Degrees of Freedom: Prejudice and Bigotry as Temporal Levels of Social Distance

If the Nobel Committee issued prizes for social science research, Robert Park, Ernest Burgess and Emory Bogardus would have been top candidates for contributions to the empirical study of prejudice and bigotry. The social distance scale, conceptualized initially by Park and Burgess, and later quantitatively measured by Bogardus, is an elegant method for calibrating how members of groups are willing to interact with members of other groups. The cumulative scale describes progressive degrees of social contact or social distance. Many sociologists of course know about this scale and it is one of the instruments in our tool box; but the recent brouhaha over Juan Williams’s statements about ‘people in Muslim garb’ brought to my mind the ubiquity of prejudice and stereotype.

Is it easier for Americans to stereotype one another? Is stereotype or profiling (born of a certain prejudging) a part of the grand American narrative? How different are we in this characteristic from other countries? It is not right, using this short-hand to characterize people we don’t know; it is convenient to do so in the anonymity of public spaces. September 11 has only given some of us more reason to do so. This happens on a daily basis and it signals that we are still very much socially distant from one another. Muslim Americans and Arab Americans are only now finding this out because they have become targets of this public mood for prejudging. This is the subtext of assimilation; if one cannot get past profiling, prejudging and stereotyping, one begins to do the same thing – a cycle that only feeds into how distant we are from one another.

Below is the social distance scale – I ask all who read this piece to honestly measure their temporal levels of social distance. Pick any group, any group at all and insert them into the scale and measure your level of prejudice and bigotry as an American (or not) towards this group. Pick more than one group – indeed, pick all the identifiable racial/ethnic groups in America. And, be true to yourself! For each question, give a yes or no response. My contention is that the degrees of freedom yielded by the dichotomous values you score will not vary by much from one group to the next (pardon my corruption of the term!).

Would you be willing to admit or accept (insert group)
• To close kinship by marriage?
• To my club as personal friend?
• To live on the same street as my neighbor?
• To be a co-worker in the same occupation?
• To citizenship in my country?
• As only visitors in my country? Or
• Would you be willing to exclude (insert group) from my country?

Social distance is both metaphoric and geographic – we do not live physically close to one another and our prejudices keep us psycho-socially separate.