Social distancing in times of pandemics. A study of the renegotiation of the interaction order (7405)

Début / Fin
01.06.2020 - 31.05.2022
Domaine(s) d'expertise
Sociologie, anthropologie
Sources de financement
Fonds national suisse de la recherche scientifique. Division interdisciplinaire et internationale (InterCo)
Kaufmann Laurence (Faculté des sciences sociales et politiques, Université de Lausanne)
Malbois Fabienne (HETSL)
Dezecache Guillaume (Université de Clermont-Auvergne (France))
Licoppe Christian (Ecole polytechnique - Paris Tech)


Extremely difficult for various reasons, the pandemic crisis also creates a kind of large-scale experimental laboratory of our social conducts, which must be the object of extensive, multi-site, interdisciplinary and collective research. In order to narrow down the multiple possible lines of investigation, this project has chosen to focus on the short-term and mid-term consequences of the imposition of « social distancing » for preventing the propagation of the Covid-19. Although necessary for sanitary reasons, social distancing has indeed tremendous consequences from an interactionist standpoint - strongly inspired by Erving Goffman and Georg Simmel’s theory of relations in public and interaction order. It has emptied public places and makes public encounters and a fortiori public gatherings legally punishable and, above all, morally reprehensible. While coexisting with strangers in a public space was synonymous with civility, it has suddenly become a sign of incivility and moral fault. Withdrawal into the private sphere and its concretely disaffiliative side has become synonymous with a more abstract affiliation, changing the true sense of the imagined community we belong to. Interaction avoidance and self-isolation have become signs of civility. With the epidemic, relations in public are proscribed, the order of interaction totally dislocated. Of course, social distancing would better be described as spatial, physical distancing. Mediated interaction can still take place in networked forms of communication and compensate for the absence of bodily copresence by amplifying the strange « absence presence » proper to distant modes of interaction. It remains to know whether the multiplication of hybrid forms of mediated communication can suffice to alleviate the disappearance of the public space. Getting a glimpse at the short-term and long-term implications of the disappearance of the concrete public space over the conception of social relationships but also of oneself is at the heart of this project. Its main goal is to follow in real time the diachronic unfolding of the collective ongoing experience of « social distancing » that everyone is currently making. To do so, we will collect data from a large network of informants from different socioeconomic backgrounds and from two countries, Switzerland and France. Two kind types of data will be collected. Confinement data: 1) micro-observation of public interactions in supermarket and on the street, necessarily limited by coronavirus restrictions, but also observations of the « left-behinds » of confinement, migrants or poors that cannot isolate and protect themselves or others 2) (auto)ethnography of « stay-home » interactions, mediated or not, which can consist of media reports as well as social media snapshots. We have already started this data collection by creating a collective diary in order to compare it, later on, with the post-confinement reconstruction of events and experiences. Post-confinement data: 1) observation of public interactions in supermarkets and on the street in order to see how interpersonal distance is renegotiated and proxemics has evolved 2) 30 non-directive face-to-face interviews with a sample of participants from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The first aim of this data collection program is documentary: it aims at generating ethnographic material and long lasting memory of « what happened to us ». Its second aim is to delve into the « strategies » put into place by people from a diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds in order to maintain sociality despite the necessity of social and physical distancing.

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