Uncovering JAPA

Understanding Responses to COVID-19-Induced Shifts in Cultural Norms

While the COVID-19 pandemic has first and foremost presented a horrific public health crisis, it has also significantly shifted cultural norms. It is these shifts and various responses to them that Davy begins to classify in "Social Distancing and Cultural Bias: On the Spatiality of COVID-19" for the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 2).

Social Biases Analyzed Through Cultural Theory

In the article, Davy draws from anthropologist Mary Douglas' work in Cultural Theory (or Grid/Group Theory), defined as "a method for identifying social pressures and plotting them on a map of social environments." This method plots social biases as weak or strong on two axes, grid (individuation) and group (social pressure), rendering four combinations of weak and strong forces: hierarchies (strong grid/strong group), egalitarian (weak grid/strong group), individualist (weak grid/weak group), and fatalistic (strong grid/weak group).

We can consider these four biases concerning COVID-19 as follows:

  • Hierarchist bias emphasizes the knowledge of experts in virology, epidemiology, and public health;
  • Egalitarian bias draws from a strong sense of community, i.e. the establishment of enclosed support groups or preference for local food production;
  • Individualist bias is based on an ideal of liberty, with individualists preferring to decide autonomously how to social distance; and
  • Fatalistic bias expresses indifference, i.e. fatigue with social distancing leading people to attend more social gatherings as time goes on.

Readers can likely think of someone who strongly displays each bias.

Planning Needs Polyrational Cultural Approach for COVID-19

Government and planning intervention has largely emphasized a hierarchic bias, implementing expert-driven guidelines and regulations. However, the key to Davy's point is an idea from the Cultural Theory of the impossibility theorem, which holds that none of the four cultural biases exist without the others. This implies that planners and governments need to keep all four biases in mind when anticipating reactions to suggested initiatives, since no single experience of these interventions is universal. Davy notes, for instance, that members of close-knit groups cannot practice government-suggested social distancing without losing part of their identity, whereas for others this measure may be easier to follow.

Ultimately, Davy argues for the need for a polyrational approach to planning that considers each of these different biases and how those who hold them may act differently in response to government and planning interventions. This is not to imply we should take the virus lightly, but rather the contrary: that an effective response considers how cultural biases will impact how different people comply.

Reading the article almost a year into the pandemic helped me articulate a particular frustration many have felt with most government responses in the United States: that they have failed to meaningfully account for the individualist and fatalistic biases of many Americans. Davy's work will help readers understand the roots of this issue, and encourage government officials and planners to think more creatively about how they can achieve COVID-19-related goals by actually accounting for how people are likely to react.

Figure 1: Pandemic as culture, Dortmund, Germany, June 2020. © Ben Davy.

Figure 1: Pandemic as culture, Dortmund, Germany, June 2020. Photo by Ben Davy

Top Image: miodrag ignjatovic/E+/gettyimages.com

About the author
Ben Demers is a Master of Urban Planning and Master of Public Policy candidate at Harvard University.

July 15, 2021

By Benjamin Demers