Does social distancing undo the ties that bind society together?

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<p>With the reduction in birthday celebrations, the return of online church services, and the cancellation of indoor play dates, millions of Americans have fewer social interactions due to <a href=consistently high number of cases and high transmission rates.

It’s not just interactions with friends and families that are cut off. Routine but beneficial interactions with people in fitness and childcare centers and voluntary organizations are also eliminated.

Social distancing is vital in the fight against COVID-19. But does this undo the social bonds that hold society together?

Social capital adds up

Like a sociologist of religions and education, I study how Americans develop social bonds, and how these social bonds influence people’s lives. Researchers refer to the relationships that exist between and among people as “share capital. “When people interact, even briefly, they start to trust each other and feel comfortable asking for help. But for that trust to develop, people need to physically interact with each other.

Share capital is very valuable in times of crisis. During Hurricane Ida, for example, people waded in the rising waters to save the neighbors. A similar thing happened during The Chicago heatwave in 1995 when hundreds of people who lived alone without air conditioning were rescued by neighbors and acquaintances.

Building trusting relationships with people before crises are essential – and to build these relationships, people need to spend time together.

While isolating myself at home in the spring of 2020, I began to wonder: does the need for social distancing affect the way social capital activates during a pandemic?

From August to October 2020, I interviewed 36 middle- and low-income Jewish parents in the greater Philadelphia area who had school-aged children. Parents were very different in their degree of involvement in Jewish communities and organizations. Some regularly attended the synagogue. Others rarely attended church services but actively volunteered for Jewish organizations. And some rarely participated in the religious or social dimensions of Jewish life.

How does a study of Jews help us understand the flow of social capital during a pandemic?

Both Jews and non-Jews can build social capital by participating in religious organizations. It’s not religious rituals that cultivate social capital – it’s all of these social interactions that occur outside of religious rituals.

Joyce and Dave Thomas are giving away a free jambalaya, cooked by one of their New Orleans neighbors after Hurricane Ida hit and left much of the city without power.

Relationships Pay

When COVID-19 hit, millions of Americans had to avoid social contact and could not attend church services.

It also meant that they couldn’t participate in the social dimensions of religious life – they couldn’t help people mourn their dead, volunteer at soup kitchens, or get together with people for meals during celebrations. holidays and the Sabbath.

For Jews, limiting social interactions was particularly difficult because many rituals require a minyan – a quorum – of 10 people.

My interviews revealed two key phenomena. First, social capital activates differently during a pandemic than it does during weather related disasters.

During hurricanes and heat waves, social capital manifests itself in people physically helping their acquaintances to get out of dangerous situations.

But during a pandemic, the physical aid itself is what is dangerous. Working parents couldn’t turn to their neighbors or friends for help with childcare without putting their acquaintances, as well as their own children, at risk of contracting COVID-19.

With physical interaction prohibited, the role of social capital has changed. Jewish parents were able to use their social connections in Jewish organizations to obtain supermarket gift cards, groceries, and even lump sums of cash to make up for lost income. For these economically fragile families, immediate resources helped them feel secure and cared for in a time of deep uncertainty.

Parents were more likely to obtain these resources if they had been actively engaged in the social life of the Jewish community before COVID-19. Parents who were not integrated into Jewish communities did not even know they could ask for help.

At the same time, the rabbis who had received funds through larger Jewish organizations to help their devotees and community members know who to distribute funds to only if they had a relationship with them before the pandemic – relationships that developed through social interactions outside of formal religious rituals like prayer.

African American woman looking stressed and wearing a face mask near a window.

African American woman looking stressed and wearing a face mask near a window.

Required reciprocity

The second major finding is that prolonged periods of social distancing threaten the flow of social capital.

Parents who received material resources from Jewish organizations or rabbis were often the ones who contributed to the system to some extent before COVID-19. Some served as receptionists or security guards at synagogue events; others have organized meal trains; and some have volunteered for their local chevra kadisha, or Jewish funeral society.

The key point is that social capital requires reciprocity – people have to give in order to receive. Acts of physical and reciprocal generosity are crucial in maintaining the social bonds of society.

But what happens to our social bonds when social distancing limits our ability to help each other physically? While individuals can still contribute money, there are few opportunities for people to volunteer their time and join in physical collective efforts.

If human interactions are hampered for long periods of time, social capital could collapse. It could deeply undo the social bonds that unite Americans and motivate them to transcend personal interests to help others. Americans can survive the pandemic, but will they still have someone to turn to the next time they need support?

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This article is republished from The conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Ilana Horwitz, Tulane University.

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Ilana Horwitz does not work, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond her academic position.


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