The Meanings of Masks

As The Washington Post has reported, "at the heart of the US coronavirus response" is a "fraught relationship with masks." In these short commentaries, MIT faculty delve into the historic and cultural meanings of masks, offering fresh ways to think about and practice protective masking—to stay safe, protect others, and help contain the pandemic.

See the current advice from MIT Medical on staying safe and protecting others now that the more contagious Delta variant has emerged.


Eric Klopfer
Head, Comparative Media Studies/Writing; Director, MIT Education Arcade

The Mask is a Badge of Honor

“In this pandemic era, what a mask really says is, ‘I care about YOU.’ That is an important and powerful message that we should champion and commend. We can also have fun with masks, but the key is the understanding that, during a pandemic, the mask is a badge of honor, indicating that you are protecting the health of others during a crisis." 
Full commentary


Graham Jones

Associate Professor of Anthropology; MacVicar Faculty Fellow

A Collective Cry for Justice


"For me the iconic image of our times is of Black Lives Matter protestors of every race wearing masks emblazoned with the dying words of George Floyd: 'I can’t breathe.' The use of the cloth mask as a substrate for a citational text situates the individual wearer as an actor in a broader social drama. Such protest masks are a creative, expressive way of subsuming one’s identity within a social movement — and one’s voice within a collective cry for justice." 
Full commentary


Emma Teng
T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations; and director of MIT Global Languages


The Mask as 公德心 (Public Spiritedness)

gongdexin (in Mandarin); kootokushin (in Japanese); kongdokshim (in Korean), and public spiritedness (in English)

"Norms in East Asian countries support the ethos that 'doing something for the community good is good for me also.' It would be unthinkable to discuss sacrificing older people to the pandemic using a cost-benefit analysis. It is also considered a social responsibility to do one’s part in controlling the pandemic to ensure that schools remain open for the younger generation."
Full commentary

Manduhai Buyandelger
Associate Professor of Anthropology


Masks Can Reveal New Possibilities


"In shamanic rituals and in computer-mediated virtual reality, a mask conceals one identity to reveal new possibilities. Seen in this light, virus protection masks offer an opportunity to replace a visage of fear with a public expression of strength as a community."
Full commentary


Sara Brown
Assistant Professor, Director of Design, MIT Theater

The Expressive Power of Masks


“I’m interested in hearing from MIT students as to what affiliations or meanings they would want their masks to communicate. No matter what form it takes, wearing a mask during the pandemic shows that you care about protecting others.”

Full Commentary


Catherine Clark
Associate Professor of Cultural History

The Masks of Empire, Art, and War

"Ultimately, history reminds us that masks can protect and harm and produce meaning whether they sit on our faces or our kitchen tables."
Full Commentary

Stephanie Ann Frampton
Associate Professor of Classical Literature

Persona: Masks in the Graeco-Roman World


"In Latin, one of the words for mask is persona, thought to have meant 'something through which sound passes' (per- 'through,” sono “to make a sound')... Even in the time of Cicero, persona was already being used to describe the 'part' or 'character that one sustains in the world' — in other words, the role or roles we play in society."

Full Commentary

Jeffrey Ravel
Professor of History

Masks to Finesse an Archaic Political Order

"By the eighteenth-century in Venice, people had grown accustomed to wearing masks in public perpetually, not for health reasons but for social and cultural ones. Furthermore, the Venetian state actually required its citizens and visitors to the Republic to don masks in many public spaces."

Full Commentary





Related Articles and Resources

MIT's Covid Information Center
As the entire MIT community adjusts to the reality of Covid-19, this website offers the latest updates, guidance, and resources to help support you during this challenging time. Check back often for new information as we navigate this transition together.


MIT Medical Covid-19 Updates
Up-to-date information for the MIT community about Covid-19


Research + Perspectives for the Pandemic
from the MIT Humanities, Arts, and Social Science fields


MIT Study: Masks mandates have major impact

Analysis by MIT Economist Victor Chernozhuko and colleagues shows that requiring masks for public-facing US business employees on April 1 would have saved tens of thousands of lives.

MIT News, 4 August 2020

Opinion: Who are the maskless people?

In the absence of clear, uniform guidelines, many people are making it up as they go.
The Boston Globe, 3 August 2020




Series prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Office of the Dean
MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Series Editor/Designer: Emily Hiestand
Consulting Editor: Kathryn O'Neill
Commentary Publications July — October 2020