Dichotopia – The Refiguration of Spaces and the Security Society in Times of the Corona Risk

1. April 2020

Using the concept of refiguration, Hubert Knoblauch and Martina Löw are initiating a first analysis of communicative action at times of corona pandemic. The spatial dimension of the crisis is central, ranging from (self-)isolating measures within the home „container“ to the intensification of digital networking to the world-wide circulation of the virus spreading across the globe. This blog post is an invitation to join the international conversation for further discussion, analysis and diagnosis.

All over the world, the Covid-19 (Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2) outbreak has seen governments seize dramatic measures in order to stop the virus from spreading, or at least slow down the process of transmission. Having identified the problem and the crucial actors, action is taken in many, often similar ways. As a consequence of the pandemic and more so of the measures seized, societies are experiencing radical changes, as we’re trying to adapt to life under emergency regulations. We do, of course, approve of the safety measures taken and consider them to be adequate. As sociologists we nevertheless need to ask what they imply for society as a whole, now and in the future. In this paper we want to make an attempt at explaining this pandemic from a sociological perspective, in a way that may also inform further action. The current situation is so obviously linked to issues of social space and refiguration that we particularly feel the need for a diagnostic analysis. In order to overcome the (linguistic and) national limits of public discourse currently in place, we wish to open up the conversation and share our views with other (spatial-studies related) perspectives in the world.

A global epidemic has spread from China across the globe following the footsteps of those who have contracted the virus, producing disastrous concentrations of the disease as in Wuhan or northern Italy/Bergamo, Heinsberg in Germany or Madrid. At the same time we are observing an equally dramatic and, in recent decades unthinkable response of (most) countries in the world, namely the closing of borders and the confinement of the national population. On the micro level, the virus underlines the relational, material and spatial dimension of sociality. Invisible, it enters embodied encounters causing serious harm. And as new knowledge about the virus – and legal restrictions – are generated, not only the social space between actors in new conventionalized (not yet ritualized) forms of social distancing is affected. New legislation restricts embodied interactions in the private sphere in sensu strictu: it restricts the basic spatial units of sociality (of individuals) to basic interaction units in private households. But the Corona crisis is not only a crisis of interpersonal sociality, requiring us to find new forms of proxemics in embodied communicative action contexts, and create new conventions and rituals of interaction excluding anything that suggests a collective presence of others. The crisis also shows that all social encounters have a global dimension. Thus the social dimension of the pandemic is not only fundamentally spatial in nature. Like a magnifying glass, the crisis also reveals a tension typical of late modern societies, a tension between two spatial logics – in this case the tension between global spread and national closure. In fact the pandemic is pushing the tension to the extreme and lays bare the basic dynamics of the refiguration of spaces as we understand them (Knoblauch/ Löw 2020). Refiguration results precisely from the tension between two spatial logics. On the one hand, we have territorial closure. Countries, residential areas and homes are treated as “containers” that contain the virus or have to be isolated against it. On the other hand, we see the uncontained, global spread of bodies infected with the virus, the densification of digital networking and a massive opening up of communication networks fulfilling new functions in the crisis. The same tension between two basic spatial logics is expressed in the figuration of the centralized territorial state on the one hand and globalization or trans-nationalization across borders on the other, and in the sharp top-down hierarchies and logical-conceptual analyses versus flat network formation or ‘rhizome’ and ontological metaphors. Territorial spaces follow the logic of placing and arranging with clearly drawn boundaries (externally) and restrictions on diversity (internally). As a rule, they are perceived as static. In contrast, network spaces follow the logic of relationizing the heterogeneous. In network spaces, distant elements are put into relation and differences between elements are the basic characteristic.

The tension between territorial and network logics, between hierarchy and heterarchy, between limitation and delimitation, and between homogeneity and heterogeneity, is particularly acute in the corona crisis. For one thing, we are dealing with a spatially unbounded pandemic, even if it’s not clear how much difference there is (for most patients) to a influenza infection. On the other hand, the virus poses a deadly risk, fatal for others who might die a miserable death suffocating. It is this deadly scenario threatening to overwhelm the public health system that frightens so many of us and calls for vigorous government action. The virus has become a global risk. Travelling around the world in seven-league boots, it is spread through tourists, business travelers and other forms and systems of circulation, condensing not least in places where people come together to have fun and enjoy themselves: in busy markets offering fancy seafood in Wuhan, in ski resorts in the Alps, or at ‘Corona parties’ celebrated in urban techno clubs. In this context, it is remarkable that the global expansion has not been met with a global response. Instead unilateral, lonely decisions to close national borders were made, a fact most conspicuous in Europe (or the many federal states of Germany). Borders, for decades neither controlled nor fortified, were closed without prior notice or consultations between states, see for instance France and Germany. And not only have national territories been closed off, also stranded national citizens outside the country were quickly “brought home” in unprecedented “repatriation” actions.

