Social Distancing: A Multispecies Perspective

Photo by John Hartigan, Jr. A yearling uses a bite-threat to create social distance from this passing foal.

Social distancing is all the rage. As health officials from the WHO to the CDC actively promote it, this is a good moment to ask what cultural anthropologists can contribute to understanding and thinking through this phenomenon. What can cultural anthropologists say about it? There are several perspectives we can bring to bear, two of which hew closely to what ethnographers are quite adept and have long done. But one approach—a multispecies perspective—marks a threshold where our analytical range may shift drastically.

In the “global moment” presented by the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus—as I write, roughly three billion people are under lockdown orders—our strongest stance would seem to be in highlighting the differential experiences of humans during this crisis. Some journalists are attending to this crucial task. The Washington Post reports, “As new communities go into lockdown in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus, the people most at risk for getting sick, because they must venture out, are largely people of color, those with only a high school education and those whose incomes are likely to suffer during the ongoing crisis.” The class divide between those who can and cannot work at home is stark, while the racial contours are clear but nuanced: “Thirty-seven percent of Asian Americans and 30 percent of whites said they could work remotely. But only 20 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics said they had that ability. Almost 52 percent of those with a college education or higher said they could work from home, but only 4 percent of those with less than a high school diploma said they could.”

But cultural anthropologists would also call into view the global dimensions of such inequalities; certainly in terms of greater disadvantages facing the global South at this moment, but also in considering the plight of seventy million displaced people worldwide. At this moment of heightened nationalism, as borders are closed to prevent the virus’s spread, “stateless people” are in a profoundly precarious position. Here, too journalists are attentive; again, from the from the Washington Post: “Crammed refugee camps are especially vulnerable to the spread of disease, and national governments, which, at the best of times, have limited resources to spare for asylum seekers and migrants, will be even less inclined to expend them amid the crisis in support of noncitizens.” Ethnographic accounts will hopefully soon give us a fuller picture of such dire predicaments.

Another perspective cultural anthropologists are adroit at developing is a critical, genealogical stance on the very concept of social distance. It was articulated by sociologists at the University of Chicago about one hundred years ago, as they confronted a political moment quite similar to our own.1 Robert Park (1924) and Emory Bogardus (1925) developed this unit of analysis to examine white Americans’ fierce anti-immigrant sentiments in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Park (1924, 339) characterized the concept as “an attempt to reduce to something like measurable terms the grades and degrees of understanding and intimacy which characterize personal and social relations generally.” That rather generic rendition belies that the “relations” in question were hardly “general” but concerned WASPs’ hostile views “of the negro” and of the hordes of Southern European immigrants arriving daily to the United States. This was, as even Park acknowledged, about “race consciousness.” The idea is that there are both geometric and metaphorical dimensions to “social space,” such that, for whites, people of color are projected to be more distant from the implicit “in group.” Such projections are widespread in the United States today, as encapsulated by President Trump labeling COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” Cultural anthropologists would also use this genealogy to highlight the social constructedness of race. The “races” in question in Park and Borgadus’s surveys would today be identified as ethnic groups or nationalities—Greek, Serbian, Polish, etc.

All of this is illuminating, but what else can cultural anthropologists contribute to understanding this crisis? Another possibility runs counter both to the above approaches and to core sensibilities of cultural anthropology—that is, to develop a species-wide analysis of humans’ current situation. This has been brewing for some time. The “animal turn” (Ritvo 2007) and multispecies approaches (Ogden, Hall, and Tanita 2013) variously vie to displace the foundational anthropocentrism of the humanities and the social sciences. Then there’s the Anthropocene; while this concept retains and even heightens the centrality of our species to understanding the world, it also fundamentally disorients that sensibility by attending to the increasing precarity of our species in the face of climate change. There is no doubt the Anthropocene must be first and foremost in analyzing what’s happening now. This virus is the product of zoonosis—when a pathogen breaches species boundaries. COVID-19 has been traced to a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, probably following a similar path as SARS or MERS; but it joins the ranks of other recent zoonotic pathogens (Ebola, Zika, West Nile, etc.) that jumped species through the destruction of habitats, from road building, logging, mining, and rapid urbanization. Yes, initially people are differentially vulnerable to these species-breaching pathogens, but—given the amplifying effects of climate change—the trend-lines are clear: these pose a broad threat to humanity. As such, they help frame what Dipesh Chakrabarty (2017, 25) identifies as “the common predicament . . . anticipated in the Anthropocene”—as in, addressing “the expanding ecological footprint of humanity as a whole—and this must include the question of human population, for while the poor do not have a direct carbon footprint, they contribute to the human footprint in other ways (this is not a moral indictment of them).”

