30 April 2020

Distantiated Communities

A social history of social distancing

Lily Scherlis

A distantiated version of Children's Games, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Social distancing implemented by the author. The original 1560 painting can be seen here.

The term “social distancing” trickled into the US news at the end of January, and by mid-March had become the governing creed of interpersonal relations for the time being.[1] It surfaced in the midst of early doubts about the efficacy and ethics of the quarantine in China. The media began to recite it, wrapping it in scare quotes. The omnipresent quotation marks created the impression that reporters were holding the term at bay and contemplating it. By mid-March—after the flood of guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and subsequent executive orders—social distancing had become sufficiently imperative for the term to be folded directly into sentences, shedding its quotation marks once and for all. But the initial presence of the quotes reflects the early mass fascination with the unfamiliar term.[2] It materialized as if from nowhere: a scientific coinage, a spontaneous naming of a systematized set of behaviors miraculously devised by presumed experts.

“Social distancing” has actually lived several lives. It and its precursor, “social distance,” had long been used in a variety of colloquial and academic contexts, both as prescriptions and descriptions, before being taken up by epidemiologists in this century. In the nineteenth century, “social distance” was a polite euphemism used by the British to talk about class and by Americans to talk about race. It was then formally adopted in the 1920s by sociologists as a term to facilitate the quantitative codification that was then being introduced into the nascent study of race relations. In the second half of the twentieth century, psychiatry, anthropology, and zoology all adapted it for various purposes. And it was used in the 1990s in the United States to analyze what happened to the gay community when faced with straight fears of contagion. It was only in 2004 in a CDC publication on controlling the recent SARS outbreak that the term “social distance” was finally deployed for the first time by the medical community.

The history I trace here doesn’t presume that the doctors who appropriated it to control disease knew about its legacy, or that these links are relationships of causation. But there was something in the air in 2004 that encouraged the practices we now know as social distancing to be christened in this way—as if its past meanings had coalesced into a semantic atmosphere ripe for the emergence of this new use. Which is why if you think the term is weird, you’re right.

• • •

Though implemented without a name, the strategy of de-densifying has been used in the United States since at least the 1918 influenza pandemic.[3] Unlike quarantine in the true sense of the word, social distancing deals with density, as if humans were gas molecules under pressure, bouncing around in a tiny space.[4] The goal is to allow the molecules to distribute more sparsely. This procedure acquired its contemporary name when the term “social distance” finally shed its political history and emerged as a science-backed prescription in materials issued by the CDC during the SARS outbreak. The earliest instance I could find turns up in a January 2004 CDC protocol that advised “jurisdictions with large numbers of cases without known epidemiologic linkages [to] consider instituting measures to increase social distance” and included a paragraph of justification for the strategy.[5] In June of that year, a scholar affiliated with the WHO used it in a report issued by the Institute of Medicine in the United States on possible responses to a future pandemic: “Most Americans take for granted the freedom to associate with others in a variety of social settings,” the report notes. These liberties notwithstanding, it advised that “public health authorities could restrict social mixing and increase social distance to avert a serious infectious disease threat.”[6] The report’s conditional phrasing is a reflection of the extent to which the strategy of social distance was still considered a semi-experimental approach at the time. It was a new, almost offhand way to represent an old arsenal of practices.[7] A November 2004 report by the WHO itself similarly held the term at arm’s length by introducing it bubble-wrapped in scare quotes.[8]

The now-familiar gerund, “social distancing,” finally appeared in the medical context in a November 2005 United States Department of Health and Human Services report.[9] It quickly eclipsed the noun form, and exploded in both scholarship and public guidance, escaping scare quotes amid the 2005–2006 avian flu epidemic.[10] It came to wider attention in February 2006 with a New York Times article entitled “In Case of Pandemic, Love Your Neighbor A Lot Less,” which primed the public on nonpharmaceutical approaches to a possible avian flu explosion. After a few coy lines about air kisses and elbow bumps, the author writes: “If the avian flu goes pandemic while Tamiflu and vaccines are still in short supply, experts say, the only protection most Americans will have is ‘social distancing,’ which is the new politically correct way of saying ‘quarantine.’ ... Social distancing means that if you can read this, you’re too close.”