We are not dealing here with the discourse of right conservatives addressing the “people” (“das Volk”); neither ethnic origin nor any other discriminating factor apart from being infected or not plays a role. What counts in the corona crisis is what Foucault (2004) has called the “population”. Population is by no means an innocent concept but the reference point for the new kind of power that has emerged with the modern nation state, a power which Foucault called “governmentality”. In contrast to the sheer power of the king, government (as apparatus and ensemble of practices) is about the knowledge-based regulation of people, controlled in historically unique ways. Using figures and statistics, the government vows to take care of the security and safety of the country’s “population”. Security technologies and control strategies regulating institutions such as law enforcement agencies (the “police”) lead to the formation security dispositifs and the “security society” (Foucault 2004: 26). Populations are characterized by internal circulation processes involving people and goods, but they are basically generated by the fact that space is (de-)limited to create forms of territory – ‘land’, country, province, district.[i] These implications of the notion of “population”, usually backgrounded in the context of public spheres and specialized institutions including their highly differentiated functions, are currently re-surfacing. This is most visible during the “lockdown” of public life, and more precisely in the ban of “physical” public life taking place between bodies in co-presence of each other (since the material side of public spaces with human bodies in co-presence has become a security problem). The majority of functional systems of modern societies, such as economy, politics, sports, religion, has been reduced to an emergency state in which only “systemically critical”, essential functions such as supplying food, medical goods, basic infrastructural services, and, of course, the proper functioning of police forces are maintained (and people providing and securing them are recipients of a special honor these days). The material side of public life with co-present humans in interaction is currently restricted to the smallest of social units – individuals, couples, nuclear families – a restriction which, one should note, is compensated for by the increased use of media, digital media and their networking infrastructure. At the same time, features of the nation state gradually re-emerge, which belong to an earlier institutional development stage when governments focused on the governance of the population – not conceived as ‘masses’, but as a multiplicity of small units. It is not the people calling for rights, nor the democratic civil society or open society, it is the population that must be treated, educated, protected, and even subjected to “police” forces.[ii]

Foto: Aris Harkat

This special kind of “policing” takes on specific forms in the current corona crisis. In order to grasp the particularity of this crisis, a fresh look at Ulrich Beck’s concept of ‘risk society’ seems worthwhile. In fact, the corona epidemic is a risk that, in obvious ways, requires scientific expertise, not just to cure the disease. The sheer distinction of Covid-19 (Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2) from an “ordinary” influenza, takes, as we painfully experience now, a great deal of technical and scientific effort. Moreover, the danger itself is in large parts a “scientifically” determined one. The spread of the coronavirus is measured through empirical surveys, and spreading is determined by the law of exponential growth roughly serving as model. (Whether the chains of transmission might also include nests, bubbles and other complexities remains to be investigated in the future. Studies must not only focus on relationships or interrogation results, but also include qualitative aspects of the bodily communicative processes, with touching and breathing/exhaling as the most fundamental initiators of social relationships.[iii])

Corona, this dangerous infection disease, can thus be understood as a risk production in Ulrich Beck’s sense of the term. In fact, there are parallels between the corona crisis and the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred in 1986, the same year Beck’s book was originally published. Like radioactivity, corona is fatally invisible, and both require ample scientific and technical knowledge to be able to properly understand and deal with them. Publishing numbers and figures, maps, curves, statistics no longer only serves the governance of populations, who in turn are supposed to carry out orders in a disciplined manner. In modern knowledge societies, all the counting, mapping and measuring is geared towards “knowing” the population itself. This knowledge is not only relevant to experts, it must be acquired and shared by the subjects, the subjectified as well (whose social inequality is expressed in the unequal distribution of knowledge and its implementation). But while radioactivity is more locally defined, i.e. located in the environment, in a certain area and region, corona is negotiated as a global problem located in the space of each and every social interaction imaginable. What both risks have in common is the utter uncertainty about the (far-reaching) consequences of current actions for the immediate or distant future. What they also share is the fact that the security dispositive becomes part of the knowledge stock of all social actors.

