Masking (Not Masking) Up: An STS Visual-Intersectional Approach to Understanding Publics and Science in Times of Rapid Change

  • Susan Bell
  • Patrick R. Grzanka
  • Kelly Joyce
  • Laura Senier


In this paper we argue that a visual-intersectional approach can advance the field of science and technology studies (STS). Although there is a small but important body of work using visual methods in STS, it has rarely incorporated intersectional approaches. We use visual imagery about mask wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study to illustrate the potential power of a visual-intersectional approach in STS. We chose masks for three reasons. First, debates about mask-wearing were rich with visual imagery, from home-made signs posted in homes and businesses to professionally designed and printed imagery circulated by public health agencies. Second, recommendations about face coverings outside of healthcare settings changed dramatically in the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing an opportunity to analyze how rapidly changing scientific recommendations were debated in the public sphere.  Finally, as masks entered the public sphere, they quickly became evocative technologies, deeply imbued with cultural and political meanings. By focusing on signs about masks in the United States, we demonstrate how integrating visual methods of data collection and an intersectional, visual analytical lens can strengthen STS by developing deeper understandings of (a) publics and science in times of uncertainty, (b) public health as a distinct form of scientific expertise, and (c) the role of humor and place-specific messaging in science. We close with analytic priorities for future research on mask use that could advance STS theories of the collective construction of scientific knowledge and productively inform the development of public health interventions.


American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania. 2020. “Timeline of Police Violence in Philadelphia During Black Lives Matter Demonstrations.” Medium, blogpost, December 1, 2020. Accessed December 15, 2022.

Allen, Barbara L. 2003. Uneasy Alchemy: Citizens and Experts in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor Disputes. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Abell, AJ. 2020. “Fifty-Five People Arrested after Peaceful BLM Protest in Nashville on the 4th of July.” WZTV Nashville, July 5, 2020. Accessed December 5, 2022.

Amsterdamska, Olga. 2005. “Demarcating Epidemiology.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 30(1): 17–51.

Balsamo, Anne. 1996. Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Durham, NC and London, England: Duke University Press.

Banks, Marcus. 2001. Visual Methods in Social Research. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Bassett, Mary T., Jarvis T. Chen, and Nancy Krieger. 2020. “Variation in Racial/Ethnic Disparities in COVID-19 Mortality by Age in the United States: A Cross-Sectional Study.” PLoS Medicine 17(10): 1–14.

Bell, Susan E. 2002. “Photo Images: Jo Spence’s Narratives of Living with Illness.” Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine 6(1):5–30.

⸻. 2009. DES Daughters: Embodied Knowledge and the Transformation of Women’s Health Politics in the Late Twentieth Century. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

⸻. 2010. “Visual Methods for Collecting and Analysing Data.” In The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Methods in Health Research, edited by Ivy Bourgeault, Robert Dingwall, and Raymond De Vries. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Bhatia, Rajani. 2018. Gender Before Birth: Sex Selection in a Transnational Context. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Bordo, Susan. 1995. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bowleg, Lisa. 2012. “The Problem With the Phrase Women and Minorities: Intersectionality—an Important Theoretical Framework for Public Health.” American Journal of Public Health 102(7): 1267–1273.

⸻. 2020. “We’re Not All in this Together: On COVID-19, Intersectionality, and Structural Inequality.” American Journal of Public Health 102(7): 1267–1273.

Brown, Phil, and Edwin J. Mikkelsen. 1997. No Safe Place: Toxic Waste, Leukemia, and Community Action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Burri, Regula Valérie, and Joseph Dumit. 2008. “Social Studies of Scientific Imaging and Visualization.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael Lynch, and Judy Wajcman, Third Edition, 297–318. Cambridge, MA and London, England: The MIT Press.

Cao, Xuemei, and Ken Chih-Yan Sun. 2021. “Seeking Transnational Social Protection During a Global Pandemic: The Case of Chinese Immigrants in the United States.” Social Science and Medicine 287: 1–8.

Carbado, Devon W., and Cheryl I. Harris. 2019. “Intersectionality at 30: Mapping the Margins of Anti-Essentialism, Intersectionality, and Dominance Theory.” Harvard Law Review 132(8): 2193-2239.

Censky, Abigail. 2020. “Heavily Armed Protesters Gather Again at Michigan Capitol to Decry Stay-At-Home Order.” National Public Radio May 14, 2020. Accessed December 4, 2022.

