Occupational Distance

Emory S. Bogardus
University of Southern California

OCCUPATIONAL DISTANCE is the degree of sympathetic understanding existing between the members of any two occupations. It is a particular form of group distance. It may be viewed first in its vertical phases, because in ordinary social life, occupations are grouped on different levels, ranging from the professions and business to the unskilled activities, and then to the outlawed "occupations." According to prevailing social standards, persons in different occupations are accorded different prestiges. Hence, these prestige differences account for vertical occupational distances.

Some occupations are generally rated high and others low, but there are others which are rated high by many people and low by others. These occupations have or do not have prestige according to the standards of those who do the rating, hence, the distance between these and other occupations may vary greatly.

In pathfinder studies based on an occupational test (see Chart I), which is a modification of the racial distance test,[1] the frequencies concerning some occupations are uniform. That is, nearly all the persons giving their reactions to physicians, for example, react affirmatively to the first five items in the test, which indicates that a fairly uniform status, high in this case, is accorded the medical profession.

( 74)

Occupational Social Distance Scale Blank

The frequencies concerning "dope sellers" are almost uniformly negative in the first five particulars; they are accorded what might be called a minus status by people generally.[2] Turning to the reactions concerning motion picture actors and actresses, we find a wide range in the fre-

( 75) -quencies. Many persons vote negatively to the first five items in Chart I ; and many others affirmatively. The status of the occupation, generally speaking, is not fixed.

In a recent study of the occupational distance reactions of 861 college students [3] it was found that persons preparing for teaching and for the ministry reacted against motion picture actors, vaudeville actors, and. jazz musicians, on the ground that these occupations are socially detrimental. Students in commerce and dentistry, for example, reacted favorably, because as they said, the occupations in question "add zest to life." Vertical distances between occupations, therefore, are related closely to the prestige and status which each occupation enjoys, among the persons who are expressing distance reactions.

Occupational mobility is another factor in occupational distance. By occupational mobility is meant the tendency of some occupations to move up or down the vertical scale of social prestige. Aviation, for instance, is becoming more popular. It is "going up" the prestige scale. The ministry, on the other hand, seems to be declining in general social status. Bishops are "going down," judging by comments in religious journals and even from reports from bishops themselves. These facts mean that distances are changing between the migratory occupations and all the more immobile occupations. Stationary occupational distances are based on immobility of occupations.

1. My attitude towards aviation as an occupation is considerably different now than it was ten or perhaps fifteen years ago. My ideas then were largely based upon my observation of the mail aviators with whom I came in contact. At this time I visited quite often an aunt, who lived at a hotel in a small town where there was a govern-went air mail station. Though my attitude was one of great admira-

( 76) -tion for their courage and daring, the aviators themselves seemed to be in a class by themselves. I did not think of them as being much like the other young men with whom I came in contact.

The close of the war brought a change in my ideas. In the first place, so many young men whom I had known intimately had gone into aviation during the war. The war enthusiasm naturally gave them a very exalted place in my estimation, and this attitude was naturally carried by men into peace time also, especially when some of them were interested enough to remain in the service after the war.

Then quite recently has come the general enthusiasm over Colonel Lindbergh's achievement, and I confess that I have shared quite vehemently in that. Add to this the fact that a close friend is contemplating aviation as an occupation, and one can imagine how different is my attitude now. I still think of the occupation as one requiring great courage and daring, and those in it worthy of a considerable amount of hero-worship. But instead of a casual adventure, the occupation now seems to me as important and necessary as most of our modern occupations.[4]

It would seem that distances between the migrating occupations and all the more stable occupations are changing. Occupational distances involve occupational status.

Vertical occupational distance is complicated by occupational-centrism. Irrespective of general social rating, each occupational group gives itself a superior rating. A motion picture actor feels that his occupation is superior to the ministry; and a minister, that his occupation is the higher. Even a professional burglar may feel that his occupation is superior to that of motion picture acting or the ministry. Thus, occupational-centrism is a factor in creating the social distance differential. This differential is the difference in the degree to which two persons sympathetically understand each other.[5] It applies also to two groups, and to two occupations.

( 77)

Occupational distance often has a horizontal dimension. Occupations that have the same social status and hence no vertical distance between them may still be characterized by horizontal distance competition : differences in the con-tent of training, cultural make-up, functional activity keep horizontally distant from one another. These factors, for instance, account for the horizontal distance that exists between doctors and lawyers. Although both represent learned professions, both belong to the same economic class, both accept fees, both have the same social prestige, both have "cases," both have professional codes, both frown on advertising, both maintain gravity of demeanor,[6] there is a horizontal chasm between them. They are competitors for prestige, they have had different training back-grounds, they have different skills, bodies of knowledge, and daily activities. The doctor is quiet; the lawyer, talkative. One is a poor business man; the other is experienced in business. The lawyer has the "best of it" in his public contacts, but the doctor breaks his silence and calls the lawyer a "windjammer" and a "grandstander."

Occupational distance, both vertical and horizontal, is partly explained by culture differences. A profession and an unskilled occupation are especially different in preparatory training requirements, in educational standards, in vocabulary, and in mental vision. The occupations can be arranged on a scale of increasing complexity of culture traits. Occupational distance varies directly with the complexity of the culture traits of the respective occupations. The more complex the culture traits of an occupation the greater the vertical distance between itself and the occupations with less complex cultures.

