The study of intergroup relations has long been a staple in social science research and in particular, social psychology. More recent work has tried to determine when contact between groups is likely to result in positive outcomes (Lee et al. 2004). Events such as the 9/11 Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the United States, the 1994 Rwandan massacre of Tutsis, and the ongoing conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq are all examples of inter-group relations gone awry.

Social psychologist Gordon Allport (1897-1967) is credited with having produced the earliest and most comprehensive research on intergroup relations. His book, The Nature of Prejudice (1954), has provided a foundation for the study of intergroup relations since the mid-1950s. Since that time, a great deal of research in social psychology has improved our understanding of intergroup relationships, and in particular the conditions most likely to give rise to positive contact between groups (e.g., Amir 1969; Lee et al. 2004). For example, it is now well established that dramatic shifts in population and immigration policies, technological advancements, and economic volatility, as well as the overthrow of existing political regimes, can alter the nature of relations between groups—for better and for worse.

Intergroup relations are influenced by the social identities and perceptions of groups that individual group members hold. Furthermore, the quality of intergroup relations influences group members’ group identities. Thus, there is a circular aspect to group identity processes and the quality of intergroup relations. One influences and is influenced by the other.

The potential problem for intergroup relations lies in the overarching tendency human beings have for social categorization. Because of the perceptual tendency to divide the world into separate categories (i.e., social categorization), identification with one group rather than another is almost inevitable. People engage in social categorization to bring order to a seemingly endless array of stimuli (e.g., other people) that they encounter. Thus, the process of designating someone as a member of one’s own group (i.e., the in-group) or not (i.e., a member of an out-group) is one that occurs almost automatically. When intergroup relations are harmonious, members of different groups will be less apt to emphasize differences between in-groups and out-groups. However, when there is conflict, identification with one’s group becomes stronger, out-group differences are accentuated, and intergroup conflict increases.

According to researchers Henri Tajfel and John Turner, the tendency toward social categorization is all the more problematic if, as they suggest, people are generally motivated to enhance their self-esteem by identifying with certain social groups. According to social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner 1986), people are able to enhance their self-esteem by identifying with groups that they perceive to be superior to out-groups. This theory has been used most widely as an explanation for prejudice. Prejudice generally refers to negative attitudes toward members of a group that is based solely on the fact that they are members of that group. Individuals who harbor prejudice for members of a group usually have negative impressions about each of the group’s members and tend to perceive the group members as being more similar to one another than is actually the case.

Early studies of prejudice revealed unabashed pronouncements of bigoted sentiment (LaPiere 1934; Pettigrew 1969; Hyman and Sheatsley 1956/1964). More recent work demonstrates that prejudiced attitudes in the United States have declined and become subtler. For example, whites express less prejudice toward blacks today because they are indeed less prejudiced than earlier generations, and also because it is socially unacceptable to appear prejudiced. This latter point is an important one because a large volume of research involving the use of subtle measures can detect the continuing presence of negative sentiment for members of various out-groups (e.g., Banaji and Bhasker 2000; Bargh and Chartrand 1999; Dovidio et al. 1997). Taken together, legislation, normative social pressure, and fears about retaliation have attenuated expressions of prejudice.

Though less sanguine, many contemporary social psychologists who study prejudice contend that what has replaced "old-fashioned" prejudice is a newer, more insidious form of prejudice called modern racism (McConahay et al. 1981). This form of prejudice involves the deliberate concealment of prejudiced attitudes except when in the presence of like-minded others. It is expressed in terms of opposition to race-related issues such as affirmative action and interracial marriage. The modern racist is one who attributes his or her prejudiced attitudes to reasons other than prejudice. Social psychologists have developed unobtrusive measures to assess this more contemporary form of prejudice (e.g., the Implicit Association Test).

Prejudice is usually accompanied by stereotypes. Stereotypes are cognitive structures that contain information about a person (group, place, or thing). Stereotypes influence the extent to which specific information is attended to, encoded, and subsequently retrieved. In short, stereotypes influence the processing of social information. Stereotypes are functional in that they permit the conservation of cognitive resources. By stereotyping, people are able to avoid engaging in effortful processing of social information. However, the problem with relying on these heuristics is that they neglect the variability that exists among people. When we stereotype others we ignore their individuality and impose limitations upon them. Not surprisingly, the quality and extent of inter-group relations is influenced by people’s stereotypes and the prejudice they have toward out-group members. In the context of intergroup relations, less is definitely better (i.e., less stereotyping and prejudice is associated with more positive intergroup relations). Those who study intergroup relations have tended to focus upon the negative outcomes of intergroup relations, including prejudice and discrimination.

Discrimination represents a behavioral manifestation of prejudice. It involves unjustified behavior toward a group or its members simply because of their membership in that group. As is the case with outright expressions of prejudice, civil rights legislation and social normative pressure have effectively reduced blatant forms of discrimination in recent years in the United States and in other countries (Swim et al. 1995). Nevertheless, instances of discrimination continue to be unearthed and in some cases hotly contested. For example, according to Fred Pincus (2000), unchecked discrimination in the Los Angeles Police Department and criminal justice system resulted in the 1992 beating of Rodney King. The leadership of the Los Angeles Police Department condoned antiblack behaviors, and the assault on King was symptomatic of an atmosphere that supported discriminatory behavior toward black citizens. Moreover, when the defense requested a change of venue and the trial was moved to a conservative, predominantly white community, an all-white jury acquitted the officers. This is a clear example of discrimination at the institutional level.

Institutional discrimination usually refers to the way that an institution or an organization systematically or repeatedly treats people differently because of their race (or sex). This refers to the effect of practices and policies that may at times be carried out without conscious regard to race, but which has the net effect of having an adverse impact upon a group of a people. Individuals need not be personally prejudiced for institutional discrimination to be present.

The study of intergroup relations and its correlates (i.e., social identity, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination) continues to be a fruitful area of inquiry for researchers and policymakers. People around the world belong to many different types of groups, and groups often exert powerful influences upon individual group members and other groups. Recent and continuing world events underscore the importance of research aimed at explicating the conditions most likely to produce favorable intergroup relations.

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