Social distance describes the distance between different groups in society and is opposed to locational distance. The notion includes differences such as social class, race/ethnicity, gender or sexuality, but also the fact that the different groups mix less than members of the same group. The term is applied especially in cities.
An old concept, Robert E. Park defined social distance in 1924 as "an attempt to reduce to something like measurable terms the grade and degrees of understanding and intimacy which characterizes personal and social relations generally". It is the measure of nearness or intimacy that an individual or group feels towards another individual or group in a social network or the level of trust one group has for another and the extent of perceived likeness of beliefs.
The concept of social distance as applied to the study of racial attitudes and racial relations. Journal of Applied Sociology, 8, 339-344.</ref> In the sociological literature, social distance is conceptualized in several different ways.
- Affective social distance: One widespread conception of social distance focuses on affectivity. According to this approach, social distance is associated with affective distance, i.e. how much sympathy the members of a group feel for another group. Emory Bogardus, the creator of "Bogardus social distance scale" was typically basing his scale on this subjective-affective conception of social distance: "[i]n social distance studies the center of attention is on the feeling reactions of persons toward other persons and toward groups of people."
- Normative social distance: A second approach views social distance as a normative category. Normative social distance refers to the widely accepted and often consciously expressed norms about who should be considered as an "insider" and who an "outsider/foreigner". Such norms, in other words, specify the distinctions between "us" and "them". Therefore, normative social distance differs from affective social distance, because it conceives social distance is conceived as a non-subjective, structural aspect of social relations. Examples of this conception can be found in some of the works of sociologists such as Georg Simmel, Emile Durkheim and to some extent Robert Park.
- Interactive social distance: A third conceptualization of social distance focuses on the frequency and intensity of interactions between two groups, claiming that the more the members of two groups interact, the closer they are socially. This conception is similar to the approaches in sociological network theory, where the frequency of interaction between two parties is used as a measure of the "strength" of the social ties between them.
- Cultural and Habitual Distance: A fourth conceptualization of social distance focuses cultural and habitual which is proposed by Bourdieu (1990). This type of distance is influenced by the "capital" people possess.
It is possible to view these different conceptions as "dimensions" of social distance, which do not necessarily overlap. The members of two groups might interact with each other quite frequently, but that does not always mean that they will feel "close" to each other or that normatively they will consider each other as the members of the same group. In other words, interactive, normative and affective dimensions of social distance might not be linearly associated.
Social distance was also used in a different meaning by anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, Edward T. Hall, to describe the psychological distance which an animal can stand to be away from its group before beginning to feel anxious. This phenomenon can be seen in human babies and toddlers who can only walk or crawl so far from their parents or guardians before becoming anxious and quickly returning to the safe space. The babies' social distance is quite small.
Hall also notes that this concept of social distance has been extended by technological advances such as the telephone, walkie talkie, and television, among others. Hall’s analysis of social distance came before the development of the internet, which has expanded social distance exponentially. Social distance is now even expanding beyond our planet as we send people into outer space on space missions and even personal trips to space.
It is said[by whom?] that all individuals regards their own culture as being superior to all other cultures and other cultures as being inferior because of their differences from their own culture. The social distance between two cultures may ultimately manifest in the form of hatred. A consequence of the distance and hatred is prejudices that different cultural groups assume to be true for differing social groups. For example, the Brahmins are believed to possess the highest, and the shudras the lowest status in Hindu society. If a Brahmin child ever touches the child of some shudra, the former is given a bath to rid him of his supposed defilement caused by his touch. As a result of this strict formulation of his activities, the Brahmin child forms a prejudice in his mind that shudras are untouchable and impure.
Some ways social distance can be measured include direct observation of people interacting, questionnaires, speeded decision making tasks, route planning exercises, or other social drawing tasks (see sociogram).
In questionnaires, respondents are typically asked members of which groups they would accept in particular relationships, such as they would accept a member of each group as a neighbor, as a fellow worker as a marriage partner. The social distance questionnaires may not accurately measure what people actually would do if a member of another group sought to become a friend or neighbour. The social distance scale is only an attempt to measure one's feeling of unwillingness to associate equally with a group. What a person will actually do in a situation also depends upon the circumstances of the situation.
In speeded decision making tasks, studies have suggested a systematic relationship between social distance and physical distance. When asked to either indicate the spatial location of a presented word or verify a word's presence, people respond more quickly when "we" was displayed in a spatially proximate versus spatially distant location and when "others" was displayed in a spatially distant versus a spatially proximate location. This suggests that social distance and physical distance are conceptually related.
Route planning exercises have also hinted at a conceptual link between social distance and physical distance. When asked to draw a route on a map, people tend to draw routes closer to friends they pass along the way and further away from strangers. This effect is robust even after controlling for how easy it is for the people passing one another to communicate.
There is some evidence that reasoning about social distance and physical distance draw on shared processing resources in the human parietal cortex.
Social periphery is a term often used in conjunction with social distance. It refers to people being 'distant' with regard to social relations. It is often implied that it is measured from the dominant city élite. The social periphery of a city is often located in the centre.
Locational periphery in contrast is used to describe places physically distant from the heart of the city. These places often include suburbs which are socially close to the core of the city. In some cases the locational periphery overlaps with the social periphery, such as in Paris' banlieues.
In 1991, Mulgan stated, "The centres of two cities are often for practical purposes closer to each other than to their own peripheries." That reference to social distance is especially true for global cities.
- Park, R. E. (1924). The concept of social distance as applied to the study of racial attitudes and racial relations. Journal of Applied Sociology, 8, 339-344.
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- Hall, E. 1982. "The Hidden Dimension" 14-15.
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- Matthews, J.L. & Matlock, T. (2011). Understanding the link between spatial distance and social distance. Social Psychology, 42, 185-192. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000062
- Yamakawa, Y., Kanai, R., Matsumura, M., & Naito, E. (2009). Social distance evaluation in human parietal cortex. PLoS ONE, 4(2): e4360. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004360
- Mulgan G (1991) Communications and Control: Networks and the New Economics of Communication (Polity, Cambridge)