In this article we will discuss about Social Distance. After reading this article you will learn about: 1. Meaning of Social Distance 2. Determinants of Social Distance 3. Criteria 4. Reduction.
Meaning of Social Distance:
Social distance is the psychological gap between members of two prejudiced groups. Prejudice can be measured through social distance. Social distance in other words, is the distance which members of a prejudiced group hold towards members of another group. The more the social distance between two groups, the more is the prejudice and vice versa.
According to Sherif and Sherif (1969) “Social distance is a dimension of interaction between members of different groups ranging from intimacy to complete separation (no contact). It is defined by norms governing the situation in which interaction with members of the outgroups is permissible”. Social distance particularly increases in times of social change and due to intergroup behaviour.
Determinants of Social Distance:
Mutual hostility arises from behavioural interaction as well as their contemporary attitude towards each other. Intergroups relations, prejudice attitude and stereotypes cause social distance and they are further caused by social distance.
The group towards which there is prejudice the social distance will be high and the vice versa. A particular set of beliefs will operate at the cognitive level against a group towards which there is prejudice. But social distance does not alone depend upon personal experiences.
Hence personal experiences do not change the social distance. It is the pressure of the group and norm of the group, traditions and customs of the society that influences the social distance.
A person might have extremely favourable attitude towards a Scheduled Caste girl but because of the customs and norms of the society, he cannot marry her. The group and community pressure would be so high that it will become quite difficult for a person to give up the social distance.
With the fear of being victimised by the neighbours and own community a person may not decrease the social distance to another group or community. This can be best explained with the example of Indian society.
Though thousands of years have passed, though many religious and social thinkers have attempted to reduce social distance between the Hindus and Scheduled castes, Hindus and Non-Hindus, not much has been achieved so far.
The prejudice, stereotypes and social distance continue to persist till today in rural and semi-urban areas inspite of the articles of the constitution for equality and no discrimination. Of course it would never-the-less be erroneous to hold that by and large there has not been any improvement.
2. Beliefs attitudes and preconceived notions usually manifest in social distance. However social distance does not always lead to hostility, though some conflict may be present.
Prejudice creates social distance, but not necessarily avoidance. When the social distance becomes extreme, it may lead to avoidance. Avoidance may be considered therefore as an extreme expression of social distance. Dislikeness and withdrawal is only a mild expression of hostility towards the out group, but it may be extreme expression of social distance.
When hostility is more, there is discrimination. Hence hostility leads to discrimination. Discrimination produces social distance.
Social distances are formed through intergroup relations and intergroup attitudes and behaviour involving political and economic groups. Even if there is social distance among different groups and communities, groups with different cultural values, technological knowledge and language, it does not mean that there will necessarily be conflict between them or hostile attitude towards one another.
Lindgre long back in 1938 recorded the history of contacts between in illiterate group of nomads, the Tungus in Western Manchuria, and a group of farmers descended from seventeenth century cossacks, who maintained social distance without any record of conflict.
Rather their economic activities supplemented one another. Similarly in India though the social distance between the general castes and scheduled caste is quite high, they live in peace without much conflict, tension and hostility.
McNickle (1937) also holds that there are many recorded cases of social distance without hostility between American Indian/Non resident Indians and the Europeans explorers and settlers to whom the indigenous people were certainly a cultural curiosity.
Only when the domination of one group over the other relates to livelihood, job, clash in mutual goals and living styles, then only it leads to significant social distance.
But if one does not interfere with the others means to livelihood, social distance does not lend to hostility, avoidance or aggressiveness. Social distance may not necessarily be the original cause of conflict in all situations as we know that the original causes of conflict are manifold.
Social distance may be found due to difference in socioeconomic status which include education, occupation and income of a person. Social distances may exist between persons belonging to high and low socioeconomic status, high and low income groups, persons engaged in prestigious occupations as well as low jobs, rich and economically disadvantaged people.