• • •

Researching the historical alter-egos of the phrase, the first instance of “social distance” I could find in English appears in the 1831 translation of Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne’s memoirs of his friendship with Napoleon. He describes how when Napoleon entered the room after conquering Venice, Bourrienne felt he could not address his friend in the same way: “His position placed too great a social distance [distance sociale] between him and me not to make me feel the necessity of fashioning my demeanor accordingly.”[11]

This use, referring to the social rank of individuals and thus the etiquette demanded between persons, was common in anglophone culture throughout the nineteenth century, especially with regard to class. In 1835, a British women’s magazine published a travelogue on Belgian etiquette that describes a nobleman and a mechanic sitting down for a smoke: “Their long pipes meet upon the table, and diminish the social distance that separates them. By degrees the noble familiarises himself with the idea that both he and the mechanic are moulded in the same clay, which is as brittle as that of his pipe.”[12] An 1865 American serialized novel describes social distance feigned between secret lovers.

“Social distance” is both a prescription for interpersonal behavior and a way to figure mass inequality. In Britain, this pertains especially to class: an 1855 review of a novel entitled Gertrude; or, Family Pride worries that though “successful industry will often cause so near an approach between the toe of the commoner and the heel of the noble … social distance may be lessened with very little chance of producing any feeling of equality.”[13] An 1850 treatise on the promises of steam excitedly announces its ability to “annihilat[e] the ‘social distance between man and man.’[14]

Meanwhile, in nineteenth-century United States, social distance was a palatable way for whites to describe how to continue practices of white supremacy after abolition. The term’s softness glossed over the realities of slavery and later anti-black violence, as well as the challenges formerly enslaved people faced in making a livelihood. In 1850, an abolitionist British Baptist church condemned US whites for “keeping your most injured brethren in Christ at so great a social distance.”[15] A pro-secession article that appeared in the Richmond Enquirer in 1856 describes the anxiety of poor working whites who might soon be competing with formerly enslaved farmers, while “the rich, owning the lands, might keep the negroes at a greater social distance.”[16] An 1869 article accuses Frederick Douglass, among other black emissaries appointed to represent the United States abroad, of aspiring to “increase their social distance from the African.”[17] This was not the last time the term “social distance” would be used to give cover to whites’ racism.

• • •

“Social distance” came into scholarly discourse just after the turn of the century. Theorists including Gabriel Tarde and Georg Simmel began to spatialize intimacy. Tarde uses the term in Les Lois de l’imitation in 1890 to describe cultural dissimilarity.[18] Simmel’s 1908 essay “The Stranger” applies proximity as a way to talk about social bonds. The stranger is the troubling, socially distant figure who is in a community but not of it, a character embodying “the combination of the near and the far.”[19] Simmel invokes “social distance” casually and frequently throughout the text, letting its semantic boundaries blur and its meanings proliferate.[20]

Simmel’s work is a key antecedent for later uses of the term. Following the 1919 Chicago race riot, the nascent sociology department at the University of Chicago convinced a “wealthy Chicago heiress” to fund research into the budding field of “race relations.”[21] Faculty member Robert Park had studied with Simmel in Berlin, and hoped to apply the figure of the stranger and its associated concepts to racial dynamics in the United States. It was in this new incarnation as a sociological concept, then, that social distance found its “first notable empirical application” in the codification and quantification of how people belonging to one race felt about those of another. For Park, this project represented “an attempt to reduce to something like measurable terms the grades and degrees of understanding and intimacy which characterize personal and social relations generally.”[22] Importing Simmel’s term in order to describe this measurement, Park used “social distance” as a structuring concept in his large-scale survey of Asian Americans living on the Pacific coast.

