Social Distance Between Occupations[1]

Forrest Wilkinson
Long Beach Junior College, California

THE PURPOSE of this study was to find out how and why social distance varies between occupational groups. The heart of the problem was to interpret the "distances" and attempt to account for the factors of which they were composed. The study was based upon the reactions of 861 students to the following document.[2]

Two hundred forms were filled out by Liberal Arts students, who presumably had not begun training for an occupation; 150 in the School of Education; 160 in the Law School; 165 in the College of Commerce; 81 in the College of Dentistry; and 43 in the School of Religion. In using students from these professional schools, at least a priori occupational attitude was assumed. The method was statistical, with a psycho-social analysis. There was no at-tempt to find an average of the attitude toward each occupation, or to state the attitude mathematically. The method is open to criticism in this way. Some one may ask: "What assurance have you that you have obtained any-thing but opinions, rather than attitudes?"[3] This criticism may be just. There was, however, a kind of consistency in almost every form filled out which led one to believe that

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Table 1

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Occupational Distance Scale

in most cases the person was giving response to his real feelings, beliefs, prejudices, antipathies, and understanding, which are the bases of attitudes. What these students "thought" that they would do is corroborated by their actual behavior. Very seldom do university students marry servants, hobos, or spiritual healers; or invite the sons and daughters of janitors and factory workers to join their

( 237) social clubs. Hence, as Professor Cooley says, "I conclude therefore, that the imaginations which people have of one another are the solid facts of society."[4]

An interesting phase of social distance is its relative nature, more or less, which makes it possible for a society made up of lawyers, ministers, road-house keepers, and bootleggers, to run along in the main with no intense friction. There are distances—the lawyer does not want a waiter to belong to his social club, but there are also planes of accommodation where the distances are not noticeable. The form used in this study provided for this relative nature of social distance. The student could express his attitude or opinion toward an occupational group in terms of "more" or "less." It can be noted in Table I that toward some occupations the emphasis is upon the less,—the teacher, doctor, lawyer, and aviator, for example. In other occupations, such as the dope seller, the bootlegger, hobo, and the fortune teller, the emphasis is upon the more.

From Table I it can be seen that there is little distance shown toward the teacher, doctor, and lawyer. Here the frequencies are great in the left side range of contacts. One can immediately observe that there is less social distance toward occupations with status and prestige and more toward occupations with little status and societal disapproval. The occupations with many frequencies on the right side of the page are the dope seller, bootlegger, hobo, and fortune teller. Here there is little proximity and great distance. As the dope seller has the least social approval by society, he is held at the greatest distance. There was more accord in regard to the distance of this occupation than any one studied. In these last named occupations there is involved group welfare which gives them an ethical significance.

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In between these extremes, as represented by the teacher and the dope seller, lie the largest numbers of occupations. Notice the occupations that have upon them the stigma of labor and menial service—the day laborer, factory worker, servant, and waiter. In these occupations we find the number of frequencies few at either extreme, but there is a gradual increase with an almost unanimous agreement at the fifth range of the attitude.' This might be interpreted thus : These occupations have a "place" in society.

The group of occupations devoted to amusing and entertaining society,—movie star, jazz musician, vaudeville dancer, and dance-hall keeper, made an interesting study. Toward the group the reactions seemed to depend more upon the person and the occupational group of which he was a representative than upon a social norm. The students from the school of commerce, law, and dentistry showed less distance toward the movie star, while the theology students and young teachers showed more. The reader will also note the very little distance toward the farmer; the presence of social distance toward the minister, the soldier, the nurse, and the policeman. All of these distances made interesting problems for interpretation. The distances toward the aviator varied according to the group responding, which can be explained by certain objective factors.

One can note more "scatter" in the attitudes of the students with regard to certain occupational groups, the road-house keeper, dance-hall keeper, spiritual healer, and perhaps the minister and bootlegger, for example. This "scat-ter" denotes that there is not a homogeneity of understanding and feeling among the students toward these occupations. From this "scatter" we might conclude that the status of that particular occupation is not fixed and settled in the mores ; or it might denote that there is a vertical

( 239) change going on in the mores as to its given status.[5] In contrast to these "distances" which show heterogeneity in the student reactions, one can compare the "distances" toward the teacher, doctor, lawyer, servant and dope seller. Here we find more homogeneity of feeling and understanding among the students. Society has more definitely fixed these occupations. This sameness of response would, of course, be more marked in a study among persons some-what alike, which was the case in this study.

