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

A review of international evidence on prejudice reduction interventions

Section Six: Possibilities For Prejudice-Reduction In Scotland


The objectives of this section are two-fold: firstly, to reflect on how some of the report's key messages might relate to Scotland, with focus on the specific sectarianism debates; and secondly to propose some recommendations that might help shape future interventions and strengthen the position on sectarianism more generally. It will outline main lessons from the literature which may be useful for policy, make some practical suggestions relating to anti-prejudice initiatives, and recommend possible further work on the topic.

Nature of prejudice and discrimination in Scotland

Tackling prejudice in all forms is a policy priority for the Scottish Government. A great deal of research has been carried out in recent years mapping out the different types of prejudice that exist in our society, how this is experienced by victims, and how attitudes are potentially being challenged and changing. It would appear that overall there is much to be positive about. The 2010 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey suggests that, overall, levels of prejudice and discrimination continue to decline - albeit gradually and with some anomalies (for example, transgender people and Gypsy/Traveller groups still experience higher levels of discrimination). This progress may be in no small part due to the legislative and policy changes that have entrenched statutory responses to prejudiced and discriminatory behaviours. Successive Scottish Governments have focused on this in recent years, for example through the introduction of civil partnerships and the eventual legalisation of same-sex marriage, which will almost certainly have contributed to marked improvement in attitudes towards homosexuality (SSAS 2010).

Returning to some of the earlier theoretical discussions, this highlights the value of changes at the second 'level' of Duckitt's model of the causes of prejudice (1992). Increasingly, attention is also focusing on interventions at the third 'level': measures which are designed to improve intergroup relations. This is because despite legislative and policy changes, prejudice and discrimination still affects a significant minority of people. The criminal statistics show that there is evidence of hate crime against certain groups, though these of course are based only on incidents reported to the police and therefore are likely to exclude the 'everyday' manifestations of prejudice.

Although it has received a lot of attention in recent years, recent evidence may suggest that sectarianism is generally at the lower end of the spectrum of prejudice. Violent offences are extremely rare nowadays, and it is perhaps attitudes rather than behaviours that are the focus of attention. Yet even the attitudinal indicators regarding sectarianism seem to be positive. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey usefully explores attitudes towards intimacy (for example, feelings about the idea of a relative marrying a member of an out-group) as a way to look at prejudice. Pettigrew (2008) claims that when it comes to the 'intimacy' question, people are likely to display prejudiced attitudes even if they claim to be tolerant in general. In the 2014 SSAS, only 1-2% of respondents said that they would be unhappy if someone of either the Catholic or Protestant faiths joined their families. Crucially, prejudice levels seem to be generally much higher towards other groups. In the 2010 survey, 21% of people would be unhappy or very unhappy if a relative was to marry someone 'who occasionally experiences depression'. This figure was 55% when the question was somebody who cross-dresses in public; 30% for same-sex relationships; and 37% for someone from a gypsy-travelling background.

Despite relatively rare direct personal experience of it, or evidence of structural discrimination (though this was a problem in the past), research continually shows that there are strong perceptions of a problem with sectarianism in Scotland. The rest of this section will explore potential lessons from the main report that may help to deal with this complex situation.

Main lessons

Contact-based interventions are helpful but limited

Unlike some types of prejudice, a lack of contact cannot be said to explain the apparent residual problems with sectarianism in Scotland. In the 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, which specifically focused on attitudes towards sectarianism 81% of Catholics and 76% of Protestants state that they have at least one close friend from the 'other tradition', and for 'close family member' the figures are 30% for Catholics and 18% for Protestants. Intermarriage rates are also high. This is a positive indication of the progress that has been made in recent decades, in a time which inequalities in terms of socio-economic indicators have gradually been eroded, and is suggestive of the positive effectives of contact.

However, as noted the research shows that perceptions of continued existence of sectarianism in Scotland are extremely high. Either it is entirely a problem of perception, or it may be the case that 'contact works' to an extent, but there 'residual' problems which are said to still exist - perhaps a result of historical 'grudges' and myths about our own histories and the histories of others. If the latter is the case, these might be tackled better through specific education or re-education.

Need for sensitivity

'Prejudice' is further complicated by the fact that what counts as sectarianism in Scotland is unclear and contested. There has been no agreed comprehensive definition, which illustrates the subjective nature of the term, although the Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism has recently proposed a definition, based on their investigations into the subject. Definitions are extremely important, especially as some groups feel that what is deemed sectarian - for example, certain behaviours, songs, or language used - are actually legitimate expressions of culture or identity (The Celtic Trust, 15 June 2013). Goodall et al (2015) talk about the construction of meaning when it comes to particular songs and other symbols:

"For many in West-Central Scotland in particular, songs acquire sectarian agency, rendering much of their original meaning redundant in favour of how they have come to be used against - and received by - the opposing community."

Understanding sectarianism should go beyond the objective statement or behaviour and motivations of the proponent/s, and should also consider how certain actions are received and interpreted.

Given these debates, it is reasonable to suggest that defining sectarian-related prejudice in Scotland might be less clear-cut in comparison with prejudice against someone on the basis of a disability, for example. Therefore, an important caveat when exploring the potential for prejudice-reduction interventions regarded as effective elsewhere to be applied to Scotland is the need to be mindful about terminology used. Recognising the contested nature of sectarianism, initiatives should be multi-perspective, encouraging alternative views and interpretations of the issue. Perhaps this lack of consensus about what it really is could be partly addressed by rooting initiatives in people's own experiences and understandings instead of instructional approaches.

