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   SPSSI Around the World
   Spotlight on Anja Eller, PhD. - 2003 Dissertation Award Winner

Beginning with this issue, we are including a spotlight column on our talented international members. To turn the tables, we are having these researchers fill out our own mini-survey, and we’re publishing their answers here. For our first installation of this feature, we are pleased to present Dr. Anja Eller, the 2003 recipient of SPSSI’s dissertation award. Dr. Eller received her PhD in Social Psychology from University of Kent. She is currently a Reader (Associate Professor) in Social Psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Read on to hear more about Dr. Eller and her exciting work in her own words.

How long have you been a SPSSI member?

I’m not quite sure about the dates, but it must be at least a decade.

What was the research for which you won your SPSSI award?

I won the dissertation award for my PhD thesis. My research examined Pettigrew’s reformulated model of Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis, Gaertner and Dovidio’s Common Ingroup Identity Model (CIIM) and the extended contact model developed by Wright and others. Most of the six studies were field-based and longitudinal, using an Anglo-French intergroup context in the UK, a Mexican-US context in Mexico and California, and an inