August 16, 2021

Biography and History Intersecting: Thinking Critically about Individualism

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By Karen Sternheimer

In his book The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills described the importance of historical events as shaping individuals’ lives. This is not just to say that historical events influence our personalities or preferences, but that sociology calls upon us to consider the interplay between our seemingly private lives and the world around us. The self cannot exist apart from society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to think about the connection between the self and society, as clashes over mask mandates, shutdowns, and vaccinations highlight the tensions between individualism and the larger society that we are part of.

It is pretty straightforward to think about how “history” this past year has shaped many people’s “biographies.” Job losses, strains surrounding childcare, working from home, school closures, and even changed hygiene habits, are among the many pandemic-related disruptions that have shaped billions of people’s lives, even if they didn’t get sick or know someone who became ill. Of course, for people who became seriously ill or lost a family member to COVID-19, the impact is even stronger and can shape surviving families’ lives for years to come.

For instance, my great-grandfather died during the flu pandemic in 1918. He was in his 30s and left behind four children (including one who was not yet born). The family was about to immigrate to the United States to escape religious violence in their country—another intersection with history. Their journey would have been harrowing under any circumstance, but they had to manage without him, just his young widow and bereaved mother taking four small children to a new life.

My great-grandmother eventually remarried, apparently in an arranged marriage to a man who had lost his wife and had two children of his own. The families blended—although not always seamlessly—as my grandmother described how she felt her stepfather never really embraced his role as father to her or her siblings in the same way her mother did for her step siblings. A century later, I have memories of a beloved great aunt and great uncle and many cousins as the result of the families’ merging. My grandmother felt the loss of her father the rest of her life, although she loved her nonbiological siblings. “There are no steps in this family,” she would say.

It’s a bit harder to see how we as individuals shape history, and the larger society, but we do.

A pandemic, or a worldwide epidemic of an infectious disease, requires social interactions to make individuals sick. We might not be at all concerned about getting sick ourselves, thinking as individuals that we can recover. Many people who don’t feel the need to comply with public health directives might consider their own risk low and may believe that the risk posed to others is also low.

Focusing on ourselves as individuals, we might have a hard time processing how our actions might affect those around us, including people we don’t know. For example, a Maine wedding in 2020 attended by 62 guests led to 178 COVID cases, including the deaths of 7 people who didn’t attend the wedding but were infected by guests.

These days, people who are immunocompromised have an acute sense of the importance of how others shape their lives. While many vaccinated people feel comfortable visiting other vaccinated friends and family and returning to everyday activities, people with weakened immune systems continue to be at heightened risk. Some of these people may not have the option of staying home and away from the public.

Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the phrase “the looking-glass self” over a century ago to emphasize that even our sense of self is social, that we see ourselves in part as we imagine that others see us. Our adherence or resistance to public health guidance is often shaped by political affiliation, or by the larger group we see ourselves as part of. If we are surrounded by mask wearers, we might imagine that not wearing a mask will yield a negative reaction, while the opposite might be true in a social setting without masks.

If you can imagine pre-pandemic life in the United States, mask-wearing was very rare. Someone wearing a mask would stand out and maybe experience the negative judgment of others. In other societies, mask wearing was already acceptable, even encouraged. According to a 2020 BBC story:

In East Asia, many people are used to wearing masks when they are sick or when it's hay fever season, because it's considered impolite to be sneezing or coughing openly.

The 2003 SARS virus outbreak that affected several countries in the region also drove home the importance of wearing masks, particularly in Hong Kong, where many died as a result of the virus. So one key difference between these societies and Western ones, is that they have experienced contagion before—and the memories are still fresh and painful.

In some parts of Asia, seasonal air pollution or heavy traffic pollution in crowded cities have also made it pretty normal for people to wear masks outside.

Perhaps the pandemic can help us see the connection between individual health and the health and well-being of others, and maybe masks will remain commonplace when people have cold or flu symptoms. Whatever the future holds, the pandemic encourages us to consider the sociological concept of how we are not disconnected individuals. We are profoundly connected, even when we don’t realize it; just as we share viruses, we share values, behaviors, and beliefs in ways that are often invisible.

How else has the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the intersection between biography and history? The limits of individualism?

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