woman wearing a face mask

“Un-masking the Mask-Issue”: Examining People’s Sense-Making Processes and Risk-Cultural Norms regarding Facemasks

Facemask usage is from an international horizon heavily associated with political views. But how have people actually made sense of masks as a protective measure beyond political controversies during the COVID-19 pandemic? This study suggests that people’s cultural norms and values ​​are decisive in shaping whether facemasks were perceived as a legitimate protective measure against COVID-19.

A few weeks after the COVID-19 virus officially was defined as a pandemic, facemasks became an everyday routine in most parts of the globe. Masks have been used and seen on public transport, in grocery stores, and in workplaces. Some countries still hold on to the routines, even when the pandemic is settling. One country stood out in this sense: Sweden. Even though Swedish authorities never strictly recommended facemasks in public spaces, some rare souls have and still cover. In hindsight, medical advocates, opinion formers, and even politicians have argued that Sweden should have joined stricter facemask policies. Even the independent commission in charge of scrutinizing the Swedish government’s way of handling the pandemic – concluded that the Swedish Government and The Public Health Agency had been too dismissive of the positive effects of facemasks.

But how have Swedish residents processed information about facemasks, and in what ways have people made sense of masks as a protective measure during the global pandemic crisis? And in what ways have crisis information during the pandemic been negotiated in a multi-public society, a society in which individuals and citizen groups have different media usage habits and patterns of searching for information? I tried explicitly determine what role media played in people’s sense-making processes relating to masks by shedding light on how social surroundings and risk-cultural norms play a part in the evaluation of information.

Corina et al. (2014) have theoretically defined individuals and citizen groups into three risk-cultural classifications. The classifications describe perceptions on whether one believes that crises can be foreseen, whom to hold responsible in crises, whom to blame, and normative views on how news media ought to act during times of crisis.

In the first classification, individualistic risk cultures, people’s individual responsibility to solve a crisis is central. However, such cultures also have high media trust, and news journalists ought to serve citizens with survival capabilities to overcome a crisis by themselves. The overall assumption is that the state is one of many actors responsible for preventing and mitigating crises. Hence, Germany and the Netherlands are defined as individualistic risk cultures. In the second classification, fatalistic risk cultures have low trust in authorities and news media. Here, the dominant assumption is that the state and media are corrupted. Crises are believed to come from divine interventions and can only be solved by faith or luck. Italy is categorized as such a risk culture. In the third classification, in state-oriented risk cultures, trust in authorities is high, and people anticipate authorities to be central actors in preventing and mitigating crisis events. Trust in media is high, as such cultures expect that news journalists should inform citizens with guidance on how citizens should act. Sweden is, in previous research, defined as such a risk culture.

How do these classifications translate in a multi-public society like Sweden, and do risk cultures matter when it comes to masks? I have revised core assumptions of the risk-cultural perspective and some notions of sense-making theory to analyse how people, depending on their ethnic background and official citizenship, have negotiated the phenomenon of facemasks in Sweden amid the COVID-19 crisis. To put it simply, I analysed how people addressed their perceptions, anticipations, and attitudes to masks in a broader crisis communicative sense – beyond just facemasks.

By applying a social constructionist perspective in my qualitative semi-structured focus groups, I recruited using convenience sampling categorized them into three groups based on:

  1. Being born in Sweden to Swedish-born parents.
  2. Being born in Sweden or abroad with foreign-born parents.
  3. Being born abroad, residing in Sweden, and holding citizenship other than Swedish.

Five semi-structured focus group interviews were conducted, involving 29 respondents. Thus, I dug deep into people’s elaborations of the information on mask-wearing they consumed and everyday personal experiences during the pandemic.

