Sunday, 23 September 2007

A 2 x 3 x 3 x 2 x 2 x 3 x 2 x 3...experiment on the effects of contact on reducing prejudice and discriminatory behaviour

Pam Maras: "Social Identity Theory (SIT, Tajfel and Turner 1979) has been dominant in social psychological research for nearly 30 years, initially in Britain but now more widely. It has evolved and nuanced but is essentially still based on fundamental principles that we categorise ourselves and others and this affects the way that we think about other people and affects our own social lives. SIT has been suggested as a basis for reducing prejudice (Hewstone and Brown, 2005) in conjunction with Contact Theory (Allport, 1954). However, although supported by a wealth of experimental studies and increasingly complicated experimental designs, SIT has rarely, if ever, managed to achieve Tajfel's main aim to explain large-scale human discriminatory behaviour such as found in WW2.

For me, the most important experiment that was never done would be on contact, and would include independent variables to meet all of Allport's criteria: equal status, valued differences, cooperation and institutional support (at the highest level) for the contact situation. Dependent measures would be specific and generalised attitudes and behaviour towards a stigmatised group, as well as levels of anxiety about the contact.

Will my experiment ever be carried out? Probably not in a lab, and there lies a dilemma for experimental social psychology. My most important experiment would have an infinite number of cells, be ethically unsuitable and those factors essential to Allport’s theory would be impossible to manipulate as they are embedded in history and culture and not the increasingly sophisticated tool-kit of experimental psychology and intergroup relations. However, my experiment is already happening in the day-to-day lives of people and communities across the world. So the only way to run my experiment meaningfully would be in a real life context in specific real life situations (e.g. see Maras & Brown, 1996; 2000) or in large-scale applied studies in collaboration with scientists from other disciplines such as economics, anthropology, social welfare and political sciences (e.g. see Silbereisen's 2005 study with sociologists and economists on adolescent development in the wake of German unification). Will my real life experiment ever be unnecessary? Personally, I hope so, but there is the conundrum because if Allport's criteria are correct and met what would we have left to research?"

Professor Pam Maras is President of the British Psychological Society.

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