BIGOTRY (Social Science)

Throughout human history, civilizations have been plagued by the problems that result from people’s prejudice and bigotry toward one another. In this context, prejudice is a negative attitude that occurs when people prejudge disliked others, and bigotry is an extreme form of it. Social scientists have written extensively about the correlates of prejudice because of its relationship to group conflict and violence (e.g., Janowitz 1969). Much of this attention has focused on the connections between group conflict and a host of social phenomena that are associated with prejudice, including though not limited to stereotyping, rioting, terrorism, and, not the least among them, bigotry (e.g., Hovland and Sears 1940; Green et al. 1998). Common terms related to bigotry include ethnocentrism and intergroup hatred.

Bigotry refers to extreme intolerance of members of a socially recognized and vilified out-group. An out-group is a group other than the one in which individuals perceive themselves to belong. Prejudice refers to negative attitudes toward members of a group that may or may not be expressed. Though similar (e.g., they both refer to a bias in perception of others), the two terms—bigotry and prejudice—may be distinguished, with bigotry representing a more extreme and brazen form of prejudice.

Bigotry, though not an intractable problem, is one that has shaped the nature of interaction between groups of people throughout history and around the world. For example, intergroup relations between blacks and whites in the United States, Germans and Jews in twentieth-century Europe, Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, Africans and Afrikaners in South Africa, heterosexual and gay people, and men and women have all been affected by bigotry and bigoted attitudes. Bigotry and the corresponding problems that ensue from it remain high on the list of "social evils," and most people perceive the bigot to be a person who is obstinately narrow minded, antisocial, and lacking the moral acuity that many believe themselves to possess.

In general, researchers who study bigotry recognize the difficulties involved in identifying its causes. This is because there are often important related variables to consider, including differences (or similarities) in cultural orientation, national identity, and religious background, as well as contact and familiarity—all of which can be associated with bigotry. Not surprisingly, more is known about the consequences of bigotry (e.g., harassment, assault, riots, terrorism) than about the factors that give rise to it.

Researchers have employed a host of methods to assess the presence of bigotry. In earlier years, attempts to measure bigotry often involved direct questionnaires in which respondents indicated the degree to which they liked or disliked an out-group. More recently, changing social norms prohibit direct expression of prejudice and bigotry in most settings. Consequently, researchers have employed more covert measures, such as reaction-time tests in which the time needed to respond to a stimulus is taken as an indirect indicator of a person’s attitude. In other cases, behavioral measures, such as seating choice and proximity to a member of an out-group, have been used as indicators of bigotry.


Importantly, some of the earliest social science research addressing the problem of bigotry focused on patterns of interaction and violence perpetrated by whites against African Americans in the United States. Until the late 1950s, blatant racism and physical violence directed at African Americans was normative and well entrenched within the social fabric of American society. Whereas some blamed white fears about miscegenation (i.e., interracial sexual relations) for the collective violence directed at the newly freed class of citizens, others generally attributed the problem to the expanding rights of African Americans.

Contemporary research and theory on bigotry can be conceptualized along a continuum. At one end are those theories that locate the causes of bigotry outside of the individual at the societal level (i.e., the macro level of analysis). These types of theories are largely context dependent. At the other end of this conceptual continuum are explanations for bigotry that attribute causality to internal factors such as deficiencies in the individual’s personality, limitations in information-processing capacities, or physiological and biological mechanisms.

Many of the efforts toward understanding the problem of bigotry have involved individualistic accounts of prejudice focusing on such cognitive processes as stereotyping, categorization, and learning. In the U.S. tradition of social psychology, researchers have tended to focus on the individual’s thought processes and experiences while overlooking or minimizing ways that the wider social context can instigate bigotry (Bar-Tal and Teichman 2005). In contrast, researchers outside of the United States, as well as many of those within the discipline of sociology (e.g., Feagin and Feagin 1986), have focused upon the institutional and structural factors that can be both causes and effects of bigotry. According to this approach, current institutional policies and organizational structures continue to discriminate because they were established in the past by those most privileged by discriminatory policies. Because of these policies, people who were targets of prejudice in the past continue to experience discrimination long after explicit expressions of bigotry and acknowledgement of prejudice have ceased to occur.

Although interest in studying bigotry has varied over the years, a renewed interest in the topic is evident among researchers addressing issues related to cyberhate, terrorism, and religious and nationalistic fanaticism. In the case of cyberhate, the speed of the Internet and its widespread accessibility make the spread of bigotry almost instantaneous and increasingly available to vulnerable populations (Craig-Henderson 2006). As for the relationship between bigotry and nationalism, there are a host of researchers studying the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East (e.g., Bar-Tal and Teichman 2005). That particular conflict has roots in the Zionist occupation of the country of Israel, formerly known as Palestine. Because of the historical realities that have created the state of Israel, today’s Arabs and Jews in that region have very distinct group identities that have given rise to their intergroup conflict. Social science researchers who study this kind of group conflict have demonstrated that the strength of identification with one’s in-group is associated with one’s expressed bigotry toward the out-group. In many situations, the more strongly one identifies with an in-group, the more bigoted one is against members of the out-group.

Bigotry can be minimal and manifested in avoidance or social exclusion of the out-group, or it can be severe and deadly. In 1998 James Byrd Jr., an African American man in Jasper, Texas, was murdered by white supremacists who dragged him to death behind their pickup truck after offering him a ride home. As members of a white supremacist group, Byrd’s murderers were extreme in their bigotry. As a black man, Byrd was perceived by his murderers to be a member of a despised out-group.

Similarly brutal attacks have targeted sexual minorities. In 1998 the murder of the college student Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyoming, was attributed to anti-gay bigotry. Most public opinion polls reveal continuing evidence of this form of bigotry (Herek 2000). Shepard’s bigoted murderers were highly prejudiced toward gay people. Other examples of well-known bigots include David Duke, the former leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan; Nazi chancellor of Germany Adolph Hitler (1889-1945); and French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.


One popular and long-standing idea within the social psychological literature has been that bigotry can be reduced with intergroup contact. That is, through contact with one another under ideal conditions, formerly bigoted out-groups could come to look favorably upon one another and thereby attenuate conflict and bigotry. However, this optimistic outlook has fallen out of favor in recent years as its theoretical underpinnings have been challenged by a number of researchers studying bigotry. For example, when one considers the pervasiveness of gender bias against women and the paradoxical intimacy that characterizes relations between heterosexual males and females, it becomes clear that contact, while necessary, is not sufficient to eliminate bigotry. Furthermore, there is relatively little research investigating the extent to which contact between different real-world racial and ethnic groups can actually breed harmony. How then to solve the problem of bigotry? The best strategy is one that includes education, interaction, and legislation. Indeed, any efforts aimed at eliminating bigotry must involve attention to each aspect of this tripartite approach.

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