The results showed many similar patterns and distinctively different understanding through which individuals shaped their views, practices, and non-practices associated with facemask. First, people’s initial reactions to their first encounter with facemasks in public settings during the pandemic mediated their overall perceptions of whether they believed that facemasks were a legitimate protective measure. The group with Swedish background (1) collectively interpreted facemasks as a culturally distant measure associated with initial aversive emotions. In contrast, the testimonies of the groups with foreign backgrounds (2 and 3) had more positive initial reactions, stating that they thought that facemasks might not be such a bad idea.

Second, trusting the cultural proximity of news media and authorities played a vital part. The testimonies from the group with Swedish background (1) revealed high trust in information on facemasks usage from authorities and the press, while Swedes with foreign background (2) expressed mixed emotions towards how the issue was framed in news media and by authorities. The group with foreign citizens living in Sweden (3) heavily relied on information and crisis guidelines from their native countries. This group also had the most mixed media diet, consuming Swedish legacy media and foreign news sources.

Third, according to all groups, perceptions of risks, social responsibilities, and peer pressure were vital in shaping their mask-wearing (or non-mask wearing) routines. Testimonies from the group with Swedish background (1) addressed that mask-wearing was perceived with contentiousness, while the group of Swedes with foreign background (2) stated that mask-wearing was associated as a practice to protect others, while the group with citizenship in other countries (3) felt alienated in encounters with non-mask-wearers.

Fourth, risk-cultural norms and values seem to be among the most important factors explaining people’s perceptions of facemasks. The group with an ethnic background in other countries than Sweden (2 and 3) expected authorities to regulate mask-wearing in certain situations. In contrast, the Swedish group (1) perceived mask-wearing as a private matter.

But what do these perceptions, media diets, and risk-cultural norms mean? The results from my study indicate that the groups with a background in countries other than Sweden (2 and 3) had more mixed media diets, more extensive information-seeking behaviours, and mainly trusted traditional and informal sources from their home countries. They also anticipated that the Swedish authorities should have used more robust measures to prevent the virus from spreading and expressed critical notions toward “the Swedish strategy.” On the other hand, the Swedish group (1) heavily relied on Swedish sources and the non-mandatory rules on masks. They expressed satisfaction with the overall crisis management and stressed the importance of non-compulsory regulations and the right to choose whether to use facemasks. The groups with backgrounds in other countries (2 and 3) believed the Swedish state was crucial in preventing and mitigating the COVID-19 outbreak. Facemasks were perceived as one of many compulsory measures that the Swedish authorities have, in their eyes, intentionally ignored. As the results showed that the Swedish group (1) does not solely rely on authorities to solve their problems in times of COVID-19, they also emphasized that individuals should take responsibility to cope with the crisis by themselves. This result means that Corina’s description of Sweden as a state-oriented risk culture might arguably be simplistic and too crude.

In conclusion, my study shows that most Swedish residents adopted the state’s perspective on facemasks regardless of how the outside world treated the issue. At the same time, those who had slightly broader views of both sources of information and lived in social environments which deviated from the majority population had different perceptions. Concretely, individuals who perceived masks as a legitimate protective measure were more prone to neglect the authority’s information. Instead, they actively searched for information that confirmed their views. In the case of facemasks, the effects of such media habits are arguably relatively minor. However, if similar perceptions and behaviours apply to other kinds of crisis events or public health issues (such as vaccinations), the effects might be devastating. Public health practitioners and those who communicate such information must consider the informative variations between and within Sweden’s multi-public environment. As this study shows, such variations impact how crisis information is interpreted and trusted as a first step in preparing for future public health emergencies. Studying how different Sweden groups have interpreted pandemic information is a relevant starting point. Such studies would widen insights into what information needs and capabilities such groups have and are vital when preparing for upcoming crisis events.


Author: Tim Arasimowicz, University of Gothenburg

The blog post builds on the master’s thesis: “UN-MASKING THE MASK-ISSUE” Examining People’s Meaning-Making Processes and Risk Cultural Norms regarding Facemasks, by Tim Arasimowicz, University of Gothenburg (2021).