Distantiated Communities: A Social History of Social Distancing

Article by Lily Scherlis: “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. 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. 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….(More)”.