What Does Social Distancing Mean for Us?
Five Questions with Sociology Professor Kerry Ferris

By Eva Richards

ferris-kerryAssociate Professor Kerry Ferris has taught at NIU for 15 years.

NIU sociology professor Kerry Ferris has taught courses on social psychology and popular culture. She earned her doctorate in sociology from UCLA and has been teaching at NIU for 15 years. As an interactional sociologist, she specializes in symbolic communication between individuals and groups. We asked her to share her thoughts on what can happen when people no longer are able to communicate face-to-face.

NIUAA: From a sociology standpoint, what are the effects of social distancing on a person?
Ferris: In historical terms, people were punished by being exiled, banished, and shunned. In the past, these sanctions or distancing measures have been used to exclude perceived rule-breakers from the benefits and protections that society provides. So it can feel like a punishment of sorts, even if it is meant to help us.

NIUAA: Why is it important that a person find some way to stay connected during a time of social distancing?
Ferris: Social distancing can be isolating, and we need to remind ourselves that we are part of a much larger group of people who are experiencing the same thing. Keeping in contact with people in like circumstances might help. For instance, an alumni group might want to organize video calls for members to talk to others in real time. 

NIUAA: In your opinion, what are the best things we can do to stay connected now? 
Ferris: If we have the technological resources, we should use them. Phone and video calling are great alternatives, if possible. Email and texting are also key. I had a Zoom happy hour with friends last week and it was a great break from the stress of isolation. 

NIUAA: What are the few important social checkpoints we should try to maintain during this time of isolation?
Ferris: We all need some contact with others, even if it’s mediated. Some self-care time—meditation, reading, some outdoor time. We should do whatever centers us individually. 

NIUAA: What can we all do to ensure ones we love who may live alone or are not technologically savvy are connecting enough?
Ferris: I have an 84-year-old dad who lives 2,000 miles away. We have been calling and texting daily, and it does seem to help him cope. We are going to try a video call this week—I hope we can help him figure things out! Checking in regularly and not leaving them out is very important.