The importance of status in explaining social distance was indicated in pointing out how social distance varies between occupations.[6] The reader can observe from the table that the position in society of a given occupation was a safe index as to how much distance it would receive. Or to state it another way—social distance toward occupational groups seemed to be controlled by social norms. It was interesting to note how each occupational group in this study reacted to its own occupation. The student ministers showed the least social distance toward ministers. The occupation of the teacher received less distance when responded to by student teachers. There was a kind of ego-centrism in each occupational group,—an inflated consciousness of the importance of their own occupation. But taken as a whole, the occupations seem to be ranked in accordance with the recognition given them by the mores and public opinion.

In a commercial, democratic form of society the mores which control the social norms are not static. Public opinion, which also gives position to occupations, is subject to

( 240) change. To illustrate this mobility of recognition the occupation of the aviator is cited. This occupation ranks fourth toward which there was the least social distance. This occupation has gained in status since the famous Atlantic flight of Colonel Lindbergh. The minister seems to have a losing status.

In answer to the last question on the document: "Toward what occupation have you changed more unfavorably in the last five or ten years?" the minister was mentioned more often than any other occupation by the group of law and commerce students, and by the men students in the College of Liberal Arts.

The occupation of the teacher was mentioned more times than any other, as one toward which the students had changed more favorably in the last five or ten years. These statements correspond with the least social distance shown the teacher as recorded in Table I. But it must be kept in mind that these results represent the reactions of a special group, namely, university students, and hasty inferences should not be drawn.[7] The marked correlation between status and social distance toward occupations which the data seem to show, has warranted this relationship to be stated in the form of a generalization. Social distance toward occupations decreases with social approval and in-creases with societal disapproval.

The second factor observed in these data that might ac-count for social distance toward occupations was sex. To make a sex comparison between groups where as many other factors were eliminated as possible, a group of one hundred men and one hundred women from the College

( 241) of Liberal Arts was chosen. They were of the same age group and had not begun training for an occupation. The most striking difference was the comparison of the reactions of the two groups toward the lower occupations. Women may be inherently more sensitive to sensory impressions which may play a part in the explanation, but the important reason for the difference is status. Women in general are more conservative than men. They like security and security means status. In the less intimate contacts, the college women were as tolerant as the men, permitting servants, waiters, factory workers, and day la-borers to worship with them, and live in their community. The marked sex differences were in the more intimate contacts. Women are usually accepted by society according to the rank of their husbands. College men can afford to marry waitresses and not have their status affected. Not so with college women.[8] Only one woman in this controlled group of one hundred would marry a servant. But twenty-six men said that they would. It was found that toward all occupational groups except the lawyer, doctor, soldier, and minister, women showed more social distance than men. These sex differences seem to be explained in terms of woman's greater wish for security, hence status, her more conservative nature, and her more highly organized nervous system.

To find out if age was a factor in explaining social distance toward occupations, the following comparison was made. Here, as in the sex comparison, some attempt was made to control the other factors. The groups compared were made up of 108 students, 20 men and 88 women, all under 25 years of age. These students were in the School of Education. They were in classes which were direct

( 242) preparation for teaching. The other group was composed of 108 teachers, 20 men and 88 women, who were all past 30 years of age. Each group has presumably the same occupational attitudes.

One of the interesting results of the comparison was the exact response of both to the teacher. Every range of con-tact had the same number of frequencies. There was no distance shown toward this occupation except in the first range of attitudes. Here only 81 per cent of both groups would marry a teacher. Sex was the explanation of this, as both groups were largely composed of women. Women, even women teachers, seem to have a little social distance toward men teachers when they think of them as a class. The economic status of men teachers may be a factor as well as the social. This sameness and likemindedness in the response of the groups was noticed toward all occupations. Toward the farmer, minister, and movie star there were more variances. The younger group had more distance toward the farmer and the minister, and less toward the movie star. This group also showed less distance toward the actor, dance-hall keeper, jazz musician, and vaudeville dancer. It was toward these occupations that the "settling" and subtle workings of time were the most obvious. Between the woman principal of 45 years and the whining, wheezing saxophone, there was "distance" which could not be overcome.

