Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, Francesca Trivellato (Andrew W. Mellon Professor, School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study) spoke with Jonathan Hack (program officer, SSRC Anxieties of Democracy program) about how an Italian word—congiunti—came to spark both satire and serious commentary over with whom individuals can socialize as Covid-19 restrictions are relaxed.

Jonathan Hack (JH): Your artifact is a trending hashtag: #congiunti. Could you explain what the word means and how it’s come to define aspects of Italy’s experience with Covid-19?

Francesca Trivellato (FT): I chose this Italian word because it captures two essential features of this crisis. One is the tension between legally sanctioned norms and collective social behavior, and the other is the different national responses to Covid-19. 

First, let me give a definition of the word and how it came about. Congiunti is a synonym for relatives, but is mostly used in legal and bureaucratic documents. Although it is part of the vernacular, it is not the colloquial word Italians use to refer to relatives, which is parenti. The hashtag #congiunti gained national and international attention at the end of April 2020, when the Italian government announced the rules for the so-called Phase Two—the partial relaxation of the stay-at-home policy that had been in place for nearly two months. As part of this relaxation, the government ordered that, beginning on May 4, people could gather socially, outside their homes, but only with their relatives.  

The rule ignited satire and serious commentary. As a response, the government issued a FAQ clarifying that by relatives, they meant spouses, live-in partners, civil union partners, anyone sharing a stable emotional bond, as well as blood relatives up to the sixth degree and kin up to the fourth degree.

On the one hand, here we have a very legalistic definition—you’d need to draw a genealogical tree to be able to count these degrees of separation. On the other, the idea of “a stable emotional bond,” in principle, is very capacious. The question becomes: Does it extend to friends, or not?

One would assume that the rationale for such a decree is to limit social interactions while the virus is still active. But if that’s the case, why would the government dictate with whom we should meet as opposed to the number of people we are allowed to meet? 

During the lockdown, Italians could only leave their home after having filled out a preprinted form noting where they lived, where they were headed to, and what activity they planned on doing. The state might have asked that during Phase Two everyone listed, say, ten people they wanted to meet in the course of a week. Such a norm would accomplish the same goal but respond to a very different logic from the one underlying the congiunti decree. After all, a person may have no relatives or no relatives living in Italy at a time when national borders are closed, or may want to avoid relatives altogether for whatever reason. A startling figure shows that since January, twenty-five women in Italy have been killed by their spouses or domestic partners. And this is the official number of deaths; we know that countless incidents of domestic violence went unreported during the shutdown.

As we are all debating how to turn the tragedy of Covid-19 into an opportunity to rethink how things were done and how we wish to do things going forward, here we have a telling example of a missed opportunity. In Italy, as in the United States, medics and nurses who care for strangers at great personal risk are celebrated as heroes. But when the moment to rebuild comes, when Phase Two begins, the government still assumes that the family constitutes the indisputable social unit, as if months of social distancing had not challenged basic aspects of that assumption.

JH: What do you hope future researchers of this pandemic will take away or learn from this episode?

FT: Three things. First, I want researchers to understand the specificities of national responses to a global pandemic. Italy became famous for people singing on their balconies and for teaching everybody to have quarantini—drinks over conferencing platforms. There’s a lot of national creativity that the rest of the world has benefited from. But there are also deeper structural differences between the Italian and American responses to Covid-19. In Italy there is a tendency to issue lots of rules (which people then often evade). In parts of the United States, we’ve seen a (violent) backlash against even the most minimalist public safety rules. The obligation to use preprinted forms to leave the house during the stay-at-home period or a government decree regulating whom one could and could not socialize with during the early phase of the recovery would be unthinkable in the United States.

Second, it is important for researchers to reflect on social responsibility both during and after a crisis of this magnitude. Humans are social creatures and it is beneficial to explore how we rebuild interpersonal and collective interactions that we all need and crave. Whom do we feel closest to? What forms of social organization do we treasure, tolerate, nurture? How do normative definitions of kin stress already vulnerable populations, such as immigrants, people in abusive relationships, and queer-identified individuals?

Lastly, as we reconsider the nature of interpersonal and collective interactions, there are questions about the limits and the possibilities of technology. Can we recreate personal connections and new social bonds without necessarily reverting back to old and unreflective ways of thinking about social dynamics and familial relations?

JH: Are you hopeful that society will find a new way of imagining social relations going forward?

FT: I’m not terribly optimistic in general, and the Italian government’s invocation of “relatives” as the pivot to Phase Two hardly fills me with hope. On the one hand, collectively, Italians seem to have held the government accountable by demanding and obtaining as capacious a definition of that term as possible. This is certainly a good start. On the other hand, the regulatory impulse behind this policy is worrisome. In issuing this norm, the Italian government not only adopted a habitual frame of mind that is partially disconnected from social reality, but it also sought to reinstate the centrality of the family. The inclusion of “stable social bonds” in the definition of “relatives” provided by the FAQ was a belated attempt to tweak a norm that sprung from a conservative and exclusionary set of assumptions.

You cannot fight a pandemic without confidence in public authorities, and this decree is just one among many (some much more serious) that do not inspire trust in our democratic governments. The intentions behind the congiunti rule are good—to limit the spread of the virus by limiting contact. But the presumed “natural” role of the family that animates it is troubling. In Italy, women, gay and trans people (adolescents in particular), and legal and illegal immigrants have all been adversely affected by Covid-19 and its ramifications. The government has acknowledged this reality in other public statements and measures, but then “forgot” it just as it began to plan for the new six-feet society. 

The pandemic has stretched our imagination beyond anything most of us could foresee. At the very moment when we’re trying to rebuild sociality—something whose absence we have all suffered from—we should take stock of the experience we lived through and ask ourselves what personal connections and social bonds we value and wish to protect. This pandemic is teaching us that when faced with a catastrophe, in which every minute something new is developing, there is nothing natural or inherently foundational about the ways we do things and order society. 

This conversation was conducted on May 14, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.