Critically compare and contrast two theories that explain prejudice

Prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping have been topics of interest for countless social psychologists for a while now. Many psychologists have theorized about the cause and nature of such behaviour, yet the ones that provoke the most interest are; the social identity theory which originates in the work preliminarily conducted by Henri Tajfel; and the realistic conflict theory proposed by Sheriff (1966). This essay will attempt to compare and contrast these two intriguing explanations of prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping in terms of intergroup behaviour.

Tajfel defines social identity as ” the individuals knowledge that he belongs to certain social groups together with some emotional and value significance to him of this group membership” (Tajfel, 1972). Social identity theory defines a group in terms of its member’s self-conception. Psychologically, a group exists when it consists of three or more members who evaluate themselves based on attributes they have in common with each other which differentiate them from other groups.

Social identity theory assumes that individuals join groups because they are motivated to increase or maintain their self esteem which is something that group membership can provide. This is achieved by indentifying with an in-group and making intergroup comparisons and evaluations which conclusively favour the in-group.

Social identity theorists have proposed that there are multiple classes of identity, the two main ones being social identity and personal identity; these define the different types of self. Social identity defines the self in terms of group membership, meaning your identity is constructed by the groups you belong to. Social identity is also associated by group and intergroup behaviour. On the other hand, personal identity is defined by an individual’s personal relationships and behavioural traits. Under this explanation we have multiple social identities depending on how many groups we are members of and we have as many personal identities depending on our interpersonal relationships. The social identity approach aims to separate social identity from personal identity to avoid explaining group behaviour in terms of personality attributes.

Tajfel, Billig, Bundy & Flament (1971) devised the minimal group paradigm to investigate the effect of social categorisation alone on group behaviour. The minimal group paradigm is the suggestion that by simply categorizing an individual into a certain group is all that is necessary to generate in-group favouritism. The minimal group paradigm looks to see if simply belonging to a group and nothing else causes discrimination, hence minimal, meaning the least possible reason. From these studies, Tajfel, Billig, Bundy & Flament (1971) found that group members discriminate against the out-group even when group membership is anonymous and there is no contact between the group members supporting the minimal group paradigm.

Participant’s evaluations of the in-group members and the out-group members show that the prejudice occurs in the form of an enhanced evaluative perception of the in-group, also known as competitive in-group bias. Most of the time the out-group is evaluated positively (this may be to reduce discrimination from the out-group) but not as positively as the in-group evaluate themselves.

However, the Social Identity Theory has been criticised for its neglect of social context because nearly all the research was carried out under laboratory settings or was experimental research designs, with the use of artificially formed groups, not naturally formed groups. Because the social identity approach down-plays the role of personal identity and focuses completely on social identity it cannot be assumed that any external factors did not play a role in in-group favouritism as it is nearly impossible to reduce the causes down to one reason: simply being in a group. It is highly likely that other factors may have intervened such as personal interests, emotions or experience. This means that the social identity approach of intergroup relations is limited by not accounting for personal identity.

However, we cannot deny the importance and influence Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory has had upon social psychology. The Social Identity Theory is still the basis for many social psychologists’ work and many theories that have developed are based on the Social Identity approach or are developed in order to supplement it such as the System justification theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994) and the social dominance theory (Sidanius, 1993). However, the same cannot be said about the realistic conflict theory, since 1966 there has been little to no advances on this theory and replication of Sheriff’s summer camp experiments are scarce. It is arguable then that there may be more problems with the social identity approach if people have felt the need to elaborate upon it, on the other hand it can be argued that the realistic conflict theory is close to perfect if there has been no advances made to it.