Park asked Emory S. Bogardus, his former student who was by then a professor at the University of Southern California, to assist him in the project. It was for this occasion that Bogardus devised a “quantitative indicator of social distance.”[23] His statistical measure would go on to have a “profound impact” on US sociology, becoming “one of the most celebrated historical social psychological tools in American intellectual history.”[24] It is called the Social Distance Scale, and is still in use today. The scale equates “distance” with prejudice, which it calculates based on a group of given respondents’ agreements or disagreements with five to seven statements. The statements are designed to gauge the willingness of each member of that particular social grouping to “share certain situations” with members of other social groupings.[25] Bogardus began using the scale in his own research and published his first results in 1925; he expanded his survey of race relations the following year and would go on to repeat the study, with help from faculty from twenty-five institutions, every ten years until his death in 1973.[26] The scale Bogardus published in 1925 asked users to indicate “the most intimate relationship that you are willing to accept with a member of each of the groups indicated,” with a caveat to “provide your first feeling reaction in each case.” It offered seven degrees of intimacy as representative of the full spectrum of possible human relations:

To close kinship by marriage
To my club as personal chums
To my street as neighbors
To employment in my occupation in my country
To citizenship in my country
As visitors only to my country
Would exclude from my country

Though the middle choices vary quite a bit in subsequent versions, the two poles (joining the family via marriage and shared national location) typically remain the same. Perhaps predictably, the nation and the heterosexual family represent the bare minimum of human connection and total intimacy, respectively.

• • •

Though Bogardus’s social distance scale would never fully be disassociated from its historical role in quantifying individual racism, it would soon be pressed into service in a bewildering array of contexts. If you bought into its terms, social distance seemed capable of making precise measurements of the dynamics between any given set of social groups. It was Bogardus himself who gutted the concept of its specificity, making it applicable to any given individual relation across a status gap: he applied it, for example, in his work on education, using it to describe the structure of the teacher-pupil relationship. This flexibility snowballed within and beyond sociology, producing an extremely mutable term able to describe how doctors relate to patients or how humans relate to computers.[27]

By the latter part of the twentieth century, “social distance” was being applied as a universal technology for mapping any given human relation. In the mental health discourse of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, the Bogardus scale was employed “with great frequency” to talk about attitudes toward neurodivergent people and their own perceived isolation, swapping out the language of prejudice for that of stigma.[28] Also in the 1960s, social distance manifested in anthropology as a way of talking about how displays of nonproximity to others are constitutive parts of social codes: “the means by which man promotes the establishment of social relationships and the maintenance of social interaction through aloofness, removal, and reserve.”[29] Social distance is at once an object of study for anthropologists and a methodological obstacle for ethnographers: the ethnographer is Simmel’s stranger, seeking to gain the community’s trust.[30] “Social distance” as a euphemism for class structure became especially common in the 1970s.[31] By the 1990s, social distancing—the gerund—had begun to garner a litany of miscellaneous meanings, from urinal etiquette to the methods used by drug cops to avoid blowing their cover when impersonating high school students.[32]

In the 1950s, the term had already jumped species. Zoology is a key adaptation in the term’s biography because it is in this moment that the term acquires a literal physical meaning, rather serving as a spatial figuration of social feeling. The conceptual gap between Bogardus’s social distance and the CDC’s social distancing begins to close. In zoology, “social distancing” emerged in 1950 through the work of Heini Hediger, who studied the typical amount of physical space that gregarious animal species (species that live in communities) keep from one another. “Social distance,” in zoology, is the “maximum separation which would be tolerated between individuals before one or more would move to increase social proximity.”[33] In other words, it’s the felt, instinctual edge of the community, outside of which the social no longer applies, where one loses protection from the risks of being a lone organism in a dangerous ecosystem. For zoology, in contrast to sociology, social distance is a kind of radius attesting to attachment. It measures the gravitational field of a community, marking the boundary at which sociality ends.

A key turning point in usage of “social distance” occurs in the 1990s discourse on the social repercussions of AIDS. This moment becomes a hinge between the term’s sociological legacy and its reincarnation as a public health protocol. “Social distance,” as it pertained to the AIDS crisis, was often used to analyze the phenomenon of stigmatization, as it had been in psychiatry. At the same time, the notion of “distance” took on a new physical literalness, as well as an unprecedented association with public health. With the AIDS epidemic, stigma palpably attached to (false) anxieties about contagion: an HIV-negative public suddenly became wary of even casual touching of those profiled as likely to be HIV-positive, fearing that the virus could leap simply from epidermis to epidermis.[34] An interviewee in a study on AIDS and blame described public behavior, especially toward gay men: “Many people have become paranoid about it to the extent that they won’t shake hands or use the same cutlery in a restaurant as everyone else does.”[35] Suddenly, social distance was not only a way to distinguish degrees of prejudice against populations, but also a description of the physical distance to be kept from other individuals for one’s own protection.[36]

