Prejudice is an unfavourable attitude towards another person or persons simply because of their perceived membership of a particular group. Like all attitudes it will be made up of (to varying degrees) cognition, affect and conation,
The purpose of this paper is to explore the extent to which group-level (as distinct from individual-level) explanations, can help understand the origin and strength of prejudice towards a group or its members. To be clear, group-level explanations focus on explaining the prejudice of an individual as a function of his or her membership of a group – the “in-group”. The prejudice itself is directed at other individuals based on their membership of a group distinct from that of the prejudiced individual – the “out-group”, or target group. By contrast, individual-level explanations focus on the distinct personality traits of individuals as a means to explain prejudice in that individual. The two approaches are typically thought of as being diametrically opposed, and plenty of research has been conducted by proponents of each to try to resolve which is “right”,
Before the early 20th Century there was little concern with prejudice. Until then it was generally and unquestioningly accepted that certain races, peoples and classes were superior to others in cognitive, behavioural and moral dimensions so the idea of prejudice was otiose,
It could simply be that a particular combination of personality traits explains why some individuals tend towards prejudicial attitudes. After the second war, and no doubt reflecting its horrors, prejudice came to be characterised as a pathology. In 1950 Adorno et al hypothesised that there was a personality type – the authoritarian – with a psycho-dynamic origin in childhood caused by overbearing parents and manifested in an aggressively prejudicial attitude towards all out-groups,
Another way in which an individual’s personality type can be characterised is “social dominance orientation”. This orientation deals with the extent to which an individual has a preference for a structured, ordinal ranking of societal groups: “the rich man in his castle, and the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate” as the well-known hymn says, (written by C.F. Alexander, 1818-1895). Individuals with high levels of social dominance orientation will have a strong commitment to the hierarchy of groups in a social system,
It might be argued that a combination of high levels of Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation lead to a greater likelihood of conservatism, and that perhaps this political dimension is another way of categorising those individual differences that lead to prejudice,
But turning to broader and deeper understanding of individual personality differences, the well-known and common approach is the “Big Five” framework
Thus there might be a set of individual characteristics that lead people to be prone to prejudice. This would imply that if an individual has a prejudice against one group, he/she will also likely be prejudiced against any and all other out-groups. As Allport put it, some individuals are simply “anti-any out-group”,
However, these individual-level explanations do not seem to account for those instances of prejudice that pertain to entire societies. If only some individuals have an authoritarian personality prone to prejudice, how come all Whites in South Africa or the American South, for example, appeared to be similarly prejudiced against Blacks?,
One of the earlier group-level explanations that emerged was Social Identity Theory. Based on the observation that people tend to categorise others as being similar or different as a natural cognitive process, Social Identity Theory goes on to suggest that the categorisation will be followed by behavioural discrimination,
At any given moment, multiple groups are accessible for membership. The range of groups an individual is in will create the definitions of “us“ versus” them”, hence helping understand who is perceived as an in-group member, and who is an out-group member. For example, an individual might at any time see themselves as a Southampton Football Club fan, a Chartered Accountant, a resident of Winchester, an angler, and a member of the liberal elite. If membership of a particular in-group is salient, it will trigger behaviour in accordance with social identity over personal identity. The drivers of which groups become salient at a particular moment are accessibility, (i.e. a group that is frequently used or contextually relevant) and fit, (i.e. explain what people are saying a doing),
So how intensely do individuals identify themselves as being part of a group? Leach et al propose a useful hierarchy of in-group identification: individuals may (or may not) define themselves as members of a group, and then they may (or may not) invest themselves in that membership. Self-definition arises as a result of the extent to which individuals firstly see similarities between group members and themselves (self stereo-typing); and then the extent that the group then shares common characteristics, is coherent, and can distinguish itself from other groups, (in-group homogeneity). Given self-definition as a group member, the second dimension is “self-investment”. This covers the extent to which individuals find satisfaction (i.e. feel good about the group), solidarity, (i.e. feel a sense of belonging in the group), and centrality, (i.e. how contextually important group membership is) with regard to membership of the group in question,
One way in which this self-definition and self-investment as a group member may manifest is “depersonalisation”. As individuals become group members the fact of being a member of the group replaces or erodes their identity as individuals,
Once individuals self-define and self-invest in a group, there are a number of explanations of the forces at work in driving individuals to adopt in-group bias or out-group derogation beyond mere norms. One is that it group identification is connected to self-esteem; individuals might actively seek to promote the group they belong to in order to enhance their self-esteem, or possibly compensate for low self-esteem,
So it could be that individuals form groups to enhance self-esteem, or to reduce uncertainty, and that can result in discriminatory behaviour. Another set of catalysts, however, might be the perception of out-group threats to the in-group, or competition with out-groups for scarce resources. The classic Robbers Cave study showed that simple competition between groups morphs into hostility,
Closely connected to theories of intergroup competition are hypotheses about the needs of groups to maintain their status or position relative to other groups. These theories can be classed into two broad groups – ideological and contextual. The Theory of Group Position,
The Stereotype content model explores how out-groups are perceived in a two-by-two matrix with competence on one axis, and warmth on the other. Those out-groups that are characterised as low-warmth and low-competence are subject to contemptuous prejudice, where those that are low warmth and high competence are subject to envy and jealousy. Even those groups that are seen as high warmth can be subject to a paternalistic form of prejudice if they are seen as being of low competence,
So, how do group-level explanations contribute to our understanding of prejudice? Prejudice is an outcome of different factors in different contexts at different points in time for a given individual. Individual personality characteristics, (notably levels of Openness and Agreeableness), on their own can help, as can differences in inherited, modelled and learnt inclinations to social dominance and authoritarianism. But the same individual may self-define and self-invest in a number of different groups depending on the context, and when they do so the level of depersonalisation that occurs leads to differing extents of assumption of group behaviour as a template for individual behaviour. That group behaviour may lead to more or less prejudicial behaviour than the individual would manifest in isolation. The group in question may, for example, be characterised by compassion and tolerance. Or, it may be that the group the individual connects to sees itself as under some material or symbolic threat thus leading to prejudicial attitudes to out-group members. Group-level explanations certainly help understand prejudice, but on their own they cannot explain why, when and how intensely a given individual will self-define and self-invest in a given group out of the range of groups that may be available. For that we need to understand individual personality traits and their related inclinations, and the extent to which those traits then encourage depersonalisation.
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