Two bachelors sizing up social threats approaching from opposite directions. Photo by John Hartigan, Jr.

So how might a species-level analysis by cultural anthropologists proceed; what might it look like? Let’s start with the face and our species’ irreducible need to touch it constantly. A key medium by which viruses spread is from our fingers touching infected surface and inexorably conveying those pathogens to our most accessible entry points: mouth, nose, eyes, and ears. This is not something distinctive to any one culture; this is a common human condition and one that is shared with at least some of our fellow primates (Suarez and Gallup 1986). So, we have to think through its evolutionary basis, but we don’t have to do so in a reductively functionalist manner. Yes, it’s instinctual—fetuses touch their faces in the womb (Reissland et al. 2013), so it’s hardly socially learned or conventional. But they seem to do so differentially in response to their mother’s stress levels (Reissland et al. 2015)—so there’s a social dimension, as well.

“Spontaneous facial self-touch gestures,” as psychologists label them, have complex roles not just in stressful situation but in general emotional processes (positive as well as negative) and with working memory (Grunwald et al. 2014). And, there’s something fundamentally relational about it—face touching is powerfully triggered in social interactions. It seems to be a performative indicator to others that we are attentive to and managing our facial expressions; in the sense that the face is the central focus of species’ social interactions. So, in relation to medical dictates to “stop touching your face,” we could contribute an account of why this is so hard to do socially and how, confronting unbearable demands to socially distance, this impulse may even be accentuated and harder to resist—a kind of overcompensation, perhaps.

But let’s get back to social distancing. This is not just a concept in sociology; it also has a long career in ethology, the study of animal behavior.2 From the swarming of insects to the massive migrations of mammals and birds, there are copious instances of nonhuman collective behaviors. These “social clusters” invariably feature some dynamic of distancing, by which conspecifics’ attractions to each other are mediated by a countervailing “force” of repulsion. There’s a host of intriguing questions about social clusters, such as, how do they develop and function? Naturalists see them as survival strategies, with various benefits and risks—converging individuals gain “herd effect” advantages but also potentially overtax limited resources. But they all feature some form of maintaining degrees of social distance or social spacing that separates individuals.

Despite its prevalence, there is a lot we don’t know about these social dynamics: as Jiang et al. (2020) summarize (in a fascinating study of fruit fly sociality): “it remains unclear how individuals act together to form a cohesive social group and how social distance is regulated or maintained.” Jiang et al. highlight the role of “multiple sensory inputs” in shaping social spacing. But naturalists uniformly define this matter as narrowly as possible, in terms of “nearest neighbor distance”—instead of individuals holding a “global view” of a swarm, herd, or flock, they only respond to the movements of the most proximate individual. The surge of recent work on animal cultures (Schuppli and van Schaik 2019) may soon revise this assumption and find that, like humans, other social species too have a cultural or “global view” shaping their interpretation of others’ actions. But for the moment, consider how this attention to social clustering might contribute to our perplexity in confronting COVID-19.

Most shelter-in-place regulations have a key caveat concerning outdoor activity. In Austin, Texas, this reads: “Individuals may engage in outdoor activity, such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, bicycling, or running provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements as defined in this Section.” Many of these regulations specifically sanction “pet walking,” too, reflecting the prevalence of “multispecies families” (see Kirksey 2015). Yet in both the United States and the U.K., public health officials and some politicians were exasperated and upset that such “individuals” produced dense social clusters in national and urban parks or on beaches. What is it that we don’t understand about our social tendency that such cumulative actions of discrete “individuals” would inexorably produce collective behaviors? Thinking about this requires a comparative attention to other social species, as provided by ethologists. This does not entail being reductive or thinking only in functionalist evolutionary terms; rather, it’s another opportunity for cultural anthropologists to “make the familiar strange” (Ybema and Kamsteeg 2009). In doing so, we may contribute something of import not just to our current public health crisis but to an understanding of sociality more broadly, across a host of social species.


1. The concept originates with Georg Simmel (1950) and is best expressed in his essay, “The Stranger” (see also Ethington 1997; Wark and Galliher 2007).

2. In my forthcoming ethnography of wild horses in Spain (Hartigan 2020), I combine ethologists’ use of “social distance” with Erving Goffman’s development of the concept to analyze how horses both interpret and perform nuanced assertions of social space.


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