Social Distance

Social distance is a far more subtle way in which to approach the question of how people are problematic for one another than are the usual psychological categories having to do with the estrangement of people from one another.

Social distance is a sociological concept that I will define as describing the differences between people that arises out of them having different ways of life resulting from their differing social classes. As a metaphor, it provides a sense of how social separation is like geographical separation, and that sometimes applies to sociological social distance, as when the poor live in the hills while the rich live in the flats, as occurs in Rio de Janeiro, or visa versa, where the rich live in the hills while the less affluent live on the flats, as occurs in Berkeley, California. Mostly, though, social isolation is a matter of people feeling comfortable or uncomfortable with one another (which comes close to the way Bogardus defines the concept) because of what they give off to one another about the way they lead their lives, as when people use more high faulting language than is part of common discourse in the community, or when people carry expensive accessories, real Gucci bags rather than knockoffs. Some people can tell the difference while others are just baffled. People who follow prize fights are likely not the swells who dressed up to go to championship fights, while it is noticeable that baseball is a sport that appeals across class barriers. Social distance is, I would  say, more significant and subtle than the bi-polar or multi-polar social divisions, like gender and race, that  have been the focus of attention for the past few generations, and which are noteworthy because they are largely overt, people classified clearly as of one or another kind, white or black or brown, or male and female, with a great deal of attention paid to those who fall in the middle, quadroons in an earlier time, transgender people nowadays. People fight for their classifications within and fight against those groups external to them in those dimensions of social life, some even holding out the hope of a time which  is post-racial and, maybe, sometime way off in the future, post-gender, in that people will be polymorphous in choosing sex partners. Social distance is not like that because people may not be aware of where they belong or the extent to which they belong to one social class or another and experience their membership within their social class as not anything noteworthy but only as the way they tend to be, the path of least resistance for habits, beliefs, accoutrements, language, and so forth. To borrow Erving Goffman’s term, people "give off" their social class, emit it, through their behaviors, rather than treat social class as a creed, even if ideologists of class may want people to become more self-conscious of their class and act in the interests of their class, just as some, and only some, Black men and women of the Thirties were known as “race people” because of their self-conscious adoption of race as the explanation of the social condition of Black people. Much more has to be said about social distance to restore it to its importance for the explanation of social life.

A good way into understanding the significance of social distance is to notice when people of different social classes come into contact with one another because of the occupations in which they are involved. Elementary school teachers are notable influences on their pupils lives because these may be the first non-family members to which children are exposed, and so they have an extraordinary opportunity to provide children with a different perspective on life than the one with which they are already familiar. But it is also the case that teachers who come from a different social class can open up a child to seeing social distance for the first time and either gaining from it or rejecting it. (I would suggest the formula that teachers from more than a few rungs higher on the social ladder will be dismissed as influences while those closer in will become influences.) My teachers in elementary school carried copies of the New York Times with them in their handbags or with their other books and papers. I do not know if they indeed read the newspaper at lunch or on the subway when coming to or after leaving school, but it certainly gave me the sense that what educated people do, which to me meant all people of a certain social class, was to be responsible to the New York Times for their basic information about what was going on in the world. My elementary school teachers also prided themselves on a level of calm I was not familiar with and that was something that I also associated with their more lofty social class. They also talked excitedly about their impending vacations in exotic locales like Acapulco, while i would be off to another summer in the Catskills. They also seemed to me all dressed up all the time and extremely mannerly in the ways they talked to their colleagues. I found it all extremely appealing, just as I did the now decried Dick and Jane readers because those books described a suburban life complete with front yards and two storey free standing homes that seemed to me to be worth striving for.  

Other occupational interchanges have a similar dynamic. My mother was impressed by a doctor I took her to visit first of all because he was the first non-Jewish doctor she had ever been to but also because his wife was an opera singer. Doctors in general are more knowledgeable than most of their patients about most things, though I have noticed that doctors who have patients who are in their own social class try not to discuss things where they know less than their patients do because that will weaken their position of authority, which is based on social class as well as education and training. A doctor I went to for many years fell into talking to me about politics only once. A young Army officer is in a position to give advice to his not much younger working class privates about how to handle Dear John letters and how to meet middle class hygiene standards as well as other things that being brought up differently allows you to know. My wife, when we were courting, explained me the difference between white and green mayonnaise, me not knowing there was more than one kind. I was impressed, as I was by her excellent table manners. That is not enough on which to base a marriage, but social distance of this sort can be most pleasing. Ask any Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century English novelist. Jane Eyre was impressed by Lord Rochester’s manners and by the way he talked.

