The Social Distance Margin

Ernest H. Shideler
Franklin College

THIS PAPER reports a study of social distance suggested by previous studies by Bogardus and others. It attempts to apply with modifications these ideas and methods to the measurement of social distances with a primary group—a small college with an enrollment of approximately four hundred students. The study is frankly exploratory, does not pretend to be complete, and is presented for what it may suggest in the study of social distance. We are here more interested in methods and in the nature and significance of social distance than in practical conclusions concerning the group studied.


Bogardus [1] suggests four complementary methods of measuring social distance between groups : (1) personal recording of social distance (of group members), (2) analysis of personal attitudes (of group members), (3) statistical indications of group co-operation and conflict (in-stances of groups acting with and against each other), and(4) community of leaders in the two or more groups observed. This study was limited to the first of these methods—personal recording of social distances. However, since the social distances here studied are those between (a) faculty and student body, (b) between Freshmen and Seniors, (c) between the four sororities, and (d) between the four fraternities, there was no case of leaders being in

( 244) common in any of the four projects. As to the other two methods, (2) and (3) above, the long and intimate acquaintance of the writer and others reviewing the statistical conclusions with the history of the relations of these different groups, serves somewhat as a substitute check upon gross errors. Although the twelve groups here studied do not include all groups in this college group, yet they' are sufficient in number to indicate how the social distance pattern (configuration of social distances) of the college campus may be obtained.

The first project in the study was the measurement of social distance between two of the college groups, namely, the faculty and the student body. The following scale was developed for this purpose. The members of the faculty and student body were personally interviewed and asked to check (but without signing names) the one of the following items (on a mimeographed copy of the scale) that represented their first feeling reaction toward members of the opposite group as a whole or in general.


0. A very intimate friend

1. A cordial acquaintance (companion)

2. A mere friendly acquaintance

3. A speaking acquaintance

4. A non-acquaintance

An explanatory statement was prefixed to the above scale indicating that the items were listed in order of decreasing intimacy and requesting that only one of the five items be checked. The college being a face-to-face group, a more objective statement of the degrees of intimacy-reserve did not seem necessary—the above items carrying a fairly standardized content to the students of a small college.[2]

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After securing the reactions of the members of the two groups, and after weighting each item according to the per cent of the group checking it, the arithmetic mean was used as an index of the social distance. It was then discovered that we had two different figures or indexes rep-resenting the distance between the two groups. Logically at least, it was impossible to have different distances at a given time. These indexes were accordingly considered not as representing the social distance between the groups, but as representing the degrees of intimacy-reserve attitude manifested toward each other. In other words, these were labelled as social distance factors (SDF) in a social situation, the social distance at a given time between the groups (GSD) to be derived from these indexes. Since normally one person or group cannot be more intimate with another than the second person or group will permit, it follows that the distance between the two groups (GSD) will be that of the party maintaining the greater reserve. The difference or margin between these two social distance factors (representing degrees of intimacy-reserve) was la-belled the social distance margin (SDM) and its signficance remained to be explained. The following summarizes the data on these two groups :


Faculty SDF    1.82—Student Body SDF    1.36 = GSD 1.82
and SDM .46

It should be observed in passing that the attitude or degrees of intimacy-reserve (SDF) of A toward B is always an outcome or precipitate of some previous experience with B or something directly or indirectly related to B in the sense that A connects B with that previous experience.

( 246) Thus the social distance between any two groups or persons (GSD) at a given time is not genetically a function or a product of the present indexes (SDF) of the two groups. However, the difference between the two attitudes

(SDF), that is, the social distance margin (SDM) is a significant factor in the present and future activities and interrelationships of the two groups or persons. These attitudes (intimacy-reserve) and this margin play a rôle in the determination of future social distances between the groups or persons. That is, the next contact experience or crisis (e.g., "personality clashes") results in "mutations of social distance"or at least fluctuations in social distance predicated on the previous intimacy-reserve attitudes (SDF) of the two persons or groups.

Following the application of this method to the measurement of social distance between faculty and student body, it was applied to two other groups, Freshmen and Seniors,later to the four sororities, and finally to the four fraternities. The following table summarizes the data on the groups considered :

Table 1

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Table 1, continued

Space forbids an interpretation of this college group in terms of the foregoing data; we are interested in this paper primarily in the nature and significance of social distance.[3]

(248) It is to be noted that in a possible variation of four degrees of social distance, the distance between any two of these groups in the larger primary group (college) is less than 1.2 (i.e., between a cordial and mere friendly relationship) and the greatest inter-group distance is 2.5 (3.0 being merely a speaking acquaintance), a variation of 1.3 degrees.[4] That is, the whole set of inter-group relationships falls within this range.


Perhaps most significant in the above table, from the viewpoint of the present paper, is the column of indexes representing the social distance margin (SDM). The relation of Beta and Gama sororities is particularly challenging—there being no SDM in this case. What is the significance of a relationship between groups where there is a distance but the attitudes of intimacy-reserve are mutual?