Religion also may be one of the causes of social distance. Once the social distance is created, because of certain factors, it usually continues to remain in our head even if such conditions change with the passage of time.
The cases of white-Negro, Hindu Muslim-higher class-lower class, majority – minority, forward – backward classes, male/female may be taken as glaring examples of the continuance of social distance inspite of improvement in the conditions of the out group. Though ethnic tolerance has increased, the social distance factor has not fully faded.
Dodd (1935), Prothro and Melikian (1952), Diab (1963 a and b) conducted a series of illuminating studies on social distance on the people of Lebanon. Lebanon is a country with people of different religious and national backgrounds. Like India long ruled by British, Lebanon was long ruled by the Turks.
People of Lebanon still considered the Turks with least preference in the scale of social distance in the view of Diab. The greatest social distances were observed between different religious groups. However, in 1950 i.e. after 15 years, the greatest social distances were found between nationality groups.
Criteria of Social Distance in Varied Cultures:
The factors determining social distance are not same in different cultures. The criteria of social distance vary from culture to culture and society to society. It also varies from one historical period to another historical period.
Triandis and Triandis (1965) using the Bogardus social distance scale have made a series of cross cultural studies on the determinants of social distance in different cultures with the American and Greek students.
They have attempted to assess the social distance by means of the scale values for various statements. Agreement to the first statement of the scale “I would marry this person” indicates ‘Zero’ social distance while “I would kill this person, if I had the chance” indicates greatest (100) social distance.
Results of this study conducted on American and Greek university students showed that American sample was sensitive to the hypothetical stimulus persons primarily on the basis of race, while the Greek sample was more sensitive to the persons religion. Occupation and nationality were comparatively unimportant for both the samples, relative to these more silient anchoring criteria.
Triandis and Triandis (1965) conducted on another study with the similar purpose on German and Japanese sample. Results indicated that American samples gave a much greater importance to race than Greek, Japanese and German samples.
The investigators found that German subjects responded more in terms of occupation and religion compared to Americans. On the other hand, Japanese subjects gave greater weight to occupation and less importance to race than Americans.
One limitation of these studies was that the specific characteristics used in the various studies were not identical. Hence it is not desirable to compare Japanese with Greek and German Samples. But the items presented before the American sample were identical in each study.
But an overall analysis of the results shows that only the American college students gave primary importance to race than other samples of other cultures. American subjects consistently attached less importance to occupation and religion in the scale of social distance in comparison to other samples. This shows that determinants of social distance vary with the variation in culture.
In a further study Triandis and Triandis also attempted to see the effects of individual differences in a particular sampling group, by using different varieties of other attitude statements.
“They found that individuals within all the samples who agreed strongly with items that conformed to existing social institutions and conservative political viewpoints also tended to exhibit the greatest social distance”.
Social distance also varies with variation in group stereotypes. Unfavourable views of the outgroup and negative stereotypes are the outcome of continuous conflict, misunderstanding and gap in communication between two groups, group prejudices and unfavourable stereotypes, unfavourable attitudes are the causes of conflicts between groups as viewed by several investigators and social scientists.
In a society where there is domination and subordination in inter-group relations the dominant group controls the activities and style of living of the subordinate groups. The opportunities and achievement levels of the subordinate groups are also controlled by the dominant group.
Consequently, social distances tend to emerge among the various groups by virtue of the rules, regulations and orders imposed by the dominant group. The subordinate groups also show their hostility and prejudice against the dominant groups who act as their masters and boss.
The subordinate groups are so brainwashed from time immemorial that they perceive themselves as having negative qualities and inferior characters.
This is because of the unfavourable evaluation placed upon them by others. The British people considered the Indians subordinate to them and inferior for a long period. The Indians who were oppressed and suppressed by the British rulers also accepted this for the time being, developed inferiority complex and viewed themselves as inferior to the British people.
Similar is the case with Negroes in USA. Meenes (1943) hold that only a few decades ago Negro college students in the United States sometimes accepted the deprecatory images of their own groups as well as the stereotyped descriptions of other groups on the social distance scale.
