Proximal and Distal Personal Relationships

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This page develops the ideas of proximal and distal personal relationships referred to elsewhere on this site.

Proximal relationships

The way I want to explain what I mean by proximal relationships is to offer a brief analysis of the personal relationships of ordinary people, lower or working class people in the 100 years to 1970. Of course, contemporary academic psychology cannot do this kind of analysis because its underlying market model ideology refuses to acknowledge the existence of class.

For a typical British child born 100 years ago, it was easily possible to go through a whole lifetime experiencing nothing but proximal personal relationships. These are relationships involving ongoing contact and shared activity.

For a 100 years until say 30 years ago, an ordinary person's life basically went through 3 phases as far as personal relationships were concerned: home, school and work/marriage. If members of a family never moved away from their birthplace, then personal relationships would have been exclusively proximal.

A child clearly started off with relationships created and maintained by ongoing contact, physical contact and eye contact, and by shared activities, such as play. Initially, there would have been mainly the intimate relationship with the mother, but relationships with other immediate family members, those in whose lives the child shared, would have gradually been added.

As the number of proximal relationships increased, their intensity would have decreased. Thus the close physical contact with the mother would gradually have been replaced with less intimate contact with other family members. For example, a toddler might well have been looked some of the time by another female relative, an older sister or a grandmother.

A little bit older and the child would have started playing out with neighbourschildren: in the street, cars not being a problem in those days. These relationships too would have been proximal, based simply on which children happened to live in the surrounding houses.

When the child started school, further proximal relationships would necessarily be created on account of the ongoing contact and shared activities involved. Again, no real choice would have been involved, other than some classmates would have been closer than others. But even this might have depended on whom the child was told to sit next to.

These school relationships would have been been replaced by very similar workplace relationships. Classmates would simply have been replaced by workmates.

Eventually, the people would have gone courting, got engaged and married. That too was, of course, a proximal relationship. Outside the home, if not working, the woman would have remained in close touch with her mother and sisters and her relationships with workmates would have been replaced by those with her neighbours.

Proximal medation

Various points need to be made regarding this basic model of proximal relationships in this country, 1870 to 1970. Firstly, all forms of proximal relationship in the basic model involved some sort of mediation, on account of shared activities being an essential component. Thus family relationships were based on things like shared meals. Again, younger schoolchildren's friendships involved games, notably the traditional children's games documented by the Opies, [1] and simple toys, frequently traditional ones, improvised by the children themselves. Workplace relationships involved all sorts of informal non-work related social activities, such as Christmas clubs, raffles, sweeps and busters.

Let's note too, that the closeness of proximal relationships varied. Thus, in a large family, two brothers at the young end of the family might have a very close relationship with each other as compared to that with a much older brother. Unmarried workmates might have friendships revolving round their aim of meeting members of the opposite sex at dances etc. Married male neighbours might work their allotments together or go to football matches.

Market ideology

A further point to bear in mind is that we must discount the misrepresentation of our recent past by market ideology, which needs to persuade people that in some respects the way people live today is the way they have always lived and that in other respects things have greatly improved. Thus, it is claimed that the bad things today were always around, e.g. that crime and anti-social behaviour levels were always as high as now, [2] while the good things today, e.g. the improvements in the lives of women, represent a much greater change than is actually the case.

Note also that in any case, the basic model proposed here is an approximation only, for the sake of illustrating proximal relationships. Thus, in practice, the model was disrupted to some extent by the two world wars, the second one followed for a while by National Service. But the military service and war work did not make a fundamental difference.

Again, the kind of working class mobility there was in those days did not significantly disrupt the basic model. I come from a sizeable industrial town that did not even exist in 1870, being perhaps the last of the new Northern towns created by the Industrial Revolution. So the families there were all from somewhere else originally. However, once they had arrived, they stayed put and re-established the pattern of proximal relationships they had previously known elsewhere.

Intermediate relationships

Interestingly, this particular kind of lower class mobility, once and for all migration, gave what we should see as a very specific kind of relationship, that we can call intermediate, involving maintaining an originally proximal family relationship through distal mediation, in the shape of letters and postcards, plus the occasional visit by train or bus.

We may note that this intermediate sort of relationship was not possible for most ordinary people much earlier, on account of illiteracy and lack of public transport. What is more, given the disintegration of the underlying proximal relationships over the last 30 years, of which more below, intermediate relationships do not seem to have too much of a future. So, all in all, they appear to have been a very temporary phenomenon.

Mass rehousing

Another divergence from the basic model was the post war slum clearance and mass rehousing regardless of proximal relationships. In this case of lower class geographic mobility, those who moved were not for the most part going to be people with the resources to maintain intermediate relationships through writing and visits.

On yer bike

Of course, as suggested already, what has happened in the last 30 years has been the generalised breakdown of the immemorial patterns of proximal relationships already seen in post war rehousing, through the imposition of elite values on the whole of society. We are talking about values such as permanent geographic and social mobility, as applied to the lower class in Thatcherite Lord Tebbut's infamous phrase On yer bike.

Effectively, the dominant class [3] has supposed that its own distal personal relationships could be successfully exported down through the whole of society. So far, this has not been the case.

Distal relationships

But what are distal relationships? To understand these let's take a look at a basic model of upper class life over the 100 years to 1970.

Distal childhood

Immediately on the birth of the upper class child, we start to see a difference. The level of intimacy between mother and infant as compared with the lower class situation was obviously much less. Children were never cared for personally by their mother, or even by other female relatives. After birth, they were passed straight on to paid substitutes, nurses, nursery maids and nannies, who would be succeeded later by governesses. They did not eat with their parents. Indeed, a recent TV programme about a particular upper class family revealed that even siblings of different age bands did not eat together.

A programme on King George V recounted how his son, the future King Edward VIII, was so afraid of his father that he fainted one day when visiting him in his study. This would simply be a particularly extreme example of the distance there was between upper class children and their parents. Such relationships were mediated by various sorts of servants and must be counted as distal. [4]

Clearly, the childhood friendships in this model must have lacked in spontaneity. Suitable candidates would have to be visited or shipped in specially for the purpose. There would have been none of the working class child's experience, say, of neighbourschildren already knocking at the door after 8 o'clock in the summer holidays, asking Can Johnny come out? and then being out all day till dusk except for meals or maybe to ask for a penny for some chips.

The games and toys involved would have been totally different. Any social games were party games at actual parties that had been specially organised. There would have been none of the naturalness of the slightly older girls organising all the younger children in the street to play, say, statues, or all the boys suddenly deciding to play block or kick can, or whatever the local names for these street games were.

Similarly with the toys. The Hornby train set of the upper class boy can be contrasted with the self-made pebble gun fashioned with scavenged bits of wood and powered by lengths of old inner tube.

Next, there is the matter of schooling. In the model, the upper class child, the boy at any rate, is sent to boarding school maybe as early as 8 years of age. This will not be such a shock for it as it would for a working class child of the same age on account of previous arm's length distal relationships with actual parents and substitute relationships with nannies, governesses and the like.

Distal marriage

Of course, the arrival of adulthood does not signal an end to the low level of ongoing intimacy in the upper class lives of the model. Thus, in the period in question, upper husbands and wives led totally separate lives in comparison to their working class counterparts. This is seen first of all in domestic geography of upper class houses. Not only were the children segregated from their parents, but the husband and wife from one another, each with their own separate rooms where they were tended by a personal servant, a valet or a lady's maid, and maybe a private secretary.

But then, over the course of their marriage upper class spouses did not necessarily spend all that much time even under the same roof. Basically, the upper class, like the royalty who were at the apex of their social world, lived lives on the move, rarely staying put in any one location for more than a few weeks at a time. Within that pattern, the stopping places of husbands and wives frequently did not coincide.

To start with, they would have at least two houses, one in London and one in the country, with their time at each not always corresponding. But neither of them would remain anywhere for very long. As well as the fixed calendar of upper class social events such as Cowes Week to attend, there were frequent stays at the country mansions of acquaintances, friends and relatives for house parties. Husbands and wives might attend these together or not according to their priorities.

There were also lots of holidays each year, in Britain and abroad. These might well not be taken together, for instance in case of recuperative holidays at the English seaside or on the French Riviera: a usual prescription for the seemingly frequent illnesses with which upper class individuals were afflicted.

All this is in total contrast with the lives of typical working class couples. Once married, in the normal course of events, they shared the same bedroom and bed every night for the rest of their lives.

Distal friendship

The main reason for so much movement in the lives of members of the upper class was the maintenance of social relationships. It needs to be understood that the type of relationship called friendship was something quite different for the upper class as compared to the working class.

Proximal friendships, those typical of the working class during the period under discussion, do not have to be worked at specifically. You open your door or you turn up for work and your friends are there: they simply those of your workmates and neighbours you get on with best, people you see every day regardless.


But it is in the nature of distal relationships that they have to be worked on all the time. Distal friends are people at a distance; you are not going to meet them unless you specifically arrange to do so and with some sort of interaction in mind. In the circumstances of upper class life in the period, this is a matter of entertaining, frequently weekends or whatever in the country: on account of the upper class being traditionally owners of landed property. Hence all the travelling.

Of course, the entertaining which mediates upper class distal relationships in this model is country sports in the daytime where relevant - hunting and shooting - and lavish meals in the evenings followed by cards or maybe dancing.


Note in particular the role of alcohol in the personal relationships of the upper class in the period. It appears from accounts that champagne, brandy and the like were part of all social interactions.

Should we be surprised? We are talking about people who from cradle to grave lived lives deprived of natural intimacy by physical distance and the omnipresence of servants: unspontaneous lives. When they came together for friendship as they understood it, they needed alcohol to enable them to relate personally to others. [5]


In these circumstances of the frequent separation of spouses and socialisation based on alcohol, it seems that sexual promiscuity, marital infidelity, was the rule rather than the exception. Of course, in the first part of the period the best known example in this sort of behaviour was the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII. But there is not reason to suppose that he was doing any more than conforming to the upper class norm.

Artificial conviviality and compulsive affairs

We should see the alcohol fuelled artificial conviviality and the compulsive affairs and indescriminate couplings of the upper class in the period in the same light as each other. They were substitutes for the natural togetherness and intimacy that were absent from their lives.

Interclass relationships

Finally that we should not wonder if, with their own experience of exclusively distal personal relationships, the members of the upper class did not understand the proximal relationships of their servants and other employees and, beyond that, those of the lower class as a whole, whose destiny they controlled through political power.

In fact, we need to recognise the relations of members of the upper class with their servants as a particular type of personal relationship, one in which there is basically no reciprocation. Thus, a lady's maid was expected to engage in a sort of one way proximal relationship with her mistress, showing concern for her well-being, without in return enjoying the same kind of concern. [6]

Third party mediation

25-10-06: Here is a new consideration. Distal relationships involve third party mediation, which in our society means commercialisation. This means that an individual's capacity to sustain relationships has become very much a matter of the availability of sufficient funds. Thus men cannot have friendships if they cannot pay for rounds of drinks, grandparents who cannot afford lavish presents cannot relate to their grandchildren: the pullover lovingly knitted by granny as a birthday gift would these days be laughed to scorn.


1 The Opies

See probably Opie, I. and Opie, P.: Children's Games in Street and Playground (1969). It is an interesting reflection on changing times that the couple's son, Robert Opie, is the country's leading authority on advertising memorabilia. [Back to Article]

2 Bullying in Schools

A prime example of making the past look worse in order to make the present seem not so bad is bullying in schools. It suits those who cannot solve the problem of bullying in today's schools to suggest that the problem has always existed on the same scale. Not so.

Bullying on the scale that it exists today is, among other things, part of the downside of comprehensive education. It was not a significant issue in the days of small, very local schools, in which pupils were not under such intense pressure to perform, did not get put into different sets for different subjects, meaning they had to cope with new groups of people every lesson, did not forever find themselves in corridors milling with strangers, like rats in mazes, etc, etc.

More generally, bullying in schools is merely a part of the high levels of bullying in our society as a whole: in the work place, in neighbourhoods, in relation to the elderly and the vulnerable. We have to see bullying as intrinsic to the way our society works today, in which relationships between individuals are seen in competitive terms. Bullying is just one of the ways in which people in our society aim to assert, maintain or improve their position relative to others, along with conspicuous spending, sporting achievement, careerism etc.

In fact, the distortion on bullying in schools in particular is part of the big lie about adolescence. Today's British society cannot cope with adolescents and so as not to have to admit this, it has in the last 30 years accepted the myth, already elaborated in America for the same reason, that teenagers are essentially problematical today because they always have been.

The truth is, teenagers en masse are problematical only because of the way market society treats them.

A comparable myth is the male mid-life crisis or menopause. This too is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but the product of a hyper-competitive society in which many men in their 40s have to come to terms with the fact that most people don't get to the final heats of the rat race, can't hope for Smail's achievements of real worth, for which, see Sociocentrism in Psychology.

We might use the term normalisation for this tactic of representing problems peculiar to market society as normal for humans of every time and place.

A parallel tactic is localisation. This is where a particular group in market society is represented as responsible for a problem that is generated by the very nature of the society. Thus the drugs phenomenon in all its ramifications is represented as exclusively the fault of dealers, when it is actually an inescapable part of today's market society. For example, as long as our culture promotes instant gratification and the pursuit of heightened experiences, see Human Time, there will always be a demand for drugs. [Back to Article]

3 Legal Class

This refers to an understanding of society in terms of 3 classes that in fact differs significantly from the traditional socio-economic system of upper, middle and working classes:

a dominant class of those for whose benefit society is run: in the UK, probably those with the income of an MP or better.