Before attempting to answer this question, it is to be observed that aside from the cases where a SDM exists in' the relationship, there are three possible (mathematically, at least) cases where there will be no SDM: (1) where there is mutually no distance, SDF for both being zero (.00—infinite intimacy), (2) where there is mutually infinite distance, (3) where the attitudes are at neither extreme but nevertheless are mutual. Analyzing the first of these (1) where the inter-group distance (GSD) is .00, we have a situation where out of the experiences of the two groups, (theoretically) complete intimacy has developed, that is, both identify themselves with the same ends, objects, and activities. Assimilation has taken place and the two groups have coalesced into one group. Thus,

( 249) practically there is no such thing as reciprocal or mutual attitudes of distance of .00, since at this point the two groups or persons become one. Thus, assimilation may be described in terms of decreasing social distance. When two groups unite or fuse, the two different sets of members identify themselves with one and the same group and its values. As between persons we have this illustrated in the case of marriage where the "two become one."[5]

Analyzing case (2) above, that is where the distances are infinite (and no SDM), we have a situation where both groups or persons posit each other in the lowest or most distant position from each other. Now as we approach infinite social distance, we approach a situation where all contact is severed. When the two groups become so independent and hostile as to cease to have contact with each other and complete isolation is accomplished, inter-action does not exist. When there is no interaction, there is no association or group life, society ceases to exist, and there is no social distance to measure. Thus as in case (1) above, we find that mutual infinite social distance is an impossibility in practice, the relationship or society disappearing at those two extremes.

Taking up next case (3), that is, where degrees of intimacy-reserve are manifested but are mutual (SDM .00), what is the interpretation? In the foregoing table of social distances, there appears to be no social distance (SDM) between Beta and Gama sororities. They mutually hold each other at a distance of 1.5 degrees and the SDM is .00.In contrast to the previously discussed theoretical case with GSD, .00 and SDM .00, this particular case (no social distance margin) is one of more or less perfect accommodation or adjustment between the groups rather than be-

( 250) -ing a case of assimilation. There is relatively little tension between these two groups, yet distance is maintained. Evidently social distance does not in and of itself indicate tension, strife, or conflict between groups and persons. Even in the fixed and stagnant societies (caste system, for example) we have great social distances but little conflict and change.

We may now attempt to answer the question formulated earlier in this paper: what is the significance of the SDM? Social distance to some degree at least is a sine qua non of separate group and personal existence. The existence of a social distance margin indicates lack of accommodation and adjustment and is to be expected in a changing and progressing social order. Changes successively disturb the existing relationships and attitudes between groups, and social distance margins appear. There follow tension, restlessness, conflict or strife until a new level of adjustment is reached with a lesser or greater social distance margin. Concretely, the existence of these margins is indicated by fights between gangs or members of the gangs, race riots in a city (tension exists until the two parties have learned "their place,"i.e., until the two agree on social distance—SDM .00). In the case of nations, the social distance margins are indicated by wars or less acute forms of adjusting differences, that is, of eliminating the social distance margin.


The following are not inductive conclusions from this study but are simply statements that have suggested themselves in the course of the project. They are presented for what they may be worth to others working along this line.

1. Social distance is not a single individual matter but rather a two or more sided reciprocal phenomenon; at

( 251) least two interacting groups or persons must be considered.

2. The degree of intimacy-reserve which "A" group maintains toward "B" group at any given time is precipitated by a previous direct or indirect experience with "B" group; genetically, social distance is a product of a "conversation of attitudes"between groups or persons.

3. The party in the relationship under observation maintaining the attitude of greatest reserve, determines or sets the distance between two groups or persons.

4. Where social distances between groups entirely disappear, the groups lose their separate identity, assimilation takes place, and the two coalesce or fuse into one group.

5. Where two groups or persons mutually place each other at the greatest possible distance, contact is severed, social interaction ceases, and society disappears.

6. Where two groups or persons mutually agree or are satisfied with the existing degrees of intimacy-reserve between them (i.e., SDM .00), accommodation and adjustment takes place and tension subsides.

7. Social distance margins indicate tensions and there-fore fluctuations and change in the social order.

8. The table of social distances and social margins between groups within a larger group serves as the basic pat-tern (configuration of social distances). This pattern may be graphically portrayed, and may be contrasted with distance patterns of other groups.

9. A primary group may be observed, described, and studied as a configuration of distances and rôles.


1. Sets of scales and outlines particularly adapted for the study and measurement of social distance between specific types of groups.

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2. The natural history of the social distance pattern of a specific group.

3. A comparison and contrast of the social distance patterns of two groups or nations (relative distances and margins between classes and other sub-groups).

4. Forms or types of changes in social distance.

5. (a) Actual and (b) most efficient social distances between (1) nations, (2) classes, (3) neighbors, (4) employer and employee, (5) colleges, (6) fraternities, (7) church congregations, (8) teacher and student, (9) pas-tor and church members.

6. Social distances between competing firms.

7. The meaning and significance of cycles of changing social distances.

8. Social distances in secondary and derived groups.


  1. Journal of Applied Sociology, May-June, 1926, pp. 473-79.
  2. In other projects where the scale was applied to other groups in the community such as (1) employers and employees, and (2) business men and ministers, these respective phrases in parentheses followed each item: (0) life secrets, (1) as a companion, (2) neighbor or fraternity, (3) introduced, casual meetings, (4) prefer not to meet or speak.
  3. A comparison with other groups might prove not only interesting but yield practical conclusions. There arises the question of the most efficient distances together with the possibility of a correlation of variations from such a norm with local campus problems, etc.
  4. These are group distance indexes; of course, some individual members' reactions showed greater distances, some less.
  5. Even between husband and wife there is, of course, some degree of distance, at least as long as they remain persons.

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