Social Distance

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.

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