Distance in Sociology

Willard C. Poole, Jr.
McGill University, Montreal, Canada


The social-distance concept is vague because it includes too much, i.e., the relation between individuals as members of groups, the relations between individuals as they show individuality, their behavior toward others or their social acts, also group prejudice, cultural differences, and group interaction. It is proposed to organize this collection and show the relation between these various phases of distance. Personal distaпce.—Subjective personal distance is the conception one has of his relation to another. Objective personal distance is the relation that might be, i.e., actual individual differences. Personal distance forms.—The overt pattern of behavior which characterizes the interaction between two individuals is the result of the subjective personal distance. Social distance.—Subjective social distance is the conception that the typical in-group man has of the typical out-group man. Objective social distance is the cultural differences between groups. As forms of socialization, social distance is seen in group norms regulating the in-group man in his interaction with the out-group man.

Since Park and Burgess introduced the concept of social distance into American sociological thought from Simmel's Sociologíe,[1] the concept has gained great interest among all sociologists. Many of them have seen that the concept must be more carefully and clearly distinguished from the concepts of isolation and status. The writer has attempted elsewhere to introduce the concept of personal distance and to redefine social distance.[2]

The first use of distance in sociology was not made by Simmel, but by Tarde, who, taking the expression from common usage, employed it in his Laws of Imitation. Tarde's distance exists between classes and is measurable by the degree of imitation which exists between them. Class differences are class distances.[3]

For Simmel distance was not a matter of how much one imi-

( 100) -tated another, how much one knew of another, but how much one ought to imitate or ought to know of another. Around each person is gathered a sphere made up of his affairs, and into this sphere some may not intrude at all, some part way, and still others, may know almost all. "The radius of that sphere, so to speak, marks the distance. . ."[4] Simmel, however, did not systematically arrange and define his uses of the distance concept.

American sociologists, following Park and Burgess, have departed on various tracks until social distance has come very close to the consciousness-of-kind and like-mindedness concepts of Professor Giddings.


Regarding individuals apart from their positions as members of various groups (we can do this for practical purposes), the relation between any two can be spoken of as their personal distance. What is their relationship; what is the nature of this distance? There is, first of all, their own idea of the relation, the relationship as it exists for them, a matter quite apart from the relationship in itself, as it would appear to an observer who knew each individual thoroughly, despite the fact that no such observer can exist. Of these two relationships, the one held by the interacting parties and the one that might prevail if either knew the other better, only the first is of importance for immediate social interaction. What you think an individual to be determines your treatment of him. We will call this distance "subjective," for it is an idea in your head. Its objective reality is unknown, but you treat your idea as if it were the true distance.[5]

We may call this phase of distance "subjective personal distance." Popular speech refers to it when it says, "We are a long way apart," and "Не is not my sort." My distance from you is the extent to which I am aware that we fail to share a common life of ideas, beliefs, and sentiments. It is the basis of my attitudes toward you.

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There is another relationship between individuals, between you and me. We may call it the actual distance, overlooking all philosophical questions. You have certain traits that I do not know, just as I also differ from your conception of me. Were these traits known to us, it would cause a change in our attitudes toward each other. Every day people are revising their estimates of others. Friendships are strengthened or perhaps weakened. "Mutations of social distance" are taking place, to use a phrase from Professor Bogardus. The difference between your traits, you as you really are, and my traits represents the actual gulf between us. This difference constitutes the objective personal distance.

The subjective and objective distances may be practically the same. In such cases there can be no surprises; but what two individuals are fully given to each other? The subjective personal distance constantly changes under conditions of intimate contact. The following case illustrates such a mutation of personal distance resulting from the revelation that what was thought to be is not.

Some four or five years ago I was one of a camping party in Western Ontario. Our living quarters consisted of a small bungalow divided into a dining-room and two sleeping-rooms in each of which six girls bunked. One of our party was an older girl, a successful teacher who held a good deal of prestige in the group. During the first few days she talked a great deal of a younger sister, Olive, who was to join the group later.

Olive arrived. We were all prepared to like her very much and she seemed likeable. She was attractive in appearance, a good athlete, and had a very friendly and appealing manner. She was the youngest of the group and for awhile was the petted darling of the camp. Soon, however, her popularity palled. Everyone recognized her tendencies to shift her responsibilities on her elder sister or on anyone else whom she could persuade to carry them. If other methods of suasion failed, she would trade on her "natural delicacy of health." On several occasions she refused to submit to the decisions of the majority.

At the end of the two weeks' camping Olive was not a popular member of the party.[6]


Individuals, realizing that they are distant from other individuals because of differences in manners, attitudes, and philosophy of life, are yet forced to live with others. It is necessary for

( 102) them to make accommodations so that conflict may be avoided. The essence of distance is conflict; but it never comes into overt manifestations because of the accommodations which are made. These accommodations are the way in which we get along with those who do not believe as we do. They are aspects of social organization. They enable one to escape from treading on the toes of another. Often one ignores the issue by never speaking about it. One refrains from inviting the friend who does not care for cards to sit in at bridge. The young radical doesn't say anything about his new ideas when he is home on a holiday.

