The Necessity of Considering Current Issues as Part and Parcel of Persistent Major Problems

Muzafer Sherif[1]

Illustrated by the Problem of Prejudice

In psychology, the sharp demarcation between the "pure" and "applied," between academic austerity and concern with consequential events of everyday life seems to be losing its high-handed grip. The impact of recent momentous events and the demands of actual social life for academic people to deliver the goods have been so compelling that the scholar can no longer afford to move "in the domain of bare existence," as Titchener put it. Research psychologists in industrial, genetic, social and other fields of psychology, including those working in the traditional field of sensation, are earnestly engaged today in studies which have direct bearing on the practice of day-to-day affairs.

Evidence of this healthy trend is particularly prevalent in social psychology, perhaps because the most controversial and consequential problems of today's unsettled and critical world are social. The effects of technological, economic, political and military events are unmistakably reflected in the unstable and strife-ridden relationships of the small and large social units. Problems of war and peace, of autocracy and democracy, of the impact of atomic energy, problems of inter- and intra-group relationships, of prejudice, of the individual in social change, of attitudes concerning every conceivable topic obtained through a host of public opinion and academic organizations, are among the front-line topics of study for social psychologists today.

Yet, in spite of this flourishing concern over current social problems, it cannot be said that we are close to having a consistent social psychology which actually has weight in the formulation of lasting

(64) practical policy. Consequently, the studies, in general, stand as separate patches, each with its merits and demerits. On the whole, such studies become the talk of the town, with a varying radius of circulation and effect, only to be shelved in the library when the run of events brings other issues to the spotlight. It may be that such undertakings would have more than seasonal significance if they were conceived and executed in full view of the persistent major problems. For the specific content of such problems may change, but the variables at work persist in spite of variations in time and locality. If such studies are then related to the concepts which recur as central in our field, instead of being stated only in terms peculiar to the scope of the issue at hand, they would contribute to the accumulation of a unified body of social psychology, thus in a larger way enhancing their own effectiveness in social life. In short, the thesis of this paper is that the good will which leads investigators to tackle the study of current social issues will in the long run reach further if the issue at hand is first related to persistent problems and then formulated in terms of central concepts of psychology. In this brief paper I can illustrate the point in a summary way by considering only one topic from several possible good ones. I happened to choose the, topic of prejudice.

Undoubtedly due to its consequential effects in human relationships, a great deal of work has been done on the topic of prejudice against various groups. It is safe to assume that there cannot be separate psychologies of prejudice in relation to this or that group, but that they are specific cases of the general picture of prejudice. This general picture of prejudice is, in turn, part and parcel of the psychology of social attitudes and of identifications. It seems to me that the studies and the practical measures proposed and tried out here and there to stamp out prejudice will gain real weight as a field of research and greater effectiveness in practice if, at every step, they are related to and appraised in the light of the persistent and basic findings in the psychology of attitudes, the psychology of ego development, and of groups.

What is this general picture of prejudice? In a few sentences, only a general statement can be given, glossing over all the observed variations and necessary modifications. Any observer who has lived in different countries with traditionally established human relationships cannot help but notice that each social group has its peculiar scale of prejudice or social distance. Unfortunately, so far the quantitative work has been done only in one country-namely, in Amer-

(65) -ica. Therefore, we can speak more definitely about the American scene.

The investigations of Bogardus (1), Guilford (2), F.H. Allport and Katz (3), Hartley (4) and others, carried out over a period of years using different methods, indicate that there is a rather well-established scale of social distance or prejudice for the country, cutting across regional, ethnic and occupational differences on the whole. Near the top of the scale come Americans, Canadians, and English. Then follow the French, Norwegians and other Northern Europeans. Southern Europeans, such as Italians and Spanish, and then Jews follow in descending order. At the bottom of the hierarchy are placed Negroes, Hindus, Chinese, and Turks. The exact standing of each group may change within narrow limits, but in general they fall within the same segment of the scale. One exception occurs in the social distance scales reported by members of the groups whose places are low on the established scale. They tend to place their own special group high, keeping the rest of the scale intact. This indicates that they are ego-involved first in their own groups and then as members of the country as a whole. It may be that by so doing the members of discriminated groups also are contributing their bit to the perpetuation of the existing scale of prejudice.

