The Age of Biological or Social Contamination?

For nearly three years, most of the world has been experiencing the ebb and flow of a pandemic. I’ve written previously about sociology and disease, the panic and grief social distancing caused, and, more recently, the reasons for the US’s acute and (relatively) peculiar response to COVID-19. In that last piece, a topic that has become increasingly important to me took root: social contamination. I have been thinking a lot about this idea, as the notion of pollution and purification has been something of a theme in my thoughts on religious evolution. But, the implications for a microsociology of contamination, pollution, and, perhaps cleansing, have become urgent in my own sociological understanding of how we act, think, and feel. Before digging deep into this idea, a short but I think interesting diversion into the self is warranted.

A Moral Self

Sociology has long rejected the idea of a purely, utilitarian actor whose driven primarily by maximizing their pleasure and minimizing their pain. At the very least, rational action is severely constrained by biotic/ecological factors, broader social structural features like inequality, cultural beliefs, and the idiosyncracies of personality developed within these different contextual layers. But, sociology tends to have two ways of handling the “problem” of a social self. First, the symbolic interactions (SI) perspective (Mead 1934; Blumer 1962) imagines the self as fully developed when it can (1) imagine what another person would do if confronted by the same situational cues and (2) have an internal conversation with themselves, a real/imagined other, or a generalized community. That means that one’s self is built from the acquisition of language and other expressive idioms that allow them to understand what others will think and feel about them, to anticipate future behavior, and to be able to talk to themselves in the shower or their car without opening their mouth. To escape the critique of oversocialization (Wrong 1962), SI argues we are all fully capable of creative action, but with one condition: the pragmatic nature of SI means that we are habitual creatures until faced with a problem or obstacle, and then we become conscious, deliberate actors (Gross 2009). The result, in many cases, is a desireless person that does not seem to have wishes, wants, or likes; and which runs afoul of the basic science behind motivation (Kringelbach and Berridge 2017).

The alternative to this comes, partly, from Bourdieu’s (1977) theory of practice. The self is structured within a field that socializes or cultivates a set of dispositions reflective of classes of people who share a similar field position (and, consequently, similar economic and cultural “capital”). Like muscle memory, this enculturated self acts habitually (this constellation of dispositions was called a habitus by Bourdieu), but these habits reflect internalized class-based strategies (unevenly distributed and acquired) and thus the problem of rational choice is avoided by making people unaware of their habitual reproduction of social structure. We are still self-interested, within reason, and we are still strategic (though limited by the type and number of strategies our structural position offers), but instead of calculating, we are often just an oversocialized humna. Cultural sociologists have tried to resolve the problem of creativity by either adopting a cognitive dual processing model that recognizes, like SI, deliberate action happens, though probably for similar reasons (Vaisey 2009) or because “unsettled times” provide the sort of structural and cultural autonomy necessary for innovation (Swidler 1986).

Again, desire seems to be sidelined – though, our strategic dispositions allow for the pursuit of preferences or tastes that our habitus provides us. And, yet, I cannot help but ask if sociologists themselvess are joyless, desireless? Or do we just think we are so controlled by neo-liberal forces that desire is disingenuous or reflects the capitalist superstructure’s imposition of false consciousness? Or maybe we just think this is the domain of psychological shyster-ism and the self-help industrial complex? In any case, it does not actually square with empirical reality and builds a significant chasm between what most people do all day long and what we say they do all day long. (But, this digression is best left for a long essay on another day).

