Research on Getting Along Across Differences: An Annotated Bibliography

By Shahla Maghzi | August 1, 2004 | 1 comment

A summary of scientific evidence related to cross-race friendships and romantic relationships.

In recent times, global social, political, and economic changes have impelled research to reconsider how individuals relate to one another across national, ethnic, racial, and socio-economic categories. Political scientist James N. Rosenau attributes the myriad changes in the global environment to the increasingly porous nature of the border between the domestic and foreign (Rosenau, 1997). Social scientists have increasingly examined the relative ease with which environmental, financial, human, informational, and ideological influences pass between borders. As a consequence of these changes, individuals and groups have recognized that the effective management of shared challenges will require greater understanding, cooperation, and coordination among diverse people.

Research in the area of social psychology and socio-legal studies has begun to explore the question of how individuals and groups might more effectively get along across differences. Contemporary research has affirmed that "diverse teams have the potential to create unique and innovative solutions to problems, but have great difficulty interacting to integrate their differences," (Maznevski & DiStefano, 1996). The following paper will present an overview of the most significant research findings in the areas of social psychology and socio-legal studies on how diverse individuals (and nations) can avoid conflict, and achieve harmony. In the area of social-psychology, the work of Michael Bond has been particularly helpful in synthesizing research that touches on both the social and environmental barriers and enabling factors that might assist individuals and groups get along more effectively across diverse cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds. The work in socio-legal studies presented here focuses on educational and housing policy provisions that impact access to diverse educational and living environments. These studies will be examined in light of how they might inform individual and community efforts to more effectively get along across differences.

What Contributes to Prejudicial Attitudes?

Behavioral and Normative Factors
A large body of research in social psychology has examined both the behavioral and normative factors that contribute to prejudicial attitudes. Michael Bond has helped to synthesize these studies in his paper "Unity in Diversity: Strategies for Building a Harmonious, Multicultural Society." One area of research has examined Social Dominance Orientation (Sidanius, 1993) which is defined as an attitude syndrome that legitimizes the ranking of groups within a society. This orientation has been found to predict higher degrees of ethnic prejudice in the national ethnic makeup of the United States (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994) and in a number of other cultures (Pratto, Liu, Levin, Sidanius, Shih, & Bachrach, 1996).

In addition to studies of social dominance orientation, social psychologists have pointed out that a group's norms surrounding interpersonal behavior among individuals of different groups is especially important in determining the nature of inter-group encounters. For example, if members of a group perceive themselves as legitimately competing for the same, fixed resource, e.g., land, jobs, food, etc., interpersonal conflict across group lines is more likely and less tractable (see Deutsch, 1994; Tedeschi & Felson, 1994 on realistic group conflict). Such conflict is exacerbated by feelings of relative deprivation (Walker & Pettigrew, 1984).

The denial of respect across group lines has also been shown to generate conflict. According to Michael Bond, the denigration of a group's language, dialect, customs, religion, art, music, dress and traditions can fuel defensive reaction and counterattack. These feelings of unjust treatment are likely to be stronger in cultures with an egalitarian cultural tradition (Hofstede, 1980, ch. 5).

In addition, lack of ethnic tolerance defined as "one's willingness [not] to accept individuals or groups that are culturally or racially different from oneself" has been found to contribute to the sharpening of ethnic heirarchy (Berry & Kalin, 1995, p. 306). Following a comprehensive survey of the various ethnic groups in Canada, Berry & Kalin (1995) concluded that "tolerant individuals show little differential preference for various groups. Intolerant individuals on the other hand show relatively great positive preference for those groups that are generally preferred by the population, and great negative preference for groups least preferred." (p. 315). Therefore lack of tolerance resulted in greater proclivity toward the reinforcement of ethnic hierarchy.

Environmental Factors
In addition to behavioral and normative factors that contribute to prejudicial attitudes, social psychologists have identified significant environmental factors that lead to prejudicial behavior. One important study has found a link between empathy and social structures. Pratto et al. (1994) write that "concern for others (particularly out-group members) is not just a fixed individual propensity, but instead seems likely to be influenced by social structures and policies" (p. 757). In explaining the socialization of a social dominance orientation in particular, they point out that:

Social structures and policies that prevent the formation of close personal relationships and empathy between high and low status persons (e.g., economically or legally enforced segregation, language barriers, publishing biases), would seem to discourage empathy between groups and the formation of a common identity. (p. 757)

Social research has found that individuals who grow up in diverse environments are less likely to hold prejudicial attitudes in later years. This finding has implications for neighborhood housing policy and school zoning ordinances that influence the diversity of neighborhoods. Socio-legal scholars of educational and housing policy have identified factors that contribute to diversity or lack thereof in neighborhoods and school districts. Robert Kagan provides an insightful analysis of the factors that have given rise to educational inequality in the United States in his chapter on "Adversarial Legalism and the Welfare State" in his book Adversarial Legalism: The American Way of Law. He notes that educational financing through local taxation has lead to significant financial inequity among districts. In addition, suburban municipalities in the United States that are free to zone out low-income housing and reject public housing for the poor create a cycle of increasing disparity--inner cities are less able to provide schools and safety services, while wealthier families move to the suburbs, creating greater social and racial division.

