In recent weeks, UK citizens have been regularly assured that government policy related to the Covid-19 pandemic is ‘guided by the science’. Given that many of the policies rolled out relate to ‘social distancing’, it is striking that one type of science—‘social science’—has remained largely absent from the airwaves.
When seeking expertise on the impact of social distancing measures, the media have tended to turn to behavioural psychologists, presumably because of the discipline’s ‘scientific’ standing. It is medical scientists who have been invited to offer advice about how relationships are affected by social distancing, including the thorny triangle of loyalty, love and commitment.
This relative exclusion of social scientists and humanities scholars from public debate—both about social distancing and about the pandemic more generally—reflects, no doubt, the pre-existing prejudices of the UK’s senior policy advisors. Yet a great deal of recent scholarship in my discipline—anthropology—has in fact focused on the interplay between social connectedness and separation in everyday life. This is the very issue that is now animating debate and impacting lives across the world.
Over the past decade, many anthropologists studying isolated communities, tribes and villages have done extensive research on otherwise little-considered connections and interactions between different societies, cultures and contexts. Such material does not arise merely from migration statistics—it is gathered during the course of intensive fieldwork. It is fine-grained and brings to light historic social and cultural ties between regions that could have passed under the radar. Anthropologists have explored links between northern Italy and China, forged largely around the textile trade. They have also studied circulatory patterns of migration between northern China and Iran, documenting how these movements relate to trade, religious education and pilgrimage. From this perspective, the geography of the early Covid-19 ‘hotspots’ was predictable, reflecting pre-existing corridors of global connectivity.
For decades, anthropologists have explored cultural variations in how humans establish and maintain relationships with one another. They have shared their findings in studies of families, tribes and, more recently, friendship groups. In the last few years, anthropologists have often turned their focus to the role played in everyday life by practices and ideologies of social distance.
Besides obvious areas such as relationship breakdown and divorce, anthropologists have drawn attention to the ways in which a socially disconnected (if not isolated) life can be not a nuisance, but an ethical ambition. My friends in Afghanistan, for example, often comment that life in their country is best when ‘nobody has any business with anybody else’. For them, social interdependence has many positive emotional aspects, yet is also driven by necessity, and inevitably messy. Far from being seen as an unwelcome interruption to a meaningful social life, social distancing may also be regarded as a marker of success and achievement. If we had a more nuanced understanding of the varying values that different groups or societies attach to social distance, we could find more effective ways of presenting public health policies to the general population.
In the midst of the current crisis, the impulse to be guided ‘by the science’ and ‘big data’ will undoubtedly grow. One pressing concern with such an approach relates to human rights and personal data protection. Beyond this specific danger, the assumption that such types of knowledge are inevitably more helpful than the study of more detailed material also risks narrowing our understanding of the world in which we live. In-depth research, based on close relationships with people living in particular circumstances, continues to offer key insights into human connections and disconnections—and it will continue to do so, during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex and Director of the University of Sussex Asia Centre. He has spent fifteen years conducting research in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and, with Benjamin Hopkins, is the author of Fragments of the Afghan Frontier and editor of Beyond Swat: History, Society and Economy Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier. His most recent book, Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers, was published by Hurst in March 2016.