While Beck considers ‘danger’ to be a rather distinct phenomenon, accessible to the senses and in certain ways even (territorially) limited, corona is an ubiquitous, omnipresent ‘risk’. But this risk is not straightforwardly caused by human beings in the sense that it is the result or unintended consequence of industrialization or rationalization processes, and China, where it originated, is not just ‘another bag of rice falling’. Because just as the then emerging industrial power USA was the source of the globally transmitted so-called “Spanish flu”, it is now global economy’s post-industrial workbench China where the virus appeared for the first time.[iv] Although China’s globally prominent position has contributed to the rapid spread, this no longer leads to the formation of what Beck called a ‘world risk society’, in which we all suffer from and concertedly react to the consequences of modernization (2007). Although the problem is acute (epitomized in the climate change), the corona epidemic is not merely a product of the first modernity. It is as much a consequence of the second modernity reigning China and its compressed modernization development (Chang 2010), high degree of digitalization, mass tourism across the world and an economy mainly networked via global supply chains. The key institution in the neoliberal late- or postmodern era is not the cosmopolitan world not the neoliberal economy but national politics and the state holding the reins, as the corona crisis clearly shows.

Foto: Aris Harkat

Not only in this way, it differs from e.g. SARS. SARS, at the beginning of the millennium, was a virus epidemic linked to major “global cities”. Evelyn Lu Yen Roloff writes: “It is a paradox that cities like New York, Madrid, Hong Kong and London (…), known for their internationally networking communities, should develop phantasms of threat and security measures based on an outdated concept of territory and associated strategies of isolation, repression and control” (Roloff 2007: 136). Corona is – unlike SARS – a pandemic which not only affects the body much more easily. Instead of being restricted to individual major cities, it affects most parts of the world. Not only internationally networked “global cities” seem to be exposed to the danger and must be sealed off, the virus traces the global networking and interconnectedness deep down to the remotest village. And we seem to have quickly got used to these tensions between openness and closure, unbounded networking and spatial containment – is there anyone left  who would call the dynamics between circulation and containment a paradox these days?

The government’s response to the crisis is to create very simple spatial arrangements: individual bodies belong to individual, clearly defined (private) living spaces. A ‘total social situation’ equivalent to quarantine is created, in which we must stay indoors in the same location with the same people without moments of escape. This causes various social and psychological problems that only highlight how vital the resource public space is. Yet the public space is emptied for the time being, and the national territorial space is (provisionally) closed. The transformation from open society to “population container” is executed using draconian measures to separate bodies from public spaces as far as possible. And while we are trying to compensate for the public space with digital media sites and offers, we are painfully aware of the high-energy density, dynamics and presence lost in the process.

In the corona crisis, the physically delimited “territories of the self“ (Goffman 1963) of a population confined to their immediate social environment and ordered to withdraw to their private spaces intersect with the unbounded, disembodied circulation of communication (and the unboundedly circulating virus) in such a way that the radicalized tension between the two spatial logics mentioned earlier shows its formative impact.  In fact, we are touching here upon one of the most essential dynamics of the refiguration of spaces, as digital mediatization is that which opposes total spatial closure.

With face-to-face encounters banned, people move to video conferencing, home office software and delivery platforms. If we can’t work in the office, we work from home using digital communication technologies; and if we can’t sit in restaurants, we order food from digital delivery services, praying that the packaging of our food is as germ-free as clicking through the internet. Under the current emergency order, hyper-compressed in terms of space, the digital world has to compensate for public encounters, where groups meet, music is played and sporting activities are exercised. Yet digital space also takes over other functions of society for a substitute: universities and schools rely on digital communication for online teaching, public administration is managed via the internet. “Home office” based on sophisticated digital communication tools is decreed by the majority of organizations. Internet, emailing and video conferences keep us connected to international circles, allow us to start initiatives and develop new rituals, or remain in our own bubbles. However, the limits of digital mediatization already show: even intimate audiovisual communication via computers remains shallow, bumpy and somewhat formal, in tweets we miss warmth of encounters in the flesh, and the telephone conversation with a relative dying of cancer who is not allowed to be visited, is a desolate experience.

There are indications, of course, that the spatial strategy of separation will reduce the risk of contracting the virus for many people. But the limitations of this (almost banal) spatial policy are also obvious. How can we bear to see so many people dying in neighboring countries, although a lot of intensive care beds are available in our own country? How merciless is the corresponding nursing crisis, since homecare is to a large part dependent on the migration of carers?

