The interest of social distancing
Université Paris-Saclay, INRAE, Agroparistech
Social distance or distancing, the term is often used in the Covid19 pandemic. Far from being useless,
its ambivalence is paramount. It illustrates the relationships between the social animals that are
human beings and its content is much richer than the simple physical or geographical distance.
Social distance or distancing, the term is ambiguous and could be considered an oxymoron. Yet this
ambivalence is paramount. It has the merit of illustrating the relationships between the social animals
that are human beings and its content is much richer than the physical or geographical distance. I will
illustrate it with a few examples, based on epidemiological analyses, proxemics and proximity
In 1918, during the Spanish flu pandemic, Doctor Max Starkloff defined and then implemented the
principle of «social distancing», which we now translate sometimes into social distance. This empirical
method, which only repeats and systematizes much older practices, prohibiting in particular the
gatherings of more than twenty people, has then been applied during various epidemic episodes.
Studies conducted in the city of Sydney estimate that these measures saved from 100,000 to 260,000
lives in 1919. They are often considered to play a major role in reducing the impact of the epidemic in
terms of public health (Caley et al., 2006). But other works, based on simulations, suggest that social
distancing, however severe, is only effective in the case of not too virulent epidemics (Reluga, 2010),
and that nothing replaces the effectiveness of vaccination as soon as the spreading factor becomes
Let’s briefly come to the physical distance in its simplest form, which is that of geographical proximity,
extensively studied and documented by the researches on proximity relations (Torre, 2014). In the
case of the Coronavirus pandemic, as in many other situations, it can be simply observed that a strong
geographical proximity promotes the spread of the virus and the infestation of people, by direct
(cough, sneezing, postilions, etc.) and indirect physical contacts (when someone touches a
contaminated surface), or by air transmission. This is the reason why, following the great epidemics of
the twentieth century, is advocated the setting of a social distancing, which takes various forms and is
based on more or less radical techniques, some of which are familiar to us since the Middle Ages:
wearing masks, isolating identified patients, quarantining, closing schools, banning cultural, sporting
or religious gatherings, starting with total confinement of the population, absolute prohibition of
leaving one’s place of life… So many actions or measures that can be combined, and whose objective
is to avoid suffering this deadly geographical proximity.
The introduction of these rules, and in particular of the most extreme one, lock-down, is far to be
related to the sole technical or physical domains and carries a very strong social and institutional
content. This is evidenced, for example, by the differences, in this situation, between countries such
as Sweden, which has not decided on containment, and Italy, where the rules are very strict. Or, in a
more extreme way, in the USA, the demonstrations of the supporters of de-confinement, who ask a
return to a situation of freedom of movement of people by arguing of obstacles to their fundamental
rights. Obviously, economic considerations are not unrelated to these differences as well; the
introduction of isolation or barrier gestures is clearly a powerful brake on productive and commercial
activity. But it also has a strong impact on our lifestyles, calls into question many personal or
professional habits and practices, and raises many issues about life in society and relationships
The first concerns obstacles or deprivation of physical contact, which have a social dimension that goes
beyond mere physiology. The proxemics studies, developed by the cultural anthropologist Edward Hall
(1966) and the geographers Moles and Rohmer, allow us to understand that behind the physical
distance lies social contact, whose limitation impacts the comfort zone surrounding the individual.
Each person is surrounded by a surface around him, a kind of bubble that constitutes an emotionally
strong zone or an individual security perimeter. Its size varies from crop to crop, but covers four
growing areas. The intimate distance, which is accompanied by a great physical involvement and a high
sensory exchange, is used to embrace, touch, it is that of love. Personal distance refers to specific
conversations and interactions between friends or family members. The social distance, which
concerns interactions with friends and colleagues, applies particularly well in the context of work.
