Hypothesizing intergroup contact

Gordon Allport posited that under certain conditions, intergroup contact can reduce intergroup prejudice. Subsequent research supports this hypothesis, and also demonstrates its applicablity to many areas of study.

Why, do you think, intercultural communication advocates for contact between different cultural groups?

In 1954, Allport proposed the “intergroup contact hypothesis”, which states that intergroup contact would help promote positive intergroup relations by reducing prejudice, if they occur under the right conditions. He posited these for:

  1. both groups perceive that they are at equal status in the situation;
  2. the groups are in a cooperative rather than competitive relation;
  3. the two groups set common goals to achieve;
  4. there is support for such contacts from social and institutional authorities.

Since then, this hypothesis has inspired and guided many studies aimed at discerning the effects of intergroup contacts on intergroup relations. Researchers have tried to test it in different situations (where the conditions are present or not) and with different groups (by ethnicity, nationality, language, age, sexual orientation, profession, and body (dis)ability). Most of the research supported Allport’s claim (Pettigrew, 1998).

Researchers also tried to fine-tune the hypothesis by poking into areas that were left unaddressed or not clearly defined in the original proposal. For example, what is the causal sequence of intergroup contact and prejudice? In other words, did more contact cause less prejudice or did less prejudiced people initiate more contacts? Results suggest that both are possible with almost equal strength.

It was also found that intergroup contact typically reduces prejudice and the optimal four conditions are facilitative but not essential for achieving the effects. Sometimes, mere exposure to other groups could do the trick. But intergroup friendship did emerge as an important predicting variable for the reduction of prejudice.

Another important empirical finding is that the effects of intergroup contact will typically generalize to the entire groups involved in the contact and across different situations beyond the initial contact. Sometimes, they even spread to other outgroups (Pettigrew, 1998; Pettigrew, Tropp, Wagner, and Christ, 2010),

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Pettigrew, T. F. (1998). Intergroup contact theory. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 65-85.
Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2008). Allport’s Intergroup Contact Hypothesis: Its History and Influence On the Nature of Prejudice (pp. 262-277): Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Pettigrew, T. F., Tropp, L. R., Wagner, U., & Christ, O. (2011). Recent advances in intergroup contact theory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(3), 271-280.

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Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)