March 23, 2020

Together, Alone in the COVID-19 Pandemic

author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

Yesterday I sat on my porch with my family, listening to the across-the-street neighbors sing Yiddish folk songs on their porch. With an accordion and fiddle, they nodded and smiled to people passing by, but no one stopped. We exchanged some waves and the kids yelled out occasionally. We were together in the moment, but also on our own, alone. It’s been a strange few weeks.

While our Everyday Sociology Blog comrades have all been tapping away at different aspects of how the COVID-19 has shaken the structure of our society, I would like to spend a little time on the facet of distancing in this moment.

Social distance is at the heart of the sociological project, when you think of it. Western sociology as a science emerged from the questions posed by European urbanization and industrialization. In Durkheimian terms: how the heck are we all going to get along now that we have to interact with so many people we do not know?

I can’t think of anything that has happened,--except perhaps the slow development of urbanization-- that has pressed the idea of social contact (and the social contract) with others to the forefront of our minds in the way that the COVID-19 has. Sure, there are some who feel that there is no big deal—and seek to go about their Florida spring break agenda as planned. But for the most part, we have all had to think about other people in a way that we have never before. (I’ll guess that rapid climate change will do the same to get us to think globally, and collectively, in new ways as well.)

When thinking about how we get along I often recall Sigmund Freud’s fascination with porcupines. Odd, I know. But from a lesson from philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Freud gained insight about human life when learning about how porcupines huddle together for warmth. Porcupines have needles instead of fur, and so they need each other to stay warm—they get together, and find the minimum proximity to be near each other, but without poking each other. Schopenhauer saw human society similarly:

In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked.

(More on this, including learning about how “to find one’s porcupine, read here.) 

In times of crisis, it is easy to be prickly, and to shirk interaction. But the conversation is now switching, I think, from social isolation to physical isolation. We need to be very socially connected right now, just not physically proximate!

Although he would probably prefer not to be, in a way, New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg is the sociologist for this particular moment. He has been writing about death and social isolation for his entire career. He studied how isolation led to deaths during the 1995 Chicago heat wave. He’s also studied how “going solo” has some surprising costs (particularly in regards to health) and benefits. In a well-timed article entitled “We Need Social Solidarity, Not Social Isolation,” Klinenberg writes that we are a particularly fragmented as a society, but that we could start now. He writes:

There’s a lot we can do to build social solidarity. Develop lists of local volunteers who can contact vulnerable neighbors. Provide them companionship. Help them order food and medications. Recruit teenagers and college students to teach digital communications skills to older people with distant relatives and to deliver groceries to those too weak or anxious to shop. Call the nearest homeless shelter or food pantry and ask if it needs anything.

Why not begin right now?

Well, there are a lot of things that conspire against us. Post-war America engineered a lot of distancing. The 1950s sociology book The Lonely Crowd differentiates between inner-directed, other-directed, and tradition-directed people. Authors Riesman, Glazer and Denney note that Americans became increasingly other-directed—time, consumption, and self-worth were all oriented toward other people, and not toward the self. This makes for a cohesive society, but at the loss of an awareness of the self. (This seems somewhat paradoxical, if we also understand Americans as being narcissistic—although some research indicates that we are not particularly or uniquely so.)

One of the things that many may have realized is that some lives are structured around individual action and others are more collective or “other-directed.” Cities are densely packed with well-developed public transportation systems, and suburbs and rural areas are sparse and car-dependent.

In my own research on tourism and music, I’ve always sought out communal gatherings as a key facet to social, and maybe urban life.

The density of urban life can certainly seem like a weakness in the moment of an infectious global pandemic. However, it is also a place of connection and solidarity as well. In Jerusalem, a singer-songwriter performed a singalong with his neighbors to pass the time. In Paris, people congregate on their balconies to cheer their support for healthcare workers. Hard struck by COVID-19, Italians are taking to their balconies to sing their national anthem. In Copenhagen some apartment dwellers projected a movie on a wall to watch together in their own apartments. The LA Times is reporting that drive-in movie theaters are suddenly back in fashion.

The effects of social media certainly might play a role in ameliorating the social isolation of this moment—although others might ask: Are we connected, but alone? In these next few weeks, I suppose we will have to ponder these questions as well.

Comments

That's an interesting way to look at it. Everyone who lives in populated cities like myself are not used to social isolation, but think of all the people who don't live in densely populated areas.

I think we have gotten so accustomed to the "good life", that when a major event such as this happens, a lot of us are stunned.

But think back to all the major things previous generations had to face like a world war.

Over the last few weeks and days, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically reshaped many of our lives.

In the meantime, the COVID-19 emergency response is in full swing around ... and the creation of 28,000 direct and indirect jobs in 2010 alone.

Advice to deal with COVID-19 is now to practice social distancing where possible.

The last paragraph of this scintillating piece poses the only platform that the human society can feel the warmth and cohesiveness of their fellow human in these hard times. You have briefly expatiated how true we might be collectively living in a time like this and how it is fast aggravating into a deficiency to the human world.

I must say, in clear terms, that even after the passage of this phase, if at all it does not wash off the surface of the earth before a vaccine is discovered, there will a great change in the every day lives of individuals of the society. The taken-for-grantedness will appear glaring to human and an incredible modification will suffice - in human interaction, business style, economic indices, itinerary of human and many others.

Thanks for the piece. It is very enlightening.

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