A Morally, Affectually Grounded Homo Sapien

Once more, I beg the reader’s patience as I need a second diversion before reaching our destination on contamination. The brain clearly evolved in the context of intense selection pressures for cooperation in big game hunting that required bands of humans to tolerate each other (Bowles and Gintis 2011). Some key characteristics of this evolved brain are: the ability to discern at an early age pro-social vs. anti-social adults (Decety and Howard 2011); the ability to calculate fairness in exchanges that encouraged food sharing, reciprocity, delayed gift exchange, and so forth (Tomasello and Vaish 2013); the ability to take the role of others to ascertain motive and intention, keep score of who helps most, and who we owe and are owed something (Tomasello 2020); and, finally, to keep track of our and other’s reputation (Boehm 2012). Humans bucked the dominance hierarchies of their closest ape cousins because of these capacities (Boehm 1999), favoring more level social organization that fit better with a model of shared hunting and the institutionalization of enduring cultural and structural institutions like kinship (Abrutyn and Turner 2022). These innovations did not remove the animal from our human nature but expanded the palette of objects to which we could affectually attach ourselves and, therefore, experience acute pain when we imagined losing them (Panksepp 1998), felt rejected or alienated from them (Abrutyn 2023), or, felt them threatened. This evolutionary perspective seems humans as desirous creatures, craving objects that we develop affectual attachments with. Some are innate, like caregivers, potential sexual mates, foods we prefer; others are built up from repeated exposure and cultural or structural patterns. But, we have things we want and like and we pursue them, even if some are collectively-desired (e.g., meat from the big game hunt was obviously something individual desire aligned closely with collective desire). But, these bigger points are best left for another essay, because the takeaway is one that sociologists sort of assume, but which is empirically grounded: One of these objects we grew attached to were the rules of the group; an evolved capacity that compliments the aforementioned list of evolved neural capacities.

The consequence was an ape with “well-internalized moral values and rules [that] slow us down sufficiently that we are able, to a considerable extent, to pick and choose which behaviors we care to exhibit before our peers” (Boehm 2012:30). That is, while SI and practice theory are busy thinking about habitual action, humans evolved to manage their impressions because the first impression is often the last impression. Thus, life is mostly filled with moral moments even if sociologists are wont to reduce the stakes of a given encounter because nothing serious appears to happen. Yet, in reflecting on the mundane commitment most people show to waiting in line at a store or deli, Rawls (1987) argues that this behavior is one of the most moral things people can do! Goffman, too, argued that transgressing minor, seemingly inconsequential rules signaled one is ‘that type of person’ and could call into question their entire reputation. Simply put reputation and its various related elements like (self)-respect, esteem, honor, status, and so forth rest at the core of an alternative view of self. Is it a moral self? Absolutely. Weber purposively constructed the idea of status and status groups as the converse of Marx’s notion of class. The former was his non-economic, morally-tinged form of social organization and action while the latter remained embedded in economic categories of organization and action. While Bourdieu tried to marry the two, one cannot help but get the feeling that wealth and material power lie at the heart of his model of habitus and field, whereas Weber’s model was better emulated by theorists like Veblen or Simmel.

If reputation-making and reputation-taking are central to a different version of self, and that version is moral, then it comes as no surprise that reputation is inextricably tied to moral emotions like pride, shame, and so forth. When we make claims about the respect we are owed or show the proper deference to others, certain emotions signal we are taking reputation correctly (Kemper 2006). When we try to enhance our reputation – or make reputation – through various strategies that have their own risks, we also experience these emotions as well as weaponize them in some cases (Clark 1990). When we are degraded, through public ritual (Garfinkel 1956) or in private face-to-face encounters (Goffman 1967), we experience the loss of reputation through these emotions. These emotions, thus, are signals of our reputational value, but they are also motivating forces to do the work necessary to create, sustain, enhance, and protect reputation. Pride, for instance, is universal to humans and is a unique, preconscious affectual force driving us to care what others think and to strive to do our best (Tracy 2016). Shame, likewise, is an evolved universal human response to the severe judgment of others (Boehm 2012) and the universal feeling of being small, wanting to hide, feeling mortified, and so on (Scheff 1988). Moral emotions, it seems, undergird our desires as much as more basic emotions like anger or fear. And, these moral emotions are eminently wrapped up in our biological capacities to become affectually attached to various types of objects.

This version of self is desirous. It need not be cognitively deliberate, which means it does not necessarily violate the convenitonal sociological wisdom that much of what we do is unconscious or more automatic. But, where those theories of self fall short is in their neglect of affect. Affect is often preconscious, and central to all of the ingredients of cognition like memory, comparison, self, and so forth (Frijda 2017). It coordinates (Damasio 1996), and often controls and commands learning, behavioral response, perception, and personality (Davis and Montag 2019). And yet, people feel affect; it is embodied; and, thus, the idea of an unconscious, unaware creature just doing routines or one that is simply pursuing the interests pre-programmed, falls flat. Meanwhile, this more Durkheimian/Goffmanian vision of self fits into the current affective and cognitive neuroscience that rejects the notion of habit because most action is motivated action even when it is not conscious, because all action requires intention, guidance, and control (Miller Tate 2019); and we can sense or feel the “right” behavior. Additionally, the internalized programs themselves makea us feel like what we expect to happen is happening, allows us to adopt increasingly flexible yet repeatable lines of action, and are built up from affect like shame or pride tagging past events, experiences, people, objects, and the like as supremely relevant, rewarding, salient, valued, and so on.

