Social Theory, Interrupted by Coronavirus
What happens to our social ties in a time of social isolation?
Posted Mar 25, 2020
Each person's thoughts and feelings about the coronavirus depend on the thoughts and feelings of everyone else. The emotional valence, as well as the factual content, of a person's beliefs have been pulled one way or another by the weight (and increasingly the lightness) of everyday interactions. It's a collective idea we've made together, in conversation and over looks across distances, in group chats and on video-calls.
When Emile Durkheim, an early French sociologist, wrote about times when everyone's attention and energies are drawn towards a single, momentous thing, he wrote that while "under the influence of a great collective shock," people "live differently and more intensely than in normal times." They "seek one another out and come together more." Great events affect us deeply, compel us to talk about them.
Yet, of course, the necessity of curtailing social ties means that many little habits, diversions, and daily rituals will be impossible for the foreseeable future. Not only do these routines help us cope with daily life, they're one of the main ways to relieve stress and anxiety in exceptional times. Indeed, these are the simple and basic actions that sustain communities in the first place.
As daily interactions bring people closer together, physically and socially, they also bring their ideas closer together. There are many reasons—historical, cultural, and religious—why a belief might be common sense among one group of people, but immoral or offensive to another, but each of these influences on common ideas is transmitted and reinforced by other people.
Durkheim's term for the collective activities in which common ideas form, like weekend dinners, religious services, and even sports, was "rites." While these are all canceled, individuals are without the processes through which certain ideas receive a social sanction. As one self-isolating British man in a Guardian story put it: "Not talking to real people can be difficult because you struggle to validate whether your thoughts are valid."
These, then, are the concepts with which I want to think about the consequences of coronavirus on communities. On the one hand, there's an event that galvanizes and energizes everyone, which calls for mutual comfort, conversation, and commiseration. On the other, the nature of the event prohibits the normal avenues in which we'd perform these acts, requiring social isolation.
Given what I've said so far, the online circulation of so many actions that testify to an increase in the strength of people's connections might seem puzzling. Even without their usual ways of keeping up with one another, people are actually doing things they normally wouldn't: asking people if they need shopping done, or talking—singing—across balconies. The sorts of things people are talking about when they say, "It's bringing out the best in us, too."
Newly moral aspects of life are being regulated by rules that are just as new. While each society possesses a unique complex of rules and customs well-suited to normal times, they've all proven to be inadequate in the face of the coronavirus. As such, groups of people are creating and negotiating new standards for what counts as a good reason to go out, what one should offer to do for an elderly neighbor, and ways to greet each other from a distance.
The empty, awkward spaces left by ways of acting that would now seem callous and forms of greeting too tactile are being filled in by fresh conventions that recognize the possible presence of an invisible contagion. A 2015 paper by Véronique Eicher and Adrian Bangerter, about social representations of infectious disease, argues that there are "sense‐making processes by which social groups interpret novel or unexpected events that threaten their worldviews." The authors call it "collective symbolic coping." People reason about and respond to the disease in light of the social understanding of the disease that's prevalent.
These new principles will, undoubtedly, be more useful if they are based on the best available knowledge about slowing the spread of coronavirus.
Drawing on past outbreaks, however, Eicher and Bangerter find that communities often explain the illness through the "immoral or unhygienic actions of out-groups" and the "malevolent actions of powerful groups." The coronavirus has been presented using both of these narrative frameworks: Both President Trump's "Chinese flu" phrasing and mentions of bat soup attribute the virus to out-groups, while conspiracy theorists have traced it back to government labs.
These unfortunately familiar narratives are entering a digital ecosystem that has, in the very recent past, altered both the ways we interact with one another and the ways we collectively understand the world. Never was there a pandemic at this scale when information moves as it does now.
Our phones and computers do provide an immediacy that allows intimacy and distance to coexist to a greater degree than ever before, which will help us retain important ties during this crisis. But the social media channels that carry these remote conversations do not have only positive effects. We've seen the internet be used to spread good and useful information to the same degree it can be used to spread misinformation. A story by Tortoise Media lays out the scale of misinformation: In a less-than-two-month period, "around 275,000 Twitter accounts posted 1.7 million links to unreliable information about the virus."
If our "emergency social practices" are informed by fake news, our behavior will be adapted to a false picture of reality. It's particularly dangerous when one knows that people have a tendency to find false pictures both comforting and appealing.
I can't say I know how digital flows of information will affect people in the absence of real-world spaces to balance them out, nor what the consequences of social isolation will be on communities. The sociological theory I've used in this essay is excellent for gaining a perspective rooted in how communities usually function, but can't be stretched to make definite predictions in radically new conditions.
One thing that's true is that our collective beliefs and practices surrounding the coronavirus will be profoundly influenced by both a lack of everyday social contact and the online mediums of communication and information-gathering. It remains to be seen whether these new, hopefully more prosocial, values can motivate changes to our lives that will save many of them.