Our new book is now out – The Face Mask in COVID Times: A Sociomaterial Analysis

We are excited to announce that our co-authored Vitalities Lab team book has just been released. Details are available on Amazon and our publisher De Gruyter’s website. For a companion volume, check out the book co-edited by Deborah Lupton with Karen Willis, The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives, also just released.

We argue in the book that among many other changes to private and public life, the COVID-19 crisis has brought the humble face mask into new prominence. In the post-COVID world, it has become a significant object, positioned as one of the most important ways that people can protect themselves and others from infection with the novel coronavirus by acting as a barrier (however imperfect) between their breath and that of others.

The COVID mask is rich with symbolic meaning, affective forces and embodied sensations as well as practical value in these times of uncertainty, isolation, illness and death. The COVID mask is simultaneously a medical, social and multi-sensory device. Its presence or absence on the human face bears with it cultural, political and moral meanings. As the COVID crisis has intensified, fluctuated and diversified, so too, have these meanings.

Each chapter addresses a discrete topic related to the sociomaterial dimensions of COVID face masks. Chapter 1 introduces the rationale for the book, addressing the question of why sociomaterial theories are so important to make sense of the meanings and practices related to the face mask in the age of COVID. It provides the context for understanding the face mask as a sociocultural artefact, discussing the history of the face mask (and other facial coverings, such as veiling practices) internationally. This chapter also provides an overview of the theoretical perspectives we are using in our analysis. We draw particularly on the vital materialism offered in the work of feminist new materialist scholars and Indigenous and First Nations philosophies as well as domestication theory.

Photo credit: Deborah Lupton

Chapter 2 focuses on micropolitical and macropolitical aspects, ranging across international disputes over medical mask production and supply, the role played by peak health organisations such as the WHO, mass media and social media coverage and social movements seeking both to support and agitate against mass masking. In Chapter 3, we address the ways that COVID masks become incorporated into human bodies and everyday practices, bringing domestication theory together with more-than-human perspectives.

Photo credit: Deborah Lupton

Chapter 4 moves us deeper into our analysis of the embodied sensory and affective experience of mask wearing, focusing particularly on breath and breathing with and through a COVID mask. The artefact of the hand-crafted COVID mask is examined in Chapter 5. We bring perspectives from social analyses of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and crafting cultures to discuss the sociomaterialities of four different kinds of hand-crafted masks: the artisan mask, the home-made mask, the makeshift mask and the community drive mask. In Chapter 6, we turn our attention towards the concept of care and how this may be applied not only in the context of medical care and caring for oneself or other people by wearing a COVID mask, but the implications for the environment of careless use and disposal of masks.

The Epilogue brings together the threads of our arguments and provides some final thoughts on the COVID mask as a sociomaterial phenomenon.


Published by Deborah Lupton

I am SHARP Professor and leader of the Vitalities Lab in the Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney

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