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Two Degrees of Separation

March 15, 2010

Some years ago the play “Six Degrees of Separation” advanced the notion that everyone was connected by a network of six or fewer interrelationships. I increasingly find evidence that, especially within academic circles, this is an exaggeration. I firmly believe that there may be only two degrees! Basically, it often seems that everyone knows someone who knows you. But it may be closer than even I like to admit. I wonder if we try so hard to define our differences because it is uncomfortable for us to acknowledge how much we are alike – across gender, national, linguistic, and religious boundaries.

Whatever the reason, I do enjoy entertaining this notion of “two degrees” because, if true, it helps to make clear that we are part of a system rather than unconnected agents. I put my belief to the test earlier this month as we had several guest speakers visiting our campus as part of the Women’s History Month program organized by the Office of International Studies and Programs and the Women’s Studies Program.

The first group of visitors included the distinguished Minister of Gender and Family Promotion from the African country of Rwanda, Dr. Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, accompanied by the African historian and UNESCO Fellow, Dr. Amii Omara-Otunnu. Our second guest was Professor Ram Mahalingam, a developmental psychologist from the University of Michigan. As the audience heard about the efforts that Rwanda is making to establish gender equity, and then later about research findings on women in India, it was tempting for some of us to see these international stories about women as “exotic,” strange, and very different from American lives.

Interestingly, Dr. Mahalingam’s work addressed this perceived disparity directly. He found that it appeared easier for us to have positive feelings about people who fit our stereotypic expectations and harder for us to acknowledge connections with those who do not. So, if we expect people from Africa or India to conduct their lives differently than our own, we can feel generous and friendly towards them and understanding of their challenges. However, if these “others” act similarly to Westerners, the perception of their challenges diminishes; even discrimination against them is minimized or ignored.

Perhaps the degree of separation that we can acknowledge is not simply a degree of acquaintance or blood relationship. Perhaps we must explore emotional connections, experiential familiarity, and how we use separation to elevate or lower the status of others.

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