A sociologist reflects on how COVID-19 is changing the idea of community

Barry Wellman has been studying social networks since long before any of us ever heard the term. TVO.org speaks with the sociologist about what's changed and stayed the same about how we connect now
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Dec 17, 2020
"What we're finding is that we miss the warmth": sociologist Barry Wellman on connection in the time of COVID.

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Pandemic-safety precautions mean that the social gatherings that once helped us build community have been temporarily set aside. As we head into the holidays, a period that would normally bring us together in person, TVO.org speaks with sociologist Barry Wellman about what community looks like in the time of coronavirus. In 2000, he coined the term “networked individualism,” which reflects the way people build communities that exist outside tight-knit groups, such as households and work groups, using technology. He is also the Co-Director of the NetLab Network in Toronto.

TVO.org: You’ve written about people lamenting the loss of community, feeling nostalgia “for a perfect pastoral past that never was.” And, in response, you’ve pointed out that with social media and changing technology, the structure of a community may change, but it has never been lost. The times we’re in are different because people are mourning the loss of things we used to do as soon as a year ago and our ability to gather in person. How does this loss affect our understanding of community?

Barry Wellman: In many ways, it's going to stay the same. I mean, our concept of community has always been the neighbourhood. One of the things that has been clear for a long time is that communities, in terms of people having strong ties with each other, are well-dispersed [geographically]. I mean, I have hard data on that. But now people are starting to realize how much of their communities are interest-based. On the other hand, we're all missing hugging each other. What we're finding is we miss the warmth, the weaker ties. I think most people are keeping in touch by email, by phone, and by Zoom. It’s our middling ties that are not quite the same, people you would usually meet for lunch and stuff like that. So I think it's gonna recover quite well. I think people are realizing who's supportive and who’s a pain in the ass.

social ties
(Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman. 2021. “All the Lonely People? The Continuing Lament about the Loss of Community.”)

TVO.org: As you mentioned, most of our interactions have been on Zoom and FaceTime, so people are relying on digital forms of communication. And people are now using these digital forms of communication to build groups and communities. Is there anything that's lost or gained through this approach?

Wellman: Yeah, I think you [can] put on more of a show. Like, you know, I actually put on a good sweater today because I’m being honoured with an interview. In the old days, the pre-pandemic days, you didn't really know anybody, except if you knew them in person. Your friends were in-person or that hybrid, in-person plus digital. Or phone, in the old days. I mean, I go back, my first study was in 1969, so we didn't have anything mobile. But [now] people can put on a show. You don't know what's really bothering them; they may not tell you. A lot of people will tell you in person instead. So it's hard to convey warmth online.

TVO.org: Your research has looked at networked individualism. My understanding is that this concept describes individuals with diverse personal networks that expand beyond traditional communal and family bonds. The community not the focus — it’s the person and the communities this person builds around themselves. How does that apply to what we’re experiencing now?

Wellman: Let me do two things. First, I'm gonna go back one step; we used to think old people would not be on the internet much, that they would be crippled by it. But that's why Anabel Quan-Haase, in London, Ontario, and I did this study. And we found that [seniors] are really into it. But they may be into it in very basic ways, like email only, which my wife does. And that's fine. And I was shocked that many people were not in very big, complex networks, but were kind of in one solitary group. And with all the things we have going on, personal cars, women working. There's a list of things that have empowered people, that we've almost all networked. We have people, but they’re not in totally separate networks, they’re in kind of overlapping networks. There’s this smart guy, [Farhad] Manjoo who wrote a piece in The New York Times about how his kids are connecting him to all these other people, so there’s this kind of flow through going on.

TVO.org: A lot of people have talked about going back to normal after this is over, whatever normal looks like, and I'm just curious, is there anything about what we've experienced during the pandemic that we will carry on afterwards?

Wellman: You know, I think the Zoom thing for families to get together. I went to the first Zoom, well, it wasn't a Zoom, but a Zoom-like wedding about five years ago. These things are becoming routine, and people are just taking them for granted. Just like they took getting in cars for granted after a while to go visit their neighbors.

TVO.org: What were the circumstances of the Zoom-like wedding that you attended five years ago?

Wellman: Oh, [the bride] had lived in many places. And she had a lot of friends all around. She had about 20 people on the beach somewhere in Florida, and then the 50 or so of us that she knew because she had gone to school in Edinburgh and worked in Michigan and stuff like that. It was, to me, the first [Zoom wedding] ever. It was kind of exciting.

TVO.org: Another thing that probably won't change is people working from home.

Wellman: Yeah. If I were a speculator, which I'm not, I'd be dumping office property. And I think that's happening in Toronto right now. I did a study with a number of my colleagues some years ago, and we found a lot of people at a company that worked three days at home and two days at the office. They like to split it because you can't schmooze as much around the Xerox machine, around the washroom, the usual places where people schmooze. The other thing we found is that managers didn't like it so much because they didn't have the control over people that they thought they had. So it really depended on the kind of company. [Some] companies were very strict about that. To a certain extent, I think people are gonna keep coming in [to the office] at least part time. Some people like getting out of the house because they don't want their kids to drive them crazy.

TVO.org: I've seen a lot of articles — and this is my personal experience — where people have talked about moving during the pandemic and moving to a new place and looking for community during the pandemic and that being almost impossible.

Wellman: I think what you're saying is that newcomers are at a particular disadvantage these days, because you just can't hang out with your neighbors. You’re good in the sense that you can talk to family, your boyfriend, your girlfriend back home, and that’s good. But [community] will develop. After the pandemic I expect a great burst of everybody running and shopping and eating in every restaurant they can, and then it'll kind of filter down to be more, as you said, people working from home, more or less.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.


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