Prejudice and Group Membership

The two theories which have spearheaded the drive to have group psychology recognised as important in understanding prejudice are the realistic group conflict theory (Sherif & Sherif, 1969) and Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Both theories assume prejudice is as much a group as an individual phenomenon, and in the case of the realistic group conflict theory, it is further assumed that prejudice may be understood by considering the conflicts that exist between groups in competition for limited resources.

Sherif and Sherif’s (1969) famous field experiments at a boy’s summer camp helped develop the idea that group membership involves psychological complexity and power over individuals. The camps were run over a two-week period, and the boys (aged 11 or 12) were unaware of their involvement in the experiments. They had been selected for their ‘normality’ and were white, middle class, and previously unacquainted with each other. The experimental procedure involved groups in three distinct stages: formation, competition, and cooperation. Prior to the formation phase, the boys mixed freely and developed spontaneous friendships, after which they were assigned to one of two groups which were separated and given tasks which required group members to work closely together. Group identity was strengthened with group names (Bull Dogs and Red Devils), flags, jargon, jokes, and ways of operating. The group names were stencilled onto clothing and caps and other group norms, such as leadership patterns and friendships, emerged.

The next experimental phase saw the groups competing against each other in various games and competitions. However, even prior to these contests intergroup hostilities were noted (Platow & Hunter, 2001). Out-group hostilities and strong in-group identification and loyalties were evident following the organised contests (Wetherell, 1996). Having successfully developed a culture of competition and hostility, the experimenters next set about to reduce antagonism and prejudice. Initial attempts included a preacher talking to the boys about tolerance and cooperation, and communal activities including a meal which ended with food being thrown at members of opposing groups. These unsuccessful attempts to reverse prejudice say something about the stubbornness of prejudice once it has been set. Finally, the two groups were forced to take up superordinate goals which meant they had to work cooperatively in order to achieve goals. When the situation demanded cooperation the boys complied and worked towards mutual goals which diminished intergroup hostility.

In evaluating these studies it is important to note that Sherif and Sherif (1969) have shown that prejudice is not exclusively the preserve of the maladjusted, since the boys involved were selected for their stability and normality. And while the researchers were able to successfully induce and then reduce prejudice, there are criticisms about the limitations of the theory of realistic group conflict. One limitation is that while intergroup competition may lead to prejudice, this is not necessarily so. Indeed, research (Brewer & Brown, 1998) suggesting competition fails to stimulate prejudice when group cohesion and identification are weak places significant qualifications on this relationship. Another limitation is that if prejudice is a natural consequence of competition for resources, this eliminates personal accountability for prejudice (Wetherell, 1996). Also there is the issue of the artificial and contrived nature of these studies which raises concern about the relevance of this work for understanding the complexity of real conflicts which are typically steeped in historical contingencies involving political inequalities and power differentials. Finally, this theory fails to explain variation in prejudicial actions and why some groups attract more prejudice than others (Gough et al., 2013).

Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) privileges social groups with the claim that group membership provides another dimension to the psychology of people. A core aspect of this is the importance of group identification for the individual which Tajfel (1981) examined through a series of studies known as the minimal group experiments. Tajfel aimed to establish groups with such minimal psychological meaning attached to the group that members would not discriminate between in-group members and out-group members. As it turned out, such a minimally involving baseline proved difficult to establish. Group formation was on the most symbolic and abstract of levels with assignment to groups being, effectively, random and group members never engaging in any physical interaction. Individuals were subsequently asked to divide points between members of the two groups with the evidence suggesting participants favoured members of their own group and discriminated against members of the out-group. The astonishing aspect of this was that such in-group favour occurred in spite of attempts to minimise the meaningfulness and significance of group membership.

Tajfel and Turner (1986) explain these results in terms of changes to personal identity resulting from group membership. When people see themselves as members of groups (Black, Muslim, woman, etc.), they come to categorise themselves according to the groups characteristics and beliefs. Social Identity Theory involves three stages (categorisation, identification, and comparison) which connect the desire for a positive self-image with the negativities of stereotyping and discrimination. Social categorisation involves the deployment of cognitive categories, based on salient group features, which structure our views of the world and assist in making sense of the world by organising perceptions of self and others. Within group similarities are accentuated and differences with other groups become salient. Such categorisation leads to identification whereby knowledge of belonging to particular categories, along with the emotional significance of group membership, becomes highlighted. Knowledge of group membership increasingly defines self in terms of social identities and this leads to social comparisons where groups an individual identifies with are compared with other groups. Thus, positive self-esteem is linked with feeling good about the groups one identifies with. This assumes people seek positivity and wish to feel good about themselves and that group evaluations occur comparatively (Reynolds & Turner, 2001).

Social Identity Theory provides a highly social account of the causes of prejudice. Prejudice is cast as a group phenomenon where social context is important and prejudice against others intimately linked to their particular group memberships. There are a number of concerns with this approach. Firstly, there is a similarity with the social cognition approach in seeing prejudice as something that occurs due to the way was process perceptual information (Wetherell & Potter, 1992). Secondly, there is some doubt about the universality of the mechanisms posited to operate under this system. Different social, cultural, and historical backgrounds may work differently, and Wetherell (1982) reports cross-cultural research showing that participants in the minimal group experimental paradigm who have different cultural background do not respond in the same way as their North American or British counterparts. Thus, the cultural framework which people fit within will have important implications for the development of social identities. Cultural frameworks play themselves out through language and the study of the language of prejudice is considered next.

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