Strategies to More Effectively Get Along Across Differences

Given the importance of social norms and environmental factors, the promotion of integrative norms constitutes a significant countervailing force against ethnocentrism. (Moghaddam & Studer, 1997). Social normative orientations include tolerance and altruism, world-mindedness, internationalism, openness, and concern for others. , Environmental conditions that facilitate group interaction include the development of common purposes and goals, as well as educational provisions that focus on conflict resolution skills.

Social Norms

Tolerance and Altruism
The study of tolerance and altrusim has shed light on how these particular characteristics might counteract ethnocentricism. Staub (1989) argues in his book, "The Roots of Evil," that altruism counteracts the aggression that can be channeled towards out-groups and their members. Tolerant and altruistic attitudes have also been found to have an impact on support for multicultural policies that aim to bridge communities. Berry & Kalin (1995) explored the reactions of Canadians to their country's policy of multiculturalism by measuring three aspects of its implementation: attitudes toward the program, perceived consequences of multiculturalism, and multicultural ideology. They found that these three components correlate with their measure of cultural/racial tolerance. Therefore, a disposition toward tolerance was found to support organizational and governmental policy initiatives aimed at promoting multicultural harmony.

Internationalism and World-mindedness
Studies of internationalism or world- mindedness have demonstrated a link between this attitude and lower manifestations of prejudice. Sampson & Smith (1957) defined world-mindedness as "a frame of reference, or a value orientation favoring a world-view of the problem of humanity, with mankind, rather than the nationals of a particular country, as the primary reference group." (p. 105). According to Bond, "internationalism may increase tolerance for other ethnic, racial, and national groups by weakening the strength of one's in-group identification or by embedding that in-group identification within a latticework of broader identifications." Heller and Mahmoudi (1992) have suggested that it is likely that individuals holding beliefs such as human oneness, a basic principle in the Baha'i community for example, would also present a consistent set of beliefs about group life, of emotional responses to persons of difference, and of personality dispositions like altruism.

Research has begun to examine the relationship between personality and integrative orientations across group lines. One finding comes from the work of Fong (1996) on attitudes towards global culture. He found that self-ratings on personality measures of openness and assertiveness positively predicted endorsement of integrative orientations, including humanism, global welfare, and support for gender equality.

Concern for Others and Empathy
Studies have found that people rating high on a scale measuring their concern for others and empathy demonstrate lower social dominance orientations. The same has been found for those high on Katz & Hass' (1988) Humanitarian-Egalitarian scale (Pratto et al., 1994). Lower Social Dominance Orientation scores may be taken as a preference for lesser inequality among social groups (Wilkinson, 1996).

Contributing Environmental Factors

Attention to the development of effective communication, collaborative conflict resolution, and constructive interaction, as well as promoting contact across group lines, the development of common goals, social ties and educational provisions have been found to contribute to greater social harmony.

Effective Communication, Collaborative Conflict Resolution and Constructive Interaction
Studies such as those conducted by Maznevski & DiStefano (1996) have shown that successful integration requires three conditions: effective communication, collaborative conflict resolution, and constructive interaction. They find that higher levels of these skills predict team success. Significantly, they find that the mastery of these skills makes a team effective, be it diverse or homogeneous. This outcome helps explain why Watson et al. (1993) found that the diverse groups they studied eventually out-performed the homogeneous groups. By assisting diverse groups to confront their differences through a group problem-solving task, it is likely that Watson et al. helped these groups develop the three skills of successful integration identified by Maznevski & DiStefano (1996).

Tolerance and Geographic Mobility
Studies have shown a link between tolerance and geographic mobility. In particular, Berry et al. found an association between tolerance and geographic mobility within Canada (Kalin & Berry, 1980) and the degree of ethnic mixing in a given area of Canada (Kalin & Berry, 1982). Geographic mobility is generally understood as the ease with which individuals can travel from place to place. Studies have found however, that only certain types of contacts promote positive/tolerant relations (Pettigrew, 1998). Hewstone & Brown (1986) concluded that the groups must be positively interdependent and enjoy "equal status" cooperation. Stephan et al., (1998) summarized the conditions as optimal "when prior relations between groups have been amicable, the groups are relatively equal in status, the members do not strongly identify with the in-group, and contact has been extensive, voluntary, positive, individualized, and cooperative." (p. 15)

Common Purpose and Goals
Social divisions may also be transcended through a groups' uniting successfully around a common purpose or goal (Sherif, 1966). This might involve local service activities such as constructing community facilities. In addition, research has found that involving younger students from various ethnic groups in serving members of various other ethnic groups may be especially effective in building trust and good-will across group lines (see James, 1910/1970; Holland & Andre, 1989; Staub, 1989, ch. 18). National tasks, such as protecting the shared environment, will accomplish the same type of collaboration.