A key way of identifying members of this class is to consider how different types of people are treated by the police, judiciary and penal system in relation to crime, whether when potential or actual victims or when witnesses for prosecution or defence or when suspected, accused or convicted of crime. Thus the dubious cot death convictions of recent times can be analysed in legal class terms, as dominant class expert witnesses being believed unquestioningly in preference to ordinary families.

a subordinate class of those who work manually for the benefit of the dominant class or who are impoverished. Today that includes people who work at computer screens, as well as those who use tools and operate machines.

an intermediate class of those who act as intermediaries, conveying the will of the dominant class to the subordinate class and isolating the one from direct contact with the other: teachers, social workers, lower police, lower managers, etc.

Obviously, this system is about relations of power and exploitation, which are the same as ever, in spite of the social revolution of the last 30 years which has made the traditional three class system inapplicable. [Back to Article]

4 The Perils of Distal Childcare

The programme also revealed that a particular nursery maid would pinch the little prince while taking him to be interviewed by his father. That way, the child would arrive in a distressed state and get into trouble from the father. This anecdote is interesting in several ways.

For one thing, it is an example of female style aggression, something that market psychology, such as that of Baron-Cohen, sweeps under the carpet. It is a case not only of covert female brutality, but also of the provocatrice role of females in the male aggression that evolutionary psychologists dwell on so much: the maid was deliberately engineering confrontations between father and son. I suggest that much male aggression is the result of deliberate female manipulation. Note the role, a few years after this case, of British women manipulating the men to volunteer for the Great War by taunting them with the white feathers of cowardice.

For another thing, we might ask why the maid was behaving like that. Was she simply sadistic, or was she reacting against the distal servitude of her circumstances in the only way available to her. To translate the case into today's terms: can distal parents really expect their children to get loving care when they pay the carers peanuts and treat them like dirt.

Finally, the example highlights a problem inherent in all distal childcare. When you entrust your children to non-kin, you risk ill-treatment. It's a message implicit in market model evolutionary psychology after all. If, as evolutionary psychology suggests, step-parents are far more likely to mistreat their step-children than genetic parents their own children, then unrelated childcarers are far more likely to mistreat their charges.

Of course, evolutionary psychology discounts the importance of upbringing in favour of genetics. That way, distal parents can get out there earning and spending, secure in the knowledge that as long as their offspring aren't physically harmed, the quality of their childcare won't matter too much in the long run.

This was obviously the view of upper class parents in the period under scrutiny here. Indeed, in this context, market model evolutionary psychology looks very much like an update on the immemorial aristocratic belief that, in humans as in horses, breeding will out: it doesn't matter how you bring up your children, their bloodline will make sure they turn out right.

However, those of us who still insist on finding upbringing important may note that the young prince in question ended up as the Duke of Windsor, a Fascist sympathiser. We may suppose that there could be some connection between that and the sort of dehumanising extreme distal upbringing he must have endured.

25-10-06: Note that the new push by the British government for people to work later into old age will have the effect of reducing the number of grandmothers available to care for grandchildren while the mothers work. Thus in future even more children will be entrusted to childcare for cash. Your present writer insists on believing that this can only exacerabate today's social problems in the future. [Back to Article]

5 Distality and Alcohol

An extremely close link is observable between distal personal relationships and alcohol - or other drugs. Distality is not possible without chemical aids. If you take one thing away from this site, take that. (08-10-03) [Back to Article]

6 Dehumanised interclass relationships

We can usefully distinguish two types of interclass personal relationships, employer / employee and professional / client. In the period in question, the latter would for adults be mainly a matter of doctor and patient and, above all, of corner shopkeeper and customer.

It is a fallacy of TV period drama to present traditional local shopkeepers, who were lower middle class, in the same class as their working class customers. The distinction is more accurately represented in the pre-TV era stage play, Hobson's Choice, in which bootmaking employee, Will Mossop, rises to having his own business. It is a distinction that became very apparent during the Depression, when shopkeepers had to seek legal remedies in order to extract money owed or else go under themselves.

Clearly, one of the functions of working class education in the period was to prepare children for the reality of interclass relationships in their adult lives.

Of course, market ideology and its predecessors have never seen interclass relationships as personal: it suits the purposes of those with higher status to dehumanise relationships with those of lower status. However, a lower class person might very reasonably take personally adverse treatment at the hands of an employer or professional. It's all a matter of perspective. [Back to Article]


(c) John Durham, 2003