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Explaining Prejudice

There have been a number of historical shifts in the dominant explanations of prejudice, and it is possible to identify six distinct periods in the way in which prejudice has been understood by social scientists. These paradigmatic shifts in explanation have been influenced by social and historical circumstances making particular questions or issues about the nature and causation of prejudice salient at the time as well as by empirical research findings. Different social-policy approaches to prejudice have therefore characterized each of these six periods. These six historical periods, their dominant theoretical and conceptual approaches to prejudice, and their social policy emphases are summarized in Table 1 and briefly described below.

Race theory: Up to the 1920s.

During this period, racist attitudes were largely viewed as natural responses of "advanced" Western peoples to "inferior" or "backward" colonial peoples or "racially different" minorities. These attitudes had their logical social-policy expressions in justifying the political domination of these "backward" peoples, their segregation (formal or informal), and discrimination against them.

Race prejudice: The 1920s and 1930s.

After World War I, however, as Western colonial rule was increasingly challenged and a black civil rights movement emerged in the United States, the idea of the inferiority of other "races" came to be rejected, at least by intellectual elites and social scientists. This stimulated a dramatic reversal in the way in which racist attitudes were conceptualized, from natural responses to the inferiority of other races to race prejudice—that is, as unjustified, unfair, and irrational negative intergroup attitudes.

The dominant explanation of prejudice that emerged during this period was the psychoanalytically derived frustration-displacement theory. This approach saw prejudice as an unconscious defense through which social stress and frustrations were displaced through the scapegoating of out-groups and minorities. This seemed to explain both the irrationality and unfairness of prejudice and its social pervasiveness.

This explanation of prejudice had its logical expression in the social policy of assimilation. The typical targets of prejudice and scapegoating were those viewed as different from and "less developed" (socioeconomically, culturally, ethnically) than the dominant majority. Thus assimilation of these minorities and colonial peoples would "civilize" or "uplift" them socially and economically, and with this, prejudice and discrimination against them should gradually erode.

Ideology and personality: The 1940s and 1950s.

After World War II the dominant explanation of prejudice shifted, driven largely by the need to explain the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. It did not seem conceivable that these could be acts of normal persons, so prejudice came to be seen as the expression of disturbed or authoritarian personalities propagating antidemocratic and authoritarian ideologies. The social-policy implication of this approach was that both racial and political tolerance would arise out of the spread of liberal democratic values and institutions and the defeat of authoritarianism in all its variants.

Historical shifts in dominant theoretical and social-policy approaches to prejudice
SOURCE: Courtesy of the author

Social and historical context and issues Concept of prejudice and dominant theoretical approach Dominant social policy orientation to prejudice and discrimination
Up to the 1920s: White domination and colonial rule of "backward peoples" Prejudice as a natural response to the deficiencies of "backward" peoples: Race theories Domination, discrimination, and segregation are natural and justified social policies
The 1920s and 1930s:The legitimacy of white domination and pervasive prejudice challenged Prejudice as irrational and unjustified reaction to people who are different: Psychoanalytic and frustration theories Assimilation as a gradual process as minorities and colonial peoples become westernized and "uplifted"
The 1940s and 1950s: Nazi racial ideology and the Holocaust Prejudice rooted in anti-democratic ideology and pathological needs within authoritarian personalities Democratic and anti-authoritarian social structures and values will erode intolerance and prejudice
The 1960s: The problem of institutionalized racism in the American South Sociocultural explanations: Prejudice rooted in the social norms of discriminatory social structures Desegregation and anti-discriminatory laws will lead to intergroup contact, which will erode prejudice
The 1970s: The problem of informal racism and discrimination in the North Prejudice as an expression of dominant-group interests in maintaining intergroup inequality Reducing intergroup inequality through affirmative action and minority empowerment
The 1980s to the 2000s: The stubborn persistence of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination Prejudice as an expression of universal cognitive-motivational processes: social categorization and social identity Multicultural policies to provide minorities with esteem and foster positive nonthreatened identities and tolerance for all groups

Culture and society: The 1960s.

At the end of the 1950s a new paradigm shift occurred, as public attention increasingly focused on the campaign for civil rights in the American South. It did not seem feasible to explain racism in the American South—where ordinary "good citizens" holding democratic values were racist and supported discrimination—in terms of disturbed or authoritarian personalities. The explanatory paradigm that emerged saw racial prejudice as rooted in social structures in which segregation and discrimination had been legally institutionalized and had become social norms that were taught to individuals during socialization and maintained by conformity pressures and lack of interracial contact.

The social policies necessary to reduce prejudice flowed logically from these assumptions. Segregation and discriminatory practices must be abolished. Schools and workplaces must be desegregated. The guiding principle was the "contact hypothesis": that racial segregation and unfamiliarity would perpetuate racial prejudice, while desegregation and intergroup contact under the right conditions would reduce it.

Group interests and racial inequality: The 1970s.

The optimistic assumption that racial integration would eliminate racism in American society rapidly faded in the late 1960s and the 1970s. As the institutionalized segregation and old-fashioned racism of the South disappeared, it was simply replaced by informal discrimination and segregation and the more subtle "modern" racism of the North. The paradigm that emerged saw racism and discrimination not just as a problem of the South but as being rooted in the power relations and inequality between white and black in American society as a whole.

The new paradigm of the 1970s therefore viewed racial prejudice as expressing the interests of the dominant white group in maintaining racial inequality and keeping blacks as a disadvantaged and powerless underclass. This was accompanied by a shift in the social policies most needed to reduce prejudice. To eliminate racism, the social, economic, and political inequalities between black and white would have to be changed, most notably through affirmative action and the political empowerment of blacks in American society.

Group identity and multiculturalism: The 1980s and beyond.

By the late 1970s the stubborn persistence of American racism and discrimination, albeit in subtle and modern rather than crude and traditional forms, had been powerfully documented. In addition research findings have shown that simply classifying individuals in completely arbitrary "minimal" groups results in them engaging in intergroup discrimination and in-group favoritism. During the 1980s it began to seem that more fundamental and perhaps universal cognitive and motivational human processes might underlie intergroup bias, discrimination, and even prejudice. The social-cognitive approach that emerged then and became the dominant approach to understanding intergroup relations and attitudes saw universal human cognitive processes functioning to simplify the social world through social categorization, that is, classifying people as group or category members and stereotyping them as members of their groups or categories. Categorization would also result in people identifying with their social groups and categories to form valued social identities, which they would then be motivated to try to differentiate positively from others generating intergroup competition and in-group favoritism.

The inevitability of group differentiation and its expression in distinct group identities challenged the explicit or implicit assimilationist assumptions underlying policies such as integration and even affirmative action. Multicultural policies emerged logically from this new paradigm. These policies rest on a view of cultural and social diversity as both inevitable and valuable in their own right and have the explicit objectives of accepting, recognizing, and supporting subcultural and minority identities and tolerance for them.

Additional topics

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