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Advocacy for Intergroup Contact: Science serves Public Policy Debate in the UK

Promoting the Policy Implications of Theory and Research on Intergroup Contact: Confessions of My Temporary Escape from the Ivory Tower

by Miles Hewstone, Oxford University

My major research area is intergroup contact. Like generations of other scholars I have been inspired by Gordon Allport’s original exposition of the ‘contact hypothesis’ in 1954, in which he outlined key conditions under which contact between members of different ethnic groups would lead to reduced prejudice and improved intergroup relations. It is a quintessentially ‘SPSSI’ topic, focusing on a real social issue and showing how sound theory and reliable methodology could deliver demonstrably positive outcomes.

My good fortune has been to live and work in a time and place (the U.K. in the last decade or so) when government officials and senior civil servants seemed open to the promise of this idea, and its applications in new settings, and at least some funding agencies had faith in my ability to spend their money wisely. Aided by a fantastic series of post-docs and graduate students, I have over the years helped to clarify just what kinds of contact are most effective, how they work, and what impact they can have. This work appears in multiple articles and book chapters (for reviews, see end of this piece), with some of our key achievements concerning, the effects of different forms of contact (comparing segregated and mixed areas in Northern Ireland), gaining a better understanding of factors moderating the impact of contact,  specifying the variables that mediate the impact of contact on prejudice, and increasing the range of application of ideas about intergroup contact. Although the early vision of, and most of the research on, the contact hypothesis was framed in terms of black-white encounters in the United States, today the picture is much broader. Across over 50 years of research (synthesized in a masterly meta-analysis by Tom Pettigrew and Linda Tropp in 2006), studies have sampled a wide range of types of prejudice, with target groups including the disabled, the mentally ill, and homosexuals. Most of the research is still carried out in the U.S., but there are now active scholars in Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. Our own addition in terms of geographical location was to promote this kind of work in Northern Ireland. This was not merely a matter of ‘planting the flag’ for the contact hypothesis (although I do sometimes toy with the idea of placing pins on a world map of  all the places we have done studies . . . and those we’d like to!). It also consists of demonstrating the applicability and relevance of these ideas in a place that, at least when we began our research there, was still experiencing intergroup conflict between Catholics and Protestants that would challenge any theory about how to reduce prejudice. The default dependent variable in most research on intergroup contact has been an explicit measure of prejudice or outgroup attitude. We have shown that contact is also negatively associated with negative implicit attitudes towards the outgroup, and positively associated with tendencies to perceive the outgroup to be more variable, to trust them, and to forgive them for past atrocities.

Based on these achievements, it suddenly seemed the right moment to try to do more to have an impact on policy. Moving to my current post in Oxford in 2001 opened up the first opportunities to do this and, as they say, ‘one thing led to another’. Over the past couple of years alone I have attended so many meetings, made so many presentations, advocated so many times for social psychology, for the contact hypothesis, and sometimes for me, that sometimes I felt as though I were commuting to London (and sometimes to Belfast).  This has involved me in working closely with government departments (‘Communities and Local Government’ in London, and the Community Relations Unit, in Belfast), two independent Think Tanks (The Young Foundation, and the Institute for Public Policy Research, IPPR), and ‘spreading the word’ in a range of unexpected places. It might be interesting to mention some of these activities.

A few years ago the U.K. decided to merge the work of various public bodies dealing with equality and discrimination issues, and to move away from separate bodies such as the ‘Equal Opportunities Commission’ and the ‘Commission for Racial Equality’ to the more inclusive ‘Commission for Equality and Human Rights’. Prior to this amalgamation the government undertook a major consultation exercise and review, and I was invited to give a public lecture on ‘Contemporary forms of prejudice’ to people from a wide range of backgrounds, including many lawyers involved in prosecuting such cases in the courts. Thanks to the good offices of Dominic Abrams, I was given two further opportunities to press my case in this area. First, I briefed a meeting for a small number of academics with Trevor Phillips, the head of the new Commission. Second, I gave a presentation on contact and its role in promoting integration as part of The Equalities Review, organized with the Cabinet Office (no, I didn’t get to No. 10, and nor did I meet Tony Blair).

Catapulted into action by terrorist events in London, the British government established an investigative ‘Commission on Integration and Cohesion’. Initially, I had ambitious hopes of getting social psychology represented on the Commission, and was encouraged when colleagues from government departments and independent think tanks pushed my case. In the event, however, the government (in its wisdom?) decided not to select academics for its panel, but rather to weight its membership towards local government, and task selected academics with presenting position papers to it. I was, at least, invited to present ‘expert testimony’, and was told that I would have 20 minutes to address the importance of intergroup contact for integration. Having expected a gilt-trimmed, paneled room in Parliament, I was a bit disappointed when we actually met in a meeting room in nearby Methodist Hall. But the Commission’s response was not disappointing. They were blown away by the force of the Pettigrew-Tropp data, and my promised 20 minutes extended to 45 in a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion. I claim some success in my aims in that the importance of contact was highlighted, in several places, in the Commision’s final report (‘Our shared future’, 2007, integrationandcohesionreport.pdf.)  
They accepted the need for “meaningful contact . . . to break down stereotypes and prejudice” (p. 112) and argued for its promotion in future policy. Less successfully, the numbering of footnotes for the report went awry around number 58, just in time for the reference to social psychology’s contributions to be removed in its entirety! (While secretly thinking that beheading would be an appropriate punishment for the clerk responsible, I had to settle for reinstatement of the correct notes on the web-based version.)

