Social isolation and anomie during COVID-19

One possible explanation of the weird behavior of people during COVID-19 draws on the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim:

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The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too.

“We’ve got, I think, a generalized sense that the rules simply don’t apply,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, told me. In some places, he says, police arrested fewer people during the pandemic, and “when enforcement goes down, people tend to relax their commitment to the rules.”

This perspective is interesting to consider alongside the millions who did follow national and local guidelines regarding masking and behavior. A lot of attention has been paid to those refusing to comply but many did; does the weirdness stand out even more because of this?

To take the Durkheim reference further, he thought the breaking of the rules and the subsequent reaction and sanctions could help reinforce the original rules.

I might add to the list of explanations in the article the influence of smartphones and social media. These could matter in multiple ways. First, the weird behavior can easily be recorded by others. People may have been weird in the past but was there such a visible record of that behavior? Second, the people with the weird behavior may be recording and sharing their own behavior. Overall, what may have been more private behavior in the past or actions limited to a relatively small set of people or closely connected set of people are no longer kept from a broader audience.

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