Vaccine refusers don't want blue America's respect

Shifting from an individual to a relational perspective helps us understand why people are seeking vaccination in disguise. They want to save face within the very specific set of social ties that sociologists call “reference groups”—the neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, and friendship networks that help people obtain the income, information, companionship, mutual aid, and other resources they need to live. The price of access to those resources is conformity to group norms. That’s why nobody strives for the good opinion of everyone; most people primarily seek the approval of people in their own reference groups.

In Missouri and other red states, vaccine refusal on partisan grounds has become a defining marker of community affiliation. Acceptance within some circles is contingent on refusal to cooperate with the Biden administration’s public-health campaign. Getting vaccinated is a betrayal of that group norm, and those who get the shot can legitimately fear losing their job or incurring the wrath of their families and other reference groups.

Sociology solves mysteries like these by zeroing in on problematic relationships, not the decisions that individuals make in isolation. Many of the people refusing safe, effective vaccination amid a deadly pandemic are enmeshed in a very distinctive type of relationship that sociologists have been studying for more than 70 years: the con job. Con artists gain social or financial advantage by convincing their marks to believe highly dubious claims—and to block out all information to the contrary.