1st Edition April 9th, 2020 Jo Warner

The politics of proximity in the age of social distancing

It seems as if the value system of our social and political world has been inverted overnight by Covid-19. The value system that now dominates all of our concerns is based on the currency of proximity to others. 

On the one hand, the other that comes too close is a threat; their unwitting weapon being that most intimate of things; a particle of bodily fluid. All of us have already learned the sad social art of swerving two metres around every other human being we meet. 

At the same time, the people who would help us the most need to come close to us out of necessity. Health and social care workers are at the frontline of proximity, their wash-worn hands touching and caring for sick bodies. The van drivers who hand-deliver food that we buy out in remote cyberspace, must exchange it on the doorstep with that awkward distancing ritual: “I’ll just leave it down here for you”. If we are lucky, we contract out our risk to them, while the less lucky queue. 

For the most vulnerable though, we have already learned that the most important and valuable form of closeness is to be local and to be known to others. Once again, as in the past, our social and perhaps physical survival depends on the neighbour, the street, the local area known as the Parish. Facebook and other social media are no longer about making virtual connections; the connections now are visceral and the media merely tools by which we make embodied contact to help each other.

What might the implications of this be for social work? We have our roots in two broad traditions, one defined by distance and one by closeness. 

The tradition that has dominated over recent years is characterised by the promotion of professionalism and technical competence. Along this path, we have detached ourselves from communities, locating ourselves outside them both physically and symbolically. We visit people in their homes and neighbourhoods, sometimes knowing little of the networks with which they are intertwined. 

The other, now largely latent, social work tradition seeks to shape a social work that is with, of and for the communities it serves. Close cooperation between social workers and others forges the relations through which ‘working the social’ is achieved. Social work then becomes a mutual endeavour, immutably connected to the structural forces that impinge on people’s everyday lives. Poverty is not the ‘wallpaper of practice’ that can be ignored, but the sharp focus of efforts to improve people’s lives. Social work as relational, humanising practice is defined by speaking up for others with whom we are standing side-by-side. 

Social work has been socially distancing itself for years. Now is the moment for us to realise that our value to society is best judged by our proximity to communities – however messy this return to the local might be. 

Jo Warner, 6th April 2020