This was exemplified in a 1995 Social Distance Scale study designed to measure degrees of antipathy felt toward individuals living with AIDS based on how they had acquired the illness:

1. I could admit this individual to my street to live within a few doors of me.
2. I could refuse to attend a party at which this individual also was present.
3. I could become close friends with this individual.
4. I could oppose this individual becoming a member of my family.
5. I could accept this individual as a visitor to the United States.
6. I could allow this individual to be employed in the same field I was hoping to enter

As in Bogardus’s work, the question of physical proximity is foregrounded. The survey fixates on the location of the body of a person with AIDS relative to the respondent, reflecting the healthy public’s fear of contagion.

The literature extensively associates social distancing at the height of the AIDS crisis with the blame-based narratives favored by the HIV-negative population.[38] But in the literature on AIDS, the terminology of “distance” also came to describe the emotional ties within a vulnerable population, wherein family members and lovers engage in preemptive “social distancing” from a dying person.[39] It has been applied to situations where the dying person emotionally withdraws from those close to them, or when anti-gay victimization leads people to distance themselves from their own community.[40] It has been used to describe drug users’ perception of their own position in society, and names a variable in the decision to trust another person enough to share needles or eschew condoms.[41] Two incompatible discourses collide here: social scientists aspiring to close the gaps of animosity between populations, and those trying to increase the space between people’s bodies from fear of what toxicity might pass between them.

• • •

These days, our Social Distancing Scale is a binary:

I could allow this individual to live in my home with me.
I could not admit this person within a six-foot radius of me.

Most of the scholars who studied social distance in the twentieth century hoped to reduce it. Some used the term as a vague blanket reference to societal malaise generally. To participate in social distancing was to devalue a person; the study of social distance objectified these devaluations on a macro scale. It has been considered the rust in the well-oiled machine of sociality; for some, its elimination is the charge of social work.[42] Bogardus himself describes the telos of studying prejudice as “creating that understanding which cuts down social distances.”[43] It was meant to be eliminated, rather than prescribed to a population at risk.

But social distance is now a social good. People rarely know if they’re a vector or a victim, so we shore up our bodily boundaries to protect the inside from the outside and the outside from the inside. We do the same to our homes, scrubbing the surfaces of our private spheres until they gleam with the promise of safety.

As we participate in increasing social distance, we shouldn’t forget the term’s history: as a heuristic, it was a fairly arbitrary way to measure the interpersonal psychic intervals instituted by systemic inequity and the legacy of violence; as a phrase, it shellacked over these causes, essentializing the feelings it describes. Many of the old uses have persisted alongside its contemporary iteration as buzzword. The Social Distance Scale continues to function as a valid tool in the social sciences; it continues to describe a litany of forms of intolerance and myriad interpersonal practices in a variety of disciplines. “Social distancing,” ironically, has refused to relinquish its social life.

  1. The first mention I could find associated with the COVID-19 epidemic is in Wired’s 22 January article concerning the efficacy of the Wuhan quarantine; by the 26th, the New York Times had picked up the term. “Social distancing” was enshrined as official CDC strategy on 12 March.
  2. It should be noted, however, that term had also been used in CDC Swine Flu guidance for the general public in 2009.
  3. A 1958 WHO report lists the measures that had become standard in 1918 without giving them an overarching name: “restriction of movement of individuals, avoidance of crowds in cinemas, public meetings, etc.”
  4. The idea of sequestering the contagious turns up as early as the Book of Leviticus. The de-densifying of the population at large is a trickier phenomenon to track. Anxieties about touch and the transmission of syphilis spurred the institution of general personal space in sixteenth-century Europe because (unlike, say, leprosy) syphilis was not visible on the body, and it was therefore impossible to tell who was infected. The United States took documentable policy measures during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Nonetheless, I am less interested in tracking the development of epidemiological control methods than the history of the peculiar term we use to talk about them. See Suzanne E. Hatty and James Hatty, “The Danger of Touch: The Body and Social Distance,” a chapter in their The Disordered Body: Epidemic Disease and Cultural Transformation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).
  5. Unlike in coronavirus discourse, at the time the CDC advised that communications about social distancing should portray it as a “snow day ... because it is a concept with which most Americans are familiar.”
  6. Lawrence O. Gostin, “Public Health Preparedness and Ethical Values in Pandemic Influenza,” in The Threat of Pandemic Influenza: Are We Ready? (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005), p. 365. Available at ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22158. This publication, derived from research presented at a June 2004 workshop, seems to include the first use of the term by anyone affiliated with the WHO. The term does not appear in the WHO reports from May 2003 or October 2003, though the latter contains an extensive list of social distancing measures. Reports from November 2004 and from a December 2004 summit do include the term.
  7. “Legal and logistical questions loom: Which authority has the power to close a venue; what criteria should be used to trigger a closure and when should the restriction be lifted; and how will services be delivered to vulnerable populations who may be at risk in an isolated residence or shelter?” Ibid.
  8. David M. Bell and World Health Organization Working Group on Prevention of International and Community Transmission of SARS, “Public Health Interventions and SARS Spread, 2003,” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 10, no. 11 (November 2004), p. 1900.
  9. “Infection control in the community should focus on ‘social distancing’… Persons at high risk for complications of influenza should try to avoid public gatherings.” United States Department of Health and Human Services, “HHS Pandemic Influenza Plan,” November 2005. Available at cdc.gov/flu/pdf/professionals/hhspandemicinfluenzaplan.pdf.
  10. See Martin Cetron and Julius Landwirth, “Public Health and Ethical Considerations in Planning for Quarantine,” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, vol. 78, no. 5 (October 2005); Stephenie Overman, “Fighting the Flu Pandemic: Lessons from SARS,” Employee Benefit News Canada, vol. 2, no. 6 (11 December 2005); Howard Markel et al., “Nonpharmaceutical Influenza Mitigation Strategies, US Communities, 1918–1920 Pandemic,” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2006); United States Congress House Committee on Government Reform, The National Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response Plan: Is the United States Ready for Avian Flu? (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2005), among others.
  11. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, during the Periods of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1831), p. 61.
  12. L. De Beauclas, “Manners of the Belgians,” The Court Magazine, and Belle Assemblée (November 1834), available in The Court Magazine, vol. 5 (London: Edward Churton, 1834), p. 205.
  13. The toe-heel metaphor literalizes the “distance” figuration. An 1842 article in the Manchester Times has the opposite political take, worrying over the widening of social distance due to landlords’ monopolies. See “Complete Suffrage Assailed!,” Manchester Times, 30 April 1842.
  14. Samuel Laing, Observations on the Social and Political State of the European People in 1848 and 1849: Being the Second Series of the Notes of a Traveller (London: Longman Brown, Green and Longmans, 1850), p. 1.
  15. “Address from the Associated Baptist Churches of Yorkshire, England,” North Star, 26 April 1850.