Chen, Chuan Hao (Alex). 2021. “Dis/Avowing Masks: Culture, Race, and Public Health between the United States and Taiwan.” Medical Anthropology Theory 8(1): 1–13.

Cho, Sumi. 2002. “Understanding White Women’s Ambivalence towards Affirmative Action: Theorizing Political Accountability in Coalitions.” UMKC Law Review 71(2): 399–418.

Christiani, Leah, Christopher J. Clark, Steven Greene, Marc J. Hetherington, et al. 2021. “Masks and Racial Stereotypes in a Pandemic: The Case for Surgical Masks.” Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics 7(2): 185–202.

Clarke, Adele E. 2005a. Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory after the Postmodern Turn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Clarke, Adele E., Janet K. Shim, Laura Mamo, Jennifer Ruth Fosket, et al. 2003. “Biomedicalization: Technoscientific Transformations of Health, Illness, and US Biomedicine.” American Sociological Review 68(2): 161–194.

Clarke, Lee. 2005b. Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2015. “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas.” Annual Review of Sociology 41: 1–20.

⸻. 2019. Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Collins, Patricia Hill, and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. First Edition. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Cooper, Lisa A., and David R. Williams. 2020. “Excess Deaths from COVID-19, Community Bereavement, and Restorative Justice for Communities of Color.” October 12, 2020. JAMA 324(15): 1491–92.

Cowan, Ruth S. 1985. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technologies from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” The University of Chicago Legal Forum 1: 139–67.

⸻. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6): 1241–1299.

Rangel, J. Cristian, and Barry D. Adam. 2014. “Everyday Moral Reasoning in the Governmentality of HIV Risk.” Sociology of Health and Illness 36(1): 60–74.

DeSalvo, Karen, Bob Hughes, Mary Bassett, Georges Benjamin, et al. 2021. “Public Health COVID-19 Impact Assessment: Lessons Learned and Compelling Needs.” Discussion paper, April 7, 2021. National Academy of Medicine Perspectives 1–29.

Dumit, Joseph. 2004. Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Elder, Alanna. 2020. “Top Stories of 2020: Protests Drive New Conversation about Policing and Racial Justice in Pennsylvania.” WITF Pennsylvania, PBS December 25, 2020. Accessed December 5, 2022.

Epstein, Steven. 1998. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Fishman, Jennifer R., Laura Mamo and Patrick R. Grzanka. 2016. “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Biomedicine.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Ulrike Felt, Rayvon Fouche, Clark Miller and Laurel Smith-Doerr, Fourth Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fortun, Kim. 2009. “Scaling and Visualizing Multi-Sited Ethnography.” In Multi-Sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research, edited by Mark-Anthony Falzon. London: Ashgate.

Galison, Peter. 1997. Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Galison, Peter, and Pamela Hogan. 2000. Ultimate Weapon: The H-Bomb Dilemma. Superbomb Production Company.

Gibson, Sarah. 2021. “‘South Africa Laughs in the Face of Coronavirus’: Presidential Addresses, Face Masks, and Memetic Humour in South Africa.” In Communicating COVID-19: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Monique Lewis, Eliza Govender, and Kate Holland, 277–298. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gieryn, Thomas F. 2000. “A Space for Place in Sociology.” Annual Review of Sociology 26: 463–96.

Gooding, David C. 2010. “Visualizing Scientific Inference.” Topics in Cognitive Science 2(1): 15–35.

Grzanka, Patrick R., Mirella J. Flores, Rachel A. VanDaalen, and Gabriel Velez. 2020. “Intersectionality in Psychology: Translational Science for Social Justice.” Translational Issues in Psychological Science 6(4): 304–313.

Grzanka, Patrick R., and Justin T. Maher. 2012. “Different, Like Everyone Else: Stuff White People Like and the Marketplace of Diversity.” Symbolic Interaction 35(3): 368–393.

Hackett, Edward J. 2008. “Politics and Publics.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael Lynch, and Judy Wajcman, Third Edition, 429–432. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Haraway, Donna J. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575–99.

⸻. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_Oncomouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. New York, NY and London, UK: Routledge.

Harper, Douglas. 2000. “Reimagining Visual Methods: Galileo to Neuromancer.” In The Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Norman K. Denzin, and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Second Edition. London: Sage.

Inglis, David. 2020. “Masking—Corona-Masquerade, or: Unmasking the New Sociology of Masks.” The European Sociologist 45(1).

Inglis, David, and Anna-Mari Almila. 2020. “Un-Masking the Mask: Developing the Sociology of Facial Politics in Pandemic Times and After.” Società Mutamento Politica 11(21): 251–57.

Joyce, Kelly A. 2008. Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Joyce, Kelly A., Jennifer E. James, and Melanie Jeske. 2020. “Regimes of Patienthood: Developing an Intersectional Concept to Theorize Illness Experiences.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 6: 185–92.

Joyce, Kelly, Alexander Peine, Louis Neven, and Florian Kohlbacher. 2016. “Aging: The Socio-Material Construction of Later Life.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Ulrike Felt, Rayvon Fouche, Clark Miller, and Laurel Smith-Doerr, Fourth Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kerr, Anne, Sarah Cunningham-Burley, and Amanda Amos. 1998. “The New Genetics and Health: Mobilizing Lay Expertise.” Public Understanding of Science 7(1): 41–60.

Kimura, Aya H., and Abby Kinchy. 2019. Science by the People: Participation, Power, and the Politics of Environmental Knowledge. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Knowles, Scott Gabriel, Sharrona Pearl, and Rashawn Ray. 2022. “COVID Mask Wearing: Identity and Materiality.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society 16(1): 117–123.

Lee, Ellie. 2007. “Health, Morality, and Infant Feeding: British Mothers’ Experiences of Formula Milk Use in the Early Weeks.” Sociology of Health and Illness 29(7): 1075–90.

Li, Yao, and Harvey L. Nicholson Jr. 2020. “When ‘Model Minorities’ Become ‘Yellow Peril’—Othering and the Racialization of Asian Americans in the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Sociology Compass 15(2): 1–13.

Lupton, Deborah. 1995. The Imperative of Health: Public Health and the Regulated Body. First Edition. Sage Publications Ltd.

Lynch, Michael E., and Steve Woolgar, eds. 1990. Representation in Scientific Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lynteris, Christos. 2017. “Zoonotic Diagrams: Mastering and Unsettling Human-Animal Relations.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23(3): 463–485.

⸻. 2021. “The Social Potential of Continuing to Wear Masks.” Blog Lecture. Somatosphere. July 29, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2022.

Ma, Yingyi, and Ning Zhan. 2020. “To Mask or Not to Mask Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: How Chinese Students in America Experience and Cope with Stigma.” Chinese Sociological Review 54(1): 1–26.

Madhani, Aamer, and Laurie Kellman. 2020. “No More Debate: Americans Need to Wear Masks, Says GOP.” The Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 2020. Accessed May 1, 2022.

Mamo, Laura. 2008. Queering Reproduction: Achieving Pregnancy in the Age of Technoscience. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mamo, Laura, and Jennifer R. Fishman. 2001. “Potency in All the Right Places: Viagra as a Technology of the Gendered Body.” Body & Society 7(4): 13–35.

Mann, Emily S., and Patrick R. Grzanka. 2018. “Agency-without-Choice: The Visual Rhetorics of Long-Acting Reversible Contraception Promotion.” Symbolic Interaction 41(3): 334–356.

Martinelli, Lucia, Vanja Kopilaš, Matjaž Vidman, Ciara Heavin, et al. 2021. “Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Simple Protection Tool with Many Meanings.” Frontiers in Public Health 8: 1–12.

May, Vivian M. 2015. Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries. New York and London: Routledge.

Mitman, Gregg. 2010. “The Color of Money: Campaigning for Health in Black and White America.” In Imagining Illness: Public Health and Visual Culture, edited by David Serlin, 40–61. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Moradi, Bonnie, Mike C. Parent, Alexandra S. Weis, Staci Ouch, et al. 2020. “Mapping the Travels of Intersectionality Scholarship: A Citation Network Analysis.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 44(2): 151–169.

Nash, Jennifer C. 2008. “Re-thinking Intersectionality.” Feminist Review 89(1): 1–15.

Ottinger, Gwen. 2013. Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Oudshoorn, Nelly, and Trevor Pinch, eds. 2003. How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Padilla, Mariel. 2020. “Who’s Wearing a Mask? Women, Democrats, and City Dwellers.” New York Times, June 2, 2020, updated May 19, 2021. Accessed December 19, 2021.

