Intergroup contact occurs when a member or members of one social group come into contact with member(s) of another social group. Research has focused on whether such contact can influence attitudes about social groups, and whether certain types of contact yield the most positive prejudice-reduction outcomes. Typically, the specific group memberships have significance in the local social milieu (e.g., in North America, race and sex would constitute meaningful dimensions for intergroup contact, whereas hair color would not).
To qualify as “intergroup,” the contact event generally requires at least minimal awareness of group difference among the participants (see “Typicality/Salience,” below). An interaction between a Catholic and a Protestant in Northern Ireland in which both were completely unaware of the other’s religious affiliation would not constitute intergroup contact (unless/ until they became aware). Work in this area typically makes reference to ingroups and outgroups. Ingroups are the groups in which individuals would categorize themselves, or into which they might legitimately be categorized by others. Outgroups are those to which the individual does not belong (e.g., for a Muslim man, outgroups might include Hindus, women, or children). The primary focus of this article is on the implications of intergroup contact for intergroup attitudes: does having contact with members of an outgroup change how someone feels about that outgroup?
Intergroup Contact Theory
The organizing framework for answering this question has been intergroup contact theory, initially elaborated by Allport (1954; for review see Brown & Hewstone 2005). Allport claimed that intergroup contact did indeed have the potential to improve attitudes toward the outgroup, but that facilitating conditions had to be in place: group members should have equal status in the contact situation, they should be cooperating and working toward common goals, their contact should have the support of relevant authorities. This list of facilitating conditions was supported by extensive (largely sociopsychological) research over the decades following the publication of Allport’s work. Recent meta-analysis appears to have put the central question to rest: contact can change attitudes in a positive direction (Pettigrew & Tropp 2000).
For instance, individuals with more positive relationships with their grandparents tend to have more positive attitudes about older adults in general (Harwood et al. 2005). Various theoretical perspectives have developed under the umbrella of contact theory. Miller (2002) has focused on the extent to which dealing with others as individuals facilitates contact; simply ignoring social categorizations can have positive effects, at least temporarily. Gaertner and Dovidio (2000) have focused on the role of superordinate identification in overcoming intergroup hostilities – moving to a higher level of categorization can shift the focus of an encounter from intergroup to intragroup (e.g., “we’re all humans”). This same effect can be achieved with cross-cutting categorizations (Brewer 1996); most intergroup situations can be reframed as intragroup (e.g., a Muslim man and a Christian man might overcome religious tensions by focusing on their shared gender).
The Role Of Communication
Communication processes have received relatively little attention in intergroup contact research. As noted above, some types of contact are clearly more likely to yield positive outcomes than others. At a most basic level, satisfying, friendly contact should have more positive outcomes than hostile contact, and indeed contact within close relationships (e.g., friendships) is gaining attention as a crucial area for contact theory research (Pettigrew 1998). The socio-psychological work has tended to focus on structural features of the situation (cooperative task, equal status, potential for future contact, equal numbers of ingroup and outgroup members, etc.), but intergroup contact is by definition a communicative event, and specific communication processes might yield different outcomes.
For example, recent work has examined self-disclosure as an important communication variable in this context. Individuals whose intergroup relationships are high in self-disclosure have less negative attitudes about outgroup members than those with more superficial intergroup relationships (Ensari & Miller 2002; Soliz & Harwood 2006). Self-disclosure develops depth in relationships, and reveals more detailed information about the outgroup member. Presumably, this increased information refutes simplistic stereotyped notions concerning the outgroup, thus making it unlikely that straightforward negative perceptions of the outgroup can be maintained.
Related work shows that self-disclosure is associated with perceptions that the outgroup is more heterogeneous (diverse). That is, individuals who engage in extensive reciprocal self-disclosure with an outgroup member find it more difficult to maintain the idea that all members of the outgroup are the same as one another (Harwood et al. 2005). Little work has examined other specific communication processes, but practices such as social support, direct expressions of affection, and accommodation processes would seem ripe for examination as determinants of attitudinal change. Examining communication will provide one means of specifying the process by which contact influences attitudes. As noted by Pettigrew (1998), contact research has done little to specify exactly how it is that contact influences attitudes.
As discussed in the introductory paragraph, some level of awareness of group memberships is a defining feature of intergroup contact. However, the extent and nature of that awareness has been the focus of considerable theorizing and research in recent years. Hewstone and Brown (1986) and Rothbart and John (1985) both presented perspectives arguing that group awareness needed to be relatively high for attitudes about an outgroup member to translate to attitudes about the outgroup as a whole (generalization). In addition, much of this work suggests that the specific outgroup member must be seen as in some way typical or representative of the group for generalization to occur. When outgroup members are perceived as atypical of their group, they are likely to be treated as exceptions, and hence will not be influential in determining more general intergroup attitudes (“How remarkable that he’s still running marathons at age 83!”). This phenomenon is known as subtyping (Brown & Hewstone 2005).
