Learning to Dance: Social Distancing and the Refiguration of the Interaction Order

6. April 2020


The spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 or the corona pandemic takes on particularly spatially striking features which, as Martina and I pointed out in the first blog, appear as an intensification of the refiguration of space (Knoblauch/Löw 2020): while the epidemic is spreading globally transgressing all borders, territories are being closed down in a radical way. And while on the one hand we are trying to convert our private and professional social relations to digital media communication, we find ourselves largely limited by the regulations of our governments to the living spaces of our households and the most minimal social contact (without closing them completely). In the public spaces still accessible, new demands on interaction are forming, which will probably continue to exist beyond the “hammer” (Pueyo 2020) period of curfew, and which we must therefore take into account.

The social relationships located in the private living space suddenly form the basic unit of the social, transforming the (more or less voluntary) “staying at home” into an almost closed “interaction unit”, as Goffman calls it. In regions where there is a curfew, the situation is similar to what Goffman calls the “total social institution” resembling life in monasteries, prisons or psychiatric institutions. It should be noted that in such institutions, situational internal orders can be put in place permanently. This spatial arrangement changes existing relationship structures and leads to new tensions, which can find expression in depression, deprivation and unfortunately also (domestic) violence, but also, in a stronger solidarity, an expression of “it’s us against the world”. Due to the absence of public space and its possibilities for development, living environments are changing, oscillating between (more or less appropriate) intimate near-space and communicative far-space, which is filled by the Internet, but also by literature, films or other communication media. 

Equally dramatic is the refiguration in “public space”, which is by no means completely closed off. In addition to entrances to supermarkets, bakeries or petrol stations, public transport is still in use, delivery services ring at doors and there is still some life on public streets and squares. In contrast to (also federal) states, where a strictly regimented ban on going out is in force, here in Berlin we are dealing with a comparatively liberal “recommended” (Ding 2014) regulation, which allows movement and positioning (sitting, lying, body arrangement) in public space, two rules in particular are observed: The distance rule (1.5 to 2 meters) and the hygiene rule, which not only includes washing but also prohibitions on touching.[i]

As simple as these rules seem to be, they do lead to changes and problems, which I will discuss in the rest of this article. For “public sphere” here does not at all mean an abstract quantity that would be limited to media communication or “opinion formation”. Rather, the public space we are talking about largely coincides with what Goffman (1981) has called the “interaction order”. It is the space in which we physically encounter others and communicate with them (including through and with our bodies). Incidentally, this order of interaction is also at work when we are alone at home or not directly observed by others. And it is by no means limited to pure “presence”: The body is also involved when it speaks into the telephone, sits in front of the Skype screen or, like me now, presses keys with my fingers or, like you now, reads this article. 

Symbolic politics, communicative action and the virus

This physicality is particularly significant when we look at the problems in dealing with the new rules: A first big wave concerned the “corona parties”, the issues of public gatherings in squares, parks and other (mostly not random) urban spaces. 

There were scandalous reports in the press, and there were indignant comments on other assemblies on the net, labelled as “corona parties”. It is noteworthy that here the media themselves used images of public space to interpret the attitude of the population. For example, if you take a closer look at the pixelated image above, you notice (in broad outline) that the paper is very moralizing, even scandalizing, yet the picture does not show exactly what they want to show: Although there are many people in the picture, on closer inspection we see that the small groups, which could all be seen as closed “interaction units”, are all at a sufficient distance from the other groups, as the picture below also illustrates. 

©Nina Baur

In public discourse, however, such images served as justification for “unreasonableness” in the public, which then led to the tightening of the rules on 22 March 2020, closing further public spaces, reducing interaction units to two and banning static assemblies. It is noteworthy that here the interactions in public space are not simply interpreted. Rather, the public space itself serves as a “sign” to see how the population deals with and “understands” the demands of governments. Accordingly, lockdown, i.e. the prohibition on most ways to gather in public spaces, also serves as a sign to communicate the seriousness of the situation. In view of the emergency order, we would have to say more precisely that these are “symbols” with which this emergency order is not only made visible but is also made physically tangible in the space. From this perspective, the local gathering of the young people would be merely a symbolic performance (Alexander/ Giesen/ Mast 2006), which is possibly only directed against the dominance of the state (representing the elderly), just as the broad appearance of the police in public space is a sign that the observance of the emergency order (which is clearly different in different cities, districts, federal states, states) is controlled. 

