Against The Grain: Is it really social distancing?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 22, 2020 - June 28, 2020.
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There has been some discussion about whether it is social distancing or physical distancing that we ought to practise to limit the spread of the coronavirus. I take the view that the term social distancing is a misnomer. But, we need to know what sociology is about in order to understand that point.


What is sociology?

What is sociology? We may begin with the founder of this discipline, Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (AD 1332-1406). Ibn Khaldun was one of the most remarkable Muslim scholars of the pre-modern period. He founded an entirely new science that he called the science of human society (‘ilm al-ijtima’ al-insani) in The Muqaddimah, a three-volume introduction to history.

In today’s terms, it would be called sociology, that is, the study of society. Society itself refers to the different forms of the living together of humans. These forms include social contacts, social distance, isolation, individualisation, cooperation, competition, division of labour and social integration. It is all of these forms that allow human beings to come together, live and interact in various types of associations and groups that form communities and societies.

Ibn Khaldun, in showing how it was necessary to know about the nature of society in order to distinguish between fact and fiction in history, gave the example of discussions in historical works concerning the descent of the Moroccan ruler, Idris bin Idris (AD 803-828) of the Idrisid dynasty.

Gossipmongers had suggested that the younger Idris was the product of an adulterous relationship and was the biological son of Rashid, a client of the Idrisids. In other words, it was claimed that Idris’ mother had an extra-marital affair with Rashid. The fact, however, was that Idris’ father married into the Berber tribes and lived among them in the desert.

Ibn Khaldun’s sociological point is that the nature of desert life was such that it was not possible for such things as extramarital affairs to happen without the entire community knowing about them. There were no hiding places where such things could be done in secrecy. For Ibn Khaldun, the fact that Idris’ parents lived among the Berber nomads made it practically impossible that his mother could have had an illicit relationship and given birth to an illegitimate son without the community knowing about it.

If we knew something about desert society, the way of life of desert nomads, that is, their social conditions, and the ways in which they interact, we would conclude that it was unlikely that Idris could have been born as a result of an illicit relationship.

Sociology, therefore, is about the understanding the nature of the social, that is the interaction, co-operation and association among human beings, and how social factors play a role in the development of communities, societies and civilisations. For example, it is through sociology that we could evaluate the claim about Idris being the product of an adulterous relationship.

Sociology is about the social. Sociologists are interested in the interaction, co-operation and association among human beings, and how social factors play a role in their development. What does this tell us about social distancing?


Is it really social distancing?

We started to hear the term, social distancing, during the current coronavirus pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, to practise social distancing means to “maintain at least one metre (three feet) distance between yourself and others”. The reason for this is that when someone coughs, sneezes or speaks, small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth may contain the virus, which may spread to you. Being too close to such a person means that you may breathe in the droplets, which may include the Covid-19 virus, if that person has the disease.

Social distancing as a term in public emerged in the 21st century. It refers to the practice of maintaining physical space between people outside of the home, not gathering in crowds, and avoiding mass gatherings.

What is meant by social distancing is actually physical distancing. Indeed, many definitions of social distancing state that it is also known as physical distancing. This gives the wrong impression that the social and physical somehow refer to the same thing.

Sociology is the study of the social. It looks at social factors to understand human societies and the myriad problems they face and changes they go through. Changes and problems in society can also be studied with different approaches by, say, psychologists and economists. But, for sociologists, there is the primacy of the social. Again, what does that tell us about social distancing?

Social distance is a very important concept in sociology. As a term in public health, it is relatively new, but can be traced back to the pre-World War II period in sociology. It certainly does not mean the same thing as physical or spatial distance. Of course, this does not mean that both social and physical distance may not coincide. Two people may be both physically and socially distant from each other. The physical distance may, in some circumstances, cause the social distance. In other cases, however, social distance may be unaffected by physical distance and even decrease as a result of physical distance.

Social distance refers to the lack of social contact, regardless of physical distance or proximity. Social contact itself may be primary, characterised by frequent and more intimate associations, which may or may not involve face-to-face, unmediated visual and auditory engagements with people in our primary group such as family members, colleagues and friends. Or, social contact may be secondary, involving less frequent and less intimate associations with people who are not in our group. In any case, social contact is about social proximity and social relations between individuals, regardless of the degree of physical proximity.

Two people may be physically distant but socially proximate or intimate, that is, having social contact. When a couple, separated by national borders due to the travel restrictions imposed to halt the spread of the coronavirus, meet each other via social media, they are not practising social distancing. They have intimate social contact, despite the physical distance.

On the other hand, it is possible to be physically close without having social contact. In this case, physical proximity co-exists with social distance. Take, for example, two people crossing the road at a zebra crossing. They are strangers to each other even though they may be physically close. Their actions or behaviour are not oriented towards each other and there is no social contact between them. Another example would be purchasing an item in the grocery store. There is physical proximity but the social contact is limited to a short period of monetary transaction.

In this pandemic period, we need to encourage and enforce physical, not social, distancing. It is the physical distancing that is needed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. It is precisely because of the physical distancing and the lack of possibilities for physically proximate socialising that we need to encourage other forms of social contact, not social distancing.

It is time to think and talk clearly about what we mean. We should be thinking about physical distancing and social contact and how we can enhance social proximity even as we maintain physical separation from each other.

Syed Farid Alatas is professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore

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