Before the university switched to remote learning in March 2020, Ashley Reichelmann, an assistant professor in sociology, and Whitney Hayes, a graduate student, had one last coffee break together. As they sat across the table from one another, holding their steaming mugs, they began musing about what the Virginia Tech community would be like after COVID-19.

Hayes, a doctoral student in sociology at Virginia Tech who received her master’s degree in the spring of 2020, remembered her undergraduate years. A 2007 graduate in sociology from Virginia Tech, she reminisced about the feeling of community solidarity that occurred after the April 16, 2007, tragedy on campus.

At that time, James Hawdon, a sociology professor who now directs the Virginia Tech Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, and John Ryan, a fellow sociology professor, researched the university’s solidarity. Hawdon said that while mass tragedies create a heightened sense of community unity, it is the smaller, close-knit community gatherings, such as candlelight vigils, that help sustain a sense of community for longer periods.

“If you think about what generates solidarity,” he said, “it is ritualistic behaviors focused on some symbol of the group. Colleges are perfect for this, with their sporting events and chants. Schools with intense sporting cultures routinely exercise their collective identity. At every game, they are proclaiming themselves to be members of this group. If you’re at a commuter school, though, or one without such strong traditions, you don’t get that solidarity.”

Reichelmann and Hayes suspected that 2020 would change all this.

“We were musing about how different it would look this time around, with people isolating, distancing, and shutting down,” Hayes said. “And we were curious about whether Virginia Tech could still cultivate this feeling of community and Hokie spirit when we couldn’t be together.”

They took the conversation to Hawdon, and suddenly they had a project. Hawdon and Reichelmann applied for the National Science Foundation grant, received it, and started their research.

“As social scientists, we may not be able to stop the spread of this virus,” Reichelmann said, “but we can help understand the pandemic’s social and emotional effects on local populations and its community consequences, and that’s where this research becomes valuable.”

The team, which includes Hayes, who is supporting the research as a graduate assistant, is collecting data in real time to get an accurate picture of what is occurring.

“Without the support of the grant, we would have to guess what would happen next,” Reichelmann said. “We wouldn’t have any true data-driven assessments about what the best ways are to protect our community and help the university prepare for a time when something like this happens again. It’s kind of like being able to build a blueprint for preparing for the next disaster.”

In addition, the grant will help the team understand Virginia Tech community solidarity over a larger time span. The researchers will compare the data from Hawdon and Ryan’s previous research to the new data to see whether the unity diminished over the 13 years between the two studies.

The study focuses on people between the ages of 18 and 24. The team will track three distinct groups for a year: Virginia Tech students, a national sample of college students in the United States, and people within the same age group who do not attend college, but have jobs or are in transition between high school and the work world. Reichelmann said they will do the study in four waves of surveys per group. The first wave began in May 2020 and the fourth will end in May 2021.

One hope, Hawdon said, is that the study may reveal whether culture-building institutions have different effects than other types of institutions that people interact with in society.

Hawdon’s past research would suggest that the evolving situation of COVID-19 has created an environment ripe for solidarity. Yet, as he pointed out, previous methods involving gatherings and physical contact are not as possible. Is solidarity generated without physicality or a collective attention to one defining event? Are virtual exchanges just as effective as those in person? Is there a possible substitute for other types of relationships that could create a collective bond?

The study also seeks to assess how identity, social status, and inequality affect and mediate the levels of social solidarity over time and to determine whether these patterns mirror other forms of inequality among marginalized groups in society.

“And we have one final question,” Hawdon said. “Does the intense culture of Virginia Tech — and perhaps many other universities around the United States — help to build a buffer effect to help people maintain solidarity in such a difficult time as present?”

– Leslie King