Just because we have to do it, it doesn’t mean it is right: why #stayathome should not become a moral imperative and social isolation not a habituation
Talja Blokland, Daniela Krüger and Robert Vief ask how the political measures to slow down the coronavirus reduce our opportunities for support, as they are regulating how we socialize and communicate. Drawing on representative survey results from four neighborhoods in Berlin, they show that, before the lockdown, a majority of their respondents communicated face-to-face to confront their most pressing personal challenges and did so outside of their home. They argue that reducing human contact to digital exchanges may affect our wellbeing and cannot replace meeting each other.
Political measures to ensure that our health care system will not collapse under COVID19 have tremendously changed how we can organize our lives. Virologists and epidemiologists recommend distancing from other bodies. While this is known now as ‘social’ distancing, it draws on a model in which bodies are numerically defined and personalities transformed into round numbers, a typical feature of modernity. Politicians prescribe how we should interact with anybody but our partners and family members – with an assumed clarity that family means nuclear family or household members. With the closure of most institutions, the lockdown changed how and where people work, if at all, how children are schooled, how people seek medical care or how they engage with others in public. Especially the contact ban and distance rules took much of the ‘social’ out of social life and forced people to change their routines rapidly.
Isolation, as Georg Simmel (1950:119) wrote, involves the “somehow imagined but then rejected idea of society”. It is a relation “lodged within an individual but which exists between him [or her] and a certain group or group life in general” (ibid.). Now that group life in general is forbidden, and we have gotten as close as we can to social isolation, what is left of sociability, defined as the realities of life that exist in and for the being with (and, in conflict, against) each other? And what happens to the material and non-material contents which evolve within and from such sociabilities when they suddenly disappear?
The relations in which we are lodged to isolation now are those into which we log in on digital media. Here we exchange visual and verbal messages – we ‘communicate’ in its most stripped-off dictionary definition. We act out parties, weddings, demonstrations and also medical and psychological consultations on telephone and video-chat. We act as if the joy of love, the anger about political injustice or the pain of illness and suffering are not embodied. We act as if we do not need all our senses to share them and as if we could possibly express them without non-verbal communication. Much of our communication with others contains some form of support in a broad sense: I can lend you a cup of sugar or a shoulder to cry on, I can lend you an ear and listen to your story with intense attention rather than merely hear you, I can share my view on the political issue that concerns you heavily and let you see that I see that it touches you. And we’ll jump through a conversation joking and teasing in order to establish the reputation and hierarchies in our peer group on the street-corner. A lot of communication, hence, isn’t about exchange and information at all. So, while overall, the dominant discourse almost suggests that the collective turn to online exchanges between talking heads on screens means we have just found another place to meet: This is not the case. And most of us intuitively may sense that it is not. Why, then, can calling the grandchild over a messenger be so dissatisfying? Why do we not necessarily feel comforted after a facetime call to share love, hate, anger, or any other emotion? Or still not feel better equipped to take a good decision on an important matter?
There are many ways to answer these urgent questions. Two of the partial answers that we present in this text concern the adjustments we have had to make in how we organize support on issues that matter to us. Last year, we conducted a large survey in four Berlin neighborhoods in Berlin as part of our project ‘The World Down my Street’ at Collaborative Research Centre 1265 ‘The Refiguration of Space’. We randomly sent letters to people in these areas announcing our project and then interviewed 572 adults, using what specialists call a most-different case design: we went to two neighborhoods in the inner city and two on the outskirts, we took one with a high social-economic status and one with a lower status, then one in what used to be East and one in West of each. So, we had four different ones on these three axes. They also differed in the percentage of people classified as migrants. We will call them Borkum Rock (low status, inner city, West), Coswig Gardens (high status, inner city, East), Apolda Springs (low status, outskirt, East) and Dorsten Heights (high status, outskirt, West). We asked our interview partners what challenges they had faced over the last year, to whom they talked about it, where this conversation happened and whether they talked face-to-face or digitally. Did they meet the person who they found helpful? And were they walking while talking on their phone when they talked – a common practice, it seems, since the lockdown – or meeting at a certain place, or hanging on their living room sofa? In short, how did they communicate, where were they when they did, and where was the supporting person?
