Penn Pandemic Diary Penn Pandemic Diary, Entry #21: Sociology in the Time of COVID-19

May 1, 2020
By Shaquilla Harrigan | Penn Pandemic Diary

Shaquilla Harrigan is a second-year Ph.D. Student in Sociology and Perry World House Graduate Associate at the University of Pennsylvania. 

When major tragedies happen, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, they often showcase the best and worst aspects of society. As a sociologist, I’ve also observed that these periods of time not only showcase the extremes of my discipline’s findings, but also provide an opportunity to develop new research agendas and methods to capture what’s happening.

So, what will COVID-19 mean for sociology and sociologists?

For now, some things have remained the same. I still live in my in West Philadelphia apartment with my dog and a roommate. We have enough food and other supplies and are able to go to our neighborhood grocery store to restock. I regularly talk with my younger sister, who is currently a senior at Dartmouth and has to finish her final term remotely. Many of my friends and colleagues are adjusting to remote teaching, in addition to caring for children and other family members. Of course, several conferences have been cancelled or moved online and my summer research plans in Kenya have been put on hold.

While most of the things I listed are ultimately inconveniences, the pandemic has set my heart to an anxious beat. I worry about everything: the sheer uncertainty of how long this will last, when I’ll next get to see my support network in person, if I’m carrying the virus unknowingly, what life will be like after the pandemic ends, how my friends and family are managing, and about those people who’ve lost loved ones or have passed on themselves weighs on me.

Now, those experiences and feelings are what sociologists seek to study and understand. The coronavirus pandemic has provided new contexts through which to study existing theories and has provided an unprecedented setting to discover new social phenomena. The coronavirus has implications for sociological studies of health, education, gender and families, housing, and work among other subfields. It also has implications for how we are able to conduct our research.

Most immediately, this pandemic calls sociologists’ attention to our global and national healthcare systems. One of the first questions that comes to mind is how are the new sanitation, personal protective equipment, and telemedicine requirements changing doctor-patient interactions? Also, how are doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals coping with resource scarcity and the emotional toll of a pandemic?

In addition, sociologists are considering the mental health crisis that’s happening in the healthcare system and outside it during the pandemic. For example, how are the quarantine and social distancing measures impacting people’s stress levels, rates of depression, and rates of anxiety? In addition, how has the grieving process changed when people are no longer able to be with their loved ones in their final moments or have end-of-life rites, such as funerals?

Sociologists have long studied educational inequalities and their impacts. Now that colleges and universities have gone remote, how will they reshape the “college experience”? In addition to higher education institutions, primary and secondary school parents, teachers, and students also face challenges due to COVID-19. Many schools sent students home with packets of work they were expected to do and other schools have begun rolling out virtual learning programs. However, not all families have the time, resources, or skills necessary to continue education at home. What will future semesters look like when students return half a semester behind?

In addition, the coronavirus pandemic brings up many questions related to gender and family studies. The question that most immediately comes to mind is: how has COVID-19 impacted the gendered division of labor? Already, there have been many sociological studies on women working the “second shift”, doing housework and care work after their 9-5 job. However, now that housework and care work are happening at the same time and in the same place as day jobs, the proportion of work and expectations of who is doing this work have shifted.

The list of topics to research is endless because we socialize in so many ways. Sociologists must also consider with whom are people social distancing? Are people with family members or partners with whom they were already living? Or have families combined households? Have people relocated or exited the household to protect other family members from becoming sick? While the news focuses on metropolitan hotbeds such as New York City and San Francisco, what about people living in rural areas with low person-to-doctor ratios? What does a job’s essentialness mean for society and workers? Now that many of us must co-work from home using telecommunication platforms like Zoom, what will future workplaces look like? Will the physical office even need to exist?

In each of the previous examples, race and immigration are also important lenses through which to analyze the effects of COVID-19. Asians and Asian-Americans are facing increased racism and xenophobic harassment. The number of cases affecting black people have been undercounted and black people are more likely to have some of the underlying health conditions that make coronavirus deadlier. We also need sociologists to research how the pandemic is changing America’s response to migrants at the southern border.

Those are just some of the areas in which sociologists have started conducting research or may begin new research agendas. But how this work will be done is also changing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. As a qualitative sociologist, my work is based on interviewing and observing people in their day to day lives. In this pandemic, myself and other qualitative scholars are turning to virtual interviews to collect data.

The good news is that there many data sources that have been developed to aid researchers in their work. The New York Times recently released county-level data on infections and deaths. The Surgo Foundation has created a community vulnerability index that maps how communities are differently affected by the pandemic. The sociology twitter-verse is teeming with thoughtful threads on how to approach the coronavirus and requests for participation in various studies. At Penn, Professor Mauro Guillen has compiled a list of various research tools and work already being conducted that is available to researchers. The Penn Development Research Initiative, founded by Professor Guy Grossman, has developed a program research agenda from which members can pursue topics.

While the coronavirus pandemic offers sociologists and other academics the chance to develop innovative theories and redesign methods given our new social context, we shouldn’t only use this time for productivity and research. We also need to take the time to acknowledge that the work-from-home orders are not opportunities for us to “be more productive.” As a dear friend and colleague put it, “We’re not just working from home. We’re working through a global pandemic.” We should think about how this pandemic (and the reality that something like this could happen again) has the potential to change priorities and our ways of engaging with one another.

The views expressed in the Penn Pandemic Diary are solely the author’s and not those of Penn or Perry World House.