Social distance versus social distancing

Social distancing in public health is about physical distancing but social distance in sociology is about race and attitudes to ethnic difference.

Social Distancing

Although the term was introduced only in the 21st century, social-distancing measures date back to at least the 5th century BC. The Bible contains one of the earliest known references to the practice in the Book of Leviticus 13:46: “And the leper in whom the plague is… he shall dwell alone; [outside] the camp shall his habitation be.” During the Plague of Justinian of 541 to 542, Emperor Justinian enforced an ineffective quarantine on the Byzantine Empire, including dumping bodies into the sea; he predominantly blamed the widespread outbreak on “Jews, Samaritans, pagans, heretics, Arians, Montanists and homosexuals”. In modern times, social distancing measures have been successfully implemented in several epidemics. In St. Louis, shortly after the first cases of influenza were detected in the city during the 1918 flu pandemic, authorities implemented school closures, bans on public gatherings and other social-distancing interventions. The influenza fatality rates in St. Louis were much less than in Philadelphia, which had fewer cases of influenza but allowed a mass parade to continue and did not introduce social distancing until more than two weeks after its first cases. Authorities have encouraged or mandated social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However in sociology, social distance is all about race.

In sociology, social distance describes the distance between different groups in society, such as social class, race/ethnicity, gender or sexuality. Members of different groups mix less than members of the same group. It is the measure of nearness or intimacy that an individual or group feels towards another individual or group in a social network or the level of trust one group has for another and the extent of perceived likeness of beliefs

Bogardus Social Distance Scale (1925)

This scale was developed by Emory Bogardus in 1924 and named after him. It is one of the oldest and still in use, psychological attitude scales. Due to its unidimensional nature, prejudice or the lack of it towards only one community or group can be measured at one point in time. The Bogardus social distance scale is also known as a cumulative scale because an agreement with one item shows agreement with any number of preceding items ……… 

For example, the Bogardus social distance scale is set up as a series of questions that ask an individual or a respondent, their feelings or the closest degree of intimacy towards a member of a group in question. A score of 1 is assigned to each option, asking the individual what the closest degree of intimacy is that he or she would be willing to admit a member of the group in question. The following is asked:

  • Would you be willing to marry a member of this group? (1.0)
  • Would you be willing to have a member of this group as your close personal friend? (2.0)
  • Would you be willing to have a member of this group as your neighbor? (3.0)
  • Would you be willing to have a member of this group as your colleague at work? (4.0)
  • Would you be willing to have a member of this group as a citizen of your country? (5.0)
  • Would you be willing to have a member of this group visit your country as a non-citizen? (6.0)
  • Would you be willing to have a member of this group be excluded from associating with your country in any way? (7.0)

The ratings of multiple people from one community is collected as a cumulative and the average of this number represents the value of the social distance scale.

The Bogardus scale tries to measure social differences between attitudes of members of different ethnic communities as perceived by members of one community. It does not address social distance within a community.

“Social media” can thus promote social distancing (public health) while reducing social distance (sociology).


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