On the Nature of Social Change
by Dr. Huseyin Cakal
Research on how to bring about a fairer, more just society has so far been dominated by the so-called “prejudice reduction path to social change”, which relies on a simple yet powerful assumption. Bringing advantaged and disadvantaged groups via social contact and invoking a superordinate identity which transforms “us” and “them” into “we” would eventually improve intergroup relations between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Improved intergroup relations would then lead to a fairer and more equal society.
As most students of intergroup relations would know, recent research has questioned the very core of this assumption and argued that social-psychological interventions, i.e., intergroup contact and common ingroup identity, aimed at improving advantaged groups’ attitudes toward the members of the disadvantaged groups may have unintended consequences. More specifically, both intergroup contact and common ingroup identity can create illusions of equality and foster beliefs in the “meritocratic” nature of society. Much research has attested this “sedative effect” of two prominent prejudice reduction strategies in different contexts. For example, in South Africa, intergroup contact with the advantaged Whites reduced perceptions of relative deprivation and perceptions of efficacy among the impoverished Blacks (Cakal, Hewstone, Schwar, & Heath, 2011). Similarly, Israeli Arabs who have positive contact with Israeli Jews displayed less support for social change benefiting their group (Saguy, Tausch, Dovidio, & Pratto, 2009). Elsewhere, intergroup contact reduced perceptions of threat that in turn reduced willingness to engage in political action, aimed at improving or maintaining one’s group’s position (Cakal, Hewstone, Guler, & Heath, 2016). These so-called sedative effects have also been confirmed for common ingroup identity. Ufkes and his colleagues (2014) found that identifying as European (common ingroup) was associated with less support for political action in favour of one’s ethnic group. Needless to say, there is enough evidence to argue that both intergroup contact and common ingroup identity might paradoxically block social change while creating an amicable intergroup environment.
As interesting as these findings sound, it is important to recognize the pattern that underlies most of the research discussed above. Almost all of the studies on the so-called “sedative effects” of intergroup contact and common ingroup identity have investigated the role of “positive contact” between advantaged and disadvantaged groups, in societies where the boundaries between the groups are clear-cut, and the equality of groups are supported by legal, political, and social structure.
This binary approach to intergroup relations and social change belies the fact that not all societies have the same societal structure and the boundaries between the advantaged and disadvantaged groups are not always so well-defined. What is more, the societal fabric is very often made of many groups. In such contexts, the contents of sub- and super-ordinate group identities overlap and intergroup contact between members of different groups might be nuanced. For instance, there can be positive contact between members of different disadvantaged groups or sub-group, and common ingroup identities may share more similarities than differences. For one, intergroup contact might be “vertical”, between the advantaged and disadvantaged groups or “horizontal”, between two different disadvantaged groups. Latin American societies, for example, are cases in point. In these contexts, a common ingroup identity incorporates both indigenous and non-indigenous elements, and a common ingroup identity that equally incorporates both could actually energize political action among the indigenous groups (Cakal, Eller, Sirlopú, & Perez, 2016). Research has also shown that positive intergroup contact between different disadvantaged groups could trigger political action by improving perceptions of solidarity and efficacy (Cakal, Dixon, Khan, Osmany, & Majumdar, 2016).
These first instances of evidence favour a more sceptical approach toward both intergroup contact and common ingroup identity and call for recognition of these contextual differences. In fact, in his closing piece to the special issue of Journal of Social Issues on the South African contributions to the to the study of intergroup relations, Pettigrew (2010) argued that, as researchers we need to acknowledge the fact that, “Social phenomena and social change in particular, are complex processes with multiple and often conflicting effects […] Some of these other effects of contact can stimulate, rather than retard, minority mobilization and their desire for change”. Research is yet to answer this call.
Cakal, H., Dixon, J., Khan, W., Osmany, M., & Majumdar, S. (2016). Solidarity across the spectrum of disadvantage: Positive effects of common ingroup identity on social change.
Cakal, H., Eller, A., Sirlopú, D., & Perez, A. (2016). Intergroup Relations in Latin America : Intergroup Contact , Common Ingroup Identity , and Activism among Indigenous Groups in Mexico and Chile. Journal of Social Issues, 72(2), 355–375. doi:10.1111/josi.12170
Cakal, H., Hewstone, M., Guler, M., & Heath, A. (2016). Predicting support for collective action in the conflict between Turks and Kurds: Perceived threat as a mediator of intergroup contact and social identity. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, xxx(xxx), xxx.
Cakal, H., Hewstone, M., Schwar, G., & Heath, A. (2011). An investigation of the social identity model of collective action and the “sedative” effect of intergroup contact among Black and White students in South Africa. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 606–627. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02075.x
Pettigrew, T. F. (2010). Commentary: South African contributions to the study of intergroup relations. Journal of Social Issues, 66, 417–430. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2010.01653.x
Saguy, T., Tausch, N., Dovidio, J. F., & Pratto, F. (2009). The irony of harmony. Psychological Science, 20, 114–121. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02261.x.
Ufkes, E. G., Dovidio, J. F., & Tel, G. (2014). Identity and collective action among European Kurds. The British Journal of Social Psychology. doi:10.1111/bjso.12084