Social Distance in the City

Emory S. Bogardus
University of Southern California


Social distance in the city.—Social distance, or the lack of fellow-feeling and understanding, continues to exist after spatial distances have been eliminated. This situation is true even in large cities or where thousands of people live in close proximity to each other. Rarely does one-half of the city know "how the other half lives." Even with its millions, the metropolitan city may be "the lonesomest spot in the world." However, social distances exist between different groups of people as well as between persons. For example, they exist between occupational groups, religious groups, and, strange to say, educational groups, even between departments in the same university. Further activity in a given occupational group for a length of time develops in a person sets of social distance reactions toward other people, which are different from the social distance reactions developed in the individuals in all other occupations. The chief significance of social distance is in connection with the maintenance of status or with a person's standing. Status once achieved is not easily surrendered—a person will fight bitterly before giving up status. In cities, however, one must become "aggressive" or else fall out of a highly competitive race, but to become aggressive is usually to invade the status of other persons or of groups and thus to arouse strife or conflicts. In this way city life, despite its overcoming of spatial distance, may actually foster social distance.

Despite the physical proximity of city people, social distance prevails. The lack of fellow-feeling' and understanding which characterizes social distance is everywhere evident in cities. The capitalist and labor-unionist mutually. denouncing each other aredis playing social-distance traits. The wealthy landlord and the dwellers in the former's congested and perhaps insanitary tenements are separated by wide social distances. The hod-carrier and the society débutante manifest little understanding of each other. Tipping, a city custom, implies social distance, for one rarely tips his peers. Tipping signifies difference in status and hence denotes social distance.

The cleavages between city-bred children and their parents, between city-influenced children and their rural-trained elders, are increasing. The existence of boys' predatory gangs, of high juvenile-delinquency rates, and of crime waves in cities is an index of social distance. Race riots are chiefly urban phenomena revealing

( 41) social distance. Descriptions of the large city as the "lonesomest spot anywhere," or as "the most unsocial place in the world," are expressions of social distance.


In order to measure and interpret social distance a list of seven social relationships has been worked out, and sixty persons of training and experience have been asked to rate these in order of the fellow-feeling and understanding that ordinarily exists in each. These social relationships, arranged according to the judges' verdict in order of decreasing fellow-feeling and understanding, may be indicated as follows: (1) To admit to close kinship by marriage; (2) to have as "chums"; (3) to have as neighbors on the same street; (4) to admit as members of one's occupation within one's country; (5) to admit as citizens of one's country; (6) to admit as visitors only to one's country; and (7) to exclude entirely from one's country.

In the next place a list of the important racial and language groups living in the United States was submitted to experimental groups of native-born Americans living in cities and numbering 450.These urbanites were asked, on the basis of their first-feeling reactions, to put crosses under each of the seven social relation-ships to which they would admit members of each race (beginning with Armenians and ending with the Welsh), as a class, and not the best or the worst of each race they had known. If a person had no "first-feeling reactions," no marks were to be made.

As a result, for instance, the Armenians and other races such as the Negroes, Chinese, Hindus, and Turks were admitted by only a few of the 450 persons to the first three social relationships in the list of seven, and were put by many into social relationships 4 and 5, and by a substantial number into social relationships 6 and 7.On the other hand, races such as the English, French, Norwegians, and Scotch were admitted more or less freely to each of the first five social relationships, and were put by scarcely anyone into social relationships 6 and 7.

When we consider these two groupings (which for convenience may be called A and B, in the order given) we find that the races in

( 42) group A are doubly handicapped in their social relationships with the 450 urban people as compared with the races in group B. They are allowed social contacts in a far less number of social relation-ships than are the races in group B, and moreover, these limited social relationships exist at a considerable social distance. The opportunities for assimilation open to group A are measurably smaller than for group B. Likewise, the chances for the rise of misunderstanding, ill-will, and conflict are measurably greater.

An examination of the racial origins of the 450 city-dwellers whose first-feeling reactions have been recorded shows that few were of group A descent, while 85 per cent claim group B descent, and that in nearly all cases where racial heritage connections are prominent, social distances are short, and that the connections which exist between heritage and distances are measurable. Where racial-heritage connections are missing, the first-feeling reactions are usually accompanied by long social distances, but the exceptions to this statement are somewhat numerous and require further research.

Data now being gathered from urban people of races other than American show social-distance reactions similar in principle to those already noted, but different in details. For example, while Americans put the Turks at the greatest social distance, the Chinese put the English at a greater social distance than any other race; and the Jews, the Poles, and so on. Nearly all feel that Americans have a racial-superiority complex, and resent it.

I. "Let the Chinese be damned of body and soul" has been the byword of the English toward my innocent people for more than half a century. Al-though one of the oldest and most outstanding Christian nations of the world, she has poisoned the body and mind of the Chinese through the opium traffic. She is continuing this treachery with greater effort. This is unthinkable; that a God-fearing, out-and-out Christian nation is peddling a drug of that nature in this day and age. I cannot tolerate hypocrisy in any individual; then should I tolerate it in a nation as such? Decent society outlaws dope peddlers; there-fore decent civilization in like manner should outlaw, nations as such.

2. They [the whites] fear the inevitable progress of the darker rates. Prejudice is bringing the very things they are fighting. With white skin, one can have education and positions and better jobs and more comfortable homes. They have more freedom to enjoy life, without being humiliated always. With

freedom they need just an ambition, and then all gates are open that are other-wise closed to us.

3. I do not judge people by race or nationality. I consider the individual only, and I like or dislike them for the qualities I find in them. But I guess I like the white people least of all. They are always so full of prejudice and hatred to other races. They are so unjust and inhuman when it comes to other races. And the worst of it is, they spread their prejudices to others.