But by a simple counting of the frequencies there was no marked difference in social distance toward occupational groups between these age groups. The results showed homogeneity in the group, with an obvious trend toward conservatism. This may be a characteristic of teachers and young people who take up teaching.[9]

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The raison d'etre for social distance toward occupational groups could not be accounted for entirely by the factors of status, sex, age, and religion. The rank in society ac-corded an occupation did control that distance to a great extent; sex accounted for distance toward certain occupations; age and religion seemed to have rôles in influencing the degree of understanding and feeling of the students toward occupational groups. But all of these causes except the natural facts of sex and age could be accounted for by a more fundamental inclusive factor, namely, culture. The fact that certain occupations are ranked higher than others is in the main due to culture. In some instances the culture that comes with the prestige of age had more weight, and in others, public opinion and the spirit of the age was the controlling factor. Even the difference between the sexes is perhaps more of a difference arising from culture than a natural inherent one. Culture also defines what is "proper" for each age group.

The 861 students who were used in this study all be-longed to the same general culture. They lived in the same country, attended the same university, were almost in the same age group, and 600 of them were of the same sex. There would naturally be more likenesses than differences in their social distance reactions to occupations. This could be noted in the study of Table I. But the fact that they were

( 244) all different persons, came from different homes, with different social heritages, studied different courses, and had different friends, would make for each a separate culture. This latter makes a sort of super-culture. Hence, the individual variance in the social distance toward the occupations. The difference between the little distance of the ministers toward their occupation and the great distance of six law students who would exclude ministers as a class from the country was a difference in culture and perhaps personal experience. Many of the theology students came from the homes of ministers; they had attended religious schools in some instances. This tended to give them different attitudes and values from many of the commerce, dental, and law students. This same group of minister students showed the most social distance toward the actor, movie star, jazz musician, and bootlegger. They looked upon these occupations as somewhat detrimental to the welfare of man.. Whereas the dental students, in the main, thought of these groups as only adding to the zest, of life.

The importance of culture in explaining social distance toward occupations might be stated in the form of a generalization. Social distance is in proportion to social difference.[10] Such formulations as are submitted in this research study, however, must be regarded as tentative hypotheses rather than as scientific generalizations.


  1. A study based upon the prevocational attitudes of 861 students in 6 colleges in the University of Southern California.
  2. This document is a slightly modified form of the one used by Dr. E. S. Bogardus in his Racial Social Distance Studies.
  3. "An attitude is a tendency to act toward or against some environmental factor." E. S. Bogardus, Fundamentals of Social Psychology, p. 45.
  4. C. H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, p. 87.
  5. It is meant by "scatter" in an attitude, that there is a great number of frequencies at all ranges of contacts, which indicates that many students had little social distance and many had a great deal.
  6. "By status is meant position in society." E. W. Burgess, "The Delinquent as a Person," Amer. Jour. of Sociology, XXVIII, 662-68.
  7. There was no inclination to make predictions or evaluations in this study, but from the recognition given the bootlegger and the many favorably changed attitudes toward him it seems that in time he may gain respectability. This, as well as the minister situation, indicates conflict and a "difference" in the mores.
  8. These data seem to show that the reason fewer college women marry in comparison with college men, is because they are more particular.
  9. As another possible factor in accounting for social distance toward occupational groups, a small controlled group was studied with regard to religion. Fifty men law students who definitely stated that they had no religion were compared with fifty men law students who said that they had a religion. Toward every occupation except the bootlegger the group with no religion had more social distance than the group with a religion. Greater differences were more obvious in the case of the minister, policeman, and detective. This non-religious group gloried in non-conforming. They showed marked distances where others showed little, and little distances where others showed much. In casting aside the more conservative, tolerant principles of religion the non-conformist group naturally widened their social distances toward the lower occupational groups; also the ones who represent the "checks" upon society, such as the policeman, detective, minister, and perhaps the teacher. The generalizations given here are only tentative.
  10. The social differences that keep men "wide apart" are the background for social distance. In the language of the Gestalt psychology we might think of the two as a kind of configuration, social differences carrying with them social distances, and the distances differences. To carry the Gestalt comparison further, we can also think of the two as forming a pattern, the whole giving meaning to the parts, and the parts to the whole.

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