A further complication is that the attitudinal research showed that people tended to think of sectarianism as happening 'elsewhere', not in their local area or community and not with themselves individually. There may therefore be a lack of willingness among people to engage. It is possible that this could be addressed by talking more generally about implicit bias. The report discussed methods of raising people's awareness of their own bias (for example, through something similar to the IAT test mentioned earlier) which may be a good starting point for an honest discussion. It is also important to think about the 'credibility of the messenger'. As noted earlier in the report, research suggests that change is best effected from within peer groups where possible, so features such as involving people who'd previously completed the programme as facilitators may be useful.

Target initiatives carefully

The question of whether to target sectarianism specifically and directly, or to address the issue through a broad prejudice-reduction strategy, is a key area of debate. Goodall et al (2015) suggest a move away from "treating Scottish sectarianism as if it was a unique and inexplicable quality of the national character" (289). The Advisory Group for Tackling Sectarianism (2015) also recommends a more "coordinated approach" to tackling prejudice, but warned of the need to ensure that tackling sectarianism does not "recede into the background again or allow taking a broad approach to addressing all forms of hate crime to favour tackling one form of abuse over others" (27). The 'hate crime' umbrella should perhaps be avoided in this context, due to the issues previously discussed including the conflation of sectarianism and hate crime, and the fact that there is a spectrum of prejudice in which hate crime is very much the extreme manifestation. The research on prejudice-reduction in general states that interventions should be tailored to local communities for local demand. This flexibility is crucial in relation to sectarianism in Scotland, as the research overwhelmingly suggests that it is not an evenly-spread problem, and instead exists in what have come to be known as 'pockets' or 'cobwebs' (Goodall et al 2015). This suggests that 'blanket' designs should be avoided: prejudice varies according to different contexts. So it may be the case that a more coordinated approach which looks at prejudice more broadly would be effective, but with the flexibility to target specific problems in specific contexts.

The concern to avoid 'blanket' designs extends beyond simply particular areas, as prejudice varies by many other factors, including by age. In a recent research project on community experiences of sectarianism in Scotland, Goodall et al recommend an "intergenerational approach" to tackling the problem, as the evidence strongly suggests an 'inheritance' of what may be termed 'sectarian culture'. Messages from recent research on sectarianism in Scotland may suggest that this phenomenon may have become less of a direct and overt phenomenon: inequality and discrimination is considered to be something that older generations may have been more familiar with. As such, we may expect that older generations would benefit most from interventions, however younger generations may well 'inherit' particular attitudes. Potentially, interventions which involve people with historical experiences of sectarianism talking to younger people could be useful. This may help to overcome the apparent reluctance of some people to discuss the topic. Sectarianism is undoubtedly a controversial and sensitive topic for some, so perhaps encouraging people to talk about it and, importantly, to develop a historical outlook that might challenge some of the myths, could be helpful. Such approaches would also be rooted in the established principles of empathy and perspective-taking, enhancing their credibility. Of course, as has been established, highly prejudiced people are more likely to avoid intergroup contact so it is important to think about how opportunities for contact can be promoted if there are individuals or groups with specifically 'hardened' attitudes.

Ensure accuracy

A final key lesson from the main body of the report is the need to be as accurate as possible in the message that is put across in interventions. It is important to be mindful of not facilitating the reproduction of particular assumptions or stereotypes, for example. In relation to sectarianism, this might involve thinking carefully about how dramatic interpretations of the issue could be received, when in reality what remains is subtle and not evenly spread. This is perhaps when a 'what not to do' approach could be useful. Avoiding anything too dramatic or extreme - for instance, 'hard-hitting' media clips - may ameliorate the risks of alienating sections of the audience who would not recognise overt violence as a feature of their lives or communities. Where possible there should be a thorough research process, perhaps with some academic input, so that there is a clear understanding of the issue that the intervention is attempting to tackle.

Some of these issues could perhaps be tackled through careful evaluation. It is vital to reiterate that evaluation should be considered from design stage, not as an afterthought. Observations and other methods of tracking attitudinal or behavioural changes might be a complementary measure to surveys. Regular feedback throughout is key, changing content and/or delivery style in response where necessary. Finally, 'what doesn't work' is equally important as what does, and programmes should not feel scared to document what failed and why.


One recommendation is a 'mapping out' of what legal interventions are currently in place to prevent and tackle prejudice in Scotland, if this does not exist already. Returning to the theory of Duckitt (1992) on the 'levels' of prejudice, the interventions and recommendations covered in the main body of this report focused on the third level. However it would be interesting to explore how these may work alongside legal interventions which tackle the second 'level'.

Further research could also explore the possibility that high levels of contact, illustrated for example by high rates of intermarriage, might be the case nationally, but with some 'pockets' still resistant to national trends. In research terms, such questions reiterate the importance of qualitative research in developing what we already know based on statistical evidence. Further research could drill down and try to uncover whether and why there is still perhaps a lack of (meaningful) contact in some communities.

In general, developing the academic links, as opposed to simply practitioner led analysis, may be useful. This could involve systematic reviews, evaluation studies in Scotland, or perhaps funding of PhDs.


Email: Ben Cavanagh

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