The values on the scale, which may be designated as positive at the top and negative at the bottom, are revealed as so many corresponding attitudes in terms of single individuals. As is the case with all attitudes, attitudes of social distance render individuals possessing them highly selective in their reactions (positively or negatively) in relation to the members of groups in question. When individuals come into contact with members of the various groups who do not fit into the expectations produced by their place on the scale, the tendency, on the whole, is to regard these members as exceptions or deviations while keeping the scale intact.

Evidence seems to indicate that attitudes of prejudice are not built up on the basis of contact with members of the groups in question, but are derived from the prevailing social distance scale in one's own group (e.g. Lasker (5), Hartley (4) ). That is, an individual's prejudices are acquired as he becomes a member of his group. In other words, the attitudes of prejudice, as well as other attitudes, are learned. An adequate psychology of learning will ultimately give us the basic principles underlying the attitude of prejudice as well as other attitudes. In the meantime, social psychologists have to stress the theoretical and practical implications of the following findings.


Genetically, prejudice is manifested in a consistent way only after the child has developed and learned to grasp the actual scheme of social distances and proximities in his surroundings. As the studies of the Hartleys and Clarks (9, 10) have shown, the behavior of very young children toward members of socially stigmatized groups is first kept in line by grownups. Increasingly with age comes an awareness of one's own group and other groups and their relative positions in the existing scheme of social relationships. It is no coincidence that this increasing awareness and increasingly consistent manifestation of a scale of prejudice occurs during the stage when the child is becoming able to participate actively in group activities – that is, when he can psychologically become a member of a group. At this stage too, his prejudiced reactions result not merely from the dictates of his grownups, but from the approvals and disapprovals, and the pressures of his play and school groups, and from himself. The social distance scale, acquired from his groups, becomes so much a part of himself--of his ego--that the individual usually becomes unaware of their derivations but considers them his own (Hartley). In this sense, the positive and negative values of the social distance scale of his group become ego-distances of the individual members. In short, the formation of attitudes of prejudice is one aspect of ego formation.

The above considerations, stated in a nutshell form, lead us to conclude that the attitude of prejudice is a product of group membership. It is produced in the individual member in the same way as his other attitudes--for example, his attitude toward a flag, family, school, and work. In order to become a member of his group in good standing, he is bound to share the prejudices of the group as well as its positive values, if a scale of prejudice exists in his membership group. If he does not share these prejudices existing in the group, that is, does not observe certain discriminations and behave accordingly, he becomes a deviant or non-conformist. A great majority of the individuals in every group certainly strive to become members in good standing„ especially at times of greater social stability. The findings of the. representative studies (such as Hartley's (see 6, 7) and Murphy and Likert's (11)) that the effect of contact with the members of discriminated groups is negligible and that correlations between information and prejudice are rather insignificant are among the weighty substantiations of the above conclusion. The fact that there is positive correlation between being a non-conformist or "dissident" and freedom from prejudice in, a social scene where the scale of social

(67) distance exists adds its weight in the same direction. The finding of Allport and Kramer (12) and a 1947 survey (13) in Berlin that the degree of religious observance and the degree of prejudice go together become perfectly intelligible in the light of the indication of the above material.

