Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Masking – The Sick and the Masks

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Cornelia Mayr, Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt, Austria

Social reality is a performed event. As individuals we are concerned with matters of self-presentation, social role expectations, and impression management [1], and these expectations endure largely over time. The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to a reality with new social rules and norms. Thus each and every one of us enters a social world with new role behaviours (adopting the ‘potential sick role’), scripts (e.g. keeping social distance), and props (wearing masks), which help us to navigate our way through precarious times of interaction. My thoughts here resonate with classic Symbolic Interactionist ideas.

In the past few days, I threw myself into the fray and attempted to figure out how people create and uphold alternate realities. During my first online ‘Introduction to Sociology’ class, an Italian student asked me if every one of us is playing the sick role at this time? I wonder how many of us have really considered this question. Notably, how many of us have looked at a functionalist concept from a Symbolic Interactionist perspective? Perhaps this will illustrate a pandemic (im)possibility. Be that as it may, this question provided ample food for thought and sensitised me to my line of inquiry.

Talcott Parsons’s [2] concept of the sick role guided much research examining the impact of illness on social interaction. Individuals engage the sick role as a normatively prescribed response to fulfil rights and obligations in the hope of getting well soon. Notably, ill individuals are expected to satisfy certain social role responsibilities. Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective [3] suggests that we, as social actors, are always ‘performing’, managing the impression we make on others, consciously or otherwise.

What do the current diagnostic labels ‘disease carrier’, ‘at risk’, and ‘infected with Covid-19’ mean for the performance of the sick role? Those of us with no symptoms of disease, but bearing risk of infection, seem to live in a liminal space between the healthy and the sick. We may inhabit a ‘potential sick role’, with different rules and obligations than in Parsons’ traditional model. This calls for a need to revisit the definition of Parsons’ sick role. Particularly in times of pandemic, the experience of health and illness seems not to be as straightforward as Parsons originally hypothesised.

In what follows, I present intriguing quirks of human behaviour which raise questions about the ontology of social role responsibilities and protective props. In illustrating these impressionistic observations, my aim is not to transfer these behaviour patterns onto other cultures or nations, nor do I claim to base my inevitably subjective experiences on objective evidence. Rather, I use my own experiences as a springboard for demonstrating an insider’s account of local performances in playing the ‘potential sick role’. Most notably, it seems to take a lot of collaborative effort to stage a convincing performance, complete with sets of role behaviours and props.

Role Behaviour
In order to perform effectively the role of the potential sick person, one must adopt to certain role behaviours: (1) the ‘couch potato’, staying at home (see Figure 1), (2) the ‘workaholic’, bringing work home (see Figure 2), and (3) the ‘hermit’, keeping social distance to other humans. So, as part of the potential sick role, a person is exempted from his or her regular responsibilities (such as physical presence at the workplace, outdoor activities, visiting relatives, or other more or less tangible obligations), and is not held responsible for his or her isolation.

Figure 1: Couch potato

The role of the potentially sick person is very tightly circumscribed. At a minimum, the potentially sick person must project an impression of the dedicated and knowledgeable citizen. He or she must be able efficiently and calmly to carry on his or her work at home, alongside crying children, desperate housemates, or annoying neighbours. The most basic role of the ‘potentially sick’ is to be patient in keeping well. And largely that is OK because health and illness are beyond control, and it is understood that the ‘potentially sick’ person needs to be socially isolated.

However, if the potentially sick person seems too interested in going outside and meeting with other people, that person is likely to experience negative social sanctions. Behavioural patterns of the potential sick role serve to protect other potentially sick persons from feeling infected, and are performed in recognition of the vulnerability of contagious bodies. Potentially sick persons cocoon themselves within the territories of their self as a way of encapsulating the actions and attitudes that society expects from someone who is not (yet) ill.

Figure 2: Bringing work home

One element that is crucial to the ‘potential sick role’ is the potential impact of their props – their masks – on others. The mask can be seen as a standardised and transferable way for the potentially sick person to control the manner in which others perceive her or him. Wearing a mask, which may be performed protectively (to save others) or defensively (to protect oneself), addresses constant facework. In other words, face masks are playing an important role in the act of selfcare and ‘othering’. Potentially sick persons are implicated in keeping themselves and others safe.

Sometimes, the potentially sick person’s motivation to wear a face mask goes beyond social role responsibilities. Self-expression and well-intentioned attempts to show solidarity are also examples that demonstrate the symbolic efficacy of face masks. Masks come in cloth, homemade, and printed variations, and sometimes seem to be worn for style, rather than for protection. Apparently, masks are not only functional but also dramaturgical props or pieces of identity (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Handmade face masks

Nevertheless, these props are most effective when combined with the potentially sick persons’ obligation to keep themselves clean. Masks and other items of paraphernalia such as soaps, disinfecting cleaners, wipes, sprays, and gloves sterilise and protect the potentially sick body for whom hygiene is a hallmark of disciplinary power.

Wearing a mask seems to become a mantra. And it is supported by a variety of other props designed to discipline, protect and reassure the public in times of pandemic. A mask may not always be worn, but it seems to be important that we convince others at least to attempt to wear it.

Performing the ‘Potential Sick Role’
My observations were conducted at an Austrian farmers’ market on Thursdays and Saturdays. I recorded my impressions in personal fieldnotes and photographs. In presenting some examples of these impressionistic observations, my aim is to demonstrate fundamental contradictions implicit in the potential sick roles people are asked to adopt. The farmers’ market is fairly typical in its organisation, demographic profile and cultural traditions. But we can see that a definition of a pandemic reality is quite vague at this place.

Figure 4: Farmers’ Market – physical distance?

Figure 5: Farmers’ Market – protection of the elderly?

Figure 6: Farmers’ Market – father with baby, taking a stroll

Are we not supposed to keep physical distance? (see Figure 4) What are elderly people, who are at a higher risk of infection, doing here? (see Figure 5) Is this father really taking a stroll with a baby during the most crowded time at the farmers’ market? (see Figure 6) Are these people eating on the streets? (see Figures 7, 8) How many people actually are wearing a mask? (see Figures 9, 10, 11) These observations may suggest that the concept of the ‘potential sick role’ still needs time to be somatised, in recognition of the ways in which social responsibilities are acted out. ‘We are not sick’ may (not) be the truth, but it seems to be important that we present a convincing role performance on the stage of social reality.

Figure 7: Farmers’ Market – couple eating on the streets

Figure 8: Farmers’ Market – people eating in front of a closed restaurant

Figure 9: Farmers’ Market – does this person wear a mask?

Figure 10: Farmers’ Market – does everyone wear a mask?

Figure 11: Farmers’ Market – what about wearing a mask and keeping physical distance?

[1] Goffman E (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
[2] Parsons T (1951) The Social System. Glencoe, IL.: Free Press.
[3] Goffman E (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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