Social distance: from classical sociologists to pandemic period

Giorgia Mavica,
University of Catania, Italy

One of the concepts that will indissolubly remain linked to this long, exhausting fight against COVID-19 is “social distancing”. This is the idea that, being at a good distance from each other (1 meter? 3 meters? 8 meters?), we are protected against possible virus contamination. The aim of this sort of distancing is also to reduce the likelihood of contact among people who have an infection, to minimize disease transmission and, in some cases, death. The theme of social distancing has been a topic that sociologists of the early ‘900 investigated very rigorously, suggesting a set of meanings are different from the those that today seem to characterize the choices on how to contain the pandemic.

Significantly, among other things, improper use of the concept of social distancing explicitly clashes with the strong conviction, also in mass media during those difficult days, that “united we would make it”. Social distancing as a common force to combat the pandemic, in short, appears more and more as an oxymoron, because in reality, the call to give a hand to those who cannot make it, to be united, to form a group, in a few words to “make a community” is exactly the opposite of social distancing. Community means working closely, caring for oneself and others, social solidarity, networking and group (Forastiere et al., 2020).

In the tradition of sociological studies, one of the first references to the concept of social distance is found in Simmel, who introduces the concept of Soziale Distanz, where the theme of distance takes shape in the framework of handling space and spatial systems of society. Simmel considers space as a logical and perceptive “opener”. In this sense, space is not something to be experienced, but a psychic content in which the soul experiences itself. Space is located at a time where the passage into it from the outside and the interaction of individuals with it is completed by revealing psychosocial content. In short, in a non-physical sense, the nature of space is social. Its forms and meanings are therefore the result of social, material and symbolic practices.

According to Simmel, the process of distancing is at the basis of the construction of social groups and the establishment of relationships, which are influenced by prejudices and attitudes that create different levels of social distance among people (Simmel 1890). Social distance, defined as relational closure and the unavailability of a person to other persons who are perceived and recognized as different from themselves based on specific social categories, is the result of a set of factors placed on three dimensions: physical, symbolic and geometric. The first dimension concerns the placement of people in space (residential neighbourhoods, places of work and leisure); the second concerns the cultural categories used by people to know and explore social reality; and the third concerns the relationship between the organization of physical space and categorical production (Cesareo, 2007).

Furthermore, there are three basic aspects of social distancing: 1) perceiving, 2) shaking, and 3) suffering. The first refers to people’s perception of a contact with others based on distance. The second concerns the relationships, in everyday life, that people have with each other, and that they would like to shake off. The third concerns a person’s relationship with people who do not seem to want to have anything to do with him or her (Bichi, 2008).

Robert Park, in the early 1920s, defined space as “an attempt to reduce the quality and degrees of understanding and intimacy that characterize personal and social relationships in general to something measurable in purely physical terms” (Maturo, 2007). Instead, space is the degree of closeness or intimacy that an individual or group feel towards another individual or group in a social network, the level of trust the people in a group have for each other, and the degree of perceived similarity of beliefs.



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