Indeed, literature is rife with the portrayal of social distance. Shaw’s “Pygmalion” does not exhaust the repertoire, though it may be one of the most thoroughly thought through renditions of what it is for a Cockney girl or any other lower class girl to meet up with a gentleman who, it turns out, is rude to everyone and educates her in manners as well as elocution so that she becomes, even if that was not his original intent, his equal, in that she is as good as he at verbal give and take, which is the Shavian equivalent of Ginger and Fred discovering that both of them are dancers. Stella’s sister Blanche, who is down on her luck but remains more sophisticated than her sister, knows that Stanley Kowalski is a bit crude by her standards, but magnetic nonetheless, and knows she can manipulate Mitch because he is so much more naive than she is about how people deal with one another. And in the greatest of all comedies, “Twelfth Night”, only Malvolio can be so vain as to think Olivia is being anything other than condescending in her courtesies towards him. He does not know his place as someone of inferior rank and therefore inferior knowledge about how the world works. The heroine of Wilkie Collins’ “Woman in White” knows that her future husband is somewhat crude because of the ungallant way in which he approaches the question of getting her to sign away her inheritance though she goes through with marrying him anyway because her father required it of her.

Social distance is a far more subtle way in which to approach the question of how people are problematic for one another than are the usual psychological categories having to do with the estrangement of people from one another. These stretch back to Durkheim’s notion of anomie, whereby people are isolated from one another because they are without norms, each of us doomed to an anarchic life if we do not have largely unannounced rules of the road to use to organize our lives. How anyone could manage to live in such a social environment is beyond me, in that such a person is always grasping at straws, at clues to how to behave, yet those proscriptions exist nowhere in human life except in the most sever of situations, as in a prohibition to murder, which itself is modified to mean only unjustified killing, so that the execution of criminals or enemy soldiers is not prohibited, For the most part, there are no lists of exceptions that tell you when you can be rude to people and when not. There must be some other way of telling, and social class practice provides such a guideline because it is learned early or else it is learned by a process of upward mobility. Another way of using isolation to explain how people are or become problematic for one another is Georg Simmel’s idea of the stranger, who is someone, like a barkeep or a usurer, who mingles with us to supply services, but is not part of our community, but who himself has a jaundiced eye view of what we are like because he is one of the others. That category may in our time apply to psychologists and creative writers but hardly applies to the vast majority of us who go along in life subject to its cross currents but not thereby liberated from those cross currents, all of us creatures of our social class of origin or achievement, especially in that arriving at a new social class may be quite ordinary for a large part of a generation raised in a time when that is it possible, as was the case with baby boomers and people like me born just a few years before the baby boomers.

Perhaps the most profound thing about social distance is that what it reveals about social class is how difficult it is to pin down what class differences are about. It is easy enough to say that they are caused by differences in the relation to the means of production, or to say that the consist of a different value structure. But that is not to explain how the different means of production give rise to different values or whether there are indeed different systems of values between the social classes. A rich man wants to increase his wealth, but a poor man wants to secure a steady income which is as close as he can come to a secure financial base, since the possibility of accumulating wealth is beyond him. The bourgeois farmers of Sixteenth Century France wanted to accumulate a bit more land and money. How are they different from rich men in their values? The children of some rich people want to turn from the making of riches to the realms of cure. Michael Rockefeller died so as to collect primitive artifacts. But so does every poor boy who gives up becoming a doctor so he can become an artist. So give me a coherent account of the differences between the rich and the poor, the middle class and the working class.

What I can tell you is this, that social distance makes these relations the subject of questions rather than of answers. Consider the way people speak. The social classes in America all speak English and the understand one another well enough, but somehow they do not understand one another. My relatives noticed something different than that I spoke with more words or with a different accent than I had as a young man (I didn’t.) They may have noticed what I did which is that there were a different set of references in mind when we communicated, I thinking of leisure activities like plays and movies and they thinking, in soap opera fashion, about disgraced relatives, or it may be that I gave longer explanations than they thought necessary. But I was speaking the same language that they were, certainly to the relatives from my own generation. So where had the social distance between themselves and me originated and how did it manifest itself so that people I loved dearly did not want to be my friends anymore just as I no longer wanted to be their friends?