The Science of Proxemics

The Science of Proxemics

Ever considered that the space around us can have so much significance in sociology? The relationship of human beings and the distance they maintain with living and non-living objects has been studied deeply, which is known as proxemics. Here's an overview of the science of proxemics.
SocialMettle Staff
The kind of relationship we share with our friends, family and society, as a whole, is based on spatial differences. There are thousands of instances wherein the behavior we exhibit, enables us to judge a situation out a person and explain the probable ways to deal with them. Despite being aware of our perceptions, we have seldom analyzed that the common factor governing our actions is the 'distance', which we either try to reduce or increase.
The space shared between two individuals or objects has been studied deeply by anthropologists. Edward T. Hall, being the pioneer, termed this space as proxemics. He defines proxemics as "the study of measurable distances between people as they interact."
Types of Space in Proxemics
  • Fixed-feature space: The space created by stationary and immobile objects like territorial boundary and cross border walls.
  • Semifixed-feature space: The dimension of the variable/constant space created by mobile and portable objects like pieces of furniture in a house.
  • Informal space: The space around your body which depends on your physical movements.
Explaining Proxemics Based on Hall's Observations
The image above is a technical representation of Hall's observations of proximal shifts. The diagram delineates the correlation between an individual and the physical space shared by him with others. This includes intimate distance, personal distance, social distance, and public distance. Take a look at the images in the following table to learn about their association with his observations.
Intimate Distance
Expressing affection by embracing, hugging, holding hands
Showering love by kissing, cuddling, caressing

Intimate Distance
Minimum Distance: < 6 inches (15cm)
Maximum Distance: 6-18 inches (15 to 46 cm)
Personal Distance
Casual interaction with friends 
Mingling with family members

Personal Distance
Minimum Distance: 1.5-2.5 feet (46 to 76 cm)
Maximum Distance: 2.5-4 feet (76 to 120 cm)
Social Distance
Interacting with neighbors and other acquaintances
Official conversation with colleagues

Social Distance
Minimum Distance: 4-7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 m)
Maximum Distance: 7-12 feet (2.1 to 3.7 m)
Public Distance
Speaking before an audience (public speaking) 
Performing on stage or in a public space

Public Distance
Minimum Distance: 12-25 feet (3.7 to 7.6 m)
Maximum Distance: 25 feet (7.6 m) or more
Proxemics in Personal Space
Personal space is intensely dynamic as it depends on your decision to move away or to develop intimacy with someone. For example, if you dislike a person, you will simply withdraw from him/her. Thus, you tend to increase the personal space. It is also a psychological process as an individual might have the desire to attract someone (same/opposite sex) or might wish to be liked by someone. Sentiments like love and compassion bring two individuals close and share a personal space. In interpersonal relationships, personal distance can be gauged from the nature of relationship one is involved in.

The personality of an individual is a vital parameter for measuring personal space. An introvert and inexpressive person tends to increase the distance between himself and people around him. Anxiety, restlessness and impatience are some other emotions that can cause an increase in personal distance from others. Contrary to this, an extrovert and sociable person can minimize personal distance easily.

Personal space is defined based on situations. This is because circumstances, to a large extent, are responsible for bringing someone close to the other; on the other hand, these very circumstances can cause impromptu cessation of an ongoing relationship. For example, while traveling, you initiate conversation with your fellow passenger, and in the phase of the journey you get to know each other better. Gradually you become friends. Therefore technically, it is the circumstance that brought both of you together and reduced the personal space.

Age and gender are also variable factors that impact on personal space. When a child is born, he is at the highest degree of proximity with his mother. As he grows older, he remains sentimentally attached to his parents, but mingles with friends and establishes a connection with his surrounding. From this example, it is evident that there is no standard principle that makes the basis of proxemics of personal space based on age. Regarding gender, it is solely an individual's decision to contract or expand the personal space shared by him.

Hall clearly states that, "personal space is an area with an invisible boundary surrounding the person's body into which intruders may not come and the region surrounding the person is regarded as psychologically theirs."
Proxemics in Social Space
Social space should not be confused with public space. Simply put, it is the distance between people residing in the same society. The proximity with close acquaintances and colleagues is a measurable quantity, which varies according to the status of a society and behavior of its residents. Anthropology has sub-categorized social space into affective, interactive and normative social distance.

Affective social distance is based on the emotional quotient of an individual. Social distance tends to decrease when a person is emotionally connected to other members of the society or the group to which he belongs. Feelings of hatred and apathy are the negative forces that lead to expansion of social distance.

It is quite natural to bond with people you interact with frequently. The distance created or averted through communication comes under the sub-category of interactive social distance. The social bonding is likely to manifest owing to mutual conversation and exchange of views among people. This results in shrinkage of social space.

The norms prevalent in a society to a large extent are responsible for inculcating feelings of prejudice and discrimination. On grounds of religion, one might face downright rejection from society and several groups can be formed by various castes and creeds. The distance created by man-made norms of a society is known as normative social distance.

These sub-categories have been defined solely based on observations, and the concepts can differ as people's attitude towards society changes. Social distance might reduce when different groups start mixing freely with each other and establish social harmony.
Proxemics in Public Space
A doctor diagnosing his patients, a teacher teaching her students in a classroom, and employees working in an office; how are these activities connected to the science of proxemics? In the aforementioned instances, there's an intersection point, which is created by the spatial arrangement of one individual with another by the medium of some non-living object. The chair on which a doctor sits is kept at a certain distance from the chair on which a patient sits. Thus, it is the chair that creates the space between the doctor and his patient. The same explanation holds true for the example of teacher-students and employees working together. In this case, the public space can be reduced by eliminating the non-living object or by establishing personal contact.

The design of a public space (e.g. a corridor, passage, outlet, room, etc.) and the area covered by it contribute to shrinkage and expansion of space. The architecture of these objects and the public space are framed after considering the proxemic needs of an individual. If you analyze the concept of public space in-depth, you can easily conceive that such a space is essential for maintaining discipline and order in a society, workplace and at home. Lack of accurate proxemics gives rise to infringement, claustrophobia and sheer indiscipline.

According to Hall, "a public space is a social space such as a town square that is open and accessible to all, regardless of gender, age or socio-economic level." It is a vast territory (parks, libraries, streets, malls) which is open to people hailing from different religions, cultures and countries.
Proxemics in Nonverbal Communication
In nonverbal communication, our behavior, perceptions, gestures, and actions are the media of interaction. Proxemics has covered this kind of communication and has distinctly figured out the spacial measurement based on the sense of touch, auditory skills, movement, vision, etc. There are actually eight factors of nonverbal communication associated with proxemics and they have clearly exemplified the difference between four types of distances. Have a look at the factors listed below.
  • Posture-gender identifiers
  • Visual code
  • Kinesthetic factors
  • Voice loudness
  • Sociopetal-sociofugal axis
  • Olfactory code
  • Touching code
  • Thermal code
Proxemics is all about the visual perception of a surrounding space and relating it with objects present around us. The space is subject to variation as we change our boundaries and is quantified only after considering the nature of the relationships we share.