Publication - Research and analysis

What works to reduce prejudice and discrimination? - A review of the evidence

Published: 14 Oct 2015

A review of international evidence on prejudice reduction interventions

What works to reduce prejudice and discrimination? - A review of the evidence
Section Two: Definitions, Applicability, And Other Caveats

Section Two: Definitions, Applicability, And Other Caveats

It is crucial to ground a report on 'reducing prejudice' in some discussion of what we mean by prejudice. This is especially important when addressing the topic of sectarian-related prejudice in Scotland, amidst current debates on the nature and scale of the problem.

The spectrum of prejudice

This report has been written in the context of a great deal of discussion about and policy attention on hate crime, so it is impossible not to address this issue in a review on 'what works' to reduce prejudice. However it is important to distinguish between hate crime and prejudice more generally, acknowledging that criminal victimisation is at the extreme end of prejudice and can perhaps overshadow the everyday experiences of prejudice felt by individuals and groups. A 2004 report by commissioned by Stonewall suggested that:

"The contemporary focus on hate crimes can obscure the ordinariness of everyday prejudice in terms of verbal abuse and incivility; pity and sympathy; or unwittingly derogatory language. As a result, many individuals fail to recognise their own beliefs and actions as a form of prejudice" (21).

Prejudice includes a spectrum which ranges from structural discrimination or hate crime to much more subtle forms, and this report emphasises those 'everyday expressions' of prejudice. As well as potentially marginalising these everyday manifestations for victims of prejudice, it is possible that the connotations of the term 'hate crime' might alienate people in terms of taking part in interventions to reduce prejudice. As will be discussed later in the report, most people do not consider themselves to be prejudiced, and fewer still would consider themselves capable of a 'hate crime'. It is important that solutions are framed in a way that is as inclusive as possible. The hate crime framework is important in a legislative sense but is potentially problematic when talking about how best to affect social change through shifting attitudes. How we conceptualise prejudice is key to how solutions to overcome it are framed, so these issues deserve further exploration.

What is prejudice and where does it come from?

There is no universally accepted view about what constitutes prejudice or discrimination. The latter is more straightforward; signifying unjust treatment of particular groups of people (for example, denying employment opportunities) on the grounds of characteristics such as perceived 'race', disability, or gender. Prejudice is a far more complex and contested term, and it can manifest itself in very different ways.

Oskamp (2000) states that an understanding of where prejudice comes from is an essential starting point for any attempt to tackle it. Duckitt (1992) proposed a four-level model of the causes of prejudice:

  1. Genetic and evolutionary predispositions - the "inherently human potentiality or propensity for prejudice" (1190)
  2. Societal, organisational and intergroup patterns of contact and norms for intergroup relations (e.g. laws, regulations)
  3. Mechanisms of social influence that operate in group and interpersonal interactions e.g. influenced by mass media, the educational system, the structure and functioning of organisations such as the workplace
  4. Personal differences in susceptibility to prejudiced attitudes and behaviours, and in acceptance of specific intergroup attitudes

It is important not to overstate the first of these, as it is social and intergroup contexts and circumstances that can allow psychological 'propensities' to develop. Therefore, Duckitt emphasises that attempts to reduce prejudice should take place at all of these levels. The type of prejudice-reduction initiatives that are the focus of this report tend to focus on the third level.

The final point to note in relation to how prejudice develops is that most of our prejudices are learned at a young age. Abrams (2010: 76) highlights the different trajectories of prejudice:

"Developmental research on national prejudice, mostly conducted in the UK, also shows that explicit national intergroup biases appear later in childhood than racial or gender bias but then persist throughout middle childhood and early adolescence".

It may be appropriate to target interventions sensitively because prejudices have different origins. It is essential to bear this in mind when exploring whether prejudice-reduction interventions should be 'general' or specifically targeted, for example towards racial prejudice, something that will be discussed later in the report.

How does prejudice function?

Importantly, few people may recognise themselves as 'bigoted', and may be unaware that their attitudes or behaviours could be deemed prejudiced or discriminatory. For example, various different social attitudes studies highlight the anomaly in attitudes towards equality more generally and attitudes towards measures implementing equality (cf. Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2006 and 2010). People are much less willing to admit to being overtly prejudiced or discriminatory than they are to state that measures to promote the rights of, for instance, black and Asian people, have 'gone too far'. In this sense they may be termed 'covertly discriminatory' (Bromley et al 2007). Even those who consider themselves most tolerant of others have 'implicit bias' which are "automatically activated and often unintentional" (Devine et al 2012: 1267). Pettigrew (2008: 116) distinguishes between two main types of prejudice: subtle and blatant. The latter, according to Pettigrew, has two components. The first is 'threat' (which could be realistic or symbolic), such as the perceived economic threat from immigrants who are frequently depicted as competing for jobs. The second is 'intimacy', the notion that an individual would not welcome a member of an 'out-group' becoming part of their family, even if they tolerated their general presence in society. Subtle prejudice, on the other hand, may be more difficult to detect, and is often subconscious. Subtle prejudice often focus on supposedly competing values, for example exaggerated views of cultural differences between groups.