The symbolic nature of such measures is quite ambiguous. For example, while some buildings and places are made completely inaccessible where “social distancing” could easily be maintained, many system-relevant service providers must directly expose themselves to numerous and sometimes very close contacts with many anonymous people. Therefore, such “symbolic communication” could be understood as unmasking in a radical constructivist sense. [ii] However, if we use a broader concept of communication, we can easily see that the corona crisis and the corresponding closures are not “only” symbolic politics. For even if the virus represents an invisible and (by no means uniformly) scientifically determined risk, it makes it clear to what extent communicative action not only conveys “meaning” but is material and physical attributes in relation to others. Even in oral dialogue we not only hear, see and smell the others, we also breathe in their exhalations. These exhalations do not always need to be as dangerous as with a virus, yet they make clear how much social action is linked by objectivations and thus “works” in a concise sense (also relevant for the natural sciences).[iii] Much as mediatized actions are disembodied but remain dependent on the materiality of the media. After all, one of the perfidies of the virus is that it is not based on sensually perceptible objectivations such as seeing, hearing and smelling. It is a problem for us as well as for medical research that viruses are in a way difficult to perceive and their effects are also difficult to interpret and predict. For this reason, the virus is not immediately evident in the lived environment, but at best can be made accessible and objectivated by technology as knowledge. The fact that this knowledge is generated by scientific experts and managed and communicated by specialized institutions easily calls up conspiracy theories nowadays. Because the knowledge about the virus, which can have such severe consequences, is not conveyed through science, we are dealing with a risk (Beck 1986).

The refiguration of the interaction order

The risk of the virus leads to changes in the interaction order, which can be countered in various ways. Because it is a material problem, it can be dealt with in a correspondingly material way if we find enough face masks, test kits and hygiene measures or even a drug response to the virus. The problem of interaction can also be dealt with by authority, for example when it is powerfully decreed and enforced by governments with bans and curfews. However, even situational authorities, such as self-organized regulation of access to playgrounds by self-proclaimed persons, would rightly meet with opposition in our society, as they would remind us too much of former “leadership structures” (such as the “block leader”). Therefore, it is obvious to observe the problems of the changes in the order of interaction and to look for solutions. 

Political Demonstration with Social Distancing (©Aris Harkat)

The fact that there are problems is not only clear from this example of a demonstration. For “social distancing” or, more precisely, bodily relational distance (which includes breathing, coughing and speaking) cannot consistently be overcome by switching to digital communication, which is already relatively highly conventionalized. In “face-to-face” interaction, however, it is also not possible to manage it by measuring body distance (1.5 to 2 meters); even if the additional measurement of contact time, as is common in epidemiology, can be quite helpful (Valdez et as 2018). The qualitative forms of static body formation and of how we move with our bodies in space with the others are relevant for us as actors and as observers. In fact, the attunements in our everyday routine interactions are often as strongly habitualized as the movements of long-time practiced dance couples. Body knowledge guides them in a way that allows us to find and shake hands without looking and quasi automatically, even during interactions.

But body knowledge also affects our well-established abilities to coordinate the mobility of the whole body. As if by magic, hundreds of people manage to pass each other in a crowded space without any contact, and without stumbling we coordinate to the millisecond when shaking hands with one another. There are also recognizable cultural patterns of body distance or ‘proxemics’, for example, which already differ between the Anglo-Saxon and Romanic countries in the West. [iv] These also include greeting rituals such as shaking hands, hugging or kissing on the cheek, which distinguish subcultures, milieus and ethnic groups in this country, as they distinguish entire regions of the world culturally or (if we think of the confinement of urban slums) socio-structurally. However, these cultures, forms of knowledge and achievements of the movements of our bodies towards and with each other, which mostly go unnoticed, are now by no means trivial:

They change the distance rule and the hygiene rule in ways that resemble a refiguration of space. Even the reduction to the smallest units of interaction is talked about as refiguration, but many other situations raise questions that cannot be answered easily with the simple rules. Although we can already see the new forms of queuing; even for demonstrations, a form of distributed occupation of space comes into play, the new rules raise many problems.

This includes the many interaction rituals such as greeting. Let’s think of the role of the “face”, which knows great cultural differences. If many Western countries had even passed laws against veiling, the mask might now become a form of “presentation of self” (Goffman) in the long run. Like the new distance in conversation, which still seems strange, this “loss of face” also has consequences for interactive processes, affectivity and identity, which can lead to weakening of reciprocity, negative emotions and interpersonal conflicts. It will also influence forms of politeness, manners in general and thus culture as a whole.