Why we leave our houses to stay well
First, why current communication may not feel so comforting for us, may be influenced by our spatial routines from before the imposition of the lockdown. We usually do not stay home to solve problems. Of our interview partners, only 35% were nothing but at home when they talked or texted people – whom they hence may have had over for a visit. Most people used other spaces such as parks, restaurants, pubs, cafés, bars and other ‘third places’, in Oldenburg terms (1999), or the homes of friends, family or colleagues. So 65% must have had to look for other options, now that exactly these sites of sociability have been outlawed, or must have found ways around the restrictions.
A majority of our respondents were, before the lockdown, mobile in the city or even in the world and not simply because going out was some sort of luxury or purposeless indulgence in leisure: it was outside of their homes that they had the encounters that were supportive. While 85% of those who went out and found support did so within Berlin, 75% went out of their own neighborhood – people with low income and/or categorized as having a migration background remained most often in Berlin. We geocoded all the locations of all those meetings outside of the home. The 65% of all people whom we interviewed have a median of meeting 4,98 km away from their residences and a mean of even 70 km away. The residents of the inner-city areas remained much closer to their home (median of 3,1km for Coswig Gardens and 4,1km for Borkum Rock) than those in the outskirts (6,9km for Apolda Springs and 8,4km for Dorsten Heights). While people with middle incomes were somewhat more mobile than others, neither low or high income, nor education affected this distance significantly.
Finding support happened in all these cases when people did not stay at home, but it does not mean that people set out to go and look for it. Whereas under the lockdown conditions, all sorts of initiatives emerge on digital platforms, in chat groups, on Ebay and at notices posted in buildings’ hallways or at supermarket notice boards of people offering help to neighbors, we long know that important forms of support emerge as the byproduct, and not from a platform of supply and demand. When Robert Putnam brought the study of social capital to public debates in the early 2000s with his study Bowling Alone, he lamented the disappearance of schmoozing or ‘nothing-talk’ when we stop playing bowling in leagues, congregating in churches and mosques or hanging out in front of the corner bodega. He pointed out that support often is the by-product of something else. So, it is reasonable to assume that the people we spoke to travel distances to see their contacts not because they planned to seek help. More likely, they just planned to meet them. Who knows: they may have gone to see a FC Union football game and come back with a job referral, not having planned to meet one specific person at all. In short, if solving dilemmas, taking care of fears and frustrations, and other forms of emotional management as well as finding practical solutions to mundane irritations requires contacts outside of the house. Staying well in these regards required, a year ago, that we did not stay home.
Why we see each other to stay well
While 65% did not stay at home to meet, does it imply they met face-to-face? Not necessarily. In the age of internet and digital communication, various scholars have questioned the importance of space and bodily co-presence.Some have shown that different communication modes stand ‘side by side’. We may exchange information on housing in Berlin with a remote Facebook contact in a chat-group and ride the subway while doing so but confide the emotional stresses of finding a place to stay with a colleague at work during a coffee break (or vice-versa). So, in our survey, we wanted to know which mode of communication people used.
Most people met in person, no matter in which neighborhood they lived or how old they were. Around 80% communicated face-to-face: if people have an issue that really bothers them, they do not rely on digital communication for resolving this. Only 20% turned to technological means like telephone, video chat or texting via messenger programs. Of these instances, the telephone was the most important: only a small number of 18,4% of these already low 20% technological means was digital communication over (video-)chats or texting.
Young people may always be ‘on their phone’ – isn’t that a public image and a common complaint? They may watch endless Youtube videos, scan Instagram or read news bits in tweets– but if they organize support for something that mattered to them, they did not rely on digital meetings substantially more often than older people: our interview partners under 30-year-olds, the ‘digital natives’, also turn to embodied communication with full human beings in about 76% of the cases when they talk about their challenges and problems. In short, if solving dilemmas, taking care of fears and frustrations and other forms of emotional management as well as finding practical solutions to mundane irritations requires predominantly contacts outside of our residences with whom we meet in person, staying well in these regards required, a year ago, that we met other people in person. This triftiger Grund to leave our houses does not fit in the catalogue of allowances of the state. What is now defined as purposeless being outside, simply meeting others or the partially non-intended schmoozing, the talking about nothing, provided support.
