One of our children, age 7 years, was asked if he wanted to talk to his friends online. “No!” he replied angrily, “what’s the point if I can’t touch them!?” While his exasperation may not be shared by all of us, it concerns something basic to human life: embodied interaction with other people. Many aspects of our lives that were once taken for granted have been profoundly altered by lockdowns and social distancing measures that are part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Things as simple as hugging a friend, talking face-to-face, socialising freely, and travelling have been restricted in many countries. Even as social distancing measures are slowly relaxed, hesitation and anxiety remain. The situation has had a profound effect on our social relations. How might we better understand how people have experienced this seismic shift?
A promising place to look is the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, which is dedicated to the detailed study of human experience. Phenomenology draws on a range of methods to make explicit and clarify the subtle and intricate structures of experience. We build here on our previous work on the phenomenology of illness, which brought to light fundamental dimensions of illness experience using this method. Phenomenology is concerned with aspects of experience that are so deeply rooted in our lives that we typically overlook them, seldom reflecting on their nature. These include being situated in a meaningful world, feeling connected to others, feeling at home in a place, and experiencing things as real or present. Differing forms of experience, including illness experiences, have characteristic features that can be illuminated by phenomenological research.