Finally, public distance is required when talking to groups of people. From these different distances, it
results in the existence of territories of the individual They are defined according to the type of
interactions and relationships that he practices and correspond to the territory of the social animal
that is the human being. It is also found in animal societies, and some species go as far as practicing
the “shyness” of trees, which implies a gap between their tops (Fish et al. 2006).
This contact area is obviously very strongly influenced by both technical actions and fear of contact
caused by the indisputable spatial dimension of the spread of the pandemic. Thus, work in co-presence
and co-working, as we like to practice in open spaces, becomes dangerous and prohibited, whereas
face-to-face interactions, recommended for the co-creation of knowledge, ideas or the dissemination
of innovations (Feldman, 1994), are cut off or made impossible. A large part of the benefits of co-
location of innovators or engineers is thus mostly reduced and the interior design of workplaces needs
to be rethought (Zhang et al., 2020). The same is true of all invention laboratories, such as living labs
or fab labs, which are based on grouping people in one place, face-to-face exchange, common
manipulation of technical objects and joint interventions on the same process…. Or third places, which
mix technicians and lay users in the development of shared projects (Oldenburg, 1991). All the well-
known and often celebrated virtues of face to face interactions are thrown down because of the need
to maintain a social distancing, which rightly prohibits social practices and their positive effects. This
even goes as far as urban development, which can be modified to reduce contact possibilities, by
means of temporary settings corresponding to strategic urbanism tactics (Honey-Roses et al. 2020).
Proximity approaches have taught us for a long time that the distancing of people does not only have
geographical or spatial effects, but that it leads to a loss of exchanges and landmarks. An important
part of the interactions between human beings goes through attitudes, facial expressions,
pheromones, human contact, kisses, hugs, shaking hands, conviviality around a glass or a meal, and
can only reproduce imperfectly at a distance. This distance exchange and its limitations are well known
to sociologists (Urry, 2002). It is also on this observation that the existence of localized production
systems and policies for the creation of clusters or technopoles is based, which seek to promote
exchange between scientists or technicians (Porter, 1998).
In this case, geographical proximity (let’s call it physical distance) is not the only important variable.
Another crucial dimension is the so-called organized proximity. I can find myself in the most beautiful
technopolis, if I do not share cognitive, emotional, cultural and organizational resources with my
neighbors it has no interest to be at a short physical distance from them. It is the combination of these
two variables – geographical proximity and organized proximity – that creates positive interactions,
whether economic or social. Their secret, to quote Alfred Marshall’s famous joke, is not in the air but
in the social bond. And this is also where the existence of urban agglomerations, and in particular cities,
comes from. The search for geographical proximity explains the constitution of cities and urban
agglomerations, associated with the search for contact, the interactions of life in society, which fall
under the organized proximity (Bourdeau-Lepage and Torre, 2020). Economies of agglomeration,
which are positive externalities that benefit to every inhabitant and to which he aspires by being
located in densely populated areas, are based on their combination.
But in times of pandemic this virtuous causality is reversed because the risk of diffusion becomes much
more important in the heart of towns or cities. Regular and repeated meetings, face-to-face
interactions, contacts, that’s all the Covid19 appreciates! Geographical proximity, hitherto sought for
its benefits, becomes a source of major inconvenience, at the risk of disease and death. As far as
possible, people prefer to move to rural or less densely populated areas, which are less affected by
geographical proximity because of their lower concentration. This is one of the causes of the urban
exodus in France in March, conducted by the desire to find oneself in a more «healthy» area than the
city. For people forced to stay or return to the urban space, the practice of the individual car becomes
attractive again, because it makes it possible to recreate the famous bubble around the individual and
thus to preserve, as far as possible, their health, given the challenge of protection in public transport.
Geographical proximity is also a ruthless indicator of social inequalities and fractures. The size of the
house, the number of rooms and people who occupy them, the layout of a garden or terrace, refer to
a possibility of social distancing and of living in common more or less important according to income.
