Social interaction distance and stratification



There have been calls from several sources recently for a renewal of class analysis that would encompass social and cultural, as well as economic elements. This paper explores a tradition in stratification that is founded on this idea: relational or social distance approaches to mapping hierarchy and inequality which theorize stratification as a social space. The idea of ‘social space’ is not treated as a metaphor of hierarchy nor is the nature of the structure determined a priori. Rather, the space is identified by mapping social interactions. Exploring the nature of social space involves mapping the network of social interaction — patterns of friendship, partnership and cultural similarity — which gives rise to relations of social closeness and distance. Differential association has long been seen as the basis of hierarchy, but the usual approach is first to define a structure composed of a set of groups and then to investigate social interaction between them. Social distance approaches reverse this, using patterns of interaction to determine the nature of the structure. Differential association can be seen as a way of defining proximity within a social space, from the distances between social groups, or between social groups and social objects (such as lifestyle items). The paper demonstrates how the very different starting point of social distance approaches also leads to strikingly different theoretical conclusions about the nature of stratification and inequality.