‘Social Distancing’ is more than standing 6 feet away

By Kamala Russell

As of early April 2020, nearly half of the global population are under orders to cease public life as usual, to shelter in place in their homes, and to maintain safe distance from those not in their households to mitigate the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In the United States, this latter recommendation for ‘social distancing’ has suffused public discourse and public space, perhaps to a greater degree than in other nations where lockdowns that curtail outdoor movement more completely are in place.

Though I see the term being used across all kinds of conversations to designate the entire assemblage of stay at home orders, business closures, and new rules for public space, I am using ‘social distancing’ to refer specifically to strictures on interpersonal proximity. From public health authorities, the news, and your neighbor, you will likely hear that social distancing is defined as a basic responsibility to maintain six feet of space between yourself and another person who is not of your household.

The first time I heard this, I was surprised. As a linguistic anthropologist who works on the ethical, affective, and communicative dynamics of intercorporeal space (the space between bodies) outside of disease contexts, I immediately thought of just how complicated this seemingly simple guideline is. First, intercorporeal space is a highly complex and affectively laden site of social practice. Secondly, maneuvering in space depends on a moving body’s attunement to other moving bodies and surfaces in the environment: not static measurements.  These meanings and attunements are typically employed in managing social interactions: making, breaking, or modulating a communicative channel with someone. Social distancing then, requires more than just measuring six feet of distance, it requires actively ‘making space’ in ways that come into conflict with ingrained conventions regarding speaking to others.

Regardless of how long current shelter in place orders or other curtailments last in the US, social distancing will be part of public life. Though the benefits of these measures remain to be fully investigated, there are already reports in the media that point to their efficacy in slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The extent to which social distancing measures are successful in ‘flattening the curve’ only promises to extend the time period in which these practices may be deemed necessary in our spaces of life. They may become necessary again, in the case of future pandemic events (and are key aspects of the “suppress and lift” or ‘smart’ quarantine propositions that were proposed in recent opinion pieces). What can anthropology tell us about some of the issues this may raise?

I do research in rural mountainous areas of the Dhofar province of the Sultanate of Oman, living in rural homesteads that frequently host guests. I learned quickly that my hosts in Dhofar were far more aware than I was of where others were and whether they were visible (or audible, smellable etc.) to them. Men and women move in intercorporeal space by making distance. In certain scenarios and around certain others, people will move, sit, position themselves, and cover their bodies in ways that lessen their exposure. Around guests and in public spaces, Dhofaris were skilled at ‘making distance’ between themselves and others. I grew used to sitting perpendicularly when meeting bureacrats, not face to face. Even in this area where public developments like shopping malls are relatively new, I was impressed by the natural and seamless way people changed their trajectories to avoid coming close to one another. There were none of the halting movements and abrupt circlings-around I see on the sidewalks in Berkeley; people drifted smoothly.

These acts where people moved so as to make distance were situationally specific. Touch, close contact, and even emotional involvement were distributed, not universally avoided. For example, distancing was less important in smaller groups, at home, and among familial relations. Distancing strategies were fungible and improvised in form: they did not conform to strict measurements of distance, but instead made general principles work under different situational constraints. What I observed were not abstract guidelines or measurements, but instead a mixture of normative practices and a habituated attentiveness (not always conscious) to the environmental surrounds and to others. 

In his work on proxemics, Edward T. Hall (1959; 1966) argued that intercorporeal and built spaces are negotiated, shared, and moved within in ways that are culturally relative. Habits and sensibilities for how close to stand to different kinds of people, to avoid or engage them, inhere in a social and cultural milieu, and, according to Hall, cut to the quick of what it means to have a body. This corporeal attentiveness to our surroundings rises to awareness not as metric distance (six feet) but often only through the senses of intimacy, safety, eroticism, propriety, trust, disgust, violation, and so on, that we experience when we are too close, too far, or free to find just the right distance. Intercorporeal distance is not a given; it is highly meaningful, deeply ingrained, and culturally and contextually specific. The demands of social distancing are difficult precisely because they disrupt existing sensitivities to spatial relations and their meaningfulness regarding how we engage and read others in interaction.

It is hard to remember to not touch your face. It is harder to estimate distances of six feet from people when you are moving, they are moving, and you both may be in an environment where you need to avoid or track any contact with objects and surfaces of mutual touch. This is not a problem of motor skill or the lack of a culturally specific faculty. Instead, the point of comparison with Dhofar is helpful as it suggests the depth and breadth of corporeal habits and interactional conventions that underly their practiced ways of ‘making distance’. Social distancing is disruptive not because it impedes human communion in some necessary way (it does not), but because it draws on habits and meanings for moving in intercorporeal space that clash with most Americans’ sense of why, how, and what it means to be close to another person.

In The Hidden Dimension (1966), Hall argued for a co-constitution of the the design of commercial areas, domestic interiors, and institutional spaces and the conventional ways people come together and move through those spaces. Classic anthropologies of the body (Douglas 1970; Mauss 1973) and social theories of space, habitus, and governance (Bourdieu 1972; Foucault 1975) also note that the body and its movements are intimately related to the design of built environments.

With this relativism in mind, social distancing, as part of a rapid-response strategy, must encompass more than abstract rules that individuals are tasked with interpreting. Such a deep change in the relationships of bodies and environment would require redesigning certain processes and spatial layouts for common points of contact, interaction, and transaction. A single decontextualized and general guideline will not cut it. Rules channeling the flow of people through an open-air market, transparent shields at cash registers, and other barriers could both space people out and inculcate new habits. These interventions in the environment are simple yet decisive interruptions of both normative sensibilities around distances appropriate for these settings and fearful uncertainty around possible transmission.

This pandemic has already reorganized the spaces of our lives and social interactions in ways that disrupt ingrained sensibilities around intercorporeal distance. We are being asked to scrutinize conversations, economic transactions, institutional affiliations, mobilities, and the landscape of public and private ownership of territory in terms of their most basic and often tacitly unrecognized constituents: bodies, surfaces, and their spatial relations of contact and proximity. This demand for intervention on raw and actual proximity, as well as its moral force and sense of urgency, raises questions both critical and practical. What existing inequalities and accessibility concerns are disregarded by the desires, demands, and consequences of technocratic solutions for the interpersonal and economic issues that distancing brings? What are the ethics around regulating and regimenting the space of improvisation in which strategies for social distancing currently exist? Anthropologists have dedicated methods and concepts for thinking about these questions as they pertain to the complex relationships of awareness, habit, social interaction, and the governance of space.

Let’s get together with public health scholars, epidemiologists, and desigers. We can put our sensitivities to habits, norms, and techniques of intercorporeal space to work in designing guidelines and environments that can help make social distancing safer, clearer, more accessible, and less strange. Our public and commercial spaces will be reassembled; it only remains to ask how and in whose image?

Kamala Russell is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has conducted fieldwork in the highlands of Dhofar, Oman, living with speakers of the Śḥerēt Modern South Arabian language, focusing on interaction and Islam in the domestic. Her current work examines face-to-face interaction and its built, social, and environmental surrounds as at once a matter of ethical, corporeal, and communicative practice.

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre
1972   Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Douglas, Mary
1970   Natural Symbols. New York: Random House.

Foucault, Michel
1975   Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Doubleday.

Hall, Edward T.
1959   The Silent Language. Doubleday. 1966   The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday.

Mauss, Marcel
1973   Techniques of the Body. Economy and Society 2(1): 70–88.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email