As my own videographed observations show, there are also real coordination problems in the interaction space. For example, on a much frequented two-meter-wide walkway that runs along a canal, it becomes apparent that while many pedestrians keep their distance, most “couples” walk next to each other in such a way that a sufficient distance is not guaranteed for overtaking or oncoming third parties. The coordination between bicycles, exploring pedestrians and families with children seems to need to be renegotiated again and again. 

The problems can be even greater in the built interaction space: How do we manage to get past the counter in a bakery when the aisle is occupied by a waiting person? Which interaction rituals allow us to ask the other person to wait until we are outside without compromising them or ourselves? How do we get past the counter when there is someone else standing there? This applies even more to the other forms of movement, ahead of all the basic need for sport, which has now been recognized by the highest authorities: joggers who plough through the middle of the path without any self-doubt and do not avoid approaching people as if this sideways step was one movement too many for them; cyclists who line up at the traffic lights right next to other cyclists? Perhaps one might think that these momentary stitches are insignificant; virologically, however, especially sportsmen and women with their strong respiration do not seem unproblematic. This interaction space problem becomes even more challenging when we look at questions of the use of private spaces, for example the tutor who receives her students at home. What about the cleaning lady who wants to earn her money? Even more urgent become the questions of how we move around in open-plan offices, corridors or elevators. How can we adopt distance-preserving behavior patterns in people without encountering sharp indignation from others who want to prevent the loss of face and declare us moralists or policemen? 

Just as we have been able to change supposedly deep-seated “behaviors” in our dealings with the sexes and the environment, it should also be possible to change the behaviors habitualized in the body. Precisely because these are not behaviors, but rather patterns of action guided by knowledge, knowledge that can help to create the manners that allow us to “dance” again. Learning to dance is not trivial because the corona epidemic is not something that simply spreads globally. It is something that is mediated in the very space of interaction and therefore it seems to be absolutely necessary to take a closer look at this space and find forms of how it can be regulated anew. 

Queuing (©Nina Baur)

However, as a look at cultural differences shows, we should not take these changes too lightly, and we should emphasize the knowledge that lies within our physical interaction routines in order to be able to change them. Particularly if we have to deal with the problem of the corona crisis for an extended period of time, even under relaxed circumstances, it will be important to take seriously and observe the resulting changes in the interaction order and the associated problems of social space which lies at the heart of the crisis. It is precisely because refiguration is not a subjectless determinism, but rather based on actions, that we can also contribute to changes in this interaction order, among other things in accordance with virological knowledge. Our research can contribute to this by exploring the social space (and by supporting cultural practitioners who take up and impart knowledge in a wide variety of formats that are by no means merely pedagogical) in order to reopen the space of interaction and to help shape it ourselves. 

Alexander, Jeffrey, Bernhard Giesen, Jason L. Mast (2006): Social Performance. Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics and Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Beck, Ulrich (1999): World Risk Society. London: Polity.

Ding, Huiling (2014): Transnational Quarantine Rhetorics: Public Mobilization in SARS and in H1N1 Flu. “J Med Humanit” 35191–210 (2014).

Goffman, Erving (1981): The Interaction Order. “American Sociological Revue” 48, pp 1-17

Hall, Edward T. (1982): The Hidden Dimension. New York: Anchor Books.

Knoblauch, Hubert (2020): The Communicative Construction of Reality. London/ New York: Routledge.

Pueyo, Tomas (2020): Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance. What the Next 18 Months Can Look Like, if Leaders Buy Us Time.

Valdez, L.D., C. Buono, P. A. Macri and L. A. Braunstein (2018): Social distancing strategies against disease spreading. WSPC – Proceedings 19/8, September 26, 2018, pp. 1-.28.

[i] On 12 March, the Federal Government and the Länder decreed that (1) contact with members outside the household should be kept to a minimum; (2) at least 1.5 metres distance should be maintained in public from others; visits to public places should only be allowed for two people, and journeys and trips should be limited to the bare essentials, but individual sport was still possible. See;

[ii] This is by no means intended to place this performance perspective close to populism, quite the contrary; as the gender debate makes clear, right-wing populism seems to exploit arguments of radical constructivism.

[iii] The concept of embodied performance as working and the corresponding notion of communicative action is elaborated in Knoblauch (2020).

[iv] For a classical analysis of proxemics cf. Hall (1982).