The topic of prejudice is one of the most visible and extensively researched topics in social psychology. For this reason, it might be easy for undergraduate students looking for a research focus or prospective graduate students looking into research programs to assume that prejudice is a saturated topic with little room for new developments. A close look at the subject, however, reveals a surprisingly vibrant area of study with new theories and perspectives being developed every day. The topic offers numerous opportunities for psychology students who have need of a direction in which to take their research and who are interested in contributing to the creation of a more just society. The purpose of this article is to introduce students to some of the most recent developments in this important and dynamic field of research.
|Recent Developments in the Study of Prejudice
|Michael R. Parker and Uwe P. Gielen, St. Francis College,
the Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Psychology
The first psychological research on prejudice was conducted near the middle of the twentieth century. The most well known of these early researchers was Gordon Allport, whose landmark book, The Nature of Prejudice (1954), should be the starting point for any budding prejudice scholar. Allport and his contemporaries (Robin Williams and Kurt Lewin, for example) focused their attention primarily on the issues facing racially and ethnically segregated societies. They discovered that intergroup prejudice could be successfully reduced when increased contact occurred between those groups under four optimal conditions. These conditions were (a) equal status between the groups, (b) common goals, (c) no competition between the groups, and (d) authority sanction for the contact (Allport). These early findings were instrumental in the formation of the social programs of desegregation and affirmative action, and the positive social change that these programs have promoted.
Another early landmark study by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford (1950) linked prejudice to the authoritarian personality, a persona characterized by conservatism, ethnocentrism, and authoritarian submission. Motivated by the world's struggle with the Nazis' attempted genocide of Jews, homosexuals, persons with disabilities, and Roma, a great deal of early prejudice research used the so-called F-scale to identify individuals with this personality.
As societies continue to change, so does the nature of prejudice research. Allport's legacy, intergroup contact theory, continues to thrive as an important research perspective but has undergone numerous changes. While the link between prejudice and authoritarianism remains a controversial area of study, the F-scale has been replaced by other more reliable scales like the Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale (Altmeyer, 1998).
Psychologists are currently using innovative research methods and fresh new theories to broaden the field's conceptualization of prejudice, and they are achieving some compelling results. This article will outline four new directions that researchers are currently taking towards the study of prejudice: (a) the sociofunctional approach, (b) modern variants of prejudice, (c) the cross-cultural study of prejudice, and (d) increased specificity regarding prejudice towards different groups. The article will conclude with a summary of some other recent developments in prejudice research.
Approaches to the Study of Prejudice
The Socio-Functional Approach
Researchers have conventionally viewed prejudice as "an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization" (Allport, 1954, p. 6). The research of Steven Neuberg at Arizona State University and Catherine Cottrell at the University of Florida, however, suggests that the term prejudice may actually capture a variety of different emotional experiences (Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005). Neuberg and Cottrell theorized that early in their evolution, humans developed a variety of emotional responses to outgroup members who they perceived to embody specific stimuli. Neuberg and Cottrell have identified six stimuli that outgroup members can embody: (a) an obstacle to a desired outcome, (b) a contaminant, or impalpable object or idea, (c) a threat to physical safety, (d) a person in distress due to uncontrollable conditions, (e) a person in possession of a desired object or opportunity that the ingroup member lacks, and (f) a person distressed due to an action of the perceiver. The specific stimuli that the outgroup member is perceived to embody then triggers a corresponding emotional and behavioral response in the ingroup member. The following six emotions and behavioral responses are triggered by the stimuli above, respectively: (a) anger and aggression, (b) avoidance and removal of stimuli, (c) fear and escape, (d) pity and prosocial behavior, (e) envy and attempt to seize desired resources from other, and (f) guilt and reconciliatory behavior.
Their research has found that prejudice can and does take all of these forms (Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005). For example, white college students perceived Native Americans as experiencing distress due to the actions of their own group and felt pity in response, while they perceived Christian fundamentalists to espouse views that potentially contaminate society and felt disgust in response. It is important to note that the researchers do not intend to validate prejudice and prejudiced behavior, but only to gain a better understanding of why prejudice exists. The perceived stimuli that a specific outgroup or outgroup member is perceived to embody is not necessarily based on the true life experience of the prejudiced person but, for example, may be based on stereotypes learned from media images and cultural programming. Their research is evidence of the opportunities that still exist for new paradigms in the psychological study of prejudice, and since their first study was just published in 2005, research from a sociofunctional perspective may just be getting started.
Modern Forms of Prejudice
Another important development in the study of prejudice goes by many names depending on the researcher conducting the study. In the 1980s, at a time when overt prejudice had become less common, researchers began to ask themselves if prejudice had perhaps become more subtle. Researchers began to use terms like modern racism (McConahay, 1986), aversive racism (Gaertner & Dovidio, 1986), symbolic racism (Kinder & Sears, 1981), and ambivalent racism (Katz, Wackenhut, & Hass, 1986). While each of these terms has its own nuance and character, they all refer to a similar phenomenon. Modern societies have become increasingly tolerant and individuals, including research participants, are under greater pressure to appear free of prejudice. Thus, older questionnaires that asked questions like "Do you think your employers should hire negroes?" (Allport, 1954, p. 76) are not only outdated in their language, but also in their approach to prejudice. New questionnaires, like the Modern Racism Scale, now ask research participants whether or not they agree with statements like "It is easy to understand the anger of black people in America" and "Discrimination against blacks is no longer a problem in the United States" (McConahay). These new scales all aim to capture the changing face of prejudice, and a great deal of work still needs to be done. Students who are interested in the expanding our understanding of modern prejudice and who don't mind working in an area experiencing plenty of healthy debate, should consider conducting research on these new forms of prejudice.
Cross-Cultural Study of Prejudice
Researchers are also assessing the cross-cultural relevance of some of the findings that American social psychologists have made. One example of this work is a recent analysis of Dutch prejudice conducted by Thomas Pettigrew at University of California, Santa Cruz and Roel Meertens at the University of Amsterdam (1996). Social scientists have long been puzzled by the positive intergroup relations of Dutch society in spite of the country's verzuiling system: a political structure in which ethnic and religious groups maintain separate schools, radio stations, sports clubs, and other institutions. Such systems have typically spelled disaster for intergroup relations in other countries such as South Africa, and the country's history of acceptance and inclusion despite its separate but equal policies go against the findings of American social psychologists regarding the positive correlation between increased intergroup contact and reduced prejudice.
Pettigrew and Meertens (1996) acknowledged first that the intergroup tolerance of the Netherlands is a genuine phenomenon, but argue that it is important to remember that it has not been a universal characteristic of the country across all time periods and all groups. They found that there are unique aspects of Dutch history and politics that have contributed to its tradition of intergroup harmony. The country (a) has no history of a feudal system, (b) has a history of economic contributions from refugees, (c) has modestly sized minority groups, (d) has equal proportions of Catholics and Protestants, (e) has a strong tradition of elite cooperation, and (f) has a strong established norm against blatant forms of antiminority prejudice. All of these influences, the researchers pointed out, have maintained their force through the present and are now being strengthened by an eroding verzuiling system.
Ultimately, Pettigrew and Meertens (1996) revealed that the negative effects of group segregation can be overcome by a strong tradition of rejecting overt, antiminority sentiment. Their research has done much to expand the field's understanding of the impact of culture on theoretical models of prejudice. This is an area that many researchers in psychology are only beginning to address, and it is certainly a place where young researchers may find opportunities to be involved in new and exciting research.
Prejudice Toward Different Groups
Just as Neuberg and Cottrell's research calls for more distinctions to be made between the varied manifestations of prejudice, many researchers are doing just that by looking at prejudice towards specific groups as distinct phenomenon. A large cross-cultural study was recently conducted on prejudice toward women in 19 countries using 15,000 participants (Glick et al., 2000). The researchers explored the existence of two forms of sexism: hostile and benevolent (Glick & Fiske, 1996). Hostile sexism is the overt and hostile prejudice toward women by which men maintain a male dominant society. Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, is a sexism fostered by men's dependence on women and manifests itself as the protection and affection that is bestowed on women who embrace traditional roles. The study revealed that both forms of sexism were pervasive across all cultures contained within the study. The researchers accomplished not only the development of a specific model of prejudice toward women separate from other forms of prejudice, but also explored the cross-cultural relevancy of their model.
