in part to detection now that more people have access to health coverage and care through the Affordable Care Act. Just don’t wait for peer review to finish before going to get tested!

Inspired by demographic facts you should know cold, “What’s Trending?” is a post series at Sociological Images featuring quick looks at what’s up, what’s down, and what sociologists have to say about it.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.