Monday, February 16, 2009

Intergroup Contact, Prejudice, and Integration

By Yusuf Sarfati, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Last Monday I attended a public lecture delivered by Miles Hewstone, who is a professor of social psychology at the Oxford University. The lecture discussed many aspects of intergroup relations based on data on Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.

One of the interesting aspects of the talk was Hewstone’s engagement with Robert Putnam’s “diversity-distrust” hypothesis evaluated in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. According to Putnam’s hypothesis, increasing contact between diverse racial or ethnic groups diminishes the trust between the group members.

Hewstone argues – based on his empirical analysis of his cross-sectional and longitudinal data of Northern Ireland neighborhoods – that Putnam’s argument needs to be refined. He distinguishes between different types of contact. One type of contact that he refers to as “positive contact” involves meaningful interaction between the members of different groups, for example working toward common goals. According to Hewstone, this type of contact is different than superficial contact that group members have in a supermarket or bus station. His empirical data show that “positive contact” leads to reduced prejudice. This means that the more people engage in deeper relations with members of the out-group, the more likely they will form positive opinions about the other group.

I think Hewstone’s argument is important for those who work on racial relations in the U.S. Whether we work on the integration of immigrant communities into the larger U.S. society, do school integration work, or think about ways to racially integrate neighborhoods, we need to keep in mind that contact between groups does not directly translate to diminishing prejudice. However, meaningful contact does. Therefore it is important to take into consideration the context in which the contact occurs and the quality of contact between group members. In order to enhance the quality of contact between groups it is necessary to work on policies and institutions that will create an environment in which members of different racial, ethnic, or cultural groups can forge meaningful ties, learn about each other, and work for common goals. Only through this approach we can talk about healthy integration.

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