Social Distance in Adolescents in the Republic of Macedonia

Social Distance in Adolescents in the Republic of Macedonia

- Empirical Research -

This paper presents part of the multivariable empirical research carried out in Skopje, Macedonia, in 1997/98. Several psychosocial characteristics (confidence in other people, readiness for cooperation, tolerance of frustrations, ethnic stereotypes, social distance, and self-esteem) were examined in 105 adolescents from Macedonian and Albanian ethnic origin before and after the application of the specially designed educational program "Appreciating Differences."

Here we focus on the differences between participants' social distance as measured before the program application, compared the changes that occurred after its application.

We concluded that social distance, in general, is largely manifested in the two testings, in both groups, for most of the social situations. The respondents of an Albanian ethnic origin showed statistically significant higher social distance.

The hypothesis that after the completion of the one-year program with experimental groups of Macedonian and Albanian origin the social distance will be decreased, has been confirmed. Generally, the reduction is mild, and more expressed in respondents of Macedonian-ethnic origin.


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If you live in a country such as the Republic of Macedonia, which is situated in the traditionally turbulent Balkans, and has an abundance of diversity, it is of vital importance to create a social, emotional, and intellectual climate for constructive communication and mutual understanding among the people. This is true even in countries that are far more developed in economy and technology, as well as in the level of democracy. There is a necessity to respect the different values of the other group or individuals in places of diversity.

Macedonia is a country in which a heterogeneous population, composed of mixture of different religious and linguistic affiliations, lives on a small space with limited resources. The need for good quality co-living is becoming increasingly important and obvious in all spheres of common life. This is particularly evident among young people. Unfortunately, despite their natural orientation to communicate and interact, they almost exclusively communicate within their own ethnic group -- due to the accepted stereotypes and prejudices from the adults.

The possibility for a systematic influence over the development of a young person gives the epithet to the school as to the potentially strongest integrative agent of socialization. Shool is expected to be the place where the education of pro-social behavior is to occur, as well as values of acceptance, cooperation, and the creation of a favorable climate for constructive communication. Unfortunately, it is exactly the school where stereotypes and intolerance are often explicitly fostered.

It has been long known in social psychology that social distance in relations among different ethnic groups is a result of social attitudes and ethnic stereotypes. The need of people to categorize the phenomena that they encounter and predict the consequences on the base of a minimum number of indicators, leads to the cognitive process of stereotyping. Ethnic stereotypes are a simplified and rigid understanding for the characteristics of other ethnic groups. All the members of the group are viewed as representatives of their groups, not as individuals with specific psychosocial characteristics. Perceptions are effectively colored and usually include components of a negative assessment as a rationale for the hostile emotions towards a particular group. This is a phenomenon that the world will probably be faced with for a long time, even in environments with highly developed economic and democratic relations.

The rejection of members of another group and stereotypes is generally a result of a lack of communication and interaction, particularly with groups of a different cultural origin. Furnham and Bochner (1986) point out that the situation is further burdened if the language is different, as well as the non-verbal communication, the rules in the social situations, and the skills for resolving every-day problem situations.

According to some authors (De Friese & Scott Ford, 1973) discrimination against some groups is often an integrative part of the sub-culture, a kind of cultural norm. This fosters the maintenance and transmission of stereotypes through generations in which prejudices were accepted as something accurate and implied. Tajfel's (1978) theory of social identity says that an individual's self-esteem partly depends on their groups of belonging so that one does his/her best to experience their own group as different and superior to others (according to Argyle, 1991).

One of the indicators of social tolerance, closely linked to prejudices and ethnic stereotypes, is social distance. Social distance is the conative, behavioral dimension of prejudices and stereotypes that measures non-acceptance of particular relations with other ethnic groups.

The concept of social distance dates back in 1924, when Park defined it as a continuum of various levels of intimacy of social relations in general. One end of this continuum is represented with ultimately close, warm, and intimate contacts. The middle indicates nuances of indifferent feelings, while the other end of the continuation implies active non-attraction, intolerance, and rejection. Lazaroski (1994) reviewed the findings of theoretical and empirical research on social distance over a period of several decades. They indicate that social distance has constantly been present as a real social event, as a product of objective social controversies (material, racial, historical, situation-like, cultural, and linguistic). It was also confirmed that there has been a link between positive ethnic stereotypes and acceptance, as well as between negative ethnic stereotypes and rejection of some social relations. The emphasized social distance, as an expression of negative ethnic prejudices towards an ethnic group was, as a rule, a sign of ethnocentrism.

Psychology knows quite a few phenomena with rigid structures as seen with prejudices and stereotypes, manifested with the social distance. Their appearance, circumstances of development and manifestations, are quite standard and we can even say, predictable.

The research of ethnic stereotypes and social distance between different ethnic groups in the Republic of Macedonia confirm this. They also demonstrate that negative ethnic stereotypes and social distance have risen in the last few years.

The study of the Institute for Sociological, Political and Juridical Research, "Sources and Factors of Inter-Ethnic Tensions in the Republic of Macedonia", (Najchevska, Simoska, Gaber, 1998) affirms that the number of stereotypes grew in the period between the two studies (1988-1998). It also affirmed that there is more restriction, caution, and distance in relation to other ethnic groups. Moreover, the negative ethnic hetero-stereotypes have increased while inter-ethnic tolerance has decreased.

Another study in ethnic stereotypes took place among students of the Pedagogical Faculty "Kliment Ohridski" in Skopje (Petroska-Beska, Popovski, Kenig-Bogdanovska, 1998). In this study, both Macedonians and Albanians claimed to have the best characteristics for themselves. The distance between "we" and "they" was particularly expressed in the Albanians, who perceived themselves extremely positively. In regard to the expressed stereotypes towards different ethnic groups, the Macedonians had the most negative stereotypes about the Albanians, while the Albanians had the same about the Serbs. Compared with the results of researched stereotypes in 1996 and 1998, it was shown that the negative hetero-stereotypes among the Macedonians and the Albanians had risen.

The purpose of the current study was to define the degree of social distance, especially examining the possibilities for decreasing the ethnic stereotypes and social distance by evaluating the effects of the "Appreciating Differences" educational program.


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Respondents, measurements, variables

The research included 105 respondents aged 16.5-18.5, who were students in the Macedonian and Albanian languages third and fourth grade classes in the "Zef Ljush Marku" High School in Skopje. The sample of participants was made based on the perceived positive status among peers and the leadership qualities.

The research was conducted in conformity with the rules of a quasi-experimental design, which is considered close to true experiments. The respondents were assigned to the experimental or control group, as previously equated by the requested criteria. At the same time, this research also served as an action research project, yielding immediate changes and innovations.

The social distance was measured with one variant of Bogardus Scale. It contains eight social relations, which the respondent would consider to with a typical representative of some suggested groups in mind. They are as follows: To live in the same state; To live in the same town; street; building; to be his/her schoolteacher; to be his/her friend; to agree that his/her sister/brother to get married to him/her; To be married to him/her; to receive his/her blood in case of emergency; to become president of the state in which he/she lives). The offered ethnic groups were those living in Macedonia and in the neighboring countries: Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Romas, Vlachs, Bulgarians, and Greeks.

The "Appreciating Differences" educational program was an independent variable in this research and its influence on a number of dependent variables has been examined, including the social distance. Social Distance has been treated as a dependent variable, as a readiness for starting some social relations with members of different ethnic groups, with various degrees of intimacy.

Description of the Educational Program "Appreciating Differences"

The "Appreciating Differences" Educational Program has been designed and performed by V. Petroska-Beska, PhD, from the Institute of Psychology in Skopje with a team of school psychologists and other experts in human rights, gender differences and prejudices. This was one of the activities in the Center for Ethnic Conflict Resolution at the Faculty of Philosophy in Skopje that had been carried out during the academic 1997/98 year as a pilot educational program for high school students of a mixed ethnic origin. The program was designed to create an intellectual, emotional, and social climate among the students and to enable communication leading to mutual respect and understanding. It consisted of a series of extra-curricular activities, thematic workshops, two hours weekly, during the academic year 1997/98.

The activities were performed in the school classrooms, often under inadequate conditions. There are two secondary schools operating in the same building, in two shifts, with a constant lack of space. The students were not released from the school hours and they came before or after their classes. During the activities, numerous sensitive questions were discussed that had never before been discussed face to face with the representatives of the other group.


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Results are acquired through the standard inferential statistics for testing the differences between the two ethnic groups, as well as the differences that occurred after the program implementation. The paper discusses only the statistically significant results.

Before the program implementation

The degree of social distance in all the respondents in the pre-test (before the program was applied) was generally very high. In spite of the expectations that social distance would be more expressed because of the deteriorated inter-ethnic tensions, the results showed the actually large distance between the two groups. The total number of rejections with all the respondents was nearly four times greater than the number of acceptances!

The assumption that the two ethnic groups would not significantly differ by the degree of social distance did not show to be true. Namely, the respondents from the Albanian ethnic group demonstrated a significantly greater distance from the Macedonian in most of the social situations. The total number of rejections with the Macedonians was nearly three times greater than the acceptances, while the rejections with the Albanians was five times greater than the acceptances. If the maximum number of the rejections by respondent was 56, it was in average 41.3 with those of Macedonian ethnic origin and 49.3 with the respondents of Albanian nationality.

Graph 1. Total percent of acceptance and rejection 
with Macedonians and Albanians on the scale of social distance in the pretest.

Regarding the separate eight social situations from the Social distance scale, it was found with statistical significance, that in the first seven social situations, the Macedonians were less socially distanced from the Albanians. Only in the eighth situation, which is related to the possibility for electing the president of the state from the other ethnic group, there was not a significant difference among the respondents from the two ethnic groups. Both groups showed a high degree of discord regarding the election of a president of the state from the other ethnic group. Individually, it was as follows:

In the situation To be a citizen of my country, nearly half of the Macedonians selected the Albanians, while the rest did not. Twelve percent of the respondents from ethnic Albanian origin selected a Macedonian to live in Macedonia, while 88 percent of them did not.

There was a nearly identical situation with the second situation where the neighbor is selected. With the selection of the nationality of the schoolteacher, the situation is even more drastic. It is the most unfavorable in the two following situations when one selects which ethnic group member one would like to marry. The high degree of distance in entering a marriage with a member of another ethnic group has also been noted in some previous researches made by Rot (1966) and Najchevska, Simoska, and Gaber (1998).

There was a slightly more favorable situation with the third social situation in selecting a friend. The Macedonians selected the Albanians in 40 percent of the cases and reject them in 60 percent, while the Albanians selected a Macedonian in only 23 percent and rejected them in 77 percent.

In the applied version of the Social Distance Scale there was a situation of receiving blood in case of emergency. This is considered as an extreme social distance if rejected. In this case, half of the Macedonians do would receive blood from an Albanian, and only one third of the Albanians would receive blood from a Macedonian. It is normal to expect that one would not mind whose blood one receives in case of emergency. Considering the great social distance here as well, it would be interesting to see if religious affiliation affects the choice in this social case, or whether the affiliation to another religious group is the possible explanation for refusing the blood of a member of another religious group. However, this is just another example of social distance, this time on another ground.

If we look at the social distance towards various ethnic groups (Turks, Romas, Bulgarians, Vlachs, Greeks, and Serbs) there is another evidence of a high rejection and distance. As a matter of fact, the only case when Macedonians are less distant is when Serbs are in question (in the total results, in all eight social situations). So, the rejection and "confinement" to one's own group is not only mutually expressed among the Macedonians and the Albanians, but also in regard to the other ethnic groups. Rot's studies (1966) in former Yugoslavia showed that the biggest distance was expressed towards the Albanians, particularly when getting married was at stake.

The comparison in the distance of the two ethnic groups showed that the respondents of the Albanian nationality were distanced quite more distanced than the Macedonians in relation to all other mentioned ethnic groups, except the Turks. Even in the case of establishing different social relations between the Albanians and the Turks, the Albanians were more reluctant than the Turks.

The defined high social distance between the two ethnic groups was another reason for seeking possibilities for "intervention" aimed at decreasing the expressed distance and stereotypes with an intentionally designed program.

After the educational program implementation

After the application of the Educational program "Appreciating Differences", the social distance among the experimental groups was generally decreased.

The comparison in the two graphs illustrates the changes with the two experimental groups. However, a greater change occurred with the members of the Macedonian ethnic group. The repeated measurement with the control groups that took place a year later (in which program the control group has not participated), indicate that the Macedonians had slightly decreased their social distance, while the Albanians' social distance had increased.

Spectacular changes were not expected and they did not occur. However, the statistically proven change gives hope that something can be done to decrease the social distance and that it would be of tremendous importance for the quality of living in the region.

Graph 2: Comparison of total number of acceptance and rejection on the scale 
of social distance with experimental group of Macedonians in pre-test and post-test.

Graph 3. Comparison of the total number of acceptance and rejection on the scale 
of social distance with the experimental group of Albanians in the pre-test and post-test.


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The research has once again shown that the social distance between the Macedonians and the Albanians is highly expressed. It coincides with the results of a broader research in the degree of cooperation, confidence, tolerance, ethnic stereotypes, and the link about one's own picture and the mentioned psychosocial characteristics (Jakovlevska-Josevska, 1999). The two ethnic groups live within the same space, but in two parallel worlds, with temporary trends of getting closer or more distanced, as a reflection of the day-to-day events. The respondents of Macedonian ethnic origin demonstrated less distance. With regards to the effects of the educational program, it is encouraging that the social distance decreased with both groups, which is again more expressed with the Macedonians.

The social distance is definitely a product of objective controversies, interests, and differences (historical, environmental, cultural, and linguistic). These controversies are continually present in the Republic of Macedonia as well. The proclaimed recipe for an optimum balance between fostering one's own national integration into the common and social, seems hard to achieve because this principle is differently perceived and experienced by the different parties. The unfavorable influence of reinforced romanticism is also strong, which increased in intensity after the decay of the multi-national national societies.

Literature gives an empirical confirmation that some ethnic groups are more confined and isolated than others, partly because of traditional, religious, or cultural characteristics, and partly because of a different system of values. Ritchie (1973) indicates that ethnocentric communities are usually those that are preoccupied with keeping a social distance. Ethnocentrism as a constellation of views includes the belief that one's own standards are the best, the real, and universal, causing one to keep distance from others.

The very few studies regarding the influence of the curricula and textbooks over the formation and/or maintenance of stereotypes and social distance show disastrous results. Namely, instead of developing positive social stances and climate for respecting differences, schools often foster stereotypes (ethnic and gender) and feed or at least support social distance. An illustrating example is given by the analyses of literature texts and history textbooks. They are full of ethnic sentiments about one's own nation, neglecting other views about the events in history or personalities that do not belong to one's own nation (Najchevska, Simoska, Gaber, 1998).

It is not very likely that some frontal, macro changes may occur to correct this situation. It is more realistic to start changes on a basic level among ordinary people, most of all through the educational system. It becomes increasingly important to see whether the regular system of education and/or special educational programs can reduce the ethnic stereotypes and create a ground for a mutual rapprochement.

The manifested social rapprochement after the implementation of the educational program, where spontaneous interaction and intensive communication occurred, is certainly very motivating. Nowadays it becomes increasingly obvious that there is a need for skills for joint living, for appreciating differences, and for looking for similarities.

The positive effects of these and similar programs are known in the theory of psychology and social studies. Sherif's (1961) and Deutsch's (1993) researches show that by increasing the inter-group contact and training for techniques of cooperation, and first of all by placing superior goals, the social distance and hostile stances among the groups decrease. Johnson and Johnson (1995) study on the effects of training for resolving conflicts in different schools, shows that students acquire the techniques in which they are trained, apply the learned skills in conflict situations, and transfer these skills outside of school, even within their families.

The theory does not give definite answers about the type of the influence that will most strongly increase tolerance. Some authors believe that unintentional and indirect influence, which can last for years, has more lasting effects than direct education in tolerance (Vogt, 1997). The general learning theories confirm that there is a basis to confirm the positive influence of specially designed education and training for increasing tolerance towards others. As a matter of fact, tolerance is considered to be a social skill that can be learned. However, in order to learn a social skill, in addition to a good model, it is necessary to obtain a social reinforcement regarding the consequences of the model's attitude. The question is how much the shape of attitude regarding acceptance and cooperation obtains social approval or reinforcement in the Republic of Macedonia.

It is definitely challenging to explain the reasons for the high social distance and stereotypes with the two groups. Some of the discussions that the presentation of the results of this empirical research have provoked, particularly regarding the difference between the level of social distance expressed among the two groups were as following:

In the period of the international monitoring (when this research was conducted), there was a reinforced feeling among the Macedonian ethnic group that some concessions had to be made, including some steps leading to a rapprochement, first of all towards the Albanian minority.

Recent years, the Albanian minority had continuous complaints as "bereft" by the majority group. The attempts for "rapprochement" on the side of the Macedonian group are taken with reservations and caution. Loyalty to one's own group is highly expressed.

The Macedonian ethnic group, being the majority, sees itself as the one with the power and the one that is "deciding" about the degree of rapprochement. It simultaneously gives it a contradictory position: on the one hand, it is the one that "gives" power, but it is also under constant "scrutiny".

If the educational program decreased the social distance, for which literature says that is not easy to be corrected, it means that it has largely achieved its goal. This is particularly true considering that in the period in which the program was run there had been counter-productive factors as well. It is not new that our young people are extensively politicized and that each nuance in "warming" or "cooling down" the inter-ethnic relations is immediately reflected on the degree of distancing. In the period October 1997 - May 1998 the inter-ethnic relations in the Republic of Macedonia were the top subject in the socio-political life in the country, as it is very often the case. The international community monitored the country for further implementation of the human rights of the minorities. Although there is no content analysis made on the press and electronic media, there is the impression that this was one of the most frequent topics in the socio-political life in the Republic of Macedonia. Since the media space of the two ethnic groups is divided, there is the possibility that the two sides had differently interpreted the same question or event, which resulted into taking different stances. The minorities expected concrete steps from the majority in providing a higher level of human rights. The majority, however, believed that these steps had already sufficiently been made and that the minorities should do more to be integrated into the community.

One thing is for sure: the "Appreciating Differences" program was the reason why in a period of a year, in their free time, a group of young people of different ethnic origin, volunteered to spend some time together. Different opinions and views were presented and it was wonderful to see that they talked and listened to the others with respect. The commentaries of the students during the program were the best example of the effects of the contacts, workshops, and companionships. They all shared the opinion that they had learned a lot about the other group and that they would like this kind of activity to continue.

This program proved to be a successful attempt for building a bridge of confidence and mutual acceptance, for making young people, who used to see each other everyday in school corridors and yet had no interaction, become close. The program gains in value even more considering that these contacts and companionships are a real rarity in our educational process and outside of it.

The positive changes caused by the "Appreciating Differences" educational program are even more valuable because these young people volunteered in spending some time together with their own generation from another ethnic group. Different opinions and views were presented and it was wonderful to see that they talked and listened to the others with respect. The commentaries of the students during the program were the best example of the effects of the contacts, workshops, and companionships. They all shared the opinion that they had learned a lot about the other group and that they would like this kind of activity to continue.

All this confirms that, although it is not that easy, it is possible, through the process of social learning, to influence the negative social attitudes and system of values. It is a legitimate question to ask whether and how much lasting the positive changes after the program will be. However, this does not at all liberate us from the duty to look for new ways in which we could promote mutual relations, that is to say interaction, instead of practicing a parallel co-life. One thing is for sure - we should be more engaged in educating the young people for a civil co-life in a common society with a priority of uplifting the individual over the collective interest, turning toward more to the present and future than toward the past.