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Prejudice is the judging of a person or idea, without prior knowledge of the person or idea, on the basis of some perceived group membership. Prejudice can be negative or positive. Some writers, in defining prejudice, stress an irrational component; others maintain that it is incorrect to do so because prejudice is often rooted in quite rational self-interest.
Social scientists began to show great interest in prejudice in the early to mid-twentieth century when anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish sentiment was widespread and often erupted in violence. Gordon Allport (1954) described prejudice as the result of a psychological process of categorizing people into in-groups and out-groups. In-groups are considered desirable and in possession of positive attributes, while out-groups are seen as possessing negative or undesirable attributes and, thus, as appropriate targets for abuse.
Other works investigated the idea of a prejudiced personality type (the authoritarian personality) characterized by overly rigid thinking, acceptance of stereotypes, excessive conformity and submission to authority, discomfort with ambiguity, and highly conservative and/or fundamentalist beliefs.
In contrast to early theories of prejudice which treated it as a psychological phenomenon, Herbert Blumer advanced the notion of racial prejudice as ”a sense of group position” in which the words and actions of influential public figures establish a public perception of social group hierarchy and of the positioning of one’s own group relative to others. Prejudice is thus not merely an individual ideology but a social phenomenon rooted in inter-group relations and arising from specific historical contexts.
As social scientists began to uncover the structural foundations of racism and sexism, interest in prejudice as a research topic began to wane. Focusing attention on the individual ideological aspects of prejudice was thought to divert attention from its even more harmful structural counterpart: institutionalized racial and sexual discrimination and violence. The uncovering of the racist and sexist practices of the state, of business, of the legal justice system, of commerce and real estate and employers, of science and systems of higher education, seemed to render the beliefs of individual racists trivial. More recently, however, scholars are reemphasizing the importance of prejudice and the severity of its consequences; several prominent sociologists have urged that cumulative daily encounters with prejudice not be discounted in the rush to study structural factors.
Because of the research linking prejudice to stereotyping and to various other traits such as conformity and lower levels of education, some social scientists have suggested education as a cure for prejudice. Others have suggested that prejudice arises from ignorance about the group(s) in question and hence that the remedy lies in increased contact between members of various groups.
This contact theory, with its hypothesis that intergroup prejudice can be reduced by increasing the levels of contact between members of different groups, has been tested repeatedly, with mixed results. In some cases, increasing contact between groups actually results in higher levels of prejudice. Those situations in which contact does seem to result in lower levels of prejudice are those in which members of different groups have ample opportunity to interact in positive ways and to work together on cooperative tasks. Another essential element of successful contacts is that the participants are of equal status in the social situation(s) under study.
Because stereotypes often have widespread social support, people’s attitudes and prejudices are not likely to change unless there is leadership support for change, and willingness among authority figures to impose rewards and sanctions to further change. This suggests that leaders who insist that prejudice and discrimination are no longer problems may actually help to preserve prejudice.
- Allport, W. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.
- Blumer, H. (2000) Selected Works of Herbert Blumer: A Public Philosophy for Mass Society. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL.
- Stangor, C. (2000) Stereotypes and Prejudice: Essential Readings. Psychology Press of Taylor & Francis, Philadelphia.