The topic is an excuse or pretext to introduce the reader to sociology. However, as a reward for indulging me, I will eventually address the topic of social distancing, only to claim, however, that it is a misnomer. But, we need to know what sociology is about in order to understand that point.
WHAT IS SOCIOLOGY?
We may begin with the founder of this discipline, Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (AD 1332-1406). Ibn Khaldun was one of the most remarkable Muslim scholars of the pre-modern period. He founded an entirely new science that he called the science of human society (‘ilm al-ijtima’ al-insani). In today’s terms this would be called sociology, that is, the study of society. Society itself refers to the different forms of the living together of humans. These forms include social contacts, social distance, isolation, individualisation, co-operation, competition, division of labour and social integration. It is all of these forms that allow human beings to come together, live and interact in various types of associations and groups that form societies. It is important to understand the nature of society and group life if we are to understand how our society functions.
Ibn Khaldun, in showing how it was necessary to know about the nature of society in order to distinguish between fact and fiction in history, gave the example of discussions in historical works concerning the descent of the Moroccan ruler, Idris bin Idris (AD 803-828) of the Idrisid dynasty. Gossip mongers claimed that the younger Idris was the product of an adulterous relationship and was the biological son of Rashid, a client of the Idrisids, accusing Idris’ mother of having an extramarital affair with Rashid. The fact, however, was that Idris’ father was married into the Berber tribes and lived among them in the desert. Ibn Khaldun’s sociological point is that the nature of desert life was such that it was not possible for such things as extramarital affairs to happen without the entire community knowing about them. There were no hiding places where such things could be done in secrecy. For Ibn Khaldun, the fact that Idris’ parents lived among the Berber nomads made it practically impossible that his mother could have had an illicit relationship and given birth to an illegitimate son without the community knowing about it. If we knew something about desert society, the way of life of desert nomads, that is, their social conditions, and the ways in which they interact, we would conclude that it was unlikely that Idris could have been born as a result of an illicit relationship.
Sociology, therefore, is about understanding the nature of the social, that is, the interaction, co-operation and association among human beings, and how social factors play a role in the development of communities, societies and civilisations. For example, it is through sociology that we could evaluate the claim about Idris being the product of an adulterous relationship.
RAJARATNAM AND RONALD REAGAN ON IBN KHALDUN
It is interesting that the late Mr S. Rajaratnam (1915-2006), foreign minister of Singapore (1965-1980) and deputy prime minister (1980-1985), used Ibn Khaldun’s ideas to reflect on the future of Singapore in the 21st century.
In a speech that he gave at a seminar organised by the Singapore Association for the Advancement of Science on 20 December 1979, he dealt with the question of how a society could acquire and harness virtu, that is, virtuous qualities such as pride, bravery, skill, forcefulness, and ruthlessness, that enabled one to master a situation. Drawing on Machiavelli’s notion of virtu, Rajaratnam said that it was needed by a society in order to deal with the economic, social, cultural, political and technological forces that were plunging society into the future. The failure to act in the face of these forces would result in the decline of that society. Rajaratnam was formulating his views during the days of the Iranian revolution of 1979, which also made him think of the question of the rise and decline of Islamic civilisation. This led him, on the advice of Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, the then head of the Department of Malay Studies at the University of Singapore, to read Ibn Khaldun’s Al-Muqaddima, a three volume introduction to his historical work on the history of the Arabs and Berbers, and other nations.
Rajaratnam noted that Ibn Khaldun’s key concept, ‘asabiyya, the feeling of group solidarity, primarily among tribes, villages and pioneer settlements, was the stuff that made nomadic society more resilient, tougher, braver and self-reliant in comparison with people who lived in cities. It was the binding ties of ‘asabiyya that enabled these nomads to conquer cities and form new dynasties. Rajaratnam’s insight led him to suggest that Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyya was Machiavelli’s virtu.
About two years after Rajaratnam’s speech, in a well-known quote that was cited by, among others, former US President Ronald Reagan, Ibn Khaldun says, “It should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments. The reason for this is that when the dynasty follows the ways (sunan) of the religion, it imposes only such taxes as are stipulated by the religious law, such as charity taxes, the land tax, and the poll tax.” 
President Reagan, in his news conference in October 1981, cited Ibn Khaldun as an early exponent of supply-side economic theory, the doctrine on which his administration based many of its policies. According to supply-side economics, a cut in tax rates would stimulate the economy, resulting in the generation of greater tax revenues.
Reagan believed that the principles of supply-side economics could be traced back as far as Ibn Khaldun. Citing Ibn Khaldun, Reagan said, “We’re trying to get down to the small assessments and the great revenues.” 
Ibn Khaldun discussed how the pursuit of luxury within the ruling class would result in the higher rates of taxation. Over some generations they become immersed in a life of luxury. To maintain such a lifestyle there is an increase in assessments in order to augment the tax revenue. These finally reach levels that function to decrease productive activities and tax revenues. The cycle of increased tax rates and declining revenues not only causes a downturn in the economy of the dynasty, but eventually its demise. The demand for luxuries carries within it the germs of decay and collapse. This problem concerned Rajaratnam. He believed that as Singapore entered the 21st century and had to “steer safely through fortuna – the capricious play of world forces”, what was needed was Machiavelli’s virtu or Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyya.
DURKHEIM AND THE STUDY OF SUICIDE
Centuries after Ibn Khaldun, the French scholar, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), wanted to show how sociology provided a perspective that differed from those of other disciplines. He said that sociology had its own subject matter, that is, social facts. Social facts should be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual. To illustrate this, Durkheim took the example of the study of suicide.