Petersen, Alan, and Deborah Lupton. 1997. The New Public Health: Discourses, Knowledges, Strategies. First Edition. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Radley, Alan, and Susan E. Bell. 2007. “Artworks, Collective Experience and Claims for Social Justice: The Case of Women Living with Breast Cancer.” Sociology of Health and Illness 29(3): 366–390.

Reich, Jennifer A. 2016. Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Ren, Jingqiu, and Joe Feagin. 2021. “Face Mask Symbolism in Anti-Asian Hate Crimes.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 44(5): 746–58.

Rier, David A. 2003. “Gender, Lifecourse and Publication Decisions in Toxic-Exposure Epidemiology: `Now!’ Versus `Wait a Minute!’” Social Studies of Science 33(2): 269–300.

⸻. 2004. “Audience, Consequence, and Journal Selection in Toxic-Exposure Epidemiology.” Social Science and Medicine 59(7): 1541–46.

Rose, Geoffrey. 1994. The Strategy of Preventive Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Saguy, Abigail C., and Kjerstin Gruys. 2010. “Morality and Health: News Media Constructions of Overweight and Eating Disorders.” Social Problems 57(2): 231–50.

Salter, Chris, Regula Valérie Burri, and Joseph Dumit. 2016. “Art, Design, and Performance.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Ulrike Felt, Rayvon Fouché, Clark A. Miller, and Laurel Smith-Doerr, Fourth Edition. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Senier, Laura. 2008. “‘It’s Your Most Precious Thing’: Worst‐Case Thinking, Trust, and Parental Decision Making about Vaccinations.” Sociological Inquiry 78(2): 207–29.

Shim, Janet K. 2014. Heart-Sick: The Politics of Risk, Inequality, and Heart Disease. New York, NY: New York University Press: New York.

Smith, Maxwell J. 2015. “What’s on the Menu for an Equitable Approach to Nutrition Labelling in Restaurants?” Public Health Ethics 8(1): 98–102.

Snorton, C. Riley. 2017. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Somerville, Siobhan B. 2000. Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Stop AAPI Hate. 2022. “National Report (Through December 31, 2021).” Published March 2022. Accessed October 24, 2022.

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. 2001. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Swidler, Ann. 2001. “What Anchors Cultural Practices.” In The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, edited by Karin Knorr-Cetina, Theodore R. Schatzki, and Eike von Savigny, 74–92. New York, NY: Routledge.

Taylor, Derrick Bryson. 2020. “For Black Men, Fear that Masks Will Invite Racial Profiling.” The New York Times, April 14, 2020, updated May 26, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020.

Tengland, Per-Anders. 2012. “Behavior Change or Empowerment: On the Ethics of Health-Promotion Strategies.” Public Health Ethics 5(2): 140–53.

Van den Scott, Lisa-Jo K., Carrie B. Sanders, and Anthony J. Puddenphatt. 2016. “Reconceptualizing Users through Enriching Ethnography.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Ulrike Felt, Rayvon Fouche, Clark Miller and Laurel Smith-Doerr, Fourth Edition. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Trust for America’s Health. 2021. The Impact of Chronic Underfunding on America’s Public Health System: Trends, Risks, and Recommendations. Issue Report. Washington, D.C.

Van Gorp, Baldwin. 2021. “Face Masks as Floating Signifiers during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Belgium.” Visual Studies 36(2): 124–32.

Ward, Myah. 2020. “Michigan Protesters Turn out Against Whitmer’s Strict Stay-at-Home Order.” Politico April 15, 2020. Accessed December 4, 2022.

Williams, Patricia J. 1991. The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wylie, Sara, Nicholas Shapiro, and Max Liboiron. 2017. “Making and Doing Politics Through Grassroots Scientific Research on the Energy and Petrochemical Industries.” Engaging Science, Technology and Society 3: 393–425.

Wynne, Brian. 1992. “Misunderstood Misunderstanding: Social Identities and Public Uptake of Science.” Public Understanding of Science 1(3): 281–304.

⸻. 2001. “Public Understanding of Science.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E. Markle, James C. Peterson, and Trevor Pinch. Revised Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Yanez, N. David, Noel S. Weiss, Jacques-André Romand et al. 2020. “COVID-19 Mortality Risk for Older Men and Women.” BMC Public Health 20: 1–7.

Zhang, Mingyuan. 2021. “Writing against ‘Mask Culture’: Orientalism and COVID-19 Responses in the West.” Anthropologica 63(1): 1–14.

31 Dec 2023
Original Research Articles