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Front. Public Health, 21 June 2022
Sec. Public Health Policy
Volume 10 - 2022 |

The social meanings of artefacts: Face masks in the COVID-19 pandemic

 Franziska B. Schönweitz1,  Johanna Eichinger1, 2,  Janneke M. Kuiper3, Fernandos Ongolly4, Wanda Spahl5,  Barbara Prainsack5* and Bettina M. Zimmermann1, 2
  • 1Institute of History and Ethics in Medicine, School of Medicine, Technical University of Munich, Germany
  • 2Institute of Biomedical Ethics, University of Basel, Switzerland
  • 3Centre for Sociological Research, Faculty of Social Sciences, KU Leuven, Belgium
  • 4Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, College of Business, University College Dublin, Ireland
  • 5Centre for the Study of Contemporary Solidarity, Department of Political Science, University of Vienna, Austria

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, research has explored various aspects of face mask use. While most of the research explores their effectiveness to prevent the spread of the virus, a growing body of literature has found that using face masks also has social meaning. But what social meaning does it have, and how does this meaning express itself in people’s practice? Based on 413 qualitative interviews with residents in five European countries (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and Switzerland), we found that the meanings of face masks have changed drastically during the first months of the pandemic. While in spring 2020 people wearing them had to fear stigmatization, in autumn of 2020 not wearing masks was more likely to be stigmatized. Throughout the first year of the pandemic, we found that mask wearing had multiple and partly seemingly contradictory meanings for people. They were perceived as obstacles for non-verbal communication, but also a way to affirm friendships and maintain social contacts. They also signaled specific moral or political stances on the side of face mask wearers and non-wearers alike, expressed their belonging to certain communities, or articulated concern. In sum, our findings show how face masks serve as scripts for people to navigate their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. We conclude that public and political discussions concerning face masks should include not only evidence on the epidemiological and infectiological effects of face masks, but also on their social meanings and their social effects.

Keywords: face mask, COVID- 19, pandemic, Social Meaning, Artefact

Citation: Schönweitz FB, Eichinger J, Kuiper JM, Ongolly F, Spahl W, Prainsack B and Zimmermann BM (2022). The social meanings of artefacts: Face masks in the COVID-19 pandemic. Front. Public Health 10:789. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2022.829904

Received:06 Dec 2021; Accepted: 14 Mar 2022;
Published online: 21 Jun 2022.

Edited by:

Marisa Gilles, Western Australian Center for Rural Health, University of Western Australia, Australia

Reviewed by:

Jacek C. Szepietowski, Wroclaw Medical University, Poland
Ivan Kozitsin, V. A. Trapeznikov Institute of Control Sciences (RAS), Russia  

Copyright: © 2022 Schönweitz, Eichinger, Kuiper, Ongolly, Spahl, Prainsack and Zimmermann. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Prof. Barbara Prainsack, Centre for the Study of Contemporary Solidarity, Department of Political Science, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria,