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.


  1. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    Good stuff.

    I don’t think it’s easier for Americans to stereotype in terms of being human. I think maybe we just have more opportunity for it. The US has had a very sizable proportion of minority ethnic groups for a while.

    With only a few exceptions, I prefer to keep my informal time and space minority dominated. Don’t misunderstand. I graduated from UNC and attended multiracial churches in the area. I’ve gotten so used to code-switching, I do without noticing. But in general, I prefer spaces where I’m normal. Or, to put in better, I’m not downgraded and marked as abnormal.

  2. Joe

    Yoku, thanks for the provocative post. The key to understanding racial or ethnic stereotyping and social distance feelings is the historical and structural context. Most the racial stereotyping in the US, to take one example, is only a small part of a much broader white racist framing of this society that has developed over 400 or so years. That frame includes far more than racial stereotypes or prejudices, for it includes racist emotions, images, narratives, ideologies, and inclinations to discriminate. It was designed, from the beginning, by elite whites (mainly men, initially) to rationalize and legitimate each ensuing structure of exploitation and oppression of peoples of color for huge white material advantages. Then it spread among all whites, and many others. And was more fully developed and nuanced as more whites entered North America, and more people of color were subordinated. Most social distance “feeling” today, thus, needs to be set in this much larger context of the dominant white racial frame, or worldview. Old social science concepts like stereotype and prejudice (mostly concepts/terms created by liberal white male social scientists) are just too weak and anemic to explain everyday patterns of ‘social distance’ in a foundationally and systemically racist society.

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