Sociologist Eric Klinenberg follows up his New York Times op-ed with comments in the Chicago Tribune explaining why “physical distancing” is a better term than “social distancing”:
“A lot depends on us making this change,” Klinenberg said when I reached him by phone Friday at his home in New York. “To ask for ‘social distancing’ implies that we should go home and close our doors and turn our back on the people around us. That’s precisely wrong. We need social connections, social solidarity, more than ever before. It’s feeling social solidarity that leads us to lend a hand to the most vulnerable people around us – the elderly, the homeless and those who are doing what we now call essential work, who are at enormous risk.
“Of course we need physical distancing to prevent the virus from spreading,” Klinenberg said. “It’s transmitted through physical contact. It’s not transmitted through social bonds. And it’s social closeness that will help us help each other through this and help us rebuild. So if we stigmatize social life through our terminology, if we praise individualism and just taking care of ourselves, we run the risk of making the problem even worse.”
Perhaps there are two ways to approach this. First, changing the term could indeed matter. Second, with or without a changed term, the appeal to individualism and private action in staying away from others could be a powerful one in a country that celebrates individualism.
At the least, Klinenberg’s call could push some people to pay more attention to their social interactions in a time when typical social interactions are discouraged and dangerous. Klinenberg’s earlier work suggests that social bonds are already tenuous in a number of communities. In normal times, it is relatively easy to engage in patterns that do not require much thought. When that normalcy is disrupted, continuing those regular patterns requires flexibility and new ideas.
And, it remains to be seen how social bonds continue after the time of COVID-19. Will normal social interaction occur? Will there be new precautions (such as no or limited handshakes)? Will some who sheltered in place for a long period continue in those patterns? The length of the new policies, interactions during COVID-19, and hard-to-predict social changes (spanning economics, politics, and social life) could all influence future interactions (including the possibility that social bonds will be strengthened significantly after COVID-19 recedes).
I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. Today, I highlight the last of four passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.
Returning to social media toward the end of the book and specifically discussing Facebook, Klinenberg suggests online interaction is not a good substitute for interaction in real space in real time:
But no matter how the site’s designers tweak Facebook content, the human connections we need to escape danger, establish trust, and rebuild society require recurrent social interaction in physical places, not pokes and likes with “friends” online. (212)
This is a regular theme in the book: social media interaction cannot match social interaction that takes place face-to-face in real places.
I would guess social media platforms will try really hard in the next few years to change their platforms to encourage more positive social interactions. Some users already work hard to avoid negative interactions. Facebook, for example, is pushing community groups more. Instagram is hiding likes. Twitter is allowing people to hide responses to their posts. Will this all work? Possibly. But, Klinenberg argues that all of these efforts can only go so far. Humans will still need physical places that encourage interaction, trust, and new ideas.
Imagine social media in ten years that is primarily made up of positive interactions. Perhaps then it will be criticized for largely hiding negative emotions or conflict. Perhaps it be dull in the way that endlessly cheery stories might be. Or perhaps it will be seen as a supplement to offline relationships rather than competition for them.
Another way to think about Klinenberg’s ideas: what do public spaces need to be in order to entice people away from social media? There are ingredients that make public spaces more interesting such as a regular flow of people, a variety of activity, a human scale, and perceived safety. Do we have enough of these to truly people people way from their smartphones and if not, how much work would it take to develop spaces like this all over the country?
I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. I have been highlighting a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.
Discussing how schools are constructed, Klinenberg contrasts a school in Greenwich Village that was set up in such a way to foster community between parents and guardians versus a suburban setup that discouraged interaction:
But when the academic year began we quickly noticed some major flaws in the otherwise excellent social infrastructure. The campus, while beautiful, is mostly off-limits to parents, who are expected to drop off their children at the entrance and are allowed into classrooms on special occasions only. There’s some space for casual interaction on the sidewalk in front of the school, but it’s not designed for socializing, especially not at the beginning or end of the school day. The reason will likely be familiar to everyone who’s spent time in large suburban schools: the entryway is dominated by a long, roundabout driveway, and every day hundreds of parents drive through it to drop off their children and quickly pull away. It’s a remarkably efficient system – so efficient, in fact, that parents have little opportunity to get to know one another on or around the school grounds. (85)
If the name of the game is efficiency – get as many kids as quickly as possible in and out of school – this might be the best physical setup. If the goal is to encourage community and an interactive time before and after school, this may be the worst way to do it. But, if suburbs are often about “moral minimalism” where residents build community by leaving each other alone, perhaps this is the plan all along.
Looking at how schools could foster community and social interaction makes sense as many American kids and families are already interacting with public schools. With some tweaks to the physical environments of schools, even more social interaction and community might be encouraged. The flip side of this is whether schools continue to be centers of community and interaction even when people do not have children.
This reminds me of the TED talk on suburbs by critic James Howard Kunstler. He has a bit where he shows a picture of the exterior of a school in Las Vegas. From the particular angle, it looks like a prison. This is part of Kunstler’s argument: buildings that cut themselves off from the rest of the community do a disservice to the public. A school that limits social interaction in favor of cars misses an opportunity.
I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. For a few days, I am highlighting a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.