One conversation is unlike the other, of course: not every sharing of our worries produces empathy, not every mention of a material need brings about a practical solution. It matters whether you need a ride to the hospital (not virtually possible) or want to talk over possible treatments for an illness or a broken heart (which may be virtually possible). We asked the interview partners whether they found their exchange helpful for resolving their challenges. Around 51% replied that they found their face-to-face exchanges ‘very helpful’; an additional 40% described them as ‘rather helpful’. Only 10% thought of the conversations as ‘rather not’ or ‘not at all helpful’. They felt similar about talking on the phone. But the 18,4% that had used video chat or other digital means was less positive: for them, only 37% of these digital encounters were ‘very helpful’ and 49% ‘rather helpful’, with again 10% as ‘rather not helpful’. While digital communication hence was not so common at all, it was also slightly less effective. If we further dig into the type of people with whom our interview respondents communicated, we see that they hardly communicated digitally with close ties such as partners – the people from whom they haven’t had to distance themselves now. But when they had to, the conversation was similarly helpful as a non-digital one. In contrast, especially friends struggled to support digitally. Furthermore, we only found a very small number of digital contacts with professionals such as teachers, lawyers and psychiatrists, so it is hard to say, but it did not look like these communications were particularly effective. While friends may still walk the dog together, especially these professional groups have turned to digital communication, with uncertain effects. In short, we do not just see each other to stay well: we see particular others preferably ‘live’ in order to stay well. Our data suggest that the people we are being told to distance from bodily now are those with whom in the past digital communication has been less prevalent and possibly less effective.
Wrapping up: digital communication and the isolated individual
The bodily distancing in our social networks hence may contain the virus – while this is excellent news, it comes with costs, as our analyses of the spatiality, digitalization and helpfulness of social routines in times before the lockdown suggest. First, some people already were inward-oriented towards their own family and household members. They may face tremendous new challenges caused by the lockdown. But they may rely on structures of support like they did before, especially if they extend the definition of who is family beyond the mere nuclear family in their practices (and while anecdotes suggest they do, we would need to find out systematically if they did). The inward-orientation within the household may also overstrain emotional support dependency and increase stress within households that can hardly be shared with household-outsiders, or even not at all.
While the state tells us to stay with our families, such an inward-orientation was a regular practice only for a minority of our sample. As shown above, most people, when they talked or texted others about their problems, were outside of their home and not with their family whatsoever. The strange re-appearance of the value of family in times of the lockdown, and the uncritical way in which this has happened, is worth a blog in itself. For now, let us just note that a lot of these contacts happened in restaurants, pubs, sport clubs, schools and so on, and at other people’s flats or houses. These people cannot formally rely on their common structures of support. Currently, they either have found new ways of communicating digitally (likely to be less rewarding, as shown above), found new routines (walking with a beer around the square again and again instead of going to the pub is one practice we have observed in the last weeks), bend the rules a little (drinking the take-away-beer at 150 cm distance with one’s peers on the pavement before the closed bar), or find hidden ways of continuing schmoozing (as finding new sites to gather for smoking weed or having sex in more remote greenspaces). Or, indeed, and this is an empirical question (a question we could only answer if we had the data to do so), they may live in isolation: an interruption of all sociability.
Habituation to the life in common, Simmel wrote (1950:120), may deprive isolation of its attractiveness. Habituation to the life in common, we add, produces the settings through which we access resources to stay well. Digital communication is not an alternative. Digital communication cannot replace face-to-face encounters for a number of reasons. Scholarship on digital media and social networks has championed the expanding opportunities of digital connectivity for learning, problem solving and personal interaction as the large, loosely knitted circles that exist online free us from the restrictions of tightly knitted social groups, as shown in the newest book of Rainie and Wellman, Networked. However, the digital communication in which the political decisions of the lockdown have brought us are not this type of network: they are, instead, a shift from our face-to-face connections to a digital-only existence. Whereas researchers have long shown the additional benefit of digital media to existing face-to-face relationships, nobody in this area of research has ever suggested it was a good idea to replace them with online contact.
