by Chloe Steadman
According to sociologist Richard Sennett (1994), the architectural emblem of our times is the airport waiting lounge; we are the ultimate lonely crowd, with fragmented and fleeting relations with other strangers; lacking any enduring sense of commitment to one another. This chimes with Augé’s (1992) observation that we are witnessing the spread of what he terms ‘non-places’ across the world, such as airports and shopping malls; homogenous environments in which these lonely crowds temporarily dwell, before dispersing once again.
This idea of consumer societies being characterised by a growing individualism, with fragile and transient social bonds, has become a common trope in academic research and writing. Such sentiments are echoed in Zygmunt Bauman’s series of books exploring what he calls Liquid Modernity; societies in which “…change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty” (Bauman, 2000: viii).
According to Bauman, because of growing globalisation, individualisation, and consumerism, the liquid times in which we now find ourselves are characterised by “…fragility, temporariness, vulnerability, and inclination to constant change” (Bauman, 2000: viii), whether we like it or not. Life is fast-moving, uncertain and unstable. In order to navigate this unpredictable terrain, individuals must keep the options open and be free to move at short notice; but not everybody has the means to do so. Liquidity, according to Bauman, sprawls into many areas of life today, including our relationships. In his book Liquid Love, he argues that relationships are – like everything else in our lives today – frail, uncertain and disposable. We must tie the bonds loosely so they can be untied again with as little effort as possible at short notice, as the circumstances of our lives inevitably change once again. This is because:
“An unprecedented fluidity, fragility, and in-built transience… mark all sorts of social bonds which but a few dozen years ago combined into a durable, reliable framework inside which a web of human interactions could be securely woven” (Bauman, 2003: 91).
Others, however, have cautioned these claims are perhaps a little extreme or pessimistic; and it has been suggested we might be seeing a return to sociality and community, rather than living our lives as isolated individuals. But these might not necessarily be the long-lasting groupings that we were once accustomed to. Michel Maffesoli, for example, has written about the emergence of postmodern ‘neo-tribes’, which is a term used to describe temporary groupings of people held together by shared emotions and ambiences that are “…without the rigidity of the forms of organization with which we are familiar…” (Maffesoli, 1996: 98). Think, for example, of parades, music festivals, and sports matches. You may form bonds with other people over the course of a night or a weekend based on the emotions shared during these events; but later return to normal life again with these people no longer forming a significant part of them. We arguably even see such temporary social relations emerging in the non-places Augé talks about, where bored, excited, or frustrated passengers might bond over their trials, tribulations, and travels at the airport.
Despite claims that some individuals have been stockpiling food and toilet paper, whilst others have apparently been ignoring social distancing rules, there are signs that we might be seeing the (re)emergence of community during the coronavirus pandemic, to cope with the uncertainty, instability, and ‘liquidity’ brought along with it. Streets and apartment blocks across the UK have taken part in mass rounds of applause for the NHS; children are putting pictures of rainbows in their windows to spread hope across local communities; and businesses and volunteers have collaborated to provide meals for NHS workers and those in need. This is not just happening in the UK. People across the world with internet access have also been taking part in virtual singalongs, quizzes, and exercise classes now that many of the places in which they would ordinarily get together have been closed, or radically altered, with new social distancing rules and procedures thwarting social connections.
Whether these examples perhaps signify the ‘re-solidification’ of human bonds, or, like neo-tribes, these newly formed communities will ‘melt into thin air’ (Berman, 1982) again once the shared emotions of uncertainty and anxiety, hope and pride, uniting us during the COVID-19 pandemic potentially dissolve, at the Institute of Place Management we have been staying connected virtually during the crisis. As the international professional body that supports people committed to making places better, the IPM team have created a series of virtual places in which to stay in touch, and maintain the community which pre-dates the coronavirus crisis. There is the virtual café at 1pm every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, which team members can drop in and out of for a catch-up over lunch and/or a coffee. On a Wednesday, the IPM team – spanning the UK, Greece, and Germany – can be found in the virtual boardroom for the weekly team meeting to discuss current research projects and activities. After a long week, on Fridays at 4pm the IPM team enjoy drinks together in the virtual pub, and last Friday took part in a successful and enjoyable inaugural pub quiz night, to be continued this week. Finally, the IPM research seminar which usually takes place at Manchester Metropolitan University once or twice a term, will now be held in a virtual lecture theatre on 23rd April 2020 at 3pm, where I’m going to be trying out my first ever online research presentation (fingers crossed the internet connection holds up)!
The above examples are a stark reminder of how, even in times of crisis, people can show remarkable resilience, adaptability, and innovation in creating and maintaining communities by finding new ways of experiencing and making places together.
Augé, M. (1992). Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, New York: Verso.
Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (2003). Liquid Love. Cambridge: Polity Press.
BBC News. (2020). Coronavirus: Rainbow pictures springing up across the country. BBC News. Accessed 6th April 2020 via: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-51988671
Berman, M. (1982). All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso.
Jackson, D. (2020). How Manchester’s food and drink industry is helping the fight against coronavirus. Manchester Evening News. Accessed 6th April 2020 via: https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/whats-on/food-drink-news/how-manchesters-food-drink-industry-18022150
Maffesoli, M. (1996). The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. London: Sage.
Ruck, J. (2020). Clap for carers: applauding the NHS- in pictures. The Guardian. Accessed 6th April 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2020/mar/26/clap-for-carers-applauding-the-nhs-during-coronavirus-in-pictures
Sennett, R. (1994). The Flesh and the Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. New York: W.W.Norton.