Social Ties
Linked to the positive effects of common purpose and goals, research has also found that the promotion of a super-ordinate identity unites members of oppositional groups and replaces hostility with common identity (Gaertner et al., 1993). The positive effects of a wider identity orientation is enhanced when membership is encouraged from various ethnic communities in the context of voluntary associational group membership (for example professional societies, local parent-teacher groups, work organizations, labor unions, etc.) Bond notes that, "a given person may then have a number of competing loyalties whose balancing demands make any polarizing claims along ethnic lines harder to sustain" (see Brown and Turner, 1979, on criss-cross categorization or Dorai, 1993, on cross-cutting social ties).

The Role of Educational Provisions
Michael Bond has synthesized a number of studies that demonstrate the role that educational provisions can play in reducing inter-group disharmony. First, he notes that educational programs can invest in open access to education based solely on considerations of pupil competence. Bond states that "human resources will be enhanced generally, redounding to the benefit of the economy and stimulating associated benefits." In addition, "the openness of educational training to all citizens will ensure that members of all ethnic groups in a society will gain access to trades and professions. Cross-cutting of social ties will thereby be promoted, embedding ethnic group membership in a wider lattice-work of associations."

Secondly, he points out that recent studies have demonstrated the importance of integrating spiritual and social priorities in standard school curriculum (Korten, 1993). Korten finds that a community socialization and harmonious living must be integrated into school curriculum if we are to enjoy a sustainable global future. This is necessary he writes "as an act of collective survival, to recreate the political and economic structures of human society in ways that free our world from the grip of greed, waste, and exploitation . . . to re-establish the nurturing bonds of sharing on which human community and life itself depend." (p. 59). This re-orientation will help reduce the pressure on limited material resources arising from widespread acquisitive motivation, and move society away from a status hierarchy based primarily on wealth (see also Hatcher, 1998; and Schwartz, 1992, for the trade-off between power motivations and values of benevolence).

Bond points out that one educational requirement that could be deployed towards "nurturing bonds of sharing" is community service (Holland & Andre, 1987; James, 1910/1970). Engaging students to assist other citizens outside the school setting would go some way toward promoting greater empathy and social ties between students and fellow community members. Additionally, work at school could make greater use of cooperative learning tasks where students interact to achieve a common goal (e.g., Sharan, Hare, Webb, & Hertz-Lazarowitz, 1980). Bond suggests that both types of projects should be designed to span ethnic/racial boundaries. These opportunity structures would then help promote ethnic harmony within societies (Fishbein, 1996).

Another relevant educational module is the training of students for non-violent forms of conflict resolution (Stevahn, Johnson, Johnson, & Real, 1996; Zhang, 1994). These skills would help reduce levels of ethnic disharmony within the school setting itself, but also generalize to social settings outside school and later in life. Well-ingrained strategies for conflict resolution are a protection against the escalation of tension and violence (Felson, 1978).

Additionally, Bond suggests that school curricula can be broadened, so that a variety of skills, social, aesthetic, musical, athletic, and so forth become nurtured and recognized (Gardner, 1993). Such a widened curriculum presupposes a broadened definition of what it is to be fully human, and provides alternative routes and rewards for self-development. An over-emphasis on the professions ossifies and narrows the status hierarchy in a society, and materially over-compensates the survivors of such a focused, competitive scramble. Also, the content of some of these additions to the curriculum can be used to confront prejudice directly.

Third, liberal arts can be encouraged, both as major fields of study and as elective courses in the curriculum. Altemeyer (1988) has found that lower levels of Right Wing Authoritarianism characterize students in the humanities and social sciences, and that this level decreases over their course of study.

Finally, Bond points out that the content of history courses may be particularly important in promoting multiculturalism; the inflammatory portrayal of ethnic group interactions in the past can fuel "ideologies of antagonism" (Staub, 1988) and divisive perceptions of history impacting on social identities (Liu, Wilson, McClure, & Higgins, 1997). Ethnically balanced reporting may be an antidote to possible in-group bias in historical representations in the school curriculum. This balancing of content could also include a greater emphasis on peace building, as a counterweight to the emphasis on war that currently dominates most people's perceptions of history (Liu, in press).


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