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Social policies aimed at reducing prejudice and intergroup conflict would do well to take account of social psychological research in this area.

To examine the potential benefits social psychology may offer in the reduction of prejudice and intergroup conflict this essay will present an overview of the development of research, consider how this currently informs social policy, and asses the implications. This will entail moving through the personality research of the 1950’s, the foundational work of Serif’s realistic contact theory and Tajfel’s influential cognitive social theory of social identity before examining the discursive work undertaken by two of Tajfel’s students, Michael Billig and Margaret Wetherell. The contact hypothesis, the most obvious application of a social psychological approach in the field of prejudice and conflict reduction, will then be appraised before an assessment is made of how research interacts with social policy. The essay concludes with a recommendation to exercise caution in this highly emotive field and that a discursive approach appears to offer the most potential for flexible and active engagement.

Psychology originally positioned prejudice as a psychological abnormality founded upon individuals’ false generalizations (Allport, 1954 cited in Dixon, 2007). Adorno’ et al.’s (1950) ‘Authoritarian Personality’ research demonstrates this, applying a predefined authoritarian ideology to assessing individuals for signs of prejudicial beliefs before then pathologising both the authoritarian individual and the ideology they appeared to express. Whilst this demonized construction may have comforted some, Wetherell and Potter (1992) suggest this description of prejudice, abnormal ideology positioned within abnormal individuals, constrained analysis. Frosch (2002) argues that this limitation was overcome with the Cognitive Social Psychology framing of prejudice within an information-processing model. Through this model prejudice became a normalized function. An aspect of an individuals limited cognitive resources (Fiske and Taylor, 1991 citied in Dixon 2007). Seen as a negative but ‘natural’ instance of stereotyping, prejudice arose from the perceptual errors and irrational biases inherent within an individuals categorical processing system. Sherif (1966, cited in Dixon 2007) however argued this individualistic explanation could not adequately explain the wider social phenomena of shared group prejudice and conflict. Such an explanation, Sherif suggested, required an understanding of intergroup relationships. Yes – here you need to stress the individualistic and deterministic aspect of these views and how this kind of research actually has nothing to offer social policy.

Sherif’s (1966 cited in Dixon 2007) Realistic Conflict Theory (RCT) rejected the notion that prejudice was founded upon irrational biases but was rather an individual’s rational, socially structured, response to achieving group goals. Sherif demonstrated that by changing the relationships between groups, incentivising cooperation and minimizing competition, intergroup prejudice and conflict could be significantly reduced. However, whilst Sherif demonstrated intergroup competition could be sufficient to produce prejudice and social conflict Tajfel and Turner (cited in Dixon, 2007) argued that competition was not always necessary for discrimination to occur. They suggested that an individual’s identification, both with and between social groups, was the fundamental contributory factor. This was supported by the minimal group research which showed that simply membership of a group was enough.

Tajfel and Turner, motivated by a desire to understand social change and the related roles of identity, ideology and conflict, extended RCT with a Social Identify Theory (SIT) (Brown, 2007, Dixon (2007). Tajfel suggested that individuals sought to conceive of themselves in a positive light and that their social identities, intrinsic to the process of identity management, were forged through intergroup comparisons. This led Tajfel to surmise that if group members were unable to form a positive social identity they would seek to either redefine more positively the perception of their own group or join another group perceived to be more socially advantageous. Additionally, when a group perceives another world is possible and questions injustices between groups then explicit resistance and conflict becomes increasingly probable. This led Tajfel and Turner (1979) to conclude that discrimination and discord was the engine of social change. Wetherell and Potter (1992) saw this positioning of the social, prior to individual cognition, as a significant theoretical and analytical progression in the understanding of discrimination. This did not however mean that SIT did not require development.

Billig (2002a), taking a discursive approach, foregrounds Tajfel’s cultural, social and historical situation to demonstrate the constraints placed upon Tajfel’s theorizing to reveal the limitations of the cognitive approach to prejudice. Billig portrays Tajfel as taking a moral and political stance in arguing against the suggestion that social conflict and prejudice was the inevitable result of innate, irrational aggression. Tajfel’s critical argument was that instinctive explanations could not account for the ‘waxing and waning’ of prejudice (Billig, 2002b) and that prejudice was a rational response to social factors that utilised the cognitive processes of perceptual categorization to maintain a coherent self-image. However, taking this cognitive approach, arguably the most effective approach then available, constrained Tajfel’s theorizing. Questions of motivation and emotion moved to the background whilst generalizations became the order of the day. Billig notes that Tajfel, a survivor of the Shoah, does not address the Holocaust. Billig suggest this reticence came both from the social pressure of the time and a feeling that a rational explanation of this horror could create a justification for extreme bigotry. Billig argues that this highlights the failure of cognitive generalizations to account for the cultural and historical dynamics of prejudice.

R. Brown (2002), appearing to take a realist position that suggests that independent groups can be objectively defined and partially exemplifying what Hepburn (2011, p.229) describes as the ‘individual subject psychologies big mistake’, criticizes Billig as closed to the possibility of inevitable intergroup discrimination and challenges the lack of a practical universal discursive explanation of racism. Countering Brown’s universalist argument, Billig (2002b) cites Tajfel’s ‘waxing and waning’ argument to make the point that bigotry’s ‘ultimate’ inhumanity cannot be adequately understood through mere generalizations but requires a deeper and more specific analysis precisely because it is not a general occurrence. Brown attempts to position mainstream psychology as having the potential to satisfy some of Billig’s critique but Billig (2002b) counters suggesting that without a precise analysis of what bigots say any understanding of bigotry will be tentative and narrow. A limitation that non-discursive theories will continuously fail to transcend.

Brown and Lunt (2002) bemoan that contemporary SIT, rather than developing Tajfel’s concern for the relationship between individuals and social situations, has retreated into a cognitive study of perceptual categorization.Brown (2007) argues, that this regression neglects the dynamic, interactional, motivational and emotional aspects of categorization whilst Billig (2002, p.180) feels the move betrays the political spirit of Tajfel’s ‘theory of liberation’ and social change. Continuing this challenge to the individualistic limitations of the cognitive approach, Wetherell (1996) seen by Brown (2007) as radically recasting Tajfel’s intergroup work, asserts that as language is a precondition for categorization, categorization is a social, discursive practice. Dixon (2007) notes that from a discursive psychological perspective, as social reality is constructed and given meaning through talk, social categorization self evidently has social and political consequences. A point Billig (2002, p.179) explicitly asserts stating ‘words [can be] pure hatred’.

Wetherell and Potter (1992), taking a Foucauldian perspective, note that, whilst intergroup research often begins by defining/identifying groups before studying the relationships between them, these relationships themselves, constructed through discursive practices, have their own dynamic•. Akin to Brown and Lunt’s (2002) contention that intergroup differentiation is a symptom rather than the cause of discursive practices, Wetherell and Potter, citing Foucault’s (1980) perspective that it is power and knowledge flowing through society that forms the discursive field, make the case for discriminatory discourse to become the target of research and action•. From this position, Wetherell and Potter (1992) call for an expansion of SIT centering on the discursive production of social categories that they see constituting prejudice. An abductory approach that, as Stanton-Rogers (2003) remarks, can flexibly engage and tackle social and cultural dynamics whenever they present themselves. However, whilst discursive psychology arguably falls most decisively on the side of social change, it is the contact hypothesis, shaped by contemporary SIT that currently influences social policy (Brown, 1998 and Dovidio et al., 2003 cited in Dixon 2007).

The contact hypothesis proposes institutionally supported, regular contact between people of equal status, including those who confound stereotypes, and promotes cooperation over competition reduces prejudice. Dixon (2007) notes Brewer and Miller (1984) also suggest de-emphasising group difference whilst Hewstone and Brown (1986) contend this contradicts a central tenant of SIT and that group members must see themselves as valued representatives of their own group. However, differentiation fuels prejudice (Dixon, 2007). Dixon observes that Gaertner and Dovidio’s (2000), supported by the research of Gaertner (1990), attempt to reconcile this argument, suggesting that if groups recategorise themselves as a single group, prejudice decreases. This enables groups’ differences to be de-emphasised whilst simultaneously allowing a new, wider group identity to form. The global Occupy movement’s use of the 99% grouping is an active example of such a strategy•. However, Dixon (2007) warns against seeing the contact hypothesis as a panacea for prejudice and conflict with Frosch (2002) asserting that contact has not proved particularly effective in the past.

From a social policy perspective, the questions of how or who to direct attention towards is not always clear. Cuhadar and Dayton (2011) cautions against assuming participants in intergroup contact encounters identify with the group definitions assumed by researchers pointing to the example of Palestinian’s who identify more closely with Israeli friends than fellow Palestinians.• Even with a supposed identifiable target group Gergen (1973) notes how intervention intended to change behaviour is often resisted. Indeed, Gergen suggests that the more explicitly powerful the campaign, the greater probability and potential strength of resistance. However, the challenges run potentially deeper. Both Frosch (2002) and Adams et al. (2008) note that whist the social psychological study of prejudice has been extensive, group based discrimination and inequality persists. Additionally, Paluck and Green (2009) assert that both research and education remains partial with it remaining unclear why, when or even if intervention reduces prejudice. A situation that leads Frosch (2002, p.89) to lament “I would give up any number of articles on interpersonal attraction for one decent account of racism and what to do about it.” Gergen takes the criticism further, noting how the psychological profession has abused their privileged position of knowledge creation to spread propaganda. Brown (1965) provides one such an example citing the similar construction between authoritarian personality and the “J-type personality” (Jaensch, 1938 cited in Brown 1965), which Germans held in high esteem. Self and Acheson-Brown (2008) in turn point to Hendrik Verwoerd, a professor of psychology who, upon becoming a minister in the South African government, deployed scientific rhetoric to falsely present apartheid as enabling black people to maintain their true cultural identities. Despite these limitations and cautionary tales, Adams observes that social psychology is uniquely positioned (Markus, 2005; Ross and Nisbett, 1991 cited in Adams et al., 2008) to provide a science of systemic oppression. Gergen asserts that the field can and should provide the concepts and methods which can inform “the inquirer of a number of possible occurrences, thus expanding his sensitivities and readying him for more rapid accommodation to environmental change” (Gergen, 1973 p.317). Whilst Wetherell and Potter (1992) argue that the construction of truth presents the opportunity for a less prejudiced reality to be created and intensifies the requirement for ethical and political commitments from social scientists, with Hepburn (2011) concluding that social psychologists have a responsibility to act.

For social policy makers SIT suggests that to reduce prejudice and conflict the focus of research and action could break free from the restricted view that situates discrimination within individuals. In doing so, a wider social psychological consideration could productively focus upon the construction and consistent reproduction of a stable, secure and inclusive society that supports cooperation and the formation of positive social identities whilst minimizing competition for resources. However, the risk of developing psychological technologies that could be used to mitigate discrimination and reduce conflict that focuses upon groups of individuals and does not tackle the social mechanisms through which power/knowledge flows is problematic. Essentially, if a tool can mitigate discrimination then it can be used to mitigate anti-discrimination. Prejudice works both ways. Currently the prevailing overt culture in western-societies is to discriminate against racists, sexists, homophobes and to uphold human rights but if Foucault is correct then this tendency will be resisted and it would be prudent to acknowledge the possibility that the social environment is in a constant state of transformation. Wetherell and Potter (1992) suggest a Foucauldian approach that traces the generation and reproduction of ‘truth’ as a more productive route to explore how claims become so empowered. This genealogical analysis not only offers a more encompassing but precise and effective methodology that simultaneously demonstrates prejudice in action but also creates new potentials within the discursive field to resist prejudicial discourse.

Whether institutions are inclined, or structurally able, to respond effectively to these insights is another matter entirely. Social policy that enables a more reflexive approach that facilitates a critical interrogation of institutional structures to examine how discursive practices reproduces inequality could prove fruitful. However, framing prejudice as an educational issue with governmental institutions paternalistically intervening upon a population seems to offer limited success. Prejudice is not the prerogative of one or more exclusive (potentially illusionary) groups but embedded within the discursive field in which we all participate therefore the opportunity for social change exists between us all and whilst the power of prejudice may wax and wane, reconfigure and continuously threaten, resistance and creative conflict will continue in response.


Adams, G., Biernat, M., Branscombe, N. R., Crandall, C. S., & Wrightsman, L. S. (2008). Beyond prejudice: Toward a sociocultural psychology of racism and oppression. In G. Adams, M. Biernat, N. R. Branscombe, C. S. Crandall, & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.), Commemorating Brown: The social psychology of racism and discrimination (pp. 215-246). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association Books.

Brown, R. (2002). ‘Commentary: Henri Tajfel’s “Cognitive aspects of prejudice” and the psychology of bigotry’, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol.41, pp. 195-198

Brown, S.D. & Lunt, P. (2002). A genealogy of the social identity tradition: Deleuze and Guattari and social psychology, British Journal of Social Psychology, 41, pp. 1–23

Brown, S. (2007). Intergroup processes: social identity theory. In D. Langdridge & S. Taylor, (Eds.) (2007) Critical Readings in Social Psychology (pp. 133-162). Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Billig, M. (2002a). ‘Henri Tajfel’s “Cognitive aspects of prejudice” and the psychology of bigotry’, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol.41, pp. 171–88.

Billig, M. (2002b). ‘A response to Brown and Frosh’, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol.41, pp. 199–202.

Cuhadar, E. and Dayton, B. (2011). The Social Psychology of Identity and Inter-group Conflict: From Theory to Practice. International Studies Perspectives, 12: 273–293.

Dixon, J. (2007). ‘Prejudice, conflict and conflict reduction’. In W. Hollway, H. Lucey & A. Phoenix, (Eds.), (2007) Social Psychology Matters (pp. 145-172). Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Frosch, S. (2002). Enjoyment, bigotry, discourse and cognition, British Journal of Social Psychology, 41, pp. 189–193

Gergen, K. J. (1973). Social Psychology as History, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 2, 309-320

Hepburn, A. (2011). An Introduction to Critical Social Psychology. London, Sage.

Paluck E.L. & Green D.P. (2009). Prejudice reduction: what works? A review and assessment of research and practice. Annual Review Psychology, vol.60 pp. 339-67.

Self, E. A. & Acheson-Brown, D. G. (2008). Desegregating the self: Transcending identity politics in South Africa. In G. Adams, M. Biernat, N. R. Branscombe, C. S. Crandall, & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.), Commemorating Brown: The social psychology of racism and discrimination (pp. 195-214). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association Books.

Stainton-Rogers, W. (2003). Social Psychology: Experimental and Critical Approaches. Maidenhead, Berkshire/Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Tajfel, H. and Turner, J.C. (1979). ‘An integrative theory of intergroup conflict’ In D. Langdridge & S. Taylor, (Eds.) (2007) Critical Readings in Social Psychology (pp. 136-144). Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Wetherell, M. and Potter, J. (1992). Mapping the Language of Racism: Discourse and the Legitimation of Exploitation, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf.

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