The Surprisingly Deep—and Often Troubling—History of ‘Social Distancing’

Historians in the News
tags: public health, pandemics, COVID-19


How would you describe the evolution of the term?

It started with a memoir by a friend of Napoleon, who talked about how he experienced space in his friendship with Napoleon as Napoleon began to conquer more places. Then it’s used a lot as a euphemism for class in 19th-century British newspapers and as a euphemism for race in 19th century U.S. newspapers. In the 1920s, the Social Distance Scale [which measures prejudice by asking participants to describe how comfortable they feel interacting with people of another race] becomes a social science tool, a reductive attempt to slice the world into ethnic groups, and it’s still in use. To take all of the complicated and ambivalent feelings an individual can have about members of another one of these categories and assign a number to those feelings and average that number out across the group, was the most shocking thing to me.

After that, the other notable moment is that it gets picked up during the AIDS crisis, when it’s used colloquially to describe misguided fears of contagion. It’s not until 2004 that the CDC picks it up to talk about airborne illness and SARS.

You said the Social Distance Scale was the most shocking thing you learned doing this research. Can you tell us a little more about social distancing in the study of race relations?

The Social Distance Scale is, I think, in many ways, the most influential and formidable use of this term. It did not pop up in a vacuum. It turns up in wake of the summer of 1919, especially the Chicago race riots. A rich Chicago heiress funds [social scientists] at my institution, the University of Chicago, basically in order to try to make sense of race.

I think the Social Distance Scale undergirds our way of subconsciously thinking through issues of identity and inequity. It makes it seem like people obviously fit very neatly into these groups that obviously hate each other and that that hatred is simple enough that it can be turned into a number and counted and averaged across a population. It’s just this huge reduction. I just think the models that we use to research this stuff trickles into the sort of tacit ways we conceptualize these things. Bogardus wanted to increase the understanding between groups so that we can reduce hatred but set up this framework of “there are these groups and their relationships can be assigned a number.” He wants to do good but without questioning the terms about people who aren’t white.


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