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Normative positions towards COVID-19 contact-tracing apps: findings from a large-scale qualitative study in nine European countries

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Federica Lucivero, Luca Marelli, Nora Hangel, Zimmermann, Barbara Prainsack, Galasso, Horn, Kieslich, Lanzing, Lievevrouw, Ongolly, Gabrielle Samuel, Sharon, Siffels, Stendahl, van Hoyweghen

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-18
Number of pages14
JournalCritical Public Health
Issue number1
Accepted/In press21 Mar 2021
Published1 Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: This work was supported by the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung [01Kl20510]; H2020 European Research Council [771217, 804985]; COVID-19 Research Response Fund University of Oxford [0009534]; KU Leuven BOF SolPan; and Wellcome Trust [203132/Z/16/Z]. This paper draws upon data collected in the context of the multinational study Solidarity in times of a pandemic: What do people do, and why?, coordinated by the Center for the Study of Contemporary Solidarity (CeSCoS) at the University of Vienna, Austria. For a list of country leads and partners, see: Many people have contributed to the success of the consortium, we would like to thank in particular Gertrude Saxinger for the care she put in setting up the organisational infrastructure and managing the consortium and the student assistants of several country teams for coding, with special thanks to Franziska Schönweitz (member of the German team). Finally we would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the journal’s Editor for their helpful suggestions and recommendations. Publisher Copyright: © 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.

King's Authors


Mobile applications for digital contact tracing have been developed and introduced around the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Proposed as a tool to support ‘traditional’ forms of contact-tracing carried out to monitor contagion, these apps have triggered an intense debate with respect to their legal and ethical permissibility, social desirability and general feasibility. Based on a large-scale study including qualitative data from 349 interviews conducted in nine European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, German-speaking Switzerland, the United Kingdom), this paper shows that the binary framing often found in surveys and polls, which contrasts privacy concerns with the usefulness of these interventions for public health, does not capture the depth, breadth, and nuances of people’s positions towards COVID-19 contact-tracing apps. The paper provides a detailed account of how people arrive at certain normative positions by analysing the argumentative patterns, tropes and (moral) repertoires underpinning people’s perspectives on digital contact-tracing. Specifically, we identified a spectrum comprising five normative positions towards the use of COVID-19 contact-tracing apps: opposition, scepticism of feasibility, pondered deliberation, resignation, and support. We describe these stances and analyse the diversity of assumptions and values that underlie the normative orientations of our interviewees. We conclude by arguing that policy attempts to develop and implement these and other digital responses to the pandemic should move beyond the reiteration of binary framings, and instead cater to the variety of values, concerns and expectations that citizens voice in discussions about these types of public health interventions.

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