Social distance describes the distance between different groups of society and is opposed to locational distance. The notion includes all differences such as social class, race/ethnicity or sexuality, but also the fact that the different groups do not mix. The term is often applied in cities, but its use is not limited to that.
In the sociological literature, the concept of 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 or little 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." In this respect, normative social distance is very different from affective social distance, because here 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. The main idea here is 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 tie between them.
It is possible to view these different conceptions as "dimensions" of social distance. However, it is important to note that these dimensions do not necessarily overlap. The members of two groups might interact with each other quite frequently, but this 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 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 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.
This definition of social distance is distinct from the sociological definitions because Hall uses social distance to describe how an individual interacts with its “insider” group.
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 the International Space Station.
Since Hall’s study of social distance, there has not been much research about the extension of social space as new technology has been developed. More research is needed.
Prejudice and Social Distance
It is said that every individual regards his or her own culture as being superior to all other cultures as inferior by virtue of being different from his or her own culture. In this way, the distance between individuals, who are influenced by different cultures, increases because there is no meeting point for the two. The social distance between these two cultures ultimately manifests in the form of hatred. A consequence of this distance and hatred is prejudices, that different cultural groups assume to be true for differing social groups. To take an example, the Brahmins are believed to possess the highest, and the shudras the lowest status in Hindu society. The social distance between these two groups is so great that the Brahmins look upon the shudras as lowly and impure creatures. 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.
The term acculturation is used to describe both the process of contacts between different cultures and also the customs of such contacts. As the process of contact between cultures, acculturation may involve either direct social interaction or exposure to other cultures by means of the mass media of communication. As the outcome of such contact, acculturation refers to the assimilation by one group of the culture of another which modifies the existing culture and so changes group identity. There may be a tension between old and new cultures which leads to the adapting of the new as well as the old.
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, where people are typically asked what kind of people they would accept in particular relationships, a number of groups may be listed and the informants asked to check whether they would accept a member of each group as a neighbor, as a fellow worker as a marriage partner and so on through a series of relationships. 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 distance effect is robust even after controlling for how easy it is for the people passing one another to communicate. Here, social relationship influences how participants reason about physical distance, and supports the notion that social distance, defined here as friendship, and physical distance are, again, conceptually linked.
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 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 and 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 that "The centres of two cities are often for practical purposes closer to each other than to their own peripheries." This reference to social distance is especially true for global cities.
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- Bogardus, E. S. 1947. ‘‘Measurement of Personal-Group Relations,’’ Sociometry, 10: 4: 306–311.
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- Mulgan G (1991) Communications and Control: Networks and the New Economics of Communication (Polity, Cambridge)