Contact Hypothesis in Ethnic Relations
By Yehuda Amir
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Yehuda Amir, "Contact Hypothesis in Ethnic Relations," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 162-181.
Amir seeks to discover the conditions under which intergroup contact leads to improved intergroup relations. Intergroup contact is commonly believed to reduce prejudice and intergroup tension. Yet there is also evidence that intergroup contact may have no positive effect on prejudice, or may even exacerbate tensions.
There are a number of variables that shape the contact situation. These variables fall into three main categories: the character of the contact situation, he character of the contact participants, and the attitudinal and behavior al results. While analysis of all the variables is not complete, some relevant factors have begun to emerge. Amir surveys research in this area, and finally offers some general conclusions based upon those findings.
Researcher have found that prejudices are more likely to change as a result of contact which offers an opportunity to be involved with and participate in an activities with the members of the other group. Mere "sight-seeing" contacts have less tendency to change attitudes.
Contact between individuals of equal status (at least within the context of the contact situation) tends to decrease prejudice. Contact with lower status individuals tends to worsen views of their group. Contact with higher status people tends to improve one's view of the other group. However such contacts may also produce feelings of inferiority and diminished regard for one's own group, especially in the case of low status minority groups meeting higher status members of the dominant group. Participatory contact with high status members of a minority group can yield a positive change in the attitudes of the dominant group, without corresponding feelings of lowered self worth in the dominant group.
The nature of the contact activity also effects the outcome. Cooperative activities tend to improve intergroup relations, while competitive activities may have a negative effect. Shared, superordinate goals promote cooperation between groups. Contact may intensify negative attitudes in the absence of superordinate goals, or when one side is disadvantaged by the contact.
Casual contact, even if frequent, is less likely to change attitudes than intimate contact is. For example, workplace contacts do not generally produce any significant improvement in attitudes toward another group. When improvement does occur it is generally limited in scope. Close acquaintance and more intimate relations are more likely to reduce prejudice. "When intimate relations are established, the in-group member no longer perceives the member of the out-group in a stereotyped way but begins to consider him or her as an individual and thereby discovers many areas of similarity."(p. 174)
Contact is also more effective when it has broader institutional support, even if that is just a supportive social atmosphere.
Individual personality factors play a role in determining whether contact will improve attitudes toward other. Adaptable, well-adjusted individuals are more likely to have improved attitudes as a result of contact with another group. Less secure or more aggressive individuals tend toward prejudice.
Contact can simply serve to intensify existing attitudes, both positive and negative. Moreover the individual's initial attitude can influence the outcome of the contact encounter, that is, contact may serve simply to reinforce initial attitudes.
The authors note that these research findings must be approached with caution. In most studies the researchers were specifically seeking positive results. Study subjects may have tended to cater to the researchers expectations. Also, the sorts of contact situations studied are very rare in real life.
Nonetheless, Amir distills seven general principles from these research findings. First, contact does seem effective in producing some sort of change in the participants' attitudes toward one another. Second, whether that change is positive or negative depends largely on the contact conditions. Third, contact may produce a change in the intensity , rather than the direction, of attitudes. Fourth, change in attitude may be limited to a specific aspect of the other, rather than generalized to the overall view of the other group. Fifth, the preponderance of favorable finding in the research may result from the selection of particularly favorable conditions for study.
The sixth principle notes that prejudice may be reduced by contact between participants of equal status, contact with higher status minority members, contact within a supportive social climate, intimate contact, pleasant or rewarding contact, and the presence of shared superordinate goals. The seventh principle notes that prejudice may be strengthened by competitive contacts, unpleasant , involuntary or unwelcome contact, contact which disadvantages a participant, contact when a participant is frustrated, contact with higher status members of the dominant group, or contact when one group finds the other's moral or ethnic principles objectionable.
Amir concludes that "in view of the above studies, the assumption that contact always lessens conflicts and stresses between ethnic groups seems naive."(p. 178)