The US surpassed one million deaths from COVID-19 in early May and appears to be in another COVID-19 surge. Many states have already rolled back COVID mitigation strategies and masking has become optional on major airlines and public transit. Employers are calling workers back to the office and many Americans are calling for a “return to normal.” However, the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing and many healthcare providers, parents of young children who cannot yet be vaccinated, and vulnerable communities are emphasizing the continued risks.
Despite the push to “get back to normal” many people are not feeling “normal” yet.
As sociologists, we’re taught to think of personal troubles as social issues and it is important to remember that there are large-scale, structural reasons that are fueling the difficulties we are all having. We present four theoretical concepts from sociology to help explain this collective malaise.
Emile Durkheim coined the term, “anomie” to describe social and individual instability that results when there is a breakdown in the norms, values, and standards of a society.
When the whole social system is in a state of anomie individuals can feel restless, disconnected, empty, depressed, and experience an overall lack of purpose.
In the last decade, and specifically since 2020, norms governing all aspects of social interaction have been thrown into question, which makes it difficult to feel connected to, and invested in, society.
2. Social Scripts
Dramaturgical theory, developed by Erving Goffman, is a view of social life as essentially a theatrical performance, in which we are all actors on metaphorical stages, with roles and scripts.
These social scripts tell us what to expect and how to communicate with others. Social interaction tends to follow these “scripts” that we have all learned, which means we generally know what to expect and how to respond. This makes social interaction part of a process and helps us to be successful members of society and communicate with others.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, our social scripts have been disrupted. We have been thrown into unknown situations, which means our brains need to constantly process what is happening because it does not follow the known scripts. This is exhausting and makes social interaction more difficult.
On average, Americans work more in paid labor per week than people in any other similarly “developed” nation. Even before the pandemic, we were stressed. And after the last two years, most of us are desperate for a pause button. This lack of ability to rest has led to many people reporting feeling burned out. This burnout stems from the capitalist need to always be working and producing more.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way! Karl Marx presented a notion of communism that “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” In this passage, Marx means that because communism does not require the alienation from or division of labor and specialization that capitalism does, we are free to develop hobbies, enjoy ourselves and our lives — and not be known only for our labor.
While communism has certainly not worked this way in practice, Marx’s theory encourages us to demand a pause button for our lives and to incorporate these practices where we can. We should keep thinking of and working for systems and structures that could liberate us from capitalism’s insatiable appetite for production.
4. Matrix of Domination
There is wide acknowledgement of the overall burnout that many people are experiencing, and it is particularly pronounced amongst parents, female-identified people, and minoritized communities.
Patricia Hill Collins wrote about the matrix of domination, which allows us to understand social inequalities in an intersecting and dynamic way. Factors such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and more intersect to create dynamic hierarchies.
These hierarchies mean that despite frequent claims of a shared female experience, it is undeniable that White women experience the social world in a drastically different way than Black women do. As we add in other layers, such as sexuality, age, and ability, the daily experiences a person has become even more varied.
Therefore, it’s essential to consider social issues using an intersectional lens. Power shapes all aspects of human interaction from the structural to the interpersonal levels. Collins points to the interlocking components of power that contribute to maintaining the status quo via structural influences that manifest at all levels of society.
For example, macro structural decisions of who has financial and geographical access to reliable childcare to the interpersonal experience of microaggresssions from colleagues at work. To truly empower all groups in society, we must redistribute power on the structural level and transform our social institutions.
To help address these social issues, we offer three big recommendations:
The government must provide better social support, which might come in the form of the child tax credit which lifted 6 million children out of poverty in its first month, universal basic income (the city of Baltimore just announced a guaranteed income pilot program), a living wage, and affordable housing.
Second, the government must increase access to both physical and mental health care. In recent weeks the federal government has ended its support for COVID testing despite an ongoing pandemic. The pandemic exacerbated mental health issues for adults and adolescents, clogging an already overtaxed system.
Finally, we advocate that employers and the government collaboratively reimagine ways that people can combine work and family. This may be through flex hours, telecommuting, allowing employees to work from home all or some of the time, providing child care support, and offering parental leave.
These structural solutions will need to be supported and implemented by employers and through government policies, but as people in a democracy we can advocate for these solutions through direct action, appeals to political leaders, and supporting politicians who will fight for us.
And in the meantime, we can collectively take care of one another and remember that these are our social issues, not just our individual personal troubles.