Successful social distancing is, in our view, of equal importance in the fight against the coronavirus as the development of a vaccine. It raises difficulties from both an academic and a practical point of view because social distancing runs counter to our most basic social interactional instincts. It is well known that humans are social beings: we are hardwired to interact with one another as closely as possible. As various evolutionary scholars have pointed out, since the dawn of humanity, social interaction has helped humans to survive and succeed. And now, all of a sudden, we are being told to relinquish most of what we know and feel about interaction and maintain a suitable distance between ourselves – even with the easing of some forms of social distancing, in most countries a strong warning remains in place that we must stay a suitable distance apart. The use of technology may, in theory, ease the pain of social distancing, but what many people are missing are those interactional practices that bind us together and which we follow on a daily basis. These practices are what we define as ‘interactional rituals’ in this blog series, in accordance with the sociologist Erving Goffman (1976).
To many people, the word ‘ritual’ may indicate some form of ‘ceremony’, but for the academic, ritual, as a technical term, encompasses much more: it includes all forms of behaviour by means of which we reinforce our rights and obligations, and those of others, in social interactions, and which our societies use to reproduce themselves. Ritual has many forms, spanning small-talk and chit-chat in a pub, through to workplace meetings and institutional ceremonies. Ritual operates with strict interactional rules and recurrent features, which we may be unaware of until they are violated – but once such a violation occurs, we often feel outrage. And this is where the unpleasantness of social distancing kicks in: often, we simply have to commit such violations.
The Research featured in the blog was supported by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Momentum Grant (LP2017/5)