At this point, the converging findings of psychologists and sociologists concerning the properties and products of group interaction, positive and negative "in-group" and "out-group" relationships become handy. The experience and behavior of the identified member reflects the properties and products of his membership group. Once the "in-group" and "out-group" delineation becomes an accentuated affair, the individual member reveals characteristic attitudes appropriate to the norms standardized for "in-group" and "out-group" relationships. If the relationship between the "in-group" and "out-group" is integrated and positive, the standardized attitude toward the "out-group" in question and the members thereof is favorable; if not integrated, it is unfavorable. The individual member, on the whole, simply has to conform to these standardized relationships in order to achieve and retain a status in his group, which is of greater import to him than bits of information and bits of personal experience and occasional dictates of his good will. In the works of Thrasher, Zorbaugh, Clifford Shaw, Landesco, Whyte and others, one finds a mine of significant evidence to this effect. It becomes evident, then, that the core of the perpetuation or change of the existing scale of prejudice lies in the integration or lack of integration of the direction and interests of group relationships; and in terms of single individuals, in his conformity or non-conformity to the norms of his group. The most striking substantiation of this finding came out in Newcomb's comprehensive Bennington study, which is perhaps the most effective investigation of attitude change to date. To summarize the main findings of the study in a few words, the presence or absence of change of attitude and the degree thereof is a function of the degree of the individual's assimilation to the atmosphere of the new community.

On the basis of these findings, it may be said that current studies concerned with individual differences in the manifestation of prejudice may gain much if they place their subjects first as members of a social group and keep the implications of this group membership in mind at every step of their analysis. The degree of prejudice manifested by a single individual acquires specific significance only in relation to a scale of prejudice-which is a group product. From

( 68) the practical point of view, the individual manifests acts of prejudice because of a social background of prejudice. Otherwise, he would be prevented from these acts or even punished or ostracized by his own group. People commit harmful acts under some stress or tension against persons for whom they have no prejudice. If we call every evil act prejudice, prejudice ceases td have any consistent meaning.

In conclusion, it seems that there is a disparity between the indications of the representative research material and the efforts of those who are concerned with the current problems of prejudice and who are trying to deal with them in terms of propagation of information and increased individual contact or in terms of transitory group situations which are ineffective in bringing about lasting changes in the attitudes of the individual. This disparity points to the necessity of pulling together the items of practical concern and the indications of converging lines of persistent problems. With a comprehensive approach thus achieved, the efforts of men of good will to eliminate prejudice may be rendered less wasteful in the long run.


1. Bogardus, E. S. "A Social Distance Scale." Sociol. and soc. Res., 1933, 17.

2 Guilford, J. P. "Racial Preferences of a Thousand American University Students." J. soc. Psychol., 1931, 2, 179-204.

3. Allport, F. H. and D. Katz. Students' Attitudes. Syracuse: Craftsman, 1931.

4. Hartley, E. Problems of Prejudice. New York: Kings Crown, 1946.

5. Lasker, B. Race Attitudes in Children. New York: Holt, 1929.

6. Horowitz, E. L. "The development of attitudes toward the Negro." Arch. Psychol., 1936, 194.

7. Horowitz, E. L. and R. "Development of social attitudes in children." Sociometry, 1937, 1, 301-338.

8. Horowitz, R. E. "Racial aspects of self-identification in nursery school children." J. Psychol., 1939, 7, 91-99.

9. Clark, K. B. and M. K. "The development of consciousness of self and the emergence of racial identification in Negro preschool children." J. soc. Psychol., 1939.

10. Clark, K. B. and M. K. "Skin color as a factor in the racial identification of Negro preschool children." J. soc. Psychol., 1940, 11, 159-169.

11. Murphy, G. and R. Likert. Public Opinion and the Individual. New York: Harper, 1938.

12. Allport, G. W. and B. N. Kramer. "Some Roots of Prejudice." J. Psychol., 1946 22, 9-39.

13.Herald Tribune, New York, Sunday, May 4, 1947.


  1. The author was formerly professor of psychology at the University of Ankara, Turkey, and State Department fellow; he is at present research fellow in the Department of Psychology at Yale University, on a Rockefeller Foundation grant, working on concept formation and learning. This paper was delivered at the meeting of the American Psychological Association in Detroit, September, 1947.

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