It is much more dangerous to impose lock-down inside homes for very large families. They feel
probably safer and more likely to respect distancing when they are outside, especially in case of
wearing masks. Beyond the epidemiological risk involved, the cramped housing for a large family
makes confinement difficult. Proximity is exacerbated, social distancing becomes difficult, if not
impossible, and the space of each person becomes drastically reduced. The increase in domestic and
gender violence becomes the price to be paid in the event of an exit ban, and logically affects the more
deprived neighborhoods, where the number of people is much higher per square meter. The penalty
is then double, in the image of the character of social distancing: to the physical infection, much
stronger in the more crowded and poor areas, comes added social misery. The message of lock-down
is then difficult to communicate, especially when it comes to emerging economies, in which a large
part of the population lives off to informal labor, which requires daily physical and social contacts, and
does not have sufficient savings or income to cease all activity for a relatively short period of time. In
slums and favelas, as well as in working-class neighborhoods in developed countries, the geographical
proximity of workers and blue collars is deadly. Forced to exercise their activity as caregivers, cashiers,
garbage collectors, etc. travelling in scarce public transport, they are exposed to the risk of disease,
while they sometimes do not have access to the simplest tools of social distancing.
The vast majority of others, the middle classes, are now working remotely, and teleworking is
developing, based on the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), in parallel with
other modes of remote interaction such as telemedicine or even a good part of teaching. Remote
relationships replace face-to-face interactions. If they are just as social as the latter, these relations act
the separation of bodies and people through the development of the Internet and social networks.
Organized proximity, of relational and not geographical essence, is then used. It has always existed
between people, making reference to the people we love, the friends, the family, the persons with
whom we feel close because we share the same origins, the same culture, the same ways of seeing the
world. Thanks to the development of ICTs it has developed; they enable knowledge exchange and
remote working, largely abolish the constraints of geographical proximity, and therefore of distance,
in particular (Torre and Rallet, 2005). But this augmented remoteness asks questions, and we do not
yet measure all the consequences. The development of syndromes and psychological diseases in time
of lock-down is a cause for concern, but is it linked to this absence of social bond?
The use of ICTs is also strongly mobilized in proximity tracing or contact tracing applications, which
should make it possible to identify infected persons and report them to people in their immediate
geographical proximity, thanks to the virtues of Bluetooth, for example. The development of these
practices, whether or not based on the voluntary work of infected persons, obviously raises massive
legal questions and individual freedoms, as well as problems of artificial intelligence, big data or
machine learning (Kuhn et al. 2020). Fraser and his team simulated the use of proximity tracing in a
fictitious city of one million people (Feretti et al., 2020) and estimated that the use of this application,
based on geographical proximity, could lead to a massive reduction in the spread of Coronavirus.
Recent applications in Singapore, however, suggest that the social component of proximity plays an
unanticipated role, with the refusal of many people to download the application, which only becomes
effective if more than 60% of the population makes use of it (Bay, 2020).
It appears that the term of social distance or distancing is well chosen, combining a purely physical
component - the distance that can exist between two objects like a table and a chair - and the
fundamental social component that governs every human or living relationship. These two variables
must therefore be carefully considered. The physical distance to try to stop the contagion, the social
proximity to try to preserve human exchanges and maintain life in society beyond the family or
intimate circle. Considering social distancing forces us to think, to come out of easy patterns, and
reminds us that distance or proximity is not only a physical affair. Man is indeed this social animal,
which combines individual impulses with group functioning and fears the virus while feeling the pangs
of spatial isolation. The question before us now, at the time of distant or distant exchanges, is our
ability to socialize in ways other than anecdotal. Are we still a society, when we exchange through our
connected terminals? These people who no longer see each other, who no longer touch each other,
do they still form a society, or only an agglomeration of individualities? Are the laws and rules sufficient
to maintain the link in the absence of social contact? Does the social and spatial distinction between
those who go out to work and those who remain isolated to do their daily job introduce a new social
and spatial divide?
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