The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has caused millions to fall ill and resulted in more than 191,000 deaths in the United States alone. As people across the globe grapple with the pandemic, medical researchers race to find a vaccine and effective treatments to stem the tide of increasing infections, long-term health effects, and associated deaths. 

But COVID-19 is not just a public health emergency. It also has serious social consequences, affecting our relationships and how we interact with one another as well as causing the worst economic downturn the United States has experienced since the Great Depression. It has changed the nature of work, increased social isolation, and disrupted our everyday lives and routines. 

These dramatic changes are motivating social scientists to focus on how individual and community behaviors interact with and impact the pandemic. “These studies are important because human attitudes and actions strongly influence how well we respond to COVID-19 and its associated consequences,” said Karen Roberto, executive director of the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment and a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Virginia Tech. 

“Social scientists from a wide range of disciplines — including sociology, political science, psychology, human development, business, and economics — are poised to make significant contributions to managing the pandemic and its aftermath that will both complement and strengthen the medical solutions,” added Roberto.

To spur the development of social science–oriented research and address COVID-19, the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate of the National Science Foundation has funded more than 160 RAPID grants, including three at Virginia Tech. The RAPID funding mechanism is used for proposals that need to be awarded quickly so researchers can collect “real-time” data in response to unanticipated events or disasters. 

The three research teams at Virginia Tech, all of whom have received prior support from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment for related research, represent a range of departments and disciplines, highlighting the often diverse and interdisciplinary nature of social science research. 

France Bélanger, professor of accounting information systems in the Pamplin College of Business, and Katherine Allen, professor of human development and family science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, are examining the impact of contact tracing apps on family decision-making and privacy concerns.

“The research will further our understanding of how decisions about contact-tracing technologies are negotiated within households and how to foster contact tracing acceptance within families, and possibly other social units,” explained Bélanger. 

Bélanger and Allen will implement a longitudinal survey of parents and teens at two different time points to learn more about their decision-making processes. To increase the generalizability of the findings, the study leverages their past longitudinal research on information disclosure decisions in families.  

The researchers hope that by identifying barriers to the use of contact-tracing apps as well as the processes to break down these barriers, they can expand the “domino effect of adoption” throughout a family.

“Because each family’s identity may extend beyond their immediate household, it is likely that this domino effect will increase adoption outside of the household to their extended family and broader social networks,” said Allen. “We hope this cascading effect can significantly improve the adoption of contact tracing in communities and help the U.S. obtain the critical mass of users necessary for successfully keeping COVID-19 infections at a manageable level.”

Shalini Misra and Kris Wernstedt, both faculty members in the Urban Affairs and Planning Program in the School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, are studying social distancing and digital information during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their project examines people’s risk perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors and how they have changed since the start of the pandemic, particularly related to the amount and quality of digital information they consume, as well as the voluntary and required social and physical distancing they experience. 

“We are interested in learning about people’s willingness to engage in certain kinds of behaviors such as flying or shaking hands,” explained Misra. She and Wernstedt believe the amount and type of digital information people are exposed to is a significant factor in their subsequent behavior since this information can vary, especially in credibility, timeliness, and quality. 

Misra and Wernstedt are recruiting 400 participants from five U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta. These participants will complete an online survey at multiple time points through 2021. 

“The data we collect will help us to identify the differences in risk perceptions, preferences, and self-reported behaviors over time and locations and to link these changes and differences to the digital information they consume,” Wernstedt said.  

Misra and Wernstedt anticipate that their findings will enable community leaders, health professionals, and policymakers to develop better strategies to more effectively deal with future crises “both large and small,” according to Misra, “and to mitigate their social, psychological and economic impacts.”

James Hawdon and Ashley Reichelmann, both faculty members in the Department of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, are studying how health pandemics such as COVID-19 affect community solidarity.

“We want to examine how the current global health pandemic affects levels of community solidarity, how these levels differ from other tragedies, and if solidarity can be generated and sustained by virtual means,” said Hawdon.

Reichelmann explained, “While the COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment ripe for solidarity, coming together in mutual support, the typical method for generating and sustaining solidarity is not possible because of the widely adopted social distancing guidelines that prevent us from being physically close.”

Hawdon and Reichelmann plan to use four waves of panel data from Virginia Tech students and a national sample of college-aged respondents to examine six questions related to crises and building community solidarity. To aid in this aspect of the study, they will also map respondents’ involvement on campus such as being part of “Hokie culture” to understand how a sense of belonging impacts solidarity. 

Hawdon and Reichelmann expect their study will contribute to understanding how community solidarity and belonging are fostered even in the absence of physical proximity, especially through virtual means. Their hope is that this new knowledge will help communities better combat the social and emotional effects of pandemics such as COVID-19 now, and other similar crises in the future.

Written by Yancey Crawford