4. In high school, prejudice kept me from finishing my last year. If I am hungry, I cannot eat at public places unless owned by one of my own people. If I'm thirsty, I cannot drink in any place but one of my own, no matter how I conduct myself, or how I look. In fact, my face is treated as if it were a race of lepers or rattlesnakes.

5. We want to be treated as human beings; as citizens with citizens' rights. We expect to be punished when we're wrong, but we want protection when we're in the right. We want the freedom of public places. For instance, the street is public; in the same way, all public places should be open to everyone.


In order to secure a more accurate idea of how the racial-distance reactions of native-born city people change, the following experiment was made (Table I) ; it opens a large field for exploration.

Toward Following Races (Samples) More
Less Favorable No Change
Armenians 23 9 78
Chinese 19 10 81
Germans 6 34 70
Hindus 3 11  
Japanese 23 19 68
Mexicans 15 22 73
Scotch '0 o 110
Turks 1 16 93

The relatively large figures in column 3 indicate that changes in first-feeling reactions take place slowly—more so than might be anticipated. Through personal interviews materials are at hand which explain these changes. The numerous "no changes" are the result either of ho racial contacts' and experiences or else of possessing attitudes so fixed for or against various races that the habitual reactions are adamant to all ordinary racial experiences. One is likely to have such favorable convictions concerning his own race,

( 44) and such an antipathy toward at least a few other races, that cur-rent experiences do not change him.

The "more favorable" changes, as noted in column I, are often due to personal experiences of a pleasing nature with a few representatives of the given races. If a person has previously had a neutral attitude, then a few pleasing experiences will suffice; but if he has had an unfavorable attitude, then many pleasurable experiences will be necessary in order to produce a "more favorable" opinion.

On the other hand, an unpleasant experience with a single Armenian, for example, will quickly change a person's first-feeling reactions from neutral to unfavorable. The figures in column 2 are to be accounted for, usually, by one or a few unfortunate experiences or by a few adverse hearsay experiences. A person's social-distance reactions shift according to the unpleasant or pleasant nature of personal experiences.


An analysis of the occupational activities of the 450 city people who co-operated in this experiment shows substantial groups of business men, social workers, and public-school teachers. As a whole, the business men record somewhat greater social-distance reactions toward nearly all races than do social workers. In turn, the social workers likewise record somewhat greater social-distance reactions than do public-school teachers. Additional data are necessary, although recently acquired occupational data have not changed earlier findings. Apparently, special social-distance reactions accompany each occupation according to the particular experiences which are common to it. The business men are engaged in "a getting and profit-making" occupation, as distinguished from social work and teaching, which are "giving and non-profit-making" occupations. Social experiences on the former basis, less likely to be favorable than on the latter, create greater social distances than the latter. Social workers are dealing with adults, primarily, while teachers are working with children, who are likely to be more responsive, a situation which partly accounts for the shorter social-distance reactions of teachers than of social workers.

( 45)


The chief significance of social distance is its relation to social status. For example, Japanese immigrants are desirous of improving their status and, when possible, move out of "Little Tokio" into a neighborhood occupied by natives, but in so doing they get "out of place." Hence, they irritate people who want an established order. They, however, are more willing to take rebuffs than to accept inferior status. Distance usually means inferior status. At-tempts to climb up from the lower-status levels brings persecution and conflict. The dilemma is the choice between inferior status and peace on one hand, or recognized status and conflict on the other.[1]

"Invasion" is a key to a great deal of the social distance that exists between the native-born and immigrants in cities. As long as races stag in ghettoes or Little Italy's, they are "all right," but when their members "invade" the "American" neighborhoods, new social-distance reactions are at once generated against them. The speed at which this invasion is undertaken bears a direct relation to the rise of social-distance feelings. Likewise, the difference between the culture forms of the "invaders" and of the natives is an index to the probable rise of social-distance attitudes. To the extent that the native feels that his status has been lowered by the invasion of his neighborhood or his occupation by immigrant people, to that extent his social-distance attitudes are inflamed.

Social distance results from the maintenance of social status, that is, of the status quo in social relationships. A person, by keeping others at a distance, maintains his standing among his friends. One can bear the loss of almost anything in life easier than loss of social status, hence the raison d'être for maintaining social distances.

Personal status has usually originated in force, and social distance likewise has been established by force, war, misrepresentation, and subtle propaganda devices. The status of groups has usu-

( 46) -ally been determined in the same manner. Moreover, any group or person will ordinarily fight to maintain status, once it has been achieved—even when acquired unjustly. They will usually struggle to improve status, although perhaps by less direct means. Status and social distance are precious partly because they have usually been struggled for. When status is once achieved, it is maintained until a successful challenger appears. But this is an unstable basis for the group, so that we find status and distance ingrained in laws, hereditary procedure, a social caste system, and the mores, and thus made relatively permanent.

If a metropolite would "get ahead" he usually must become "aggressive," but aggressiveness on the part of one person or of a group is often an invasion of the status of other persons or groups. Hence social-distance reactions are kept in turmoil. To the extent that a city is composed of aggressive persons, eager to succeed, social-distance attitudes will be kept active   despite the fact that physical distances have been largely overcome.


  1. Our national exclusion law, barring the Japanese altogether, is interpreted by Japanese as lowering their status in the eyes of the world. They are put at a greater distance than European races, and hence they feel, as we would if in their places, on a lower level. This increasing of social distance by legislation is interpreted as a demotion in status—something which is intolerable to a proud people.

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