The Realistic Conflict theory of intergroup behaviour proposed by Sheriff (1966) explains intergroup conflict in terms of the nature of goal relations between the individuals and groups will determine the nature of intergroup relations. This is different to Tajfel’s Social Identity theory which is based upon simply belonging to a group whereas the Realistic Conflict theory is based upon the group’s shared goals. Sheriff (1966) argued that if two or more individuals or groups are aiming to reach similar goals then there is a higher tendency for cooperation and a likelihood of a group formation occurring. However, if the individuals are aiming for mutually exclusive goals then this leads to interindividual competition which, in turn, leads to conflict and hostility and the prevention of group formation or even the collapse of an already formed group, principally, attitudes reflect private interest.

Sheriff based his Realistic Conflict theory on three famous filed experiments involving young American boys at summer camps. First of all the children arrived at the camp, engaged in various camp-style activities and begin to make friendships. Unknown to the boys, the camp was ran be experimenters. Secondly, the camp was then divided into two separate groups who had to participate in camp activities separately and were kept isolated from each other, this broke up any friendships that had already formed. Thirdly, the two groups were then brought back together to partake in intergroup competitions such as sports games. This led to high intergroup hostility and ethnocentric attitudes and behaviours were amplified. Almost all intergroup encounters led to intergroup hostility so much so, that even when they sat down to eat together, it was seen as an opportunity to throw food at each other.

In one experiment, Sheriff took the opportunity to involve a fourth phase; this included providing the two groups with superordinate goals. These are goals that both of the group’s desire but can only be achieved by both group’s working together. From this phase, Sheriff found a notable increase in intergroup cooperation and a decrease in hostility as a consequence of intergroup superordinate goals.

Sheriff also found evidence to support Tajfel’s Social Identity theory in that the mere presence of another group gave rise to hostility. Before the groups had even begun to compete with each other but had gained knowledge of each other, a degree of hostility had become apparent. This would suggest that the relationship between the situational variables is much more complex that the Realistic Conflict theory indicates. However, this phenomenon is not elaborated upon in Sheriff’s Realistic Conflict theory but plays a pivotal role in Tajfel’s Social Identity theory, which contrariwise, does not elaborate on the importance of Realistic Group Conflict.

Without a doubt, the greatest strength of the Realistic Conflict theory comes from the research methodology carried out by Sheriff. The experiment took place in a naturalistic setting in which the participants had no idea that they were, in fact, participating in a piece of research. This concequently eliminated any demand characteristics and maintained a high external validity. Moreover, the research was carried out not just once but on three separate occasions.

The realistic conflict theory tends to focus on reducing intergroup hostility suggesting that it can be reduced by the simple introduction of superordinate goals. This has proven successful in field studies; however, it does not take into account the wider social context and depth of the situation. For example, the introduction of superordinate goals may be a solution to end hostilities between group who do not know each other very well, or are not strongly formed groups (such as the ones in Sheriff’s summer camp experiments) but what if the two groups have a long history of hostility or have significantly different levels of power? In this case a simple superordinate goal will not be sufficient to cease the hostility. Because of this it is argued that the realistic conflict approach is over simplistic in terms of underestimating the role of context in intergroup behaviour.

Billig (1976) has criticised the Realistic Conflict Theory for not accounting for any third party involvement, in Sheriff’s case, the camp leaders/ experimenters. Billig argued that competitions like the ones in Sheriff’s summer camp experiments do not occur naturally and must be organised by a third party, the authority group, which gave rise to the hostility. He also argued that the groups in the summer camp experiments did not occur naturally, but were instead formed artificially which reduces the validity of the experiments. This is also a criticism of Tajfel’s Minimal Group Paradigm: the groups do not have a real history and were not formed naturally.

In conclusion, it is obvious to see that both the social identity and realistic conflict approach of intergroup behaviour have had a significantly positive impact upon social psychology in terms of explaining prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination. However, neither approach is without its criticisms as with both approaches hold the issue of downplaying the role of context and in turn being reductionist. It is unwise to underestimate external factors when theorizing on social behaviour as there are numerous contributing factors that play a role on people’s behaviour. However, the validity of the experiments conducted yields positive results and cannot be doubted in terms of experimental research.