COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on almost every aspect of our lives, and it can be difficult to make sense of the multifaceted ways it is affecting society. The ability to understand social dynamics and social institutions becomes even more important as society becomes increasingly complex. The Ball State Department of Sociology’s unique lens shapes the conversation about this pandemic, equipping faculty and students to evaluate the impact of future events.
Senior sociology major Grace Brenner says, “The pandemic has really shown how important sociology is, because sociologists use skills to not just say ‘this pandemic is affecting everyone’ but, instead, knowing about different ways in which society works, they are able to look at, explain, and share all of the social implications that this pandemic has, and exactly how deep these issues are.”
Sociologists Study “The Water in Which We Swim”
Department chair Dr. Chad Menning describes how sociologists are trained to uniquely probe circumstances like COVID-19:
Sociologists tend to ask, “Who does what? Who gets what? And why?” Often the answers reveal differences according to race or ethnicity, social class, gender, age, national origin, and so forth. In the case of COVID-19, we might ask, “Who has been most likely to contract COVID-19? What best explains the patterns that we see? Are they a matter of ethnicity? Or perhaps the kind of job, education, or income that one has? Or perhaps a combination of these? Or perhaps something else?” The list is nearly endless.
In other words, sociology is unique in that sociologists try to focus on the big picture and consider how numerous social factors may be contributing to a particular outcome. Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Fang Gong elaborates:
The discipline of sociology situates an individual in a variety of contexts at multiple levels when confronting and analyzing the impact of COVID. At the macro-level, we ask broad questions about the global and national political, economic, and sociocultural contexts; at the meso-level, we ask questions about the communities and organizations; at the micro-level, we ask questions about families and individuals. Sociology is unique in its comprehensive and integrated approach.
Once various environmental factors and contexts are evaluated for patterns, sociologists then ask the important question Why do these patterns exist? This question is essential for sociologists. Dr. Menning explains, “The answers reveal something important about the contexts in which we live—the ‘water in which we swim’: our governments, our economies, our health care systems, our cultures and subcultures, and so forth. This puts us in a better position to suggest and refine policy, as well as to make informed choices about how we live our day-to-day lives and interact with others.”
Ball State Researchers Evaluate COVID’s Impact
Award winning Ball State Sociology professor Richard Petts’s research, which focuses on the pandemic’s impact upon gender roles within the family, was recently featured in USA Today. His work asks how social policies and structures influence family inequality, particularly work-family issues such as parental leave. He says, “When the pandemic hit, I immediately wondered how families would be affected, asking questions such as (a) How are parents managing without daycare and school (and often working from home)? (b) Are fathers stepping up and doing more housework and childcare, or are mothers being overburdened?” The dramatic effect of COVID inspired Dr. Petts and his colleagues to collect survey data to understand how the pandemic has shaped parents’ work and family lives.
Dr. Petts says that his research reveals that women are doing more domestic work during the pandemic than men, and these reports conclude that the pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality as a result. But these studies don’t consider the situation before the pandemic. “If we want to have a complete understanding of what is going on now, we need to understand the social circumstances before the pandemic hit. So in our study, we collected information on parents’ work and family lives both before and during the pandemic to be able to more accurately assess change,” he notes.
His initial analyses highlight a few important findings. Most notably, Petts and his colleagues find that the pandemic has both reduced and exacerbated gender inequality in domestic labor. He explains:
With more fathers working from home, workplace barriers to involvement have been reduced and fathers are spending more time in housework and childcare, reducing the gender disparity in these tasks. But, it is important to note that while things have become more equal (on average), mothers are still doing most of the housework and childcare. And, for those mothers who continue to do most of this work, their burdens have significantly increased and they are spending even more time in these tasks due to daycares being closed and children being home from school. We also find evidence that the loss of childcare supports such as daycare and in-person schooling has contributed to higher rates of unemployment and reductions in work hours for mothers (but not fathers).
Dr. Fang Gong’s research focuses on how race/ethnicity impacts one’s access to health care and health outcomes. She has recently begun a project to examine racial/ethnic disparities in insurance coverage, and she hopes to extend this line of research by incorporating more recent data during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I am attempting to disentangle the intricate relationships among race/ethnicity, health care access, and incidence of COVID-19,” she says.
Other faculty members within the Sociology Department were already studying the social determinants of health, a research focus known as sociological epidemiology. It is likely many will incorporate COVID-19 factors into their research, especially with the growing interest among students. Dr. Menning notes, “I have heard from a number of our graduate students that they are planning thesis work related to social questions about the pandemic.”
Sociology Equips Students to Make Sense of the COVID World and beyond
Professors in the Sociology Department are confident that this discipline is empowering students to think critically about society and equipping them to make a real world difference.
Dr. Chad Menning:
Students gain a perspective—a sociological imagination. Such insights and understanding are valuable because they sensitize us to the diversity of ways in which people live their lives. However, they also pave the way for informed action on a variety of levels and in many contexts: home, work, school, neighborhoods, and voting booths. By helping us solve social puzzles, this discipline can empower.
Dr. Richards Petts:
Sociology equips students with the ability to think about the bigger picture and understand how various social forces impact any outcome. Sociologists recognize the importance of using research skills, and the ability to synthesize, analyze, and interpret data to work toward improving society. As such, sociology students are able to understand a complex situation such as COVID. Being knowledgeable about broad social factors also equips sociology students to be advocates for social change, which is very needed given the numerous problems our society faces today.
Dr. Fang Gong:
Sociology is a particularly valuable perspective when it comes to question/study/analyze events such as COVID. It can help students understand that a variety of social, political, cultural factors are associated with societal and individual decisions in reacting to and combatting COVID. For example, a sociological approach can help students better understand cross-national differences during the pandemic. Due to differences in political ideologies, economic conditions, and cultural values, different countries vary drastically in how they handle the pandemic.
The Student Perspective—Undergrads excited by Sociology’s Opportunities
Grace Brenner knows her studies in sociology are building advantageous workplace skills. She says, “If we try to solve problems by just trying to solve surface-level issues and never acknowledge it’s deep roots, then it can still manifest and grow. In the real world work environment, I have the skills to look at a problem from different angles and lenses, and then I am able to begin to solve problems by addressing the root, which is extremely valuable in the workplace and as a life skill.”
Payton Drefcinski, a junior in the sociology program, notes the career options a degree in sociology offers. “The greatest thing that sociology has provided me is versatility. I don’t have to be narrow when career planning or exploring my options because sociology has granted me knowledge that is applicable to lots of fields and focuses.” She says that she feels just as prepared to step into a courtroom as she would to work in a nonprofit or to conduct research, because the skills of sociological thinking, problem-solving, and effective communication have all be honed by this department.
As to the impact of COVID-19, Payton agrees with her professors that the pandemic has emphasized why the sociological lens is so crucial.
“For many people, COVID intertwines with their political views, religious beliefs, family relations, workplace issues, or social interactions, all of which fall under sociology’s broad umbrella. Being in a society that is adapting to a major pandemic has increased my gratitude for being a part of a major that is ready to adapt to anything, and can help push society to understand itself better in times of great need.”
Going forward, Payton says her research interests have absolutely been impacted by this pandemic, noting her passions are for researching women’s gender roles and their positions of power in society, specifically from an intersectional approach. “Those roles have shifted and adapted during the pandemic. COVID’s major societal changes reveal a lot about what society deems “essential”, which I’d love to research closely to see how that intertwines with our economy, our social values, and our political system.”