  16. “The Compact Conservatism: A United South,” The Richmond Enquirer, 12 September 1856.
  17. “The Kind of Distinction Demanded,” Macon Telegraph, 30 April 1869.
  18. Gabriel Tarde, The Laws of Imitation (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1903).
  19. Robert Ezra Park and E. W. Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1921), p. 286. Cited in Colin Wark and John F. Galliher, “Emory Bogardus and the Origins of the Social Distance Scale,” The American Sociologist, vol. 38, no. 4 (December 2007).
  20. His usages are varied enough that followers have produced taxonomies of what he means by “social distance.” See Leo Driedger and Jacob Peters, “Identity and Social Distance: Towards Understanding Simmel’s ‘The Stranger,’” Canadian Review of Sociology / Revue Canadienne de Sociologie, vol. 14, no. 2 (May 1977), p. 161.
  21. Randall Collins and Michael Makowsky, The Discovery of Society, 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 1978), p. 184. Cited in Colin Wark and John F. Galliher, “Emory Bogardus and the Origins of the Social Distance Scale.” The 1918–1919 influenza epidemic, a frequently cited antecedent for current coronavirus strategies, had started to die down just in time for the Red Summer, when incidents of anti-black violence led to riots in many major cities.
  22. Robert Ezra Park, The Collected Papers of Robert Ezra Park: Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (New York: Arno Press, 1974), p. 88. Cited in Colin Wark and John F. Galliher, “Emory Bogardus and the Origins of the Social Distance Scale.”
  23. Lee Harvey, Myths of the Chicago School of Sociology (Aldershot, UK: Avebury, 1987). Cited in Colin Wark and John F. Galliher, “Emory Bogardus and the Origins of the Social Distance Scale.”
  24. Colin Wark and John F. Galliher, “Emory Bogardus and the Origins of the Social Distance Scale,” p. 391.
  25. Kurt Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts: Field Theory in Social Science (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1997), p. 20.
  26. Colin Wark and John F. Galliher, “Emory Bogardus and the Origins of the Social Distance Scale,” p. 391.
  27. Nedim Karakayali, “Social Distance,” in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism, ed. John Stone et al. (Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), pp. 1–2. See also Yunkyung Kim, Sonya S. Kwak, and Myung-suk Kim, “Am I Acceptable to You? Effect of a Robot’s Verbal Language Forms on People’s Social Distance from Robots,” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 29, no. 3 (1 May 2013).
  28. Bruce G. Link, Lawrence H. Yang, Jo C. Phelan, and Pamela Y. Collins, “Measuring Mental Illness Stigma,” Schizophrenia Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 3 (2004), p. 519. These are not the earliest psychiatric uses: In 1951, Leo Srole uses “social distance” to name an individual’s experience of being set apart from society and the proclivity to isolate. See Leo Srole, “Social Integration and Certain Corollaries: An Exploratory Study,” American Sociological Review, vol. 21, no. 6 (December 1956), p. 713. See also Guido Crocetti, Herzl R. Spiro, and Iradj Siassi, “Are the Ranks Closed? Attitudinal Social Distance and Mental Illness,” The American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 127, no. 9 (March 1971); Bruce P. Dohrenwend and Edwin Chin-Shong, “Social Status and Attitudes Toward Psychological Disorder: The Problem of Tolerance and Deviance,” American Sociological Review, vol. 32, no. 3 (June 1967); Judith Rabkin, “Public Attitudes Toward Mental Illness: A Review of the Literature,” Schizophrenia Bulletin, vol. 1, no. 10 (Fall 1974).
  29. Robert F. Murphy, “Social Distance and the Veil,” American Anthropologist, vol. 66, no. 6 (December 1964), p. 1257. Murphy, also drawing on Simmel, associates social distance with privacy, arguing that sufficient distance is a condition of social ties. Different social systems operate with greater or lesser degrees of social distance, and with varying mechanisms for instituting it. Writing in 1948 on the different processes of emotional ingratiation in the United States and Germany, psychologist Kurt Lewin also uses the term to describe not prejudice but rather the degree of intimacy between individuals embedded in a particular community.
  30. See Sarah Morgan-Trimmer and Fiona Wood, “Ethnographic Methods for Process Evaluations of Complex Health Behaviour Interventions,” Trials, vol. 17, article no. 232 (4 May 2016).
  31. A 1973 study described “social distancing” as an obstacle to public health, as members of “lower socioeconomic groups” were less receptive to public health messaging; a 1975 study of British class structure cites Robert Park’s work on social distance. See Morton M. Warner, “Lower Socioeconomic Groups and Preventive Public Health Programs: A Problem of Communication Effectiveness,” Canadian Journal of Public Health / Revue canadienne de santé publique, vol. 64, no. 6 (November–December 1973); Howard Newby, “The Deferential Dialectic,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 17, no. 2 (April 1975).