For Durkheim the differences in suicide rates are not due to biological or psychological factors, but the differences in social facts. The particular social facts he used to explain different rates of suicide among different peoples are the degree of integration and the degree of regulation in a society or group. Due to the differences in the degree of integration and regulation, there are four types of suicide that occur in society, that is, egoistic suicide, altruistic suicide, anomic suicide and fatalistic suicide.
Let us consider the example of one of these types of suicide. Altruistic suicide occurs when social integration is too strong. A famous example is the mass suicide of the followers of the Reverend Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. The followers of the reverend willingly drank poison and gave it to their children as well, all for the sake of the cult leader, Jones. They were persuaded or forced into committing suicide by virtue of being part of the tightly integrated society of followers. They committed suicide because it was their duty to do so.
As we have seen, sociology is about the social, that is, the interaction, co-operation and association among human beings, and how social factors play a role in their development. What does this tell us about social distancing?
IS IT REALLY SOCIAL DISTANCING?
We started to hear the term, social distancing, during the current coronavirus pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, to practice distancing means to “[m]aintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and others”. The reason for this is that when someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks, small droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain the virus may spread to you. Many have referred to this practice as social distancing.
Social distancing refers to the practice of maintaining physical space between people outside of the home, not gathering in crowds, and avoiding mass gatherings. What is meant by social distancing is actually physical distancing. This gives the wrong impression that the social and physical are somehow referring to the same thing.
Sociology is the study of the social. It looks at social factors to understand human societies and the myriad of problems they face, and changes they go through. Changes and problems in society can also be studied with different approaches by, say, psychologists and economists. But, for sociologists there is the primacy of the social. What does that tell us about social distancing?
Social distance is a very important concept in sociology. As a term in public health, it is relatively new and seems to have been in use since the 21st century. It certainly does not mean the same thing as physical or spatial distance. Of course, this does not mean that both social and physical distance may not coincide.
Two people may be both physically and socially distant from each other. The physical distance may in some circumstances cause the social distance. In other cases, however, social distance may be unaffected by physical distance, and even decrease as a result of physical distance.
Social distance refers to the lack of social contact, regardless of physical distance or proximity. In other words, social distance may mean that, for example, two people are mentally distant from each other, even though they may be physically proximate. Social contact itself may be primary, characterised by frequent and more intimate associations, which may or may not involve face-to-face, unmediated visual and auditory engagements with people in our primary group such as family, colleagues and friends. Or, social contact may be secondary, involving less frequent and less intimate associations with people who are not in our group. In any case, social contact is about social proximity and social relations between individuals, regardless of the degree of physical proximity.
Two people may be physically distant but socially proximate or intimate, that is, having social contact. When a couple, separated by national borders due to the travel restrictions imposed to halt the spread of the coronavirus, meet each other via social media they are not practising social distancing. They have intimate social contact, despite the physical distance.
On the other hand, it is possible to be physically close without having social contact. In this case, physical proximity coexists with social distance. Take, for example, two people crossing the road at a zebra crossing. They are strangers to each other even though they may be physically close. Their actions or behaviour are not oriented towards each other and there is no social contact between them. Another example would be purchasing an item in the grocery store. There is physical proximity but the social contact is limited to a short period of monetary transaction.
In this pandemic period, we need to encourage and enforce physical, not social distancing. It is the physical distancing that is needed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. It is precisely because of the physical distancing and the lack of possibilities for physically proximate socialising that we need to encourage other forms of social contact, not social distancing. ⬛
1 SEE IBN KHALDUN, THE MUQADDIMA: AN INTRODUCTION TO HISTORY, TRANSLATED FROM THE ARABIC BY FRANZ ROSENTHAL, LONDON & HENLEY: ROUTLEDGE AND KEGAN PAUL, 3 VOLS., 1967. FOR AN ACCOUNT OF IBN KHALDUN’S LIFE AND THOUGHT, SEE SYED FARID ALATAS, IBN KHALDUN, NEW DELHI: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2013.
2 KARL MANNHEIM. SYSTEMATIC SOCIOLOGY: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF SOCIETY. LONDON: ROUTLEDGE & KEGAN PAUL, 1957. PP. 1-2.
3 RAJA TAKES A LOOK AT THE PAST AND THE FUTURE. THE STRAITS TIMES. 21 DECEMBER 1979.
4 IBN KHALDUN. THE MUQADDIMA. VOL. 2, P. 89.
5 ROBERT D. MCFADDEN. REAGAN CITES ISLAMIC SCHOLAR. THE NEW YORK TIMES. 2 OCTOBER 1981.
7 IBN KHALDUN. THE MUQADDIMA. VOL. 2, PP. 89-91.
8 RAJA TAKES A LOOK AT THE PAST AND THE FUTURE. THE STRAITS TIMES. 21 DECEMBER 1979.
9 EMILE DUKHEIM. THE RULES OF SOCIOLOGICAL METHOD. NEW YORK: FREE PRESS, 1964.
10 EMILE DURKHEIM. SUICIDE. NEW YORK: FREE PRESS, 1951. SEE ALSO RITZER, SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY, PP. 103-106.
11 WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION. CORONAVIRUS DISEASE (COVID-19) ADVICE FOR THE PUBLIC. RETRIEVED FROM HTTPS://WWW.WHO.INT/EMERGENCIES/DISEASES/NOVEL-CORONAVIRUS-2019/ADVICE-FOR-PUBLIC
12 SOCIAL DISTANCING. MERRIAM-WEBSTER. RETRIEVED FROM HTTPS://WWW.MERRIAM-WEBSTER.COM/DICTIONARY/SOCIAL%20DISTANCING
13 KARL MANNHEIM. SYSTEMATIC SOCIOLOGY: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF SOCIETY. LONDON: ROUTLEDGE & KEGAN PAUL, 1957. P. 47.
14 IBID, P. 43.
Professor Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.