In another study G. Jatoda (1962) reported “in the African Gold Coast before independence, where native school children frequently described natives in the same derogatory terms used by children of European colorialists and used admiring terms for the latter”.
According to Sherif and Sherif “Race doctrines have been the most pervasive, the most powerful and effective of the group superiority doctrines in modern history. They were effective because unlike superiority doctrines based on religious faith, geography or social class, they propose differences that inherit in the biological make up of the individual. Ideally therefore race doctrines picture a world in which superior races rule for ever and inferior races remain forever subordinate”.
But the doctrine of racial superiority, if is to be accepted, does not contain any scientific basis according to international bodies of biologists, geneticists and anthropologists. Genetically speaking there are no pure races and clarification of persons on racial basis does not include cultural traits, achievements, mental and psychological characteristics.
Review of literature in the area also shows that though there are group differences in behaviour, the origin of such differences is not biological or racial. There is not a single scientific study which has proved that test performances are obviously associated with biological differences. Rather studies go to show that differences are more due to environmental differences.
Various studies prove that prejudice, group stereotypes and social distances are the products of inter group conflicts. Otto Klineberg (1950,1964) could be able to provide the world a number of evidences from various different sources supporting the above view.
But he was also of opinion that once prejudices, stereotypes and social distances are established, they change the behaviour pattern and intergroup relationship and group interaction of the person possessing it.
However, the effects of changing circumstances and the situational factors cannot be ruled out in intergroup behaviour. But never the less, the adverse effect of prejudice, stereotype and social tensions play a major role.
Reduction of Social Distance:
By increasing intergroup contact and communication among members of the respective groups, social distance can be reduced. The study of the present author on “Correlation between tension and contact in a study of provincial stereotypes” is worth mentioning.
It was hypothesised that when the contact between two groups or nationalities increases, the tension and hostility between them may decrease as each group tries to understand the other with more sympathy and friendliness and his mental picture for such a group may change in the positive direction.
On the contrary, less contact may not give the accurate information about the qualities of a group or nationality to another group. Hence, their fixed notions may not change.
Data indicated that correlation between tension and contact is 57. This suggested that there is a negative relationship between contact and tension, i.e., in other words the more is the contact between two groups, the less is the tension and vice versa.
Various other studies show that though contact eases social tension, the conditions in which contact occurs, is also of importance. Sheer contact between hostile groups is not as important as the attitude of the hostile groups to solve problems with a dynamic approach. Each side must try to see the point of view of the other side. Else contact may ruin the situation instead of easing tension and reducing social distance.
Williams (1964) holds that contacts between groups under prevailing superiority, inferiority arrangements do not encourage changes in attitudes and behaviour. On the contrary they encourage the continuation and entrenchment of dominance subordinate relationship.
On the other hand surveys done by Starr (1965), Saenger – (1953) in the military service and various other jobs in which desegregation was accomplished by legal and official regulation indicate that interaction in such situations is associated with more favourable attitudes and treatment of out group members in the specific situation where contact occurs.
In another study where contacts were made mainly through work situations, the Cornell studies by Williams (1964) found a persistent correlation between the amount of contact with the members of an outgroup and favourable attitude towards them.
The correlation being quite frequent and high, led Williams to conclude that “persons who are relatively unprejudiced are more likely to have ethnic contacts and that persons who interact across ethnic lines are likely to be relatively unprejudiced and to form ethnic friendships”.
Wilner (1952) hold that given opportunity for interaction, positive changes tend to occur more frequently among persons “Who have relatively intimate contacts with Negroes and perceive these contacts as socially approved and as a result change in their attitude”.
Sherif and Sherif suggest that in extending the experimental analysis to reduce intergroup hostility social distance and prejudice in actual life, it is important to recall the criteria for superordinate goals. Superordinate goals presume conditions of inter dependence between groups in some area of compelling importance to all groups in the intergroup system.