Sometimes prejudice can be explicit, with perpetrators openly admitting intolerance or bias towards particular groups. However this is not always the case. For some, name-calling, jokes, and even derogatory references to the particular characteristics of an individual or group, (for example, their ethnic or religious background, culture, physical appearance, sexual orientation) is little more than 'banter' and regarded as part of life, whereas such behaviours may have significant impact on the lives of recipients/victims. Prejudice may be even more subtle than 'banter', in the form of ignoring or excluding certain people or groups, even unwittingly.

Further complicating the attempt to paint a picture of what prejudice is and how it works is the argument that researchers tend to overstate the role of antipathy between groups when discussing prejudice (Jackman 1994, 2005). Antipathy/conflict does not have to occur for prejudice or discrimination to take place. For example, Dixon et al (2012) uses the example of gender relations to highlight that prejudice / discrimination / inequality does not have to come from a "generic hostility" towards women as a group. A similar argument might be made about the elderly, as very few people would admit or consider themselves to be prejudiced towards this group, yet the elderly arguably make up the highest proportion of victims of prejudice (Abrams 2010). Abrams argues that that "prejudice needs to be viewed as a process within a set of relationships, rather than a state or characteristic of particular people" (2010: 8).

Impact of these debates on how we challenge prejudice

How and where prejudice is expressed varies greatly, which will impact upon the potential effectiveness of interventions. In their report for Stonewall, Valentine and McDonald argued that prejudice is mostly expressed in the home, an area which for obvious reasons is largely impervious to external interventions. It is therefore important to think about how the home, or the family, can be a focus of prejudice-reduction initiatives - perhaps in the form of support for parents. The difficulty in defining prejudice has important consequences, and has affected attempts to tackle this social problem through the legal system. For example, Goodall (2012) points out that there is a lack of research on what it means for a crime to be 'racial' or 'racist', and that the terms are ideologically-loaded.

"Describing a crime as 'racially' aggravated reproduces a perception that the way in which the victim is classified is morally and politically neutral; what has aggravated the offence is that the offender exploited the victim's 'race' (1).

That this is a theoretical conundrum and an on-going concern for those operating in the criminal justice system is not the focus of this report, which concentrates on interventions outside of the criminal justice system. In terms of Duckitt's (1992) model of prejudice previously discussed, criminal justice interventions would focus on the second 'level', "societal, organisational and intergroup patterns of contact and norms for intergroup relations". Legislative frameworks and criminal justice interventions are complemented by work concentrating on the third 'level', that of "mechanisms of social influence that operate in group and interpersonal interactions". The latter is the focus of this report.

However, prejudice-reduction initiatives are very much shaped by similar assumptions as those shaping legislative responses, so questions over definition and language are equally important. The ways in which something is framed as a problem will have profound consequences on how solutions are designed, implemented and received. Valentine and McDonald (2004: 21) in their report for Stonewall cautioned that:

"Strategies to reduce prejudice must not begin from an assumption that people will recognise themselves as prejudiced".

If we acknowledge the contested nature of prejudice, and the difficulties associated with defining acts of prejudice, it would make sense that any interventions aimed at tackling prejudice should be based on an approach which is flexible, allows different perspectives to be debated, and does not blame or castigate. There should be sensitivity about the terminology used and interventions should be multi-perspective, challenging views of a 'problem' to make sure that the balance of perception and reality is as close to correct as possible. It is also important that this activity takes place in a context of broad societal change, as opposed to scapegoating individuals. Challenging discriminatory practice at a structural level is vital otherwise interventions aimed at people and groups may be perceived as insincere. For example, if an organisation does not have women, ethnic minorities or people with disabilities represented at senior management level but holds compulsory diversity training courses for staff, it may appear that they are merely paying lip service to issues of equality and prejudice.

To summarise, the key message from this section is that there is a spectrum of prejudice, which ranges from overt expressions to much more, subtle, sometimes unconscious, forms. It develops in different ways and requires a myriad of solutions at structural, group, and individual levels in order to address it.


Email: Ben Cavanagh