  32. “Social-distancing techniques are linguistic devices actors use to separate audiences in space and time to shield those audiences from hidden information … [and are] critical to high school narcotics officers.” Bruce A. Jacobs, “Undercover Social-Distancing Techniques,” Symbolic Interaction, vol. 17, no. 4 (Winter 1994), p. 395. For the article on urinal etiquette, see Kathleen Kelleher, “Up Close and Personal? Uh, No Thanks,” The Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1995.
  33. “Gregarious animals normally move in a living space between the personal fields of neighbors and the social distance,” writes a follower of Hediger’s. For animals, social distance is the limiting reagent that permits mobility. Not so for humans in the time of coronavirus. The Washington Post recently posted pleasing visualizations speculating about the promise of distancing measures; they featured dots (individuals) bouncing around in a rectangle (the world). Some dots had the virus: when these dots collided with other dots, those dots became infected. Introducing social distancing into the model, some of the dots began to stay still. Holding their ground, they were less likely to get hit by another dot, let alone hit anyone else. Distance, in our present moment, means stasis. To be socially proximate is to be constantly in motion, rushing around an urban space with people to see and things to do. We need to stay still so that the virus cannot move either. Glen McBride, “Theories of Animal Spacing,” in Behavior and Environment: The Use of Space by Animals and Men, ed. Aristide H. Esser (Springer Science & Business Media, 2012), p. 58. The term was taken up and expanded upon by a number of other zoologists in the following decades. See Ian Vine, “Social Spacing in Animals and Man,” Social Science Information, vol. 12, no. 5 (October 1973).
  34. Bishop et al. argued that misplaced fear of contagion based on an incorrect understanding of the condition is the primary factor behind AIDS stigma. George D. Bishop, Albert L. Alva, Lionel Cantu, and Telecia K. Rittiman, “Responses to Persons with AIDS: Fear of Contagion or Stigma?,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 21, no. 23 (December 1991).
  35. Peter Aggleton, Peter Davies, and Graham Hart, AIDS: Individual, Cultural, and Policy Dimensions (London: RoutledgeFalmer, 1990), p. 62.
  36. Leiker et al. articulate social distance as something people “keep” from people with AIDS. “The Stigma of Aids,” p. 340.
  37. Ibid., p. 338. Like the original Bogardus scale, this more recent metric leans on the nation form and family as the polar markers of social distance.
  38. An HIV-prevention curriculum associates social distancing with “anxiety of personal HIV status,” “removal from situation,” and “belief that some people ‘deserve’ AIDS,”—a list that co-mingles the registers of prejudice and immediate fear for one’s own body. A Cultural & Empowerment Approach to HIV Prevention among Latinas/Hispanic Women: A Curriculum (Washington, DC: National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations, 1991), p. 41. See Elizabeth Fee and Daniel M. Fox, AIDS: The Making of a Chronic Disease (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 255; Harriet Deacon, Understanding HIV/AIDS Stigma: A Theoretical and Methodological Analysis (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2005), p. 38.
  39. Randal D. Day, Kathleen R. Gilbert, Barbara H. Settles, and Wesley R. Burr, Research and Theory in Family Science (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1995), p. 249.
  40. “Anti-gay victimization has not only been associated with physical harm but has also been associated with psychological harm, including … increased social distancing from other GLBTs.” Bonnie Duran and Karina L. Walters, “HIV/AIDS Prevention in ‘Indian Country’: Current Practice, Indigenist Etiology Models, and Postcolonial Approaches to Change,” AIDS Education & Prevention, vol. 16, no. 3 (June 2004), p. 195. For the emotional withdrawal of those with terminal AIDS, see Mike Bury, “Illness Narratives: Fact or Fiction?,” Sociology of Health & Illness, vol. 23, no. 3 (May 2001).
  41. Rhidian Hughes, “‘Friendships Are a Big Part of It’: Social Relationships, Social Distance, and HIV Risks,” Substance Use & Misuse, vol. 35, no. 9 (August 2000).
  42. See, for example, Maurice J. Moreau, “A Structural Approach to Social Work Practice,” Canadian Journal of Social Work Education / Revue canadienne d’éducation en service social, vol. 5, no. 1 (1979).
  43. Emory S. Bogardus, “Social-Distance Changes in Educational Procedure,” Journal of Educational Sociology, vol. 3, no. 8 (April 1930), p. 502.

Lily Scherlis is a PhD student in English at the University of Chicago and a video artist. She has recently written for Chicago Review and Harvard Magazine.

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