Within four weeks, India has come to adjust with normalcy that restrains us from going to work, socialise with friends, engage in religious and cultural activities and most importantly, interact freely with the outside world.
This rigorous implementation of social distancing and physical quarantine could establish a new normal for social interactions in communities and societies in future, which could be extremely tech-driven, digital and contactless.
Role of social media
Consequently, some pertinent questions arise for sociologists and policy practitioners. Despite the physical isolation, will the much-vaunted social cohesion remain intact in Indian communities? Will social restraint increase or decrease social capital?
According to the sociologist Robert Putnam, relationships and interactions based on trust beget social bonding, which in turn fosters ‘social capital’. This social capital acts as a glue to bind communities and societies together, leading to what is commonly called ‘social cohesion’. There are two kinds of social capital — bonding (horizontal) and bridging (vertical). The former refers to interactions and relationships within the community or society while the latter refers to the trust relationship between the individual or the community and the leaders or the government. Bonding social capital increases when individuals adopt the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness through social networking. This would include both physical and non-physical interactions. While India’s social fabric has traditionally been characterised by the implicit trust within the community, which is a source of Joseph Nye’s ‘soft power’, such trust is somewhat weak when it comes to the relationship between the individual and the government.
The new social order that emerges post lockdown will be based on social distancing and digital communication. (Photo: Reuters)
A behavioural change at the sub-conscious level is afoot, while individuals accept the new routine of social distancing. It has forced people to learn to be self-contained in their gregarious as well as material needs, leading to more time for families, parents and hobbies. So, an increase in intra-family bonding is expected. But the fear is that this could also lead to people decreasing their dependence on others outside the family. But here, interestingly, social media has been a game-changer. Social media groups on WhatsApp, Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, and outreach through them have increased manifold during the time of the lockdown and has, in fact, made the community more tightly knit. Thus, in effect, the bonding social capital within the community may have increased during the lockdown and may show similar trend even afterwards.
Shift in power
The major source of mistrust within Indian communities has been the asymmetries in economic and social power. However, this pandemic has been a great leveller. People realise that even the most powerful and the rich North couldn’t insulate themselves against the disease. At a microscopic level, the same logic pans out at the level of communities too, leading to a notional and perceived reduction in the usual economic and social power asymmetries that exist amongst communities in India. People realise that the disease doesn’t distinguish between the higher and the lower castes. To this extent, this pandemic is very different from an economic recession or a natural disaster because in the latter cases, the rich and the higher caste people invariably escape the worst while it is the poor who lose much in terms of life and livelihood.
When it comes to the bridging social capital, the success of ‘Janata Curfew’ followed by the 21-day lockdown (now extended by 19 days) has shown that a call for collective action by the government is being adhered to and respected by the majority of 1.3 billion Indians. The people have displayed complete trust in what their local, state or central governments have been saying and doing, viz. may it be observing the preventive practices of frequent hand washing or wearing masks and even a very difficult and novel institutional mechanism for most, called social distancing.
A fresh paradigm
These are evidence of a strong and evolving bridging social capital based on trust and reciprocity between the community/society with the government which, quite frankly, most of us had never seen in the actual display. Even in the non-government sector, the management has adapted to trust the remotely working employees under the work-from-home protocol. What has essentially happened is that community ownership over governmental or organisational action, which was largely weak in India, has suddenly become very robust.
One finds there is a wave of support and humanity towards the army of health, sanitation, municipal and police professionals fighting the virus at the forefront. People have started valuing their services, which they had earlier taken for granted. The sense of civic duty and citizenship amongst most people has deepened. Many informal chains have mushroomed reaching out to families in need like the elderly and poor jobless migrant workers in need of food and shelter.
Thus, it appears that post lockdown, a new social order based on social distancing would emerge that, instead of weakening the Indian social fabric, would strengthen both the bonding and bridging social capital leading to increased societal cohesion and resilience. But whether it would sustain before mounting economic losses is something to be watched.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)
Also read: Lockdown Diary Of A Teenager: How video calls have come to the rescue in times of social distancing