In a discussion of policing, crime, and spaces, Klinenberg highlights research showing resources put into improving places can improve social relations:
The Philadelphia studies suggest that place-based interventions are far more likely to succeed than people-based projects. “Tens of millions of vacant and abandoned properties exist in the United States,” write Branas and his team. Remediation programs “make structural improvements to the very context within which city residents are exposed on a daily basis.” They are simple, cheap, and easily reproducible, so they can be implemented on a larger scale. What’s more, they impose few demands on local residents, and the programs appear to pay for themselves. “Simple treatments of abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned conservative estimates of between $5.00 and $26.000 in net benefits to taxpayers and between $79.00 and $333.00 to society at large, for every dollar invested,” their paper in the American Journal of Public health reports. It’s not only more dangerous to leave the properties untended; it’s also more expensive. (70)
Imagine vacant properties in many American cities, particularly in the Rust Belt, transformed. Keeping up the property over time could help show local conditions will not be allowed to decline. Even as residents may come and go, the community is committed to the lot.
But, I wonder how much push back there would be from the public. A typical approach to struggling communities is to argue for more job and educational opportunities. If this works, it gives people options and skills they can then use anywhere over time. Such investments are viewed as showing residents that the community cares about their lives. Would putting resources into places be perceived in the same way?
Generally, infrastructure is pretty invisible in American life. Focusing on vacant properties, very noticeable to both people in the community as well as visitors, might help reverse that.
I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. In the next few days, I will highlight a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.
In a discussion of relationships and social media in Chapter One, Klinenberg concludes:
Building real connections requires a shared physical environment – a social infrastructure. (41)
Research on social media tends to back this up: meaningful or lasting relationships on social media are often grounded in offline interactions and relationships. Social media may be particularly good at helping people maintain connections over time but many social media relationships have roots in or also take place offline. These deeper connections take place in particular settings. Physical spaces can help foster social interaction and togetherness.
This reminds me of Herbert Gans’ conclusions about the lives of teenagers in an early Levittown: there was nowhere for them to go. If there are not tangible physical spaces for young adults to gather (a role formerly played by the shopping mall), then the smartphone and social media look more attractive. Communities may struggle to find places for teenagers to go and be welcome – for example, even shopping malls did not necessarily want them – but the alternative may be worse.
An arts critics think about how Chicago might remember the deaths of hundreds in the 1995 heat wave:
After all, events that caused far fewer deaths have been the subject of remembrances, designed to honor those who died. July 1995 has yet to make into that civic category, but it deserves a spot. Perchance someone may convene a discussion between those who were involved in that crisis and ponder what was learned (I should note that Klinenberg also charges the media, including the management of this newspaper, with some culpability in the tardiness of the connecting of the dots, while acknowledging some formidable reportage).
More useful, though, might be an artistic response.
A commissioned symphonic piece, perhaps played outdoors. A concert honoring those who died. A dance work. Some stirring poetic words. Some deep collective thoughts from city leaders as to if, or how, the city has changed since then and where there still is work to be done. Some consideration of whether we now do a better job of taking care of each other, whatever the weather outside. It is worth the attention of the city’s artists. And politicians.
“Marking it as a historic event is important,” Egdorf said. “If only to remind people to look after their neighbors.”
Three quick thoughts:
1. Given the demographics of those who died, such a commemoration could also go a long ways toward addressing social divisions such as those involving age, class, and race. Important figures are often commemorated but what about a mass number of average residents?
2. For the social forces that contributed to who died in this particular heat wave, I recommend Heat Wave by sociologist Eric Klinenberg.
3. The idea of having an artistic response to this disaster is an interesting one. We often have solemn commemorations but this presents an opportunity to create something new of tragedy.
Comedian Aziz Ansari is familiar with the work of Sherry Turkle and has done research with sociologist Eric Klinenberg:
While every other comedian — from Tina Fey to Amy Poehler — is writing a memoir, Ansari decided he’d team up with a sociologist to conduct studies on love in the age of technology for his first title. The comedian revealed his book cover exclusively to TIME and chatted about his research, his stand-up and the end of Parks and Rec…
I had been starting to do this stand-up about dating and realized that the current romantic landscape is way different. All these very modern problems — like, sitting and deciding what to write in a text — that’s a very new conundrum.
Then I randomly met a couple people who were in academic fields that did work that vaguely applied to this stuff. Like, this woman Sherry Turkle who had done all this research about texting and found that you say things over text you would never say to someone’s face. So the medium of communication we’re using is kind of making us sh—ttier people. And then I thought if you take that and put it toward romantic interactions, that’s why people are so f—ing rude…
It ended up being a sociology book that has my sense of humor, but it also has some academic heft to it. I wrote it with this sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, and he helped me design this huge research project that we did. We interviewed hundreds of people all across the world — we went to Tokyo and Paris and Wichita to really get a wide scope. We also interviewed all sorts of academics. The resulting book is really unique. I can’t think of any book I would really compare it to.
I wonder how the two worlds involved here – those who read books by comedians and sociologists – will react to this book:
1. Will the general public be interested in a comedian utilizing more academic data to tackle a a popular topic? Could a comedian reach people in a way that a book written by a sociologist alone could not? Or, will the public still not really trust the data and continue to rely on their own anecdotes of online love?
2. How will sociologists view Klinenberg’s contribution? Is this data really any good or it is too impressionistic? While sociologists talk about public sociology, popular pieces of writing are often derided for not being serious enough. Was Klinenberg secretly conducting an ethnographic project on the lives of modern comedians?
No matter the critical reception from either camp, I imagine this book will sot a lot more copies than the typical sociology monograph…