COVID-19 and the Grey Zone of Rule-Following
The paper deals with the phenomenon of the grey zone of rule-following — actions that may be perceived as both corresponding to some rule and as breaking this rule. The pandemic of COVID-19 brought the grey zone into relief because a significant part of the responses to imposed anti-COVID measures consists in following new rules less than completely, with the typical example being a lowered mask that covers only the mouth and not the nose. It is argued here that grey-zone actions, if viewed as public activities, have specific spatial and temporal social organization: they are designed to be flexible and oriented toward the possibility of completing them if necessary. At the same time, they are produced to be observably accountable as actions-according-to-the-rule, to prevent an attribution to the actor rule-breaking. The paper also describes some properties of situations where grey-zone actions produce tension, forcing the actor and other participants to initiate an argument or a conflict. The main point of the paper is that performing actions belonging to the grey zone of rule-following does not testify to the actor’s non-observance of the rule. It is better to describe grey-zone actions as rule-oriented and not rule-following or not-following. This suggests that social scientists should abandon dichotomic approach when analyzing rule-following activities, and pay more attention to the participants’ own practices of making sense and order of rules.