Ok, now we can move back to the theme of this essay: contamination. Clearly, we desire being seen as “that type of person” as we experience a lot of positive or negative embodied affect in everyday encounters. What is “a” or “the” fundamental things we must do to protect our reputation? What happens when one violates the ceremonial rules and casts their own credibility, other’s credibility, or the situation’s credibility into doubt? What happens when a person repeatedly violates these rules? What happens when one’s violations are so egregious (relative to the usual violations) that they escape conventional categorization and, thereby, existing mechanisms of social control and sanction? These questions, and others like them, guide the remainder of my thoughts in hopes of establishing a beachhead for a sociology of contamination.


In the aforementioned paper on the pandemic (linked above), it had become obvious to me that the pandemic was interesting for two reasons. First, there is the element of biological contamination. Remember when we were all quarantined in those early days and, if we were allowed to go out and walk, we would avoid being near people (at all costs)? The anxiety of catching COVID-19, even after we learned how it was transmitted, was enough to make people sanitize their outside grocery bags, carry anti-bacterial gel, and contemplate a life of perpetual mask-wearing and 6ft. social distancing. But, over time there was also an intense fear of social contamination that had less to do with the “catching” the virus.

For progressive-minded people, there were two ways contamination lurked in the background. First, those who wantonly disobeyed public health recommendations signaled not merely outsider status, but also heightened risk and danger. They were potentially exposing people, needlessly, to biological exposure, raised questions about the shared grounds of reality that so many people take for granted in non-crisis times, and challenged the constitutive nature of ceremonial rules. Second, this was nowhere more apparent than the sudden rise in public danger: as unreasonable and subjective as it was, the threat of anti-masking, anti-vaxxing public outbursts became a source of social contamination.

For the political right, the imposition of government-mandated rules and the further erosion of imagined or longed-after local political, economic, and cultural autonomy represented a different, yet no less social form of contamination. For everybody, I think, the loss in the U.S. was the imaginary veil we had built up in public places or workspaces that allowed us to ignore the signs that people we knew well were ‘that type of person’. It smoothed everyday interactions, which was nice and also productive for workplace goals. But, it was a thin veneer that was suddenly broken by the seemingly ever-present threat of social contamination. Who did we think we knew that it turned out we didn’t actually know?

Contamination means exposure and, especially, contact with dirty, polluting things (Douglas 1966). As I write “imagine reaching into the toilet and squeezing your feces,” it elicits an automatic affectual response, which we would label disgust. Though this is biological in nature, contamination extends to the social as well. Weber (1978:305ff.) was fascinated with status group closure, arguing that all closure implies some degree control over interpersonal relationships, exchanges, and so forth. At the extreme end are caste or caste-like systems, where physical contact with some negatively privileged groups elicits a similar automatic response as being forced to lick a dirty toilet bowl. Just as charisma could spread from those possessing it to those who get close to the charismatic possessor, the contaminative elements of those who are defiled, discredited, polluting can spread to us. Indeed, Goffman argued “that individuals can be relied upon to keep away from situations in which they might be contaminated by another or contaminate [them]” (1971:30). In the extreme, this idea meant some classes of people (those with certain stigma markers or those who are institutionalized) presented dangers to the rest of us. Not just run-of-the-mill danger, but the type of danger that would destroy or mortify our own reputation and, therefore, the sanctity of the moral, affectual self.