Here, to sum up, are four reasons why digital communication cannot replace us meeting each other, and why habituation to it may produce unequal effects on the future of how we find support (some of which follow directly and some more indirectly from our data presented here). Most obviously, all this first assumes that all people have the digital means to shift all their social activities and daily routines into the digital sphere. Not every person within a household just has a laptop, the necessary software and hardware and the knowledge to use all of it – a problem which emerges now especially when it comes to extended homework which is euphemistically called ‘homeschooling’. These means of using the digital sphere are not equally distributed within a city. Second, we learnt that face-to-face encounters are more helpful than digital ones. The ‘nature’ of face-to-face interaction as Goffman (1967) has argued, includes more than the exchange of words. Speaking is only one way of communicating. The use of the hands, the movement and body posture, the distance between two people during an encounter or the use of props (e.g. when interacting in a corner shop or office) all affect the message conveyed. So, if you feel like you are currently missing something, you are correct: there is a strength and importance of casual hugs or affectional touches for people’s wellbeing that digital communication does not produce. Third, digital communication generally assumes that we contact others with a clear intentionality of what we want from them and why we talk to them, or that support is planned in a system of supply and demand, like the networks on-line that meet with much enthusiasm of politicians. An important portion of support is the by-product of doing something else with others, especially others with whom we are not close. In addition, social exchanges in lockdown condition via telephone or video-chat require contact details. As scholars have shown, when people leave the house to pick up their child from kindergarten, ride the subway or go to work, they do not plan to get social support in these spaces, nor do they necessarily have the telephone number or skype details of the person they speak to. Again, exchange of social support between people often simply ‘happens’ as a byproduct of doing something else – outside, at a bar, a coffeehouse or simply the playground.
Even if we have contact details, it is harder to get these kinds of social support under lockdown conditions. Any digital work meeting, for example, follows new routines: seeing colleagues on the screen does not allow for socializing at the Goffmanian (1959) ‘back-stage’. There is no coffee machine or smokers’ area to confide about a personal problem to a colleague during a break.
Some well-established writers in mainstream media have swarmed about the positive aspects of having to stay home. Others filled their Instagram accounts with apple-pies and flowering garden plants. #stayathome made it a moral imperative. Ignoring for now that for many, it is an empty imperative as they ought to go out to make money, we argue that the idea of staying at home as a moral imperative now embraced as what good people do in times of the lockdown has a dangerous element of habituation to it. Now that it is situationally normal, because we have no other choice, we must avoid turning it into something that is normatively normal as well. That the quiet city is a luxury that some of us may be enjoying from behind their laptop, enjoying the view from the window from their spacious Altbauapartment may be so. For others, costs are high, and for those facing the most serious challenges, the ways to access resources to resolve them have never been so limited. As sociologists studying social support, social networks and locality and community, we know that it is imperative to stay home to slow down the spread of the virus to avoid the collapse of the health care system. And still, we must avoid that it becomes a new habituation, and we do so especially by telling each other all the time that just because we need to do it, this does not make it right.
Read the German translation of this article here.
This article underwent minor changes the 28/05/2020
 Simmel, G. 1950. On the significance of numbers for social life. In: K.H. Wolff (1951) The Sociology of Georg Simmel, New York: Free Press, pp.87-100.
 We thus traced practices of support instead of asking whether people had received specific pre-defined forms of support, as is commonly done in such research.
 Oldenburg, R. 1999(1989). The great good place. Cafés, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press.
 The strong difference between the median and mean can be explained by the (rather small) range of respondents who meet with others at other cities within Germany or even the world – but therefore strongly distort the mean towards high distances.
 Putnam, R. D. 2002. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
 See for discussion of the role of space for social ties formation: Small, M. L., and Adler, L. 2019. “The role of space in the formation of social ties.” Annual Review of Sociology 45 (1):111-132.
 Compare: Simmel, G. 1950. On the Significance of numbers for social Life. In: K.H. Wolff (1951). The Sociology of Georg Simmel, New York: Free Press, pp.87-100.
 Goffman, E. 1967. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York: Doubleday Anchor.
 Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. 2015. “Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness.” Psychological Science, 26(2):135-47.
 See e.g. Small, M. 2010. Unanticipated gains origins of network inequality in everyday life. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
Small, M. 2017. Someone to talk to. New York: Oxford University Press;
Arbter, R. 2016. Social ties and the moral orientation of sharing. In T. Blokland, C. Giustozzi, D. Krüger, & H. Schilling (Eds.), Creating the unequal city (pp. 137–156). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
 Goffman, E. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life, 2nd edn. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Further Blogposts by the Authors:
Coronavirus Edition #17: Leaving the house to talk in private
Coronavirus Edition #16: More than jobs and making money