Similarly, when group memberships are not salient, there is little likelihood of a cognitive association developing between the affect induced by the outgroup individual and the affect associated with the outgroup more generally. Unfortunately, group salience/ typicality is often associated with more negative contact experiences, a fact often explained in terms of the anxiety that can be engendered in intergroup situations (Gudykunst 1995). Thus, the contact that is most likely to generalize is not the contact that is most likely to yield positive attitudinal outcomes. This seeming paradox has yielded interesting theoretical and empirical developments in recent years, and has been the focus of communication research aimed at uncovering interaction patterns that might yield positive, yet group-salient, contact (Harwood et al. 2006). Unfortunately, research suggests that negative communication may causally raise group salience, thus rendering positive outcomes of intergroup contact less likely (Greenland & Brown 1999; Paolini et al. 2006). This work suggests that the positive conclusions of previous contact theory researchers may only occur when contact is defined as “positive” contact (or manipulated to be positive). Real-world intergroup contact, on the other hand, may tend to have negative effects because it is predominantly negative, and negative contact enhances the salience of categories (thus affecting attitudes, but in a negative direction).
The issue of indirect contact covers three diverse areas of research. First, Wright et al. (1997) showed that knowledge of an ingroup friend’s intergroup relationships can contribute to positive attitudes (the “extended contact effect”). Thus, it is not essential to have intergroup contact oneself. If one’s friends or family have close relationships with outgroup members, the positive affect from one’s knowledge of those relationships appears to extend to the outgroup. Second, Schiappa et al. (2005) have demonstrated a media contact effect, whereby exposure to outgroup members in the media (e.g., Will, a gay character on the show Will and Grace) can have positive implications for outgroup attitudes (homophobia). Schiappa et al. provide an explanation for this effect that is focused on the learning about the outgroup that media portrayals can provide. Ortiz and Harwood (2006) provide supporting data for the effects of viewing Will and Grace on homophobia, as well as data supporting a different process for the effects which is grounded in social learning theory.
Third, research has examined broader cultural contact. For instance, Wright and Tropp (2005) demonstrate that bilingual education reduces prejudice, even controlling for other aspects of intergroup contact. In other words, contact with other groups’ cultures can improve attitudes, even when that contact does not include actual people. All these effects are important because indirect contact can maintain relatively high levels of group salience while avoiding intergroup anxiety (precisely because no direct contact is occurring). The media effects are particularly compelling for mass communication scholars, and they also have resonance for those interested in broad social change, given the media’s power to reach massive numbers of people.
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- Brewer, M. B. (1996). When contact is not enough: Social identity and intergroup cooperation. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 20, 291–303.
- Brown, R., & Hewstone, M. (2005). An integrative theory of intergroup contact. In M. Zanna (ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, vol. 37. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, pp. 255 –343.
- Ensari, N., & Miller, N. (2002). The outgroup must not be so bad after all: The effects of disclosure, typicality and salience on intergroup bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 313 –329.
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- Harwood, J., Hewstone, M., Paolini, S., & Voci, A. (2005). Grandparent–grandchild contact and attitudes towards older adults: Moderator and mediator effects. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 393 – 406.
- Harwood, J., Raman, P., & Hewstone, M. (2006). Communicative predictors of group salience in the intergenerational setting. Journal of Family Communication, 6, 181–200.
- Hewstone, M., & Brown, R. J. (1986). Contact is not enough: An intergroup perspective on the contact hypothesis. In M. Hewstone & R. J. Brown (eds.), Contact and conflict in intergroup encounters. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 1– 44.
- Miller, N. (2002). Personalization and the promise of contact theory. Journal of Social Issues, 58, 387 – 410.
- Ortiz, M., & Harwood, J. (2006). “I like Grace, Grace likes Will, therefore I like gay people”: Modeling positive intergroup contact. Unpublished manuscript, University of Arizona.
- Paolini, S., Harwood, J., & Rubin, M. (2006). Intergroup contact can make it better and can make it worse. Paper presented at Contact 50, Ithala Game Reserve, South Africa, July.
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- Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. (2000). Does intergroup contact reduce prejudice? Recent meta- analytic findings. In S. Oskamp (ed.), Reducing prejudice and discrimination: Social psychological perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 93 –114.
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- Schiappa, E., Gregg, P. B., & Hewes, D. E. (2005). The parasocial contact hypothesis. Communication Monographs, 72, 92–115.
- Soliz, J., & Harwood, J. (2006). Shared family identity, age salience, and intergroup contact: Investigation of the grandparent–grandchild relationship. Communication Monographs, 73, 87–107.
- Wright, S. C., & Tropp, L. R. (2005). Language and intergroup contact: Investigating the impact of bilingual instruction on children’s intergroup attitudes. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 8, 309 –328.
- Wright, S. C., Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., & Ropp, S. A. (1997). The extended contact effect: Knowledge of cross-group friendships and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 73 – 90.