Prejudice Theory: Realistic Conflict Theory Research Paper Starter

Prejudice Theory: Realistic Conflict Theory

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Psychological, social, and cultural theories of the development of prejudice emerged in the early twentieth century with a focus on individual psychopathology. Arguing that only a few, disturbed individuals could be guilty of war crimes, social scientists were reluctant to consider the wider significance of prejudice. By the mid-1950s, scholars recognized the pervasiveness of prejudice and began to look at intergroup dynamics in terms of attitude formation and discrimination. Realistic conflict theory focused on competition between groups over actual or perceived scarce resources, but more contemporary theorists believe that prejudice is more systemic and does not require actual competition.

Keywords Cognitive; Ethnicity; Genocide; Institutional Discrimination; Race; Racism; Scapegoating; Stereotypes



Conflict between groups has been studied for centuries, especially in terms of war, economics, and governmental clashes. However, there was very little sociological or psychological analysis concerning prejudice and conflict between different racial and ethnic groups until the horrors of World War II affected the world. In light of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, social scholars began to try and understand what would make one group devalue the humanity of another group of individuals and commit such heinous acts of torture and murder. These horrible acts prompted a new subdiscipline in sociology that focuses on theories of prejudice, discrimination, and stigma as they relate to intergroup conflict.

Prejudice is defined by Weinberg as the "systematic and durable assessments of groups, or members of those groups, in unfavorable terms" (2006, p. 470). In fact, prejudice, or prejudgments, can be positive or negative, but because unfavorable stereotypes can lead to hostility and discrimination against another group, they tend to hold the greatest interest for scholars. Prejudices are attitudes and beliefs, either conscious or unconscious, and interventions focus on attitudinal change as the key to mitigating hostility between groups and their members. Interwoven with the concept of prejudice are those of discrimination and stigma. Discrimination is "prejudicial or injurious behavior" that occurs because of hostile attitudes towards others (Weinberg, 2006, p. 470). Stigma, on the other hand, entails the "experiences and behaviors of those who are victimized" by prejudice and discrimination (Weinberg, 2006, p. 470). Scholars focusing on discrimination look at the institutional and structural aspects of society which reinforce its prejudicial attitudes, while those who study stigma look at the individual's experience of prejudice and discrimination. One can see that the focal point of inquiry provides differing perspectives on the characteristics and causes of prejudice and discrimination, so this article will focus on theories of prejudice.

One early look at the role of prejudice in intergroup dynamics was set forth by Durkheim in his 1895 study of crime entitled The Rules of Sociological Method. Durkheim argued that there was a "certain social functionality in explicitly designating and discriminating against groups other than one's own" (Weinberg, 2006, p. 470). Durkheim then went on to consider group solidarity as it related to crime, but ultimately he was more interested in group social cohesion than he was in inter-group conflict. It was not until 1939, and John Dollard's book Frustration and Aggression that serious analysis commenced on prejudice theory. Weinberg and others have argued that the impetus for the development of prejudice theories was the Nazi German atrocities of the Holocaust. But since World War II did not commence until 1939, it may be the case that it was the Armenian genocide prior to World War II that served as Dollard's focus. Subsequent scholars, of course, were influenced by the death of over 17 million individuals in the Holocaust.

Dollard observed the harsh treatment of Germany and Eastern European countries by the Allies after World War I, and argued that "an agent frustrated at the hands of a more powerful actor will sublimate the sentiments of aggression created by the frustration by focusing them on less powerful scapegoats" (Weinberg, 2006, p. 470). All of the theories which suggest that frustration leads to prejudice can be categorized as scapegoat theories of prejudice. Scapegoating is an important tool of propaganda. Essentially, one group blames the other for any and all calamities or injustices that have occurred and seeks retribution for those harms, even if the targeted group is not actually at fault.

While sociologists were examining group dynamics, Freudian psychoanalytic theories were also being set forth which focused on the childhood development of personality traits. Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, for example, argued that an "authoritarian personality" was the cause of the development of prejudicial feelings. In early childhood, a "highly regimented, strictly disciplined household" caused children to learn propensities toward "rigid, inflexible, and prejudicial attitudes towards certain minority groups and their members" (Weinberg, 2006, p. 470). This, in turn, created a person who was "highly submissive to the dictates of established authority figures and intolerant of people(s) who do not conform to those dictates" (Weinberg, 2006, p 471). Through this analysis, Adorno explained both how a person can act upon inhumane orders from authority figures and this process can reinforce intolerance towards specific minority individuals and groups through the development of a personality trait. Simply stated, "extreme prejudice is a personality trait linked to personas who conform rigidly to cultural norms and values" (Macionis, 2007, p. 359). According to Weinberg, most of the theoretical analysis of prejudice up to this point focused on the psychopathology of a few deviant individuals who were able to influence others to commit terrible acts of genocide (2006). Thus, feelings of prejudice were presented as rare and extreme until Allport argued it was more commonplace and universal in 1954.

In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport argued that a "routine and pervasive learning process" was the cause of prejudicial feelings (1954; Wienberg, 2006, p. 471). Allport believed that "categorical thinking," or stereotypical thinking as it is now called, was a mechanism by which the mind processed complex sensory and cognitive materials in a simple and systematized manner. Prejudice was based upon "faulty and inflexible generalizations," according to Allport, but it was the mind's way of organizing information efficiently (Weinberg, 2006, p. 471). Allport believed that individual prejudices were learned from cultural, social, economic, and psychodynamic influences, but that correcting the harm done by prejudice and discrimination should focus on restructuring the individual's learning process. Little attention was paid to the overall failings of a given social structure.

A similar phenomenon occurred in other cultural theories of prejudice set forth in the first half of the twentieth century. Simmel, Park, and Bogardus, for example, all believed that prejudice was learned from one's culture, but to assess this view, they looked at individual experiences in relation to racial attitudes. Simmel introduced the concept of "social distance" to understand both the geometric relationships between people of different races and their metaphorical distances. Focusing on community and the processes of conflict, reciprocity, and interaction, Simmel tried to understand the actual interactive processes between individuals of differing racial backgrounds. Following Simmel's framework, Bogardus developed the Borgardus Social Distance Scale, which remains the most widely used measure of interpersonal psychological interactions in sociology today (Ethington, 1997). In addition to actual interpersonal distance, the Bogardus Scale looks at psychological distance as seen from the actor's point of view and the subjective distances as evidenced by the actor's motivations and temperament. In his essay "Understanding Conflict," Rummell elucidated four types of distances (material, psychological, social, and cultural) and eleven subtypes, although he acknowledges significant overlap for each conceptually (2008). Throughout these methods of analysis, however, the focus remains on the individual actor's experience and attitudes. It was not until Sherif introduced realistic conflict theory that a group-level or macrostructural view of group prejudice began to emerge.


Realistic conflict theory is a...

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