These accommodations are all in the realm of overt behavior. They are the way we react to our conception of our relations, our distances. We do not force ourselves upon the distant; we cleave to the near, the kindred, spirits.

Distances of the subjective type may not be measured by an observer's record of the overt behavior. Liberties allowed by one girl may denote a greater distance than the mere smile of another. The meaning of the overt behavior to the interacting parties is of the greatest importance. Hence subjective personal distances can be accurately studied only by interview and life-history. Existing only for the individuals concerned, they can be accurately studied only by an appeal to the objects of investigation.


Social distances are group phenomena; they take whale groups as they exist as realities in the minds of typical members of other groups. This point is of vast importance, for it causes us to look at the "general public" and the average man. It disregards the emancipated individual. It concerns the milieu and not the independent thinker, so-called.


The fruitful ground of social-distance study has been that between racial groups. We see between racial groups the phenomenon of a subjective social distance. It is what the characteristic member of the in-group thinks of the typical member of the out-group. It is the category into which we fit almost all Englishmen or any other typical national.

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These subjective social distances rise out of history, legend, myth, propaganda, literature, and travelers' tales. They are more important than truth, for they are the basis of group interaction. We call them race prejudice when we feel that they do not correspond as favorably as they might to the objective social distance.

Instances of subjective social distance include the following quotation from Old-World Traits Transplanted (one of the less quoted sections) :

America is described in these articles [in Italian newspapers] as a ruthless, rapacious, hypocritical, puritanical country. American men are superficial, weak, ridiculous; American women are vain and prefer to have a good time rather than to be good wives and mothers; churches in America are places of business; social and philanthropic work is established to furnish fat salaries to innumerable officeholders; the political life is incurably corrupt; and everything else is termed "Americanate," meaning the quintessence of foolishness.[7]

Park and Miller stress in their book the fact that immigrant and native heritages are not as different as they seem. The cultural conflicts are more often imaginings. However, these imaginings are real and the conflicts are most especially real.


Below the level of these subjective social distances lie the real cultural differences. A study of them reveals unsuspected nearness or similarity. The Pope refused to give to the world reports of Jesuits in China during the sixteenth century, for they showed Buddhism too close to Christianity. Long contact between members of two groups may reveal such similarities that the two groups come to have a greater consciousness of kind. Social distance has changed. We have come to accept the members of the out-group. These real culture traits that continued contact may reveal constitute the objective social distance; they are the real cultural differences.


While there exists a subjective social distance, a belief among us that we are not like the heathen, we must find some accommodation, some modus vivendi. This accommodation will consist of

( 104) forms of socialization, ways of acting, which are prescribed by group norms. The group tells its members how they must treat a Negro, a Japanese, or any other out-group man. These norms are seen expressed in all caste regulations that separate group from group; they are seen in the act of the servant who goes in at the back door. It should be noted, however, that these forms of socialization become customs in the group, and as customs they may often survive the death of the subjective social distance. Here again distance may not be adequately studied from the overt forms, but requires an analysis of social attitudes and the norms of the group, in other words, a study of the significance of the forms to the groups observing them.

We will conclude by presenting a systematization of the distances in the form of a table.

1 . The personal distance
a) Subjective—the individual's conception of his relation to another.
b) Objective—individual differences in ideas, ideals, philosophies of life, etc.
c) Forms of socialization—the overt pattern of interaction.

2. The social distances

a) Subjective—a group's conception of its relation to an out-group. Some phases we call race prejudice.
b) Objective—cultural differences between the in-group and out-group.
c) Forms of socialization—norms of social distance and their expression in society.

NOTE.—The forms, c, are in all cases based on a, the subjective phase.

The way in which distances change constitutes a further study, a study which will, we believe, produce certain fundamental "laws" of social distance and personal distance. The sole aim of this paper has been to create a careful system of thought as a guard against loose thinking.


  1. "If the social distance is wide or if the personal closeness is very great, one can nearly always make a gift; it becomes difficult in the degree to which social distance decreases and personal distance increases." Sociologie (ed. 1908), p. 489, translated from the German by Dr. T. F. Abel.
  2. Journal of Applied Sociology, XI, 224-20.
  3. Cf. G. Tarde, Les lois de l'ímitation (Alcan, 1900), pp. 243-52.
  4. Georg Simmel, "The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies," American Journal of Sociology, XI, 453.
  5. "I conclude, therefore, that the imaginations which people have of one another are the solid facts of society, and that to observe and interpret these must be the chief aim of sociology" (C. H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, p. 87).
  6. Case secured from a student.
  7. Park and Miller, Old-World Traits Transplanted, p. 291, quoted from E. C. Sartorio, Social and Religious Life of the Italians in America, p. 50.

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