Social Distancing Before Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic and the recent epidemiological situation caused changes in every aspect of our everyday lives, including speech, as language is one of the most accurate chroniclers of humankind. We adopted several new phrases and modified some of the existing ones. One of these terms is 'Social Distancing'. The most frequently used term during pandemic times that we can all understand easily. Social distancing refers to social and physical distancing measures aiming to slow the spread of the disease by stopping chains of transmission of COVID-19 and preventing new variants from appearing (WHO, 2020).


However, the term social distancing was used by sociologists and psychologists before Covid-19 too. Surprisingly, in the academic world, it is the reason for social destruction. This article explains the theory of social distancing, its scale, and the problem of social distancing in the modern world.


RUB Medics send out an urgent reminder to comply with security measures during Corona pandemic by featuring the oil painting 'Social Distancing' of the well-known artist Sarena Rosenfeld, Los Angeles, USA.
Figure 1: RUB Medics: Art of 'Social Distancing'

Social distance is a phenomenon developed by Emory S. Bogardus in 1942. It provides information about relationships among members of different social groups. It represents one of the oldest attitude scales in psychology and sociology which is actively used up until today. The scale measures the quality of interaction and degree of closeness between people from different backgrounds.


The scale is easy to use and analyse. It suggests a set of seven statements that ask personal questions about the degree of closeness to other groups. It helps researchers calculate the cumulative score and suppose the average closeness or degree of closeness from one group to another one. To demonstrate the simplicity of the approach, we can analyse an example. The respondents are asked to choose the level of interaction they feel comfortable with while communicating with the X group.

  • Would you be willing to marry a member of the X group? (1.0)

  • Would you be willing to have a member of the X group as your close personal friend? (2.0)

  • Would you be willing to have a member of the X group as your neighbour? (3.0)

  • Would you be willing to have a member of the X group as your colleague at work? (4.0)

  • Would you be willing to have a member of the X group as a citizen of your country? (5.0)

  • Would you be willing to have a member of the X group visit your country as a non-citizen? (6.0)

  • Would you be willing to have a member of the X group be excluded from associating with your country in any way? (7.0)

The lower rating of 1.0 indicates a less social distance between the two groups. On the contrary, a higher rating (5.0 and above) indicates a higher social distance between those groups.


Reuters/CORBIS. (1989, August 11). Newlyweds Jerry Tsie and Annette Heunis from South Africa kiss. [Photograph]. mixed marriage
Figure 2:Newlyweds Jerry Tsie and Annette Heunis from South Africa kiss

Social distance examples in the world and their consequences


Nowadays, despite the human rights convention and discussions about equality and minority rights, the world is still suffering from ethnic discrimination and marginalisation. Dawes, while analysing Bogardus’s social distance theory, claims that ‘’the more a person has set a set of ideas and perceptions about a group and more an individual is against a particular group, the less that person will wish to interact with members of that group’’ (Dawes and Singer, 1972). A notable example of the hypothesis mentioned above is "diversity and trust within communities", a study by Robert d. Putnam, who conducted forty case studies involving 30,000 people to test if diversity within society could cause distress (2007). Based on the results, he claimed that the more ethnically/racially diverse the community was, the less trust resided within the members of the society (2007).

Moreover, not only does Putnam's study reveal real social distance, but also research by PEW Research Center (PEW, 2018) was conducted to compare Europeans’ attitudes towards different ethnic groups, such as Muslims, Jews, etc. European citizens tend to have very strictly defined social distance criteria. Based on the research (2018), eastern Europeans tend to have superior opinions about themselves. They tend to have discriminatory attitudes towards different ethnic minorities and religious groups, which is revealed by their responses to the question whether they would be willing to accept ethnic minorities such as Jews or Muslims as family members; it turned out that fewer eastern Europeans were willing to allow members of those minorities to become family members and were also less willing to interact in any form with those ethnic minorities compared to central and western European citizens.

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Irina Berdzenishvili

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