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Marginal thoughts” in a pandemic context. Distance dialogue between two sociologists and two teenagers (Carlotta and Michele, both 14 years old)
Angela Maria Zocchi, Faculty of Communication Sciences, University of Teramo, Italy
Rossella Di Federico, Faculty of Communication Sciences, University of Teramo, Italy
In the second half of the 1950s, Charles Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination, drew attention to the usefulness of writing down, in a diary, “marginal thoughts”, putting his life experience at the service of his intellectual work . That is, writing down ideas that can be considered as "by-products of everyday life, fragments of conversation caught in the street, or maybe dreams”. It was almost "therapeutic", writing down our "marginal thoughts" and then sharing them, talking at a distance in a period of absolute emergency. The dialogue helped us compensate for the physical distance, which doesn’t necessarily imply a "social distance", also allowing us to give "intellectual relief" to our "marginal thoughts", releasing our imagination from the bottlenecks of the "Grand Theorizing" and of abstract empiricism.
Thursday 5 March 2020: suspension of teaching activities in our University (University of Teramo). From one day to the next our "forms of interaction" radically change.
Experiencing this emergency, I immediately thought sociology can make a great contribution to the analysis of this situation, re-reading a classic like Simmel: “If it’s true that society is reciprocity between individuals, the description of forms which it may take is a task of the science of "society" in the strict sense” . Then focusing the attention on the forms of interaction, which also embrace the most fleeting social relationships, the labile forms of sociality, the apparently secondary phenomena, such as sociability.
In this emergency context, are we still able to give other “sociable values” , like joy and vitality? And again, in a situation like the one we are experiencing, what could be the glue of the social tissue?
To answer this last question, we could refer to Durkheim , according to which in modern societies, such as ours, market-production-consumption oriented, the social glue is given by the organisation of work, divided by professions and the consequent compulsory interdependence between people (organic solidarity). In this pandemic context, citizens' health protection was put before the logic of the market, by closing many productive and professional activities.
So, what is the new social bond that creates solidarity? Perhaps a strong collective conscience, typical of pre-modern societies, could go back to being the social glue that generates solidarity.
Tuesday 31 March 2020: throughout Italy, flags at half-mast and a minute of silence at noon to remember the Coronavirus pandemic victims
A "generalised" silence that Interstitial Sociology has distinguished from other forms of silence, such as the "qualified" one (as in the case of a concert), or the one called "interactive", which is functional for ensuring dialogue. The point is that in a pandemic context, silence ceases to be an "interstice"  and, in parallel, also loses its "aesthetic power" . It seems that the fundamental point is precisely this, and it's a disorienting aspect.
It's true. However, I would examine the cities' silence by exploring two parallel and interrelated dimensions: external and internal, that is public space and private space. If we move from public to private space, we enter a relational environment in which silence is swept away by many sound solicitations. Among these, boys' voices who are video calling or meeting in the virtual classroom, and the continuous radio and television programmes on Coronavirus themes. All this testifies to the existence of an active society, even in a pandemic time.
We continue to teach, although remotely, and technology certainly helps us. I wonder, however, if we do not risk making technology a fetish by forgetting that teaching is also, perhaps above all, a form of communication and a relationship.
I agree. It isn’t enough to create a virtual classroom, from which, however, a percentage of students, although low, is excluded. I also think, projecting myself into an imaginary future, already anticipated in some texts , that the partial, or even total, elimination of the face-to-face interaction, between teacher and student, is a truly disturbing scenario. If this relationship is deleted, I'm sure students will regret it. This obviously doesn't mean denying the usefulness of new technologies, which certainly stimulate a rethinking of traditional models and educational environments. At the same time, however, I observe that young, born-digital and "liquid" people, feel the lack of face-to-face interactions with their classmates: “Relations with acquaintances and friends have not changed because, even before this lock down, we used social media to talk, but I reflect on distance and I miss physical contact, especially with those with whom I went to school" (Carlotta). I believe that in today's hyper-connection society, it's necessary to look at technology critically, in the awareness that continuous connection produces new forms of solitude and dependence.
However, it's also true that thanks to technology, people manage to stay in touch. I think, above all, of those who are sick with Coronavirus and have been isolated: "In this period, technology is the only thing that can save us " (Michele).
You are right; technology has an ambivalent potential, and this makes me think of telemedicine which, if enhanced, would allow a better use of medical-nursing staff, and, for the patient, the possibility of recovering those contexts of the "vital world" usually compromised by hospitalisation: emotions, intimacy, communication, status and identity needs. In other words, the hospital of the future could be designed and built by releasing the functions from the dimensions: a small but technologically advanced hospital reserved for acute cases. A perspective that opens new scenarios: new organisational and relational modalities, which represent as many research paths for sociological analysis, which in part are already explored.
April 1, 2020: the emergency continues. The measures restricting freedom of movement are extended. We are all waiting for new indications.
We live in a continuous waiting time: the date of suspension of the restrictive measures of personal freedom is continuously extended. The wait has ceased to be an interstitial dimension. It's an expectation that is not connected to any certainty, which doesn't give joy nor much less happiness, on the contrary it generates anxiety and restlessness. For example, it isn't the waiting described by Saint-Exupéry in the Little Prince: "If you come, [...] every afternoon at four o' clock, I'll begin to be happy from three o' clock" . Pandemic has reconfigured the sense of expectation and wait time, and sociologists could analyse this new situation by referring, for example, to the sociological analysis focused on the concepts of “interstice” and “socially expected durations”.
Yes, that's right. The constant wait time that dominates these days of restrictions is a source of anxiety for me. Carlotta wrote in her diary: "we don't know where and when it will end".
Another problem, much felt by young people, is that of restriction of freedom of movement: Michele wrote in his diary: "almost a month has already passed since the start of the quarantine. I cannot take it anymore. If I can't go out, I don't feel free".
Indeed, restrictions on freedom of movement weigh heavily, and also compromise the processes of free association between people: "The eternal flowing and pulsing that keeps individuals close" . How to make sense of this situation? Perhaps we should reflect on the meanings of the word freedom, considering that this concept can be broken down into "freedom of", for example freedom of movement, and "freedom from", which today, in the current pandemic context, means, above all, freedom from contagion. Referring to Goffman , we could also say, that the situational margins of freedom have changed today. This isn't only because legal norms impose a different behaviour, but because these rules are socially shared. The hashtag "Istayhome" is an example of sharing behavioural norms. Using this hashtag means saying: I freely choose to stay home, sharing the idea of "responsible freedom".
Then there is also the hashtag "everythingwillbeok", which expresses a need for hope. Nowadays, in a pandemic context, this dimension must be recovered more than ever. What space has sociology given to this topic? Although many thinkers have dealt with the theme of hope, it seems sociologists haven't paid much attention to this issue.
 Wright Mills, Charles (1962): L’immaginazione sociologica. Milano: Il Saggiatore.
 Simmel, Georg (1983): Forme e giochi di società. Milano: Feltrinelli.
 Durkheim, Émile (1962): La divisione del lavoro sociale. Milano: Edizioni di Comunità.
 Gasparini, Giovanni (1998): Sociologia degli interstizi. Milano: Bruno Mondadori.
 Marcuse, Herbert (1968): Critica della società repressiva. Milano: Feltrinelli.
 Lyotard, Jean-Franҁois (1981): La condizione postmoderna. Milano: Feltrinelli.
 Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de (1994): Il Piccolo Principe. Milano: Bompiani.
 Goffman, Erving (1971): Il comportamento in pubblico. Torino: Einaudi.
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