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Does intergroup contact hinder social change?

This post is based on our recent article (Reimer et al., in press) in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Short answer: no! Prior research has suggested that intergroup contact discourages collective action—our research shows that contact with other groups could actually encourage social action.

Intergroup contact — bringing together members of different social groups to interact with one another — is one of the most promising and well-studied ways to reduce prejudice and social conflict. Prejudice, however, is only part of the problem as discrimination is the product of historical and structural inequalities rather than (just) individual minds.

Some researchers argue that social change begins with disadvantaged-group members challenging prevailing injustices through mass mobilization and political action — and that, rather than focus on the ‘hearts and minds’ of the dominant group, we should study under which circumstances subordinate-group members take action to improve their group’s position in society (collective action).

In historically unequal societies, these two routes to social change — prejudice reduction and collective action — may be conflicting rather than complementary. In particular, research has suggested that positive contact with advantaged-group members could foster a false sense of intergroup equality and, thus, stifle support for social change among disadvantaged-group members.

We set out to study the relationship between intergroup contact and collective action among a large sample of sexual- and gender-minority (LGBTQ) students. While prior research exclusively focused on positive intergroup contact (e.g., being supported, complimented, befriended), recent research has emphasized the need to also study the effects of negative contact (e.g., being insulted, ridiculed, threatened). Our study was the first to measure participants negative as well as positive experiences with minority-group members — and to test their association with collective action.

What we found contradicted prior research in a surprising direction. First, we estimated a statistical model1 with positive contact as the sole predictor of participants’ perceptions of discrimination and collective action intentions. As expected, participants who reported more positive contact were less likely to see themselves as the target of discrimination and, in turn, were less determined to engage in collective action.

Including negative contact, however, changed the picture significantly (see below). Positive contact was — in contrast to past research — no longer associated with perceived discrimination. Instead, we found that participants who reported more negative contact were more likely to see themselves as the target of discrimination and more committed to challenging inequality. Importantly, we reached similar conclusions when studying these variables across the span of an academic year.

Percentages are the proportion of variance in a variable explained by its predictors.

What should we make of these contradicting findings? Well, we also found a negative correlation between positive and negative contact — that is, participants who reported more instances of positive contact tended to report fewer negative experiences, and vice versa. This suggests that when a study measures only one of these variables (the presence of positive contact) it also (accidentally) measures the inverse of the other (the absence of negative contact).

Rather than contradict previous findings, our research could thus change their interpretation. We think that our research underlines what others have documented before us — that direct experiences of discrimination can politicise members of disadvantaged groups and galvanise them into collective action. By only measuring positive contact, prior research may have conflated the mobilising effect of negative contact with the demobilising effect of positive contact.

Where does this leave us if we want to see social change? Should members of disadvantaged groups seek out negative contact? Should socially-minded members of privileged groups strive to hurt their less-privileged peers (rather than work on the many subtle and not-so-subtle slights they often subject them to?)

No, of course not. Rather, I would like to change how we think about intergroup contact. First, research on contact is often understood as trying to create the perfect micro-level conditions for changing attitudes (contact as it should be). However, the contact hypothesis was first proposed against the backdrop of (school) desegregation in the United States — and has since continued to inspire research that powerfully makes the case for desegregation in the 21st century. By studying contact in everyday life, contact as it is, we can learn to better understand the manifold consequences of segregation. Whilst isolation breeds ignorance, our findings suggest that bringing members of disadvantaged and advantaged groups together can foster awareness of inequality and thus encourage collective action.

Second, since positive contact does not necessarily diminish social action, prejudice reduction and collective action approaches to social change need not contradict each other. If oppression is the product of both individual prejudice and societal power imbalance, then we should pay attention to both. And if (positive) contact doesn’t inadvertently cement that power imbalance (as our results indicate), it can be useful as a means of reducing those harmful attitudes and beliefs. (That said, I believe critical voices are needed to challenge the still prevalent view that oppression is just prejudice, and help to focus our attention on structural discrimination.)

Third, I have discussed only one side of our project. Alongside our LGBTQ participants, we also recruited a large sample of heterosexual/cisgender students. Encouragingly, we found that majority-group participants who reported more positive contact at the beginning of the academic year were more determined to advance LGBTQ rights by the end of it. Together with other recent work, our research raises the hope that (positive) contact can unite members of different groups in the struggle for social justice.

To summarise, our main finding — that negative, not positive contact predicts collective action — suggests that (1) segregation can foster a false sense of equality, (2) prejudice reduction and collective action can be complimentary rather conflicting approaches to social change, and (3) positive contact can unite people in striving for social change. On a final note, when doing correlational research, don’t overlook variables that might turn out to be very important!

If you want to find out more, click here for the open access preprint of our article — as well as figures, data, and analysis scripts.

  1. A structural equation model condenses the correlations between a number of survey items/questions into a smaller set of meaningful variables — and estimates the relationships (or: paths) between them. [return]