The Sociology of Masks: Masking up the Society

Dr. Nupur Pattanaik

Dr. Nupur Pattanaik

May 2021 | India

The Sociology of Masks: Masking up the Society

To cease the spread of contagious COVID-19 pandemic, masks have become a cultural norm and a rapidly emerging social phenomenon throughout the world. Masks are thoroughly created to represent new social dynamics, a responsibility and create social organization in times of pandemic. During the pandemic, firstly I was quite uncomfortable in wearing the mask, but gradually I learned the way of life perceiving the consequences of not wearing it. I see around me not all people are wearing the mask. When I asked them, some say "it’s not a necessity, COVID won’t affect us," and others say they just "forgot to bring it." I asked them “do you forget to eat food, drink water, look on your mobile, why don’t you take the mask as an essential element of your life seeing the alarming times and needs of the pandemic?'' The patterns and norms of socializing have been changing, and masking the society is an important ingredient in the socialisation process pertaining to the emergent situation. People around me say masking is difficult, because we need to breathe with a mask on and our words get muffled; it’s very difficult accepting the masked life.

Research points out during the SARS pandemic that masks played an important role in creating intimacy and trust in times of danger. According to sociologist Peter Baehr, “mask culture” creates a feeling of shared destinies, mutual obligation and civic responsibility. People may sense a kind of loss of social freedom when they wear a mask, but wearing a mask signifies how seriously you are taking the deadly pandemic and how far you are concerned with the people around you. It somehow signals a social identity among the masses. In the pre-COVID era I had witnessed people covering their faces to prevent them from dust, pollution, but now when it’s mandatory to prevent oneself and others from the deadly virus they should incorporate masks as it has become a social responsibility.

When I see people in urban areas ignoring the masks, I think about the rural and indigenous communities and how to make people sensitive to the necessity and need to wear a mask. Masks need to be taken as a priority in daily activities. One cannot ignore them as it can consume not only a single life but may affect several lives. Scientifically speaking, masks reduce the intensity and contagion of the spread of the deadly virus and sociologically speaking, one must socialise it as a daily usage.

Durkheim’s conception of collective actions stimulating solidarity applies here. The same can be appropriate  in these times in wearing masks collectively, which can bring order and a force against the universal deadly pandemic which is collectively done by masking the society. Social solidarity plays a significant part in traversing the social distancing norms and eliminating the chances, probabilities and vulnerabilities to public health by evolving a collective consciousness in society in times of the pandemic by putting on a mask.

Can the face mask be a new barrier for social interaction? This question is one new thought -process among the masses, as masking is redefining the new norms of social interaction. To generate interest among people, masks come in different designs, colours and many more patterns to encourage communities to buy in large numbers and wear it. Use of masks redefines the sense of altruism and an interface of personal and social responsibility.

Ulrich Beck in his sociological interpretation of risk society analyzes that historically the pervasive and omnipresent threat should be a matter of personal and collective experience. Beck said in dealing with a risk society one must have a sense of novel attitude, adopt new strategies and be adaptable to the prevailing situation. Our entire society demands that we must mask up as the pandemic situation urges us to protect ourselves.

Symbolic Interactionism explores society through subjective meanings allocated to objects, events, and behaviours by the people of a particular community. George Herbert Mead believed that the advancement of the people was a social process as were the meanings people assigned to things.  Herbert Blumer in Symbolic Interactionism said three principles of symbolic interactionism are meaning, language and thinking. Action is based on meanings and people designate different meanings to things through interactions, which suggests meanings are subject to change. Masks assuredly have changed our interactions, and a new culture of masks has emerged. The perception and interpretation of the COVID pandemic is a collective issue and must be battled together by together wearing masks. One should understand that a mask is not just a piece of cloth, but a protection against the deadly virus. Masks are the emerging cultural norm as the pandemic stays, and a major cultural shift.

Face masks have been crucial for the battle against COVID-19. We might consider Michel Foucault’s views on the panopticon by focusing on surveillance and self regulations as a prominent form of social control in modern societies. As we encounter increasing levels of surveillance because of the pandemic, self regulation through the use of masks can be an important element in restricting the virus and may be more acceptable in the post-COVID world.

Perhaps one of the most important and striking social changes we experience is a lifestyle change in mandatory usage of masks to slow down the spread of the virus. Masking the society is cardinal in eliminating the virus. Wearing a mask is not only important but life saving for curtailing the impacts of the menaces of the pandemic. If I wear my face covering to protect you from me and you also do the same thing, then we can decrease the transmission of the virus. Globally witnessing the impacts of the COVID-induced pandemic, the need for mask education is the need of the times to inculcate among the masses the necessity of the mask. Making the meanings and presence of the mask in everyday life fundamental is the need in the current contexts and for the survival of humanity.


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