Definition and Examples of Social Distance

Overview of Three Types: Affective, Normative, and Interactive

A black man and a white woman sitting apart symbolize the concept of social distance.
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Social distance is a measure of social separation between groups caused by perceived or real differences between groups of people as defined by well-known social categories. It manifests across a variety of social categories, including class, race and ethnicity, culture, nationality, religion, gender and sexuality, and age, among others. Sociologists recognize three key types of social distance: affective, normative, and interactive.

They study it through a variety of research methods, including ethnography and participant observation, surveys, interviews, and daily route mapping, among other techniques.

Affective Social Distance

Affective social distance is probably the most widely known type and the one that is the cause of great concern among sociologists. Affective social distance was defined by Emory Bogardus, who created the Bogardus Social Distance Scale for measuring it. Affective social distance refers to the degree to which a person from one group feels sympathy or empathy for persons from other groups. The scale of measurement created by Bogardus measures this by establishing the willingness of a person to interact with people from other groups. For example, an unwillingness to live next door to a family of a different race would indicate a high degree of social distance. On the other hand, willingness to marry a person of a different race would indicate a very low degree of social distance.

Affective social distance is a cause of concern among sociologists because it is known to foster prejudice, bias, hatred, and even violence. Affective social distance between Nazi sympathizers and European Jews was a significant component of the ideology that supported the Holocaust. Today, affective social distance fuels politically motivated hate crimes and school bullying among some supporters of President Donald Trump and seems to have created the conditions for his election to the presidency, given that support for Trump was concentrated among white people.

Normative Social Distance

Normative social distance is the kind of difference we perceive between ourselves as members of groups and others who are not members of the same groups. It is the distinction we make between "us" and "them," or between "insider" and "outsider." Normative social distance is not necessary judgmental in nature. Rather, it can simply signal that a person recognizes differences between herself and others whose race, class, gender, sexuality, or nationality may differ from her own.

Sociologists consider this form of social distance to be important because it is necessary to first recognize difference in order to then see and understand how difference shapes the experiences and life trajectories of those who differ from ourselves. Sociologists believe that recognition of difference in this way should inform social policy so that it is crafted to serve all citizens and not just those who are in the majority.

Interactive Social Distance

Interactive social distance is a way of describing the extent to which different groups of people interact with each other, in terms of both frequency and intensity of interaction. By this measure, the more different groups interact, the closer they are socially.

They less they interact, the greater the interactive social distance is between them. Sociologists who operate using social network theory pay attention to interactive social distance and measure it as the strength of social ties.

Sociologists recognize that these three types of social distance are not mutually exclusive and do not necessarily overlap. Groups of people may be close in one sense, say, in terms of interactive social distance, but far in another, like in affective social distance.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.