Social Distance: Definition & Theory

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Social distance exists in all societies. It is a perceived construct that is different for each individual, but is influenced by the culture in which a person lives. This lesson defines social distance and reviews its characteristics.

Social Distance

Two teenagers are talking about the upcoming school dance. One mentions a desire to ask a certain person to be his date. The other quickly says, 'Don't bother; she's out of your league!'

What does that mean? Is it true that some people are 'out of reach' to others?

Social distance refers to the level of acceptance people have of others outside of their own social group or class. This level of acceptance is defined by their general feelings towards others, and the amount of social interaction they have with people whose characteristics are outside their social norm. It is a measure of perceived difference (or distance) between groups, and can be either small, when people are accepting of others, or large, when people reject other groups. As a social construct, social distance is a familiar issue. Many common phrases refer to social distance, such as 'out of your league' and 'birds of a feather flock together.' These social norms are ingrained in our collective consciousness.

Which social characteristics apply to social distance? How is it measured? Is there something we can do as a society to decrease social distance?

Social Characteristics

Some of the personal characteristics that lead to social distance include race, ethnicity, age, gender, and economic class.

Race and Ethnicity

Racial discord is the most commonly referenced measure of social distance. Racial social distance is at its greatest in societies that allow slavery of specific groups of people. Those enslaved are extremely socially distant from those who are slave owners. Historically, we can see the social distance between races in the United States decrease over time, as slavery and then segregation were abolished. Remember, though, that social distance refers to more than the divisions between people that are sanctioned by the government. Some people in the U.S., for example, still exhibit extreme levels of racial social distance by not wanting to live or work with members of other ethnicities. It is also important to note that racial social distance is not experienced the same way by everyone.


The generation gap is the term given to the differences in perspective and opinions between the generations. Each generation seems to run into trouble relating to the struggles of the next generation. While some interaction and close social engagement can be seen between people of different generations, it is most common for people to carry on social relationships with people who are close to them in age.


Socially, men and women are separated in many areas of life. Gender roles are taught through differentiated socialization (i.e., treating boys and girls differently) beginning at the earliest age, and these help to reinforce social distance between the sexes. Gender-related social distance could be one cause of the glass ceiling, or the lack of female representatives in top-level professional positions. Some cultures enforce such extreme social distance between the genders that women's style of dress must conform with the culture's social distance rules. An example of this can be seen in strict Muslim cultures where women are required to wear clothing that covers them almost completely in order to visually separate them from men in society.

Economic Class

Class wars are a familiar aspect of world history. Social distance between economic classes happens when members of any economic class avoid or reject members of another class simply because of their economic standing. It can work both ways, with the wealthy choosing to isolate themselves as well as people of lower economic classes not wishing to interact with the 'posh.'

Measuring Social Distance

Social distance is a form of prejudice, which can lead to discrimination. In its simplest form, prejudice is simply the state of holding negative feelings for certain groups of people based solely on a categorical characteristic.

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