Social distance is a term that refers to the degree of social acceptance individuals give to members of other racial or ethnic groups. Sociologist Emory Bogardus (1882-1973) devised a simple measurement tool to assess the closeness (or distance) individuals find personally acceptable. Choices included acceptance by marriage into one’s family, personal friendship, neighbor, coworker, speaking acquaintance, only as visitors to the country, or the extreme of barring even entry to the country. In national studies beginning in 1926 and spanning 50 years, researchers obtained responses from college students ages 18 to 35 about their preferences among 30 groups. Generally, the findings reflected a similarity-attraction bond, with Northern and Western Europeans in the top tier, followed by Southern, Central, and Eastern Europeans in the middle tier, and racial minorities in the third tier.
In 2001, sociologist Vincent N. Parrillo revised the Bogardus measurement scale to reflect demographic changes in the United States. He removed less currently visible minorities (Armenians, Czechs, Finns, Norwegians, Scots, Swedes, and Turks) as well as a two-generation representation of Japanese and Mexicans (keeping those groups but deleting Japanese Americans and Mexican Americans). The nine replacement groups were Africans, Arabs, Cubans, Dominicans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Muslims, Puerto Ricans, and Vietnamese. His national study, the largest social distance study conducted thus far (with more than 126,000 responses), otherwise replicated the previous studies in sampling and methodology.
Parrillo and Christopher Donoghue reported both expected and surprising findings. As Bogardus had predicted, the overall mean score for all groups continued to decrease, as it had in all previous studies, and so did the spread in social distance between the highest and lowest groups, indicating increased acceptance of diverse groups. Also, homogenized, non-ethnic white Americans were closest in social distance, as in all previous studies. Not surprisingly, given that the study was conducted just 2 months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Muslims and Arabs ranked at the bottom. However, their social distance scores were actually lower than for 17 groups in the previous 1977 study by Owen, Eisner, and McFaul, suggesting Americans were less inclined to assign group blame to all for the actions of a few. Among the surprising findings were Italians ranking ahead of Canadians and British in the 2001 study and African Americans ranking in the top 10 for the first time. In both instances, their strong acceptance by Hispanic respondents, whose numbers were far less in previous studies, was a major factor.
Parrillo and Donoghue suggested that the dramatic decrease in social distance may bear witness to a “unity syndrome”—a coalescing of racial and ethnic groups against a common enemy in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Since any social distance study only captures social acceptance of groups at a given moment in time, future studies will determine how tolerant Americans remain in their ever-growing multiracial, multicultural society.
- Owen, Carolyn A., Howard C. Eisner, and Thomas R. McFaul. 1981. “A Half-Century of Social Distance Research: National Replication of the Bogardus Studies.” Sociology and Social Research 66:89.
- Parrillo, Vincent N. and Christopher Donoghue. 2005. “Updating the Bogardus Social Distance Studies: A New National Study.” Social Science Journal 42:257-71.
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