However, we need not rely on extreme cases to illustrate how powerful contamination is for shaping behavior. At the crux of the issue is our reputation – and questions like whose opinion matters to us, what consequences a sullied or questionable reputation has, and what rules might transform us from ‘this type of person’ to ‘that type of person.’ At a party, do you go through the host’s bedroom closet, touching personal, private objects? How would you feel if you left said party, and remembered you forgot your phone on the couch. Upon returning, you walk in on the host and her best friend impugning the integrity of other departed guests? If you got caught in the first act or caught someone in the second act, would the term “mortified” suffice? Admittedly, many of the most stringent rules of etiquette designed to elicit self-shaming and self-regulation have weakened in societies rife with the sort of division that leads to different forms of social contamination, as outlined above. Admittedly, what was once “ought to” rules are now mostly “shoulds” (Abrutyn and Carter 2015), and thus some aspects of contamination vary heavily in time and space. Hence, you shouldn’t go through a medicine cabinet in a host’s house, but with social media, you can deflect some of that shame into a sort of voyeuristic virtual space that escapes some of the punishment that would have happened in the not-too-distant past.

And yet, contamination is real. Many people still avoid homeless people’s encampments, move to the other side of the road when approached, and lock their doors when stopped at a red light near a panhandler in the median. Visibly disabled people still elicit a cocktail of difficult emotions for many people. While de-stigmatizing mental illness has become a noble cause for many, coming face-to-face with folks who violate the most taken-for-granted conventions remains scary. These, of course, are extreme examples. But, for many conservative Americans, having a son or daughter that identifies with one or more categoric distinctions reviled by the modern Republican political movement – think, “liberal,” gay, trans, non-binary, or whatever – can be contaminative at Thanksgiving dinner. And, worse, a source of severe shame and disgust in their circle of friends where they hide this discrediting source of pollution. The left is not any better: I imagine many readers who have children would be mortified if their child brought home a caricature of the things they consider to be beyond the bounds of the moral order.

In the end, the idea of contamination is a powerful one, because it implies a preconscious disgust response to noxious stimuli and intense prohibitions regarding contact. The proscriptions surrounding exogamy often, though not always, rest on stigma theories about the risk, danger, and defilement of marrying out of your group. The deeply held beliefs about white people marrying black people (still held by, unfortunately, many today) or Christians marrying Jews (also, sadly held by many today) are not new, but more diffuse because of the size, scale, and complexity of modernity.

The Punch Line

The fear of contamination and the ensuing feeling of shame, stigmatization, humiliation, and mortification when one becomes the threat they fear others pose is likely biological. What makes us contaminated may vary in time and space, but the response surely does not. And thus, humans are not likely to be overcoming this anytime soon.

The downsides are clear. Some behaviors will always be considered far out-of-bounds and the transgressors of great danger. The extremes, of course, are obvious, but so too are things like muttering to oneself in public, smelling of bodily fluids, and so forth. We may call the homeless new terms (‘the unhoused”) but likely this makes our conscience feel better with likely little palpable real world change. People will always be opposed to things they deem unhygenic, even if what that means in practice varies in time and space. From a socially constructed point of view, there are always “backstages” and, thus, in addition to the sorts of bio-social contaminants some people appear as there are deeply conventional forms. Bedrooms and certain bathrooms in houses are always “preserves” of self. Who enters and what they are entitled to do is always restricted. But, the term “purity test” that has become commonplace for referring to the sorts of hurdles centrists face in political parties today reminds us that almost anything can become a line in the sand. Does it reach the level of disgust? Is the person a pollutant in the same sense as many of the examples provided above? Would be interesting to try and measure this, but the level of anger and fear displayed by many folks who consume Fox News, and have for some time (Rotolo 2022), indicates that people who do not display all the proper signage of membership may be viewed as disgusting, dangerous risks to the moral order.

The silver lining in all of this is that humans come off as moral, emotionally-charged creatures. Like our ape cousins, we are rational in so far as we are goal-oriented and planners, but these goals and plans are only as good as the ability to coordinate our affectual responses and cognitive interpretation of the situation. When objects are so taboo that they elicit disgust and the belief that touching them will make one as disgusting as the contaminating object, then the possibilities for strong in-/out-group rules can form. But, it also suggests that humans are compelled to design the types of rules that become essential to their own conception of self and desire to not be a polluted person. Figuring out how to expand the scope of these rules to cover all, or maybe most, people in a community, instead of place some in categories of good, honorable, clean and others in bad, stigmatized, and dirty is the trick. But, the capacity to do so is already there.

About Seth Abrutyn

Theorist. Institutional evolutionary teleological existentialist. Interested in emotions, social psychology, macro-historical social change, suicide, and why/how patterned thinking, feeling, and doing clusters in some collectives and not others.
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