Not to worry, every cloud has a silver lining. Doubtless wracked by guilt, one of the senior civil servants I had worked with did me a huge favor by dropping my name to a senior journalist on Britain’s leading quality newspaper, The Guardian. Based on an initial conversation, she came to Oxford to interview me (which turned out to be a 3-hour conversation) and they published a full-page article, even accompanied by a photo (which pleased my mother). Judging by subsequent emails and telephone calls, this turned out to be a very effective way to facilitate social psychology’s impact on policy, and the article does a great job of making the case without any of the jargon we academics tend to succumb to . . .

Other talks I gave had their own moments of impact, insight, and amusement. One of the talks I felt had the most impact was an invitation to address a conference of the nation’s housing directors and council chief executives on ‘Housing and community cohesion’. They were not only receptive to the message, but also willing to collaborate and I am now involved in a fascinating task of assessing housing projects up and down the country for their progress on building cohesive communities. In terms of insight, I learned most from an invitation to address the National Disability Authority conference in Dublin (‘Attitude is everything: Understanding and improving attitudes to disability’). Here too, ideas about intergroup contact were already being applied, but the delegates were enthusiastic to hear about latest developments. For me personally, the insight was to attend a conference where so many of the staff were themselves disabled, and one of the speakers presented from a wheelchair. Since I had never experienced this level of diversity with regard to disability before, I was left pondering why we don’t see it more often . . . (do you have to be ‘able-bodied’ to, for example, sit at a desk and check in delegates and give them conference packs?). And for amusement my high point was addressing an audience in one of London’s most diverse boroughs, Haringey. I had the illicit pleasure, as a supporter of London’s best football team (Arsenal F.C.), of giving a talk in the hospitality suite of the arch enemy (Tottenham Hotspur F.C.). I used this in my presentation as an example of ingroup-outgroup relations, bravely admitting to my affinity and preparing to run . . . only to find that half the kids in attendance were also delighted fans of the Gunners (or ‘Gooners’ as true aficionados refer to them).

Has it all been worth it? Based on the huge investment of time and effort dissonance theory, at least, would predict that I would say ‘Yes’. But it really has been. The people I have met and the conversations I have had have been very different from those enjoyed inside the groves of academe (where external validity sadly no longer seems a relevant feature when papers or grants are reviewed). And my view of what we do, and whether it matters, has been enriched by my temporary relocations from my lofty ivory tower. I have enjoyed the challenge of debating culture, diversity and identity with a leading politician and a playwright, and facing teachers in Northern Ireland with the temerity to advise them on what they might do to foster integration. I have also been delighted, recently, to be ‘asked in’ to help design government surveys on community attitudes and citizenship issues, rather than merely be faced with the frustration of leafing through a massive survey which, in my humble view, fails to ask some of the key questions. I continue in search of that massive, 10-year programme grant for longitudinal research on contact, but so far all sightings have proved to be mirages, imagined by someone who is still clearly an academic at heart, thirsty for funds to support his ‘habit’, and not yet a policy wonk.

Illustrative reviews of our work:
Brown, R. & Hewstone, M. (2005). An integrative theory of intergroup contact.  In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 37, pp. 255-343). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Hewstone, M., Cairns, Voci, A., Paolini, S., McLernon, F., Crisp, R., & Niens, U. (2005). Intergroup contact in a divided society: Challenging segregation in Northern Ireland. In D. Abrams, J. M. Marques, & M.A. Hogg (Eds.), The social psychology of inclusion and exclusion (pp. 265-292). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.

Kenworthy, J., Turner, R., Hewstone, M., & Voci, A. (2005). Intergroup contact: When does it work, and why? In J. Dovidio,  P. Glick, & L. A.Rudman (Eds.), On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport (pp. 278-292). Oxford: Blackwell.

Tausch, N., Kenworthy, J., & Hewstone, M. (2006). The contribution of intergroup contact to the reduction of intergroup conflict. In M. Fitzduff & C. E. Stout (Eds.), The psychology of global conflicts: From war to peace (Vol. 2, pp. 67-108). New York: Praeger.

Turner, R. N., Hewstone, M., Voci, A., Paolini, S., & Christ, O. (2007). Reducing prejudice via direct and extended cross-group friendship. In W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European Review of Social Psychology (Vol. 18, pp. 212-255). Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Key members of the research team: Ananthi al-Ramiah; Ed Cairns; Oliver Schmid; Joanne Hughes; Jared Kenworthy; Katharina Schmid; Melanie Sharp; Hermann Swart; Tania Tam; Nicole Tausch; Rhiannon Turner; Alberto Voci; Christiana Vonofakou; Keon West.

Research funding from: Community Relations Unit, Belfast, Northern Ireland; Economic and Social Research Council; Russell Sage Foundation; Templeton Foundation.

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin