Social distance

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Social distance describes the distance between different groups in society, such as social class, race/ethnicity, gender or sexuality. Different groups mix less than members of the same group. 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.[1][2]


Robert E. Park defined social distance 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".[3][4]

TIn the sociology, social distance includes:[5]

  1. Affective social distance: One widespread view of social distance is affectivity. 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."[6]
  2. 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.
  3. Interactive 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.
  4. Cultural and Habitual 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, that 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.[5]

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall explained that social distance has been extended by technological advances such as the telephone, walkie talkie, and television, among others.[7] Hall’s analysis of social distance came before the development of the internet, which has expanded social distance exponentially.

Interpersonal distance

Hall describes social distance differently, describing the psychological distance which an animal can stand to be away from its group before beginning to feel anxious.[8] 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.


It is said[by whom?] that every individual regards his or her own culture as being superior to all other cultures, and other cultures as being inferior due to their differences from his or her own culture.[citation needed] The social distance between two cultures may ultimately manifest in the form of hatred.[citation needed] A consequence of this distance and hatred is prejudices, that different cultural groups assume to be true for differing social groups.[citation needed] 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.[9]

Ways to study social distance[edit]

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. For example, to check whether or not 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

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 that "The centres of two cities are often for practical purposes closer to each other than to their own peripheries."[14] This reference to social distance is especially true for global cities.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Boguna, Marian, Romualdo Pastor-Satorras, Albert Díaz-Guilera, and Alex Arenas (2004). Models of social networks based on social distance attachment. Physical Review, 70, 1-8.
  2. ^ Helfgott, Jacqueline B. & Gunnison, Elaine (2008). The influence of social distance on community corrections officer perceptions of offender reentry needs. Federal Probation, 72(1), 2-12.
  3. ^ Park, R. E. (1924)
  4. ^ Journal of Applied Sociology, 8, 339-344.
  5. ^ a b Karakayali, Nedim. 2009. "Social Distance and Affective Orientations." Sociological Forum, vol. 23, n.3, pp. 538-562.
  6. ^ Bogardus, E. S. 1947. Measurement of Personal-Group Relations, Sociometry, 10: 4: 306–311.
  7. ^ Hall, E. 1982. "The Hidden Dimension" 15.
  8. ^ Hall, E. 1982. "The Hidden Dimension" 14-15.
  9. ^ Sharma, Rajendra, Sharma, Rachana (1972). Social Psychology. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and distributors. pp. 200–201.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Bar-Anan, Y., Liberman, N., Trope, Y., & Algom, D. (2007). Automatic processing of psychological distance: Evidence from a Stroop task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136, 610-622.
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ Mulgan G (1991) Communications and Control: Networks and the New Economics of Communication (Polity, Cambridge)