Social Bubbles

This has been another academia-related hiatus, for which I must, as always, apologise. Law degrees are known for their heavy workloads, and it is naturally the most difficult at the very start, when everything, including one’s very environment, is completely new. This last challenge is what I shall focus on in this post: the way in which we find ourselves caught up in social bubbles, and how this can influence our attitudes to life in different situations. I hope to articulate some of the ‘known knowns’, much as the Roman jurists did in their seminal period during the Republic.

The city of Cambridge is one of many social bubbles. When visiting as a tourist, I recall being fascinated by the academic atmosphere that permeates almost every part of the city, particularly its heart, where there is such a great concentration of Cambridge colleges and faculties. This atmosphere is something that one very quickly takes for granted. The primary effect of such an atmosphere is, I feel, a sense of intense academic concentration. Academia is why the university exists, and when the modern accessories are removed, it will remain an academic institution. From this follows what I have come to think of as ‘academic tunnel vision’. It is a feeling of intense academic focus; everything in the world outside can be forgotten whilst grappling with a difficult legal judgement or scientific problem.

As when preparing for examinations, intense academic focus very often leads to stress. In the former situation, I believe stress arises through a fixation on the result at the end of the process one is in. I do not think that is the case here: stress arises simply through the requirement of understanding highly complex and/or technical issues in a very short space of time. The volume of work is significant too: it is nigh on impossible to ‘finish’ working, particularly as a humanities or arts student. When one essay is over, preparatory reading for the next begins. That can lead to endless hours spent in the library, especially if you’re utterly useless at taking breaks (as I am).

The feeling of such intense focus can also be found outside academic environments. Sangh Shiksha Varg, HSS UK’s yearly leadership training camp, perhaps provides the best example. When everybody within a reasonably confined location is working towards the same goal, not only is a strong sense of unity created, but a very special atmosphere is created. The best way to describe it is the feeling that the activities in which we engage are more important than anything else we might do with our time instead, such as sitting at home and watching television. What is happening in the outside world seems not to matter for that period of ten days; what really matters is the task at hand, and the ultimate goal of unity which we are coming together in order to reach. Here, we see diversity between forms of social bubbles: whilst the academic bubble in Cambridge can be oppressive and lead to largely negative emotions, the bubble created in Sangh Shiksha Varg is very much the opposite.

There are other instances of these bubbles too: without being too philosophical about it, distance is a concept that we just take for granted. It takes the average person around twenty minutes to walk a mile. Yet our perception of distance seems to vastly change whenever moving to a new city: last week, I found myself complaining (both internally and externally) about the twenty-minute walk to a supervision at Murray Edwards College, which is ‘nowhere near’ Clare College in Cambridge terms. This is undoubtedly because I’ve got used to the five-minute journey to lectures. Contrast that with Manchester, where twenty minutes walking to get somewhere isn’t really a big deal: it takes that much time to get from Piccadilly Station to Victoria Station, or from Owens Park in Fallowfield to somewhere near the centre of Withington. In comparative terms, the ‘trek’ to Medwards starts to look more like a stroll.

Taking the word ‘bubble’ a little more loosely (if a bubble can ever become loose), I think there exist linguistic bubbles as well. This is probably best exemplified by a brief corridor conversation about dialect in which I was involved at some point in the last two weeks, concerning the use of the word ‘peak’. To a Mancunian (such as myself), this is a positive word. Why say ‘good’ or ‘great’ when you can say ‘peak’? As always, London must be different: ‘peak’ in our capital appears to mean much the opposite of what it does up North, a fact which I can’t seem to process. The ways in which we use slang are so geographically ingrained that they almost become bubbles of their own.

So, what do we do about these social bubbles? Embracing them is probably a good start, because they do have their benefits. It’s important to remain open-minded too though; there is a world outside Cambridge, where people don’t fret over what a slightly old and dusty Law Lord might have said in paragraph X of his judgement in a case with an incredibly long name, possibly involving the Home Secretary of the day. Doing something different is to be embraced, which is exactly why I’ve spent much of the last hour rambling about social bubbles. The bubbles can be burst, you know.

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