Prejudice includes but also extends beyond the key ‘isms’ and is argued as a vitally important topic of study due to the impressive range of characteristics which can form the basis of negative judgements and the pervasiveness and gravity of such judgements. For social researchers, examining the culture of prejudice is a challenge which is both difficult and important.
Social psychology’s enduring interest in prejudice has been contextualised against a backdrop of history of groups attempting to dominate and exploit others. Contemporary understandings of prejudice become almost meaningless without a full appreciation of the history of prejudice. This bleak history owes much to the colour-coded racism of the nineteenth century and is inextricably interwoven with the abominable practices of colonisation, slavery, genocide, eugenics, and political marginalisation. Of course, not all prejudice is as conspicuous, and in the case of race talk, there are suggestions of increasing subtlety, sayability, and deniability. However, the effects of benign bigotry can be just as poisonous and destructive.
Three traditions for accounting for prejudice have been reviewed and these are based on social cognition, personality, and group membership. The theoretical perspective of social cognition casts prejudice as being a function of the constraints of the human mind. Categorisations and stereotypes work towards simplifying the vast amounts of stimuli and information available; however, these generalisations let us down when prejudice and dislike of others is based on thinking which is too rigid or simply wrong. Thus, we fail to see people as unique individuals and prejudge them on the basis of prototypical group membership. The second theoretical perspective is based on the assumption that prejudice stems from personality characteristics formed in childhood and based on punitive, obedience-oriented parental interactions. The claim is that such parents are more likely to produce children who rigidly follow social convention, subserviently follow the wishes of those in authority, and reject those who violate conventional social values. Such authoritarian personalities displace their emotional responses from deference-demanding parents to politically weaker targets. The third theoretical perspective involves prejudice being regarded as less of an individual characteristic and more a function of group membership.
Critical approaches to understanding and studying prejudice often employ a social constructionist epistemology which rejects the dualism between the individual and the social. Identity is recalibrated, not as unitary and stable but fluid, indexical, and constructed through language. Thus prejudice is no longer regarded as stemming from personality, cognition, or the social groups we identify with, but as something irrevocably embedded within language. Inferences regarding the interiority as posited by social cognition are replaced with a quintessentially social epistemology which locates prejudice as occurring between people in talk and interaction. Claims that prejudice talk has become increasingly obscured through innuendo, irony, and implication have also been matched by arguments that traditional methods lack the finesse to capture the nuanced and contextual variability associated with modern prejudice. Constructionist approaches seek to understand prejudicial social practices through the study of language which has the advantage of providing a theoretical approach which is intensely contextualised, highly localised, and sensitive to the socio-politics of prejudice.
Finally, this chapter considered two areas of prejudice research which stand outside the mainstream: firstly, the study of racism as documented from the perspective of the targets of racism rather than from the perspective of the perpetrators of racism. This work has considered the views of Maori in New
Zealand and examined their analyses of why racism occurs, how they manage the psychology of being targeted by racism, and strategies which may contribute to the demise of racism. Secondly, the study of prejudice and discrimination was considered from the perspective of those looking for housemates. This approach considers the study of prejudice not as something masked by the social taboos of not wanting to appear discriminatory towards other, but rather as a pragmatic necessity when faced with the requirement to choose between a range of people who may present themselves as seeking a place in an existing house, flat, or apartment. Something which can be regarded as a social evil has been reframed as a social requirement, resulting in some frank comments in response to the question of who would one be willing to share with. The promise of this approach is that it has the potential to ‘lift the lid’ on a topic which participants have formerly been guarded about.