Jill S. Grigsby

Professor of Sociology Jill Grigsby

As the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, college faculty are searching for ways to approach coronavirus issues in an academic setting.

Sociology Professor Jill Grigsby, whose research touches on cultural innovations, provides insight on how sociology professors can address cultural topics in the classroom this fall.

The following Q&A has been adapted from her essay “Using the COVID-19 Pandemic to Teach Cultural Concepts,” which appeared in the spring issue of the American Sociological Association’s Teaching Newsletter.

How can professors use the pandemic to teach cultural concepts?

Faculty members may be wondering whether to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and how to initiate such a discussion. Culture is a regular topic for most Introduction to Sociology courses, and it often comes up in other sociology or social science courses. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended higher education, has led to the creation of new, distinct cultural components – new norms, symbols, rituals. Using this pandemic to illustrate each of these cultural components offers an opportunity to discuss the pandemic analytically, yet in a way that can be accessible and inclusive to all students.

What do sociologists mean by these terms such as norms, symbols and rituals?

Sociologists use the term norm to mean a rule for behavior that is sanctioned or enforced.  At the highest level are laws, norms enforced by government, followed by morals, norms enforced by a society’s agreed upon sense of the “right” way to behave. The most casual norms are folkways, which are almost never in writing or even spoken. One example might be a folkway about riding elevators – after entering, passengers are expected to turn around to face the door rather than face other passengers. Symbols are things that stand for something else and help to create a sense of meaning for a community. Norms often include the use of symbols in order to be more effective.  Rituals are a set of behaviors that are carried out repeatedly, often using symbols.

What are some of the new norms, symbols and rituals for public health practices?

Culture usually refers to things (norms, symbols, rituals) made by people, both tangible and intangible, that create meaning for a society or a group. The surgeon and noted author Atul Gawande recently argued that culture will be an important component in regulating COVID-19 protection practices successfully. For example, putting on a face mask when out in public is becoming a new social norm, accepted in some places but not others. The social norms about face masks can be rigidly enforced laws (in some cities) or more loosely enforced folkways (in some local neighborhoods). Face masks themselves can be thought of as one of the symbols of the new COVID pandemic culture. People who wear face masks symbolize an acceptance of a new COVID pandemic culture, that it is important to protect others from one's own possible infection. Ideologies of modern medicine, science and epidemiology are supporting this symbol of COVID pandemic culture. Other sub-cultures in the United States, however, see rejecting face masks as a way to assert political freedom, independence from government control or to align with Donald Trump, one of the most high-profile people to resist wearing a face mask. In 2020, face masks have become another form of symbolic expression, a component of “new normal” culture.

Social distancing, staying six feet from others, particularly indoors, is another norm, or rule, that has emerged with the COVID pandemic. Social distancing is usually enforced with signs, sometimes on the floor or walls, indicating the proper distance. Business establishments in some cities, counties, or states may need to demonstrate that they are providing a socially distant setting for customers, for example, by limiting the number of customers and rearranging furniture, before the business can legally reopen. In some settings, social distancing can be considered a folkway, when it is mildly enforced; or a law, when it can be enforced through government action.

Frequent handwashing is another example of a COVID pandemic norm that is enforced at the level of a folkway or moral. It is the “right” thing to do. Handwashing is also becoming a COVID pandemic ritual, especially washing hands after being out in the world and coming home. The ritual of singing a song like "Happy Birthday" while washing one's hands can help to make sure that the handwashing lasts the recommended twenty seconds. This example shows the close connection among the components of culture – the symbol of the song, “Happy Birthday,” with the norm of handwashing, together creating a ritual of washing one’s hands when coming home.

How can students who are coming to Pomona College from different backgrounds contribute to a discussion about the pandemic?

In addition to the broad cultural components of the COVID pandemic, it can be fruitful to discuss differences – perhaps by U.S. region or type of community (rural, urban, suburban).

Furthermore, how are gender, race, ethnicity, income, education related to the ways people accept and use COVID pandemic cultural concepts? For example, are there gendered face masks? Who wears cloth face masks? Who wears disposable face masks? Who wears bandanas? Who follows social distancing norms (guidelines)? Students from other countries, notably Asian countries, could discuss their normative experiences wearing face masks during flu and cold season. In addition to the differences in the ways people adopt COVID pandemic culture, students can investigate socioeconomic differences in COVID-19 infection rates and outcomes.

What are some examples of class assignments for students to explore COVID-19 culture and the socioeconomic factors of COVID-19?

In addition to motivating a class discussion, this topic could also become the source of several class assignments. Students could spend time observing others outdoors, noting both general trends and patterns of differences and write a short paper outlining their results and connections to texts they are reading. Students can also find articles in social science and epidemiology on socioeconomic health differences related to COVID-19 (as well as other health differences).

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged everyone to rethink and refresh our pedagogy and course content and provide new, contemporary ways to make classic ideas come alive. Our students are looking for ways to make sense of this time and for ways to make their contributions. It is our job to get them started.