( 78)

2. I have learned to dislike the occupation of "day laboring" more than ever. When I pass the hundreds of foreigners daily doing all kinds of menial tasks, I give thanks that I am able to get an education and am able to improve my status in society. Of course, I have sympathy for them, but it seems to me, that the modern youth, with all the opportunities for an education, would not have to pursue the slavish occupations long.[7]

3. I do not consider myself supersensitive, hypercritical, or "nice," but the extremely vulgar, low, mucky conversation and stories that are told (in a barber shop) are disgusting and revolting to one whose nature is in the least refined. As is the case with all occupations or professions there are many exceptions to the rule and many persons who are worthy of respect are to be found among barbers, but in this case they are much in the minority. It is true that some blame for the type of conversation and conduct in the barber shops is not attributable to the barbers themselves. If they think they are trying to please their customers, however, I fear they have some mistaken concepts for I cannot believe there are many who really want to hear that sort of thing. If the barber's mind is so like a sewer, he should not open it up to the view of the public in the way we all reveal what is apparently our mind, through our words. Some, no doubt, tolerate or encourage such talk in their shop because of mistaken reflections which they seem to catch from the groups. [8]

Occupational distance partially depends on the differences in functional activity of the respective occupations. The dentist, for example, is engaged in a more individualistic occupation than is the minister. He is dealing with individual welfare chiefly, and only indirectly with public affairs. The minister has a larger percentage of public welfare contacts daily. Each develops a unique set of occupational attitudes and values. Occupational distance varies according to the differences between the sets of occupational attitudes of the given occupations.[9]

( 79)

Intra-occupational distance is often very important. Between the sub-occupational groups, which exist in most occupations, occupational distances are found. In social work occupational distance exists, for instance, between executives and case workers, and in teaching, between principals and teachers. In business and manufacturing the occupational distance that is found between subgroups, such as the stockholders, chief executives, foremen, clerical workers, skilled tradesmen, and the unskilled workers, is often greater than that between occupations themselves. The occupational distance between lawyers and lawyers who have become judges is often greater than the distance between lawyers and doctors.

The factors involved in intra-occupational distance are similar to those in occupational distance. The situation is one of group distance. Vertical distance predominates over horizontal. The differences in social status between the subgroups, differences in income, and economic status, training and culture differences, differences in functional activities and occupational attitudes and values are the major elements. In this field personal mobility takes the place of occupational mobility. Persons in the lower sub-groups may move up the subgroup scale. Occupational-centrism appears in the form of subgroup-centrism among the highest subgroups, and diminishes in strength down the scale. The higher executives, for instance, in a given corporation are more jealous of their status than are the unskilled employees in the same corporation.

The distance between an employer and his secretary, or office force has many interesting variations. Although considerable intimacy may exist, the social distance may be great.

4. One morning I came in at 8:10. "Is this 8:00 o'clock?" my employer growled. "Iwas here until 5:30 last evening," I reminded

( 80) him. He had asked me to stay. That made no difference. Neither did the distance that I came, nor the trouble that I had had with the street cars. I decided to quit. When Monday morning came, the boss asked me if I would not stay. "No," I replied. "Oh, see here," he said, "I know your faults." But I had no other job in view, so I stayed. The same thing has happened two or three times.[10]

The larger the office force the greater the distance that may exist between the employer and the office group. A somewhat extreme case may be cited.

5. Oh, no, our boss never says good morning. It all depends on the boss whether he pays any attention to you or not. In the next office to ours the boss always smiles and says good morning. But then, of course, the offices are so large and there are so many employees. We are busy every minute so that there is not time for anyone to think of anyone else. There are two long rows on each side of the big room; you hardly know who is next to you. The employer does not know anything about us. Last week one of the employees who had worked here twenty years died; no one went to the funeral and only two or three knew anything about it. She just dropped out, that's all.

No, we never see our employer except at the office. We don't know anything about his personal life and he knows nothing about . ours. He does not even know our names. There are too many of us, he could not know us, there is not time. The employer would never think of helping us financially or otherwise. We should not think of appealing to him.[11]

On the other hand, excess intimacy may develop between an employer and his secretary. If the employer is married, then a unique three-cornered distance situation may develop. These situations furnish interesting materials for the study of the relation of intimacy to social dis-

( 81) -tance. Further analyses are needed, but the hypothesis may be advanced that there is no reliable correlation between intimacy and social distance. Extreme personal knowledge and frequent contacts, like ignorance and no contacts, are the origins of social distance. Further explorations in the field of occupational relationships may be expected to throw new light on the nature of social distance of both the group and personal types.


  1. "Measuring Social Distances," E. S. Bogardus, Jour. OF APPLIED SOCIOLOGY, IX, 301.
  2. Of course, if the test were given to dope sellers anonymously, the occupation would likely be given prestige.
  3. Made by Miss Forrest Wilkinson, A.B. (Chicago), A.M. Southern California). The results are to be published in SOCIOLOGY AND SOCIAL RESEARCH.
  4. Social Distance Documents, Series O, University of Southern California.
  5. See article published in SOCIOLOGY AND SOCIAL RESEARCH by Ernest H. Shideler under the title of "The Social Distance Margin," Jan.-Feb., 1928. Also see the article in the current issue Of SOCIOLOGY AND SOCIAL RESEARCH by Willard J. Poole, Jr., entitled, "The Social Distance Margin Reviewed."
  6. See unpublished manuscript on "Social Distance between Doctors and Lawyers," by Arthur W. Briggs, University of Southern California. A portion of this study will be published soon in SOCIOLOGY AND SOCIAL RESEARCH.
  7. Social Distance Documents, Series 0, ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Cf. "Personality and Occupational Attitudes," E. S. Bogardus, SOCIOLOGY AND SOCIAL RESEARCH, Sept.-Oct., 1927, pp. 73-79.
  10. Studies by Julia N. Pickett, San Diego, Calif.
  11. Ibid.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2