Friday, 23 July 2010

The unsung pioneers in the study of prejudice

When did the scholarly study of prejudice begin? Most people cite Gordon Allport's seminal work 'The Nature of Prejudice' published in 1954, but according to Russell Webster and colleagues the first scholar to propose a working definition of prejudice was actually the English humanist and literary critic William Hazlitt (pictured), writing way back in 1830.

Inspired in part by his visit to France where he discovered the French were not as 'butterfly, airy, thoughtless, fluttering' as conventional stereotypes of the time predicted, Hazlitt proposed that 'prejudice ... is prejudging any question without having sufficiently examined it, and adhering to our opinion upon it through ignorance, malice, or perversity, in spite of every evidence to the contrary' - a definition that accurately anticipated Allport's own definition and research more than a century later. Ironically, Hazlitt revealed his own sexist prejudices in his writing, claiming that women are 'naturally physiognomists, and men phrenologists', by which he meant that women judge by sensations, men by rules.

The first psychologist to define prejudice and urge psychologists to study it, according to Webster and co, was Josiah Morse (born Moses), a student of G Stanley Hall's at Clark University. Morse, a Jew, changed his name after struggling to gain postgraduate employment (as an aside, Harry Harlow, born Israel, is another Jewish psychologist who changed his name to boost his employment prospects). Morse encountered these difficulties despite Hall writing a letter of recommendation, shocking by today's standards, in which he stated that Morse 'has none of the objectional Jewish traits ... and has no Jewish features'. No doubt inspired by his first-hand experience of prejudice, Morse in 1907 wrote a paper in which he drew attention to the ubiquity of prejudice and, with echoes of Hazlitt, defined it as 'when one fails to adjust or correct one's prejudgement in favour of contrary evidence.'

Another early psychologist to write on prejudice was G.T.W. Patrick, also a student of G. Stanley Hall. In 1890 Patrick published a paper in which he defined prejudice as 'individual deviation from the normal beliefs of mankind, taking as standard the universal, the general, or the mean'. Unlike Hazlitt and Morse, he failed to recognise that a key aspect of prejudice is the inability or reluctance to modify judgements in the face of fresh evidence. But like Hazlitt, Patrick betrayed his own sexist prejudices, writing that the 'woman's mind is less adapted than the man's', although to be fair he did concede that this is only 'an indication' and 'not proved'.

What's remarkable about the writings of Hazlitt, Patrick and Morse is their prescience. For example, they recognised the influence of both explicit and non-conscious, implicit beliefs, and they realised that prejudice has some adaptive value in helping strengthen in-group bonds. Writing in 1904, William Thomas, a sociologist and the last scholar mentioned by Webster and colleagues, even anticipated Allport's Contact Hypothesis - the idea that inter-group prejudice can be reduced by members of distinct groups socialising with each other.

'...These early pioneers deserve explicit credit for recognising prejudice as a phenomenon and one in dire need of psychological study,' Webster and colleagues conclude. 'Contemporary psychologists and sociologists who study stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination will hopefully have a renewed appreciation for these individuals who planted the roots of prejudice research in psychology and sociology.'
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ResearchBlogging.orgWebster RJ, Saucier DA, & Harris RJ (2010). Before the measurement of prejudice: Early psychological and sociological papers on prejudice. Journal of the history of the behavioral sciences, 46 (3), 300-313 PMID: 20623744

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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