Some other major developments in prejudice research should also be mentioned. One major contemporary development in the study of prejudice has been the creation of the IAT, or Implicit Associations Test (Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwarz, 1998). The IAT is a computer program that has been shown to reveal the hidden biases that individuals will not admit to on a questionnaire. The IAT asks participants to match faces from a first group (i.e., African-Americans) with positive words while matching faces from a second group (i.e., European-Americans) with negative words. The program then reverses this process and asks participants to match the first group with negative words, while matching faces from the second group with positive words. The IAT then calculates various factors such as response time to reveal toward which of the two groups the participant is implicitly biased.
The IAT is currently being applied towards the research of a variety of prejudices, including sex, race, religion, age, disability, and political affiliation. The tool is even being used to assess self-esteem (Farnham, Greenwald, & Banaji, 1999), white racial identity (Knowles & Peng, 2005), and consumer attitudes (Maison, Greenwald, & Bruin, 2001).
But what exactly is implicit prejudice and how is it different from explicit prejudice? Research is revealing that implicit prejudice and explicit prejudice are two independent variables (Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002). A great deal of research is currently being done to identify variables that moderate the relationship between implicit and explicit prejudice (Hofmann, Gschwendner, Nosek, & Schmitt, 2005).
It should also be mentioned that contact theory remains a viable area of study, and it has been shown to be a particularly resilient and cross-culturally relevant body of knowledge. In 2006, Tropp and Pettigrew published a meta-analysis of intergroup contact theory that surveyed 713 independent samples from 515 studies conducted on the topic. In total, 250,089 individuals from 38 countries participated in the research. The review revealed that contact between groups has continually been shown to reduce prejudice, and Allport's optimal conditions increase the effect even more. For students interested in intergroup contact research, the field has grown from its initial investigations of ethnic and racial groups to now include the study of contact's effects on prejudice towards the elderly, the mentally disabled, and the mentally ill. Researchers have also now begun to investigate negative factors that diminish the effect of contact on prejudice reduction (Stephan & Stephan, 1985). For instance, recent findings have revealed that the contact-reduced prejudice relationship tends to be weaker for minority group members, and that optimal conditions do not significantly predict stronger contact-prejudice effects for minority groups (Tropp & Pettigrew, 2005).
This brief overview of contemporary research on prejudice is by no means a comprehensive look at the topic but it does provide insight into the new directions psychology researchers are taking in this area. Students can get more information about researchers and organizations that are studying prejudice as well as examples of surveys assessing prejudice at www.understandingprejudice.org. For students interested in this important subject with relevance to the future of our species, prejudice remains a viable and burgeoning area of research.
Thinking About Graduate School?
Students interested in studying prejudice in graduate school should consider applying to the following programs (this list is not meant to be comprehensive, but may provide a good starting point for prospective graduate students). All of these programs employ faculty who are actively researching prejudice.
Arizona State University
Steven Neuberg—Prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination
Harvard University (MA)
Mahzarin Banaji—Implicit social cognition, stereotypes, and attitudes
Penn State University
Phillip Atiba Goff—Stereotype threat, discrimination, white racial identity
Janet Swim—Intergroup relations, experiences of targets of prejudice
Princeton University (NJ)
Susan Fiske—Prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination
University of California, Irvine
Eric Knowles—White racial identity, beliefs and attitudes on intergroup inequality
University of California, Los Angeles
David Sears—Symbolic racism
University of Connecticut
John Dovidio—Intergroup relations, prejudice, and stereotyping
University of Massachussetts
Linda Tropp—Intergroup contact among majority and minority status group
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|Michael R. Parker is a research assistant at the Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Psychology at St. Francis College, New York City. He received his bachelors degree from Penn State University in 1999, and now works with YAI-National Institute for People with Disabilities, where he conducts in-home behavioral interventions for parents of children with developmental disabilities. He has just finished applying to graduate psychology programs and hopes to begin working towards his PhD this coming fall.
Uwe P. Gielen, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Executve Director for the Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Psychology at St. Francis College, New York City. Having received his doctorate from Harvard University (MA) in 1976, he later served as president of both the Society for Cross-Cultural Research and the International Council of Psychologists. His 16 edited/coedited/coauthored books cover areas such as cross-cultural development, moral development, international family life, family therapy, international psychology, and psychology in the Arab countries. His latest coedited book is entitled Toward a Global Psychology: Theory, Research, Practice, and Pedagogy. He has given lectures, workshops, and paper presentations in 31 countries. For further information, see www.iiccp.freeservers.com.
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