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Understanding Different Cultures, Improving Coronavirus Models

Researchers from the University of Freiburg to study how the understanding of personal space varies from culture to culture

Freiburg, Feb 12, 2021

Mathematical models of the spread of infection are vital tools for policy makers when making decisions about implementing the right safety measures at the right time. The science historian Prof. Dr. Veronika Lipphardt and historian and cultural sociologist Dr. Dmitri Zakharine, both from the University College Freiburg (UCF) of the University of Freiburg, want to make these predictions more precise. That is why they are studying the attitudes of people with different ethnic backgrounds toward physical closeness and distance. They hope that their results will make it possible to add the distancing behavior of different groups to model calculations. The project has received a grant of 120,000 euros for 18 months from the Volkswagen Foundation. Zakharine and Lipphardt plan to conduct their study in Freiburg.

“Different attitudes toward how close or how far we feel comfortable when talking to another person are rarely taken into account in these calculations,” says Zakharine. And yet, there are huge differences between cultures and countries when it comes to sharing a plate of food, a cigarette, or a bed with another person. “In a study in 2008, I talked to German and Czech students. The female students especially reported that, in the Czech Republic, it is much more common to share a bed with their siblings or mother,” he says. The researchers will take a survey of people with different cultural backgrounds to determine how their distancing behavior has changed during the pandemic. Zakharine and Lipphardt will target people from Germany’s largest cultural minorities: in other words, those with Russian, Turkish, Arab, Greek, and Italian language backgrounds. While the survey will not be representative for all of Germany, Freiburg is an ideal city to conduct this explorative study. “There are people living here from many different countries,” says Lipphardt. The collected data are intended to contribute to a better understanding of the social role of personal space, so that the spread of epidemics can be better anticipated and mitigated in the future.

The two researchers will also recruit students to help collect the data, thus creating a learning opportunity. Their work will be counted toward the program Wissenschaft – Technik – Gesellschaft (Science – Technology – Society), which Lipphardt coordinates as the Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the University College Freiburg. The UCF, which was founded in 2012, encourages interdisciplinary research and promotes innovation in higher education through its international bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences.


University College Freiburg


PD Dr. Dmitri Zakharine
University College Freiburg
University of Freiburg
Phone: +49 (0)761 / 203 - 3435