May 13, 2020

Are Social Bubbles a New Form of Segregation?

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

Are we moving from "social distancing" to "social bubbles?" What are the factors and consequences involved in such a move?

Based on the TV show Lost, I used to ask my Introduction to Sociology students (back in the before times) what characteristics they would want their fellow castaways to behold. What kinds of skills would you hope people in your group would have on your beautiful-yet-isolated island?

I ask everyone to raise their hand. Then I tell them to drop their hand if they’ve never started a fire without matches or a lighter. Then I tell them to drop their hand if they’ve never grown their own food. I ask about making bread, or killing an animal for food. Few hands are raised by the end of the exercise.

This might be more than a thought experiment soon enough. A CNN article raises the idea of loosening our current social restrictions to develop “social bubbles”—groups of ten who commit to sharing resources and space together. (Oddly enough, I found an article about this on Martha Stewart’s website.) They are already trying it in New Zealand.

Specifically, the authors suggest three strategies to combat the pandemic. First, to interrupt “geographically and socio-demographically distant contacts.” Second, to decrease “ties that bridge social clusters.” And third, to create “‘micro-communities’ by repeatedly interacting with the same partners.”

So, how would you determine who is in your micro-community? Yes, our stovetops, our refrigerators, and grocery stores will hopefully still meet our basic needs. But what would you look for in your bubble? What factors would you consider being most important? Proximity (i.e., how close they live)? Familial ties (i.e., genetically similarity)? Utility (i.e., they have a car and you do not)? Values (i.e., religious and cultural beliefs)?

Within the CNN piece, there is a link to an article by a team of sociologists who discuss what life might be like in a post-lockdown world. They propose that social bubbles would be one way to reduce social contact. Sociologist William Sumner, when popularizing the concept of ethnocentrism, developed the concepts of in-groups and out-groups over a century ago, but I’m not sure that he had this in mind!

Charles Horton Cooley (of “the looking glass self” fame, and yes, I love using his middle name) was very much interested in the development of small social groups. He wrote:

. . . . Since differences of tastes, manners, creeds, languages, and innumerable other variations prevent everybody from liking everybody else, pleasurable fellowship can only take place on the basis of groups in which there is some sort of community of feeling.

For Cooley, there are primary groups, which tend to share things like love, resources, and support. The family is an example of a primary group. And then there are secondary groups based around interests and identity, which develop later in life. Work colleagues or classmates might be an example of a secondary group.

The institutionalization of social bubbles could be a mixture of the two. 1.5 groups, perhaps?

The study recommends a “birds of a feather” strategy: connecting with people live in the same area, work in the same place, and are of similar age. These geographical, organizational, and demographic factors might, however lead to some uncomfortable reproductions of inequality. This is primarily because they would keep social and economic capital to a limited group of people, which Is called “resource hoarding.”

People are already creating groupings, or pods, or mutual aid groups. Some are organized around solidarity. In Boston, for example, there are groups working toward building community and conversation. There are other groups that organizing around charity, against any instinct to hoard resources. In Los Angeles neighborhood groups are volunteering to distribute food to people in need. (Here’s a link to the Cambridge Mutual Aid Society, if you are curious.) My neighborhood has a new listserve, where we share needs and collectively organize shopping trips and exchange things like yeast, eggs, and flour.

We have studied mutual aid networks in sociology for a while, and here is an interesting study of the dynamics of a mutual aid network among Mexican migrant construction workers. Understanding how poorer urban communities share resources and co-ordinate, as evidenced in Carol Stack’s All Our Kin, might be a suitable place to learn what fictive kinship groups can teach us in this moment.

Social bubbles could just end up being just the latest manifestation of advanced marginality, of social and spatial isolation that has deadly health consequences, another example of how social traumas disproportionately harm the poor and vulnerable.

Beyond the overall anxiety and real-life human trauma of this pandemic, as sociologist I am fascinated by what the world will look like after this. It is going to be an unknown world—I suspect this will not be the last pandemic in our lifetimes. How will we face the next outbreak?

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