The boost for digital mediatization apparent in most sectors now, is also ambiguous. The implications for government information policies remain to be seen. It’s good news, though, that weird conspiracy theories are being reacted to quickly, even if doubts concerning the government’s rigid measures may be growing soon. And we are well aware that the digital networks are not ‘flat’ at all: As state employees we benefit from (state-subsidized) infrastructures when working from home, giants such as DHL and Amazon etc. do so, too. A fact that casts more than a shadow on the ongoing refiguration of spaces. Also, the huge, and hugely shared (scientific) knowledge about the virus will probably change our social understanding of physical closeness in the long run, with transformations to be expected on all scales and levels of the social world, including an increased perception of people breathing or coughing, the management of inner-city shops and public events, or even the continuity of the European Union, the Euro and the global “world order” as we’ve known it.

Vulnerability and the fear of death, isolation and quarantine are genuine crisis experiences – illness and death mean serious individual and collective hardships. But the threatening social transformations are a vital part of the crisis experience. We may assume that the emergency order will be only short-termed. But even if the restrictive measures and restrictions on activities in the public sphere will be relaxed (Pueyo 2020), even if we are allowed to public encounters and presences again anytime soon, the escalating corona crisis has made the dynamics resulting from growing spatial tensions absolutely clear. And this tension will definitely remain an issue because it will not disappear when the pandemic is contained. Corona only brought it to the fore.

An old psychological wisdom reminds us that crises also bring new opportunities. The same holds for refigurations. They are not forced by fate but based on social action, and therefore also imply chances. Maybe the European Union can benefit from these chances. And perhaps extremist right-wing parties are losing votes not only in the short term. But will we get more familiar with refugee realities at times of crisis? Will we live and act more ecologically conscious afterwards? The challenges are obvious. A vaccine against the virus might be available by next year. But how do we “vaccinate” ourselves against the fear that public spaces will seem contaminated for a long time? How can we guard ourselves against the risk of civil rights being restricted not only temporarily? And is it possible to conceive of opponent spatial logics not merely as counterparts or sub-complex placeholders for security (territory) versus freedom (network), or isolation (territory) versus unimpeded global circulation (network)? Can social sciences and research on space contribute analytic and diagnostic methods to better cope with the corona crisis and prevent increasing social polarizations and further damage to our open societies in liberal democratic systems? Can we imagine advanced forms of social distancing that bring out new qualities of the public space after the hopefully brief phase of draconian isolating measures?

We happily welcome your own thoughts on these issues on our blog, and invite examples of successful or unsuccessful appropriations of space, reflections on research conditions at times of corona, auto-ethnographic experiments, reports from other parts of the globe, and more comments.


Beck, Ulrich (1992): Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. New Delhi: Sage.

Beck, Ulrich (1999): World Risk Society. London: Polity.

Chang, K.-S. (2010): East Asia’s condensed transition to modernity, in : Soziale Welt 61, 319-328.

Dombrowsky, Wolf R.: Critical Theory in Sociological Disaster Research. In: R. R. Dynes, B. de Marchi, C. Pelanda (Hrsg.): Sociology of Disasters. Contribution of Sociology to Disaster Research. Franco Angeli, Mailand 1987, S. 331–356.

Foucault, Michel (2009):  Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College De France, 1977 – 78 New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Goffman, Erving (1963). Behavior in public places: Notes on the social organization of gatherings. New York: The Free Press.

Knoblauch, Hubert/ Martina Löw (2020): The Re-Figuration of Spaces and Refigured Modernity – Concept and Diagnosis. In: Historical Social Research 45 (2020) 2, doi: 10.12759/hsr.45.2020.2.263-292.

Pueyo, Tomas (2020): Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance. What the Next 18 Months Can Look Like, if Leaders Buy Us Time.

Roloff, Evelyn Lu Yen (2007): Die SARS-Krise in Hong Kong. Zur Regierung von Sicherheit in der Global City. Bielefeld: transcript.

[i] For Foucault, territory refers to the space inhabited by the population.

[ii] Policing in the historical sense means, according to Foucault, no longer pastoral leadership but regulation and, in a much broader sense, control of the population, so that individuals can be integrated and act in ways useful for the state.

[iii] Studies such as the virologist Streeck has currently undertaken in the German region of Heinsberg which had been first hit by the Corona virus.

[iv] Cf. The fact that it spread first to the richest countries in the world seems to bear evidence for strong economic as well as social relations and contacts. Cf. Pueyo 2020.