March 12, 2020

Applying the Sociological Imagination to COVID-19

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

By now you have likely heard of the Novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19. Maybe your school or workplace has shifted online for the time being, or you have noticed a shortage of cold and flu related items at your local store.

While this is a rapidly changing situation, we can use this example to help us understand several sociological concepts:


As Peter Kaufman wrote in 2015:

Globalization is often understood as the process through which products, people, ideas, culture, and capital, are transferred around the world creating a system of global integration. Whereas in the past some nations or societies could stand alone and be self-sufficient, today all nations and almost all people are part of an interdependent global order.    

A global pandemic like COVID-19 vividly illustrates how interconnected the world has become. First identified in the Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the disease spread globally in a short period of time, largely due to travel. A statement by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020 highlights the speed of global transmission of the outbreak:

In the past two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 outside China has increased 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has tripled. There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives.

Collective Behavior

Sociologists study how groups of people behave, known as collective behavior, which includes things from rumors and the creation of urban legends to mobs, panics, riots, protests, and movements for social change.

Often this type of behavior is unplanned and leaderless, emerging in response to a situation in real time. It can be part of a spontaneous celebration—like when the local team wins a championship—and it can also emerge from anger and rage, such as a response to a political crackdown or a negative event. It can also emerge as the result of fear.

In the case of COVID-19, we are seeing rumors and misinformation, often spread through social media and other internet sources. Google announced that it would work to reduce and remove misinformation from its search results, and links to credible sources such as WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be at the top, as you can see from the results of this search.

It has been a difficult balancing act to warn the public to take extra precautions (like washing your hands frequently and staying home if you are sick) while not promoting panic. This hasn’t stopped people from buying masks, hand sanitizer, cold and flu remedies, and toilet paper in mass quantities out of fear. Ironically, people might not necessarily be buying these items out of fear of COVID-19, but rather because they fear not being able to buy them should they need them (especially toilet paper). Sociologists are interested in understanding how and why collective behavior emerges and what motivates people to take action.

Poverty and Inequality

Josh Bivens wrote for the Economic Policy Institute that an economic downturn caused by the pandemic is likely to “hit lower-wage workers first and hardest.” As people have been advised to limit travel internationally and in some cases domestically, people who work in those industries are likely to see their hours reduced or even eliminated. Hotel workers might find themselves laid off as both leisure and business travel declines. Restaurant workers might have similar experiences if large numbers of people avoid public places and stop eating out.

Low-wage workers are also unlikely to receive sick pay (including, ironically, home health aides), which makes people more likely to go to work when sick. Not only will they lose pay, but as Katherine Edin & Luke Shaefer detail in their book, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, employers often penalize workers for taking sick time. In one example, a worker who became ill as a result of her job found that missing work led to a future reduction in her scheduled hours and thus her income.

Some employers have offered to expand their sick pay for those affected by COVID-19, but low-wage workers are also less likely to have employer-sponsored health care benefits. As this Vox story details:

Workers at firms with a significant number of low-wage employees are faced with high-deductible plans, and also pay a larger share of the premium cost than workers at companies with fewer lower-wage employees…. workers at lower-wage companies pay an average of $7,000 a year family plan — $1,000 more than employees at companies with higher salaried workers.

The most economically vulnerable are likely to experience economic effects of the pandemic, and if they become ill, they also have fewer resources to deal with serious illness and risk furthering the spread if they have no paid sick time and fear reprisal if they miss work because they are sick.

COVID-19 might be a virus, but it also has profoundly social effects. How else can we apply the sociological imagination to understand this outbreak?


I was thinking about how age intersects with and even compounds vulnerability in lower-wage situations. An example that comes to mind is when a lower-wage worker cannot miss work for fear of losing essential income, they may rely on older adults (e.g. parents/grandparents, retired family member) for child care. Economically vulnerable individuals are forced into situations that lead to further precarious situations, highlighting the need for resources that ensure that basic needs are addressed.

Let's equip ourselves with knowledge and update information to protect our health from corona virus.

I think it is a good idea, I have thought of it but not as detailed as you.

Good analysis of COVID19 times, hard times of anxiety, anticipation, fear and may questions. This situation exhibits the reality of death and the power of unity against a common enemy.

The transition for me was a lot rougher than I expected. Normally I would expect the transition to be easier, but that turned out not to be the case. I thought I would be comfortable just staying at home all day, as I'm more of an introvert and I don't like going outside, but it turns out I'm running low on food, my mom won't let me buy anything else from fast food places due to the possibility of them having the virus, and now every time I go to the drive-up teller at my bank, my mom wants me to sanitize everything I send to the teller.

I honestly did not expect this epidemic to get to the point it's at right now. I would think that since everyone's staying home, we would stop the spread for good and cases would go down drastically, but that turned out not to be the case. Where I'm at in the US, cases are going up day by day, but not only that, not many people can afford the healthcare they need to get treatment. I'm now worried that I won't be able to get the care I need either if I ever do get the virus, so now my family is in constant paranoia about making sure everything is clean.

I'm pretty positive that after all of this, things will not return back to normal. I suspect our entire economy will change drastically, and hopefully that'll change for the better.

I think it is a good idea, thanks!

By applying the sociological imagination by Mills (1959) to the Covid 19 pandemic, the degree of global mass panic has been exponentially exacerbated by mediated communication.

The Spanish Flue influenza virus that decimated European societies in the early 1900s has been largely contained due to the limited global travel and panic was at a minimal outside of Europe. Whilst social media has proven to be an integral tool in overcoming the limitations of social distancing, as a double-edged sword, it has increased mass panic globally.

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