The Concept of Social Distance As Applied to the Study of Racial Attitudes and Racial Relations

Robert E. Park
Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago


THE CONCEPT of "distance" as applied to human, as distinguished from spacial relations, has come into use among sociologists, in an attempt to reduce to something like measurable terms the grades and degrees of understanding and intimacy which characterize personal and social relations generally.

We frequently say of A that he is very "close" to B, but that C is distant and reserved, but that D, on the other hand, is open-minded, sympathetic, understanding, and generally "easy to meet." All these expressions describe and to some extent measure "social distance."

We do not, it must be confessed, know all the factors that enter into and determine what w call social distance. We know, to be sure, that in many cases "reserve” is an effect of timidity and self-consciousness. We know, also, that under certain circumstances reserves may be "broken down" and that with this break-down social distances dissolve and the most intimate understandings are frequently established.

The point is that we are clearly conscious, in all our personal relationships, of degree of intimacy. A is closer to

( 340) B than C and the degree of this intimacy measures the influence which each has over the other.

The fact that we can so easily distinguish degrees of intimacy suggests that we may be able eventually to measure "distance" in the sense in which that word is here used, quite as accurately as we now measure intelligence, since we do not know all the factors that determine intelligence any more than we know all the factors that determine intimacy.

The native human impulse that leads us to enter imaginatively into the other persons' minds, to share their experience and sympathize with their pains and pleasures, joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, may be blocked by self-consciousness, by vague fears, by positive self-interest, etc., and all these are matters that need to be reckoned with in seeking to measure "distances."

Now it is not only true that we have a sense of distance toward individuals with whom we come into contact but we have much the same feeling with regard to classes and races. The terms "race consciousness" and "class consciousness," with which most of us are familiar, describe a state of mind in which we become, often suddenly and unexpectedly conscious of the distances that separate, or seem to separate us, from classes and races whom we do not fully understand.

Not only is it true that we have this sense of distance with reference to whole groups of persons but it is also true that "race" and "class" consciousness frequently interferes with, modifies and qualifies personal relations ; relations which, under other circumstances, it seems, might become of the most intimate and understanding sort.

For example, the lady of the house may be on the most intimate personal relations with her cook, but these intimate relations will be maintained only so long as the cook

( 341) retains her "proper distance." There is always some sort of social ritual that keeps the cook in her place, particularly when there are guests. This is one of the things that every woman knows.

The same is true in the relations of races. The negro is "all right in his place"and the same is probably true of every other race, class or category 'of persons towards whom our attitudes have become fixed, customary, and conventionalized. Every one, it seems, is capable of getting on with every one else, provided each preserves his proper distance.

The importance of these personal and racial reserves, which so invariably and inevitably spring up to complicate and, in some measure, to fix and conventionalized our spontaneous human relations, is that they get themselves ex-pressed in all our formal social, and even our political relations.

It is characteristic of democracy that, relatively speaking and in theory, there are no,"social distances."Walt Whitman, who interpreted democracy mystically and poetically, refused to shut out any human creature from the circle of his cordial understanding and sympathy. In his famous lines addressed To a Common Prostitute, he said: "Not until the sun excludes you will I exclude you." And in that inclusive phrase he seemed to, include in a wide fraternal embrace everything human and living which the rain wet and the sun warmed. , But he did not profess to make no distinction at all between human beings.

Democracy abhors social distinctions but it maintains them. The difference between democracy and other forms of society is that it refuses to make class of race, i. e., group distinctions. Distinctions and distances must be of a purely individual and personal nature. In an individualistic society like ours, every man theoretically is treated on his merits as an individual.

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Aristocratic society, on the other hand, maintains itself by an insistence on social distinctions and differences. The obeisances, condescensions, and ceremonial taboos which characterize a highly stratified society exist for the express purpose of enforcing the reserves and social distances upon which the social and political hierarchy rests.

The ideals of democratic society, as we know them, are a heritage of the frontier. On the frontier, where there are, generally speaking, no traditions, no condescensions, and no obeisances, every man is master of his own immortal soul. Under these circumstances social distances disappear and social relations are more direct, candid, and informal than they are likely to be under any other circumstances.

But the frontier has passed or is passing. Besides the very existence of frontier life assumed conditions that no longer obtain. In any case, the frontier has its own peculiar prejudices. The characteristic prejudice of the frontier was directed not against the stranger, but against the man who acted strangely, who stood aloof or assumed superiority, who did not fraternize and mix. Any sort of re-serve was likely to be looked on with suspicion. Under these conditions the melting pot was effective and democracy flourished.

With the coming of the Oriental, however, the situation changed. He looked strange, he spoke a quaint language, and he developed habits of industry and thrift that were intolerable to those who had to compete with him. On this point democratic society broke down. It was no longer possible to treat the Orientals as individuals. They did not assimilate. One looked at them without being able to tell what was going on in their heads. They were "foreign devils." As Bret Harte expressed it, "For ways that are dark and tricks that are vain, the heathen Chinee is

( 343) peculiar." Competition, which had been personal, became racial, and race competition became race conflict.

As a result of this conflict we have had the rise of a new "race consciousness," so called, a consciousness based on "color." The Rising Tide of Color which makes the title of Lothrop Stoddard's book, is description of the circumstances and conditions under which that new consciousness has arisen. Because group consciousness usually grows out of group conflict, it invariably brings with it group prejudice.

What we ordinarily call prejudice seems then to be more or less instinctive and spontaneous disposition to maintain social distances. Those distances, in. our democratic society, tend to assume a purely individual character. We say we are without prejudice, but we choose our company. On the frontier, before the coming of the Chinaman, and in our village communities where every, one called every one else by his first name, we succeeded fairly well in maintaining a society without race or class distinctions. But in the cities we have become "class, conscious," just as, with the emancipation of the negro and the invasion of the European and Asiatic immigrants, we have become "race conscious."

Prejudice, in this broad conception of the term, seems to be an incident of group consciousness just as reserve seems to be an incident of self-consciousness. The child at first has no reserves ; knows nothing either of pride, humility, gratitude, nor of any of the other excitements and the sufferings of self-consciousness.

The child has no class or race )prejudices either. Except in precocious children these manifestations of group consciousness that we call "class" and "race" consciousness do not ordinarily appear until) shortly before the age of puberty. When they do arrive, however, they bring with

( 344) them all the traditional prejudices by which the class and race distinctions and the traditional social distances are maintained.

It is not intended, in what has been said, to suggest that consciousness, race consciousness, prejudice, and all the personal and social distinctions related to social distance, are in any sense identical with it.

As a matter of fact self-consciousness usually arises out of some sort of personal conflict and the personal reserves that spring up as a consequence of past conflicts and the anticipation of new ones, serve the purpose of preserving the individual's private, personal life from intrusion, misinterpretation, and censorship.

Prejudice, on the other hand, seems to arise when, not our economic interests, but our social status is menaced. Prejudice and race prejudice are by no means to be identified by social distance, but arise when our personal and racial reserves are, or seem to be, invaded. Prejudice is on the whole not an aggressive but a conservative force; a sort of spontaneous conservation which tends to preserve the social order and the social distances upon which that order rests.

One purpose of a racial study is to measure, not our prejudices, but those vaguer, subtler taboos and inhibitions which persist even in so mobile and changing an order as our own, and represent the stabilizing, spontaneous, and instinctive and conservative forces upon which social organization rests.


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