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Prejudice: Social Problem, Or Problem Concept

The perspective of prejudice as a "bad" or "unjustified" attitude arises out of the social-problems approach to the study of intergroup relations, which was prominent for much of the twentieth century. This perspective implied a distinction between those intergroup attitudes that were socially problematic and those that were not, and only the former qualified as prejudice per se. For example, George Simpson and J. Milton Yinger, in their influential handbook Racial and Cultural Minorities: An Analysis of Prejudice and Discrimination (1985), write that "for a democrat to be prejudiced against communists and fascists is different from his being prejudiced against Japanese—not entirely different, to be sure, but sufficiently so to require separation in vocabularies (for example, prejudice 1 and prejudice 2). It is the latter type that is the subject of this book" (p. 22).

But how do negative intergroup attitudes that are prejudiced differ from negative intergroup attitudes that are not prejudiced? A number of possible differences have been proposed. It has been suggested that prejudiced intergroup attitudes involve a faulty or incorrect generalization, that they involve rigid or inflexible attitudes, that they are overgeneralized attitudes, that they are irrational attitudes, that they justify discrimination, that they are attitudes that are not based on actual experience, that they are attitudes that are not based on objective evidence, and that they are unjust attitudes.

The problem with this pejorative concept of prejudice is that no evidence has ever shown that those negative intergroup attitudes viewed by social scientists as prejudiced are actually any more rigid, inflexible, irrational, any more based on faulty or incorrect generalizations, and any less based on real experience and objective evidence than negative intergroup attitudes not viewed as prejudiced. The distinction therefore has tended to reside purely in the belief, sometimes explicit but more commonly implicit, that these negative intergroup attitudes are "unjust" without any further specification in observable or measurable terms. The attribution "unjust" has therefore been purely a value judgment that is inevitably influenced by the beliefs, group membership, and biases of the person making it as well as the social and historical circumstances. For example, Simpson and Yinger's suggestion that a democrat's dislike of communists may be justified but not a dislike of Japanese may have seemed reasonable to American social scientists in the 1970s but might not have seemed as reasonable during World War II, when the Soviet Union and the United States were allies in the war against Japan.

Because the idea of prejudice as a bad or unjustified negative intergroup attitude has never had any empirical basis and therefore has not been empirically measurable, the body of knowledge that has emerged on the topic of "prejudice" actually consists of research on intergroup attitudes. Because of the social-problems perspective, social scientists have focused most of their attention on attitudes toward those social or ethnic groups, particularly minorities, which they have viewed as being the targets of unjustified negative attitudes and discrimination. Thus during the twentieth century first anti-Semitism and then antiblack racism were particular foci of attention.

There is no evidence, however, that the nature and dynamics of these "unjustified" negative intergroup attitudes toward minorities differ from negative attitudes that might be held by these minorities against majorities or indeed from any other negative intergroup attitudes, whether seen as "justified' or "unjustified."

This problem with prejudice as a pejorative concept might be one reason why the term "prejudice" has been less used in the social-science literature on intergroup relations and attitudes since the last two decades of the twentieth century. When it has been used, it has also tended to be defined in an ostensibly neutral and nonpejorative manner, as simply referring to "negative intergroup attitudes" (Duckitt, 1992, pp. 15, 18), though the implication that these attitudes are "unjustified" has tended to remain, particularly in lay discourse. This shift toward defining prejudice in nonpejorative and ostensibly neutral terms has also paralleled a move away from the social-problems perspective of prejudice and the emergence of the cognitive approach to studying intergroup relations in psychology. This cognitive approach has viewed intergroup biases and stereotyping as being rooted in universal human cognitive processes rather than as pathological or abnormal phenomena.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPrejudice - Prejudice: Social Problem, Or Problem Concept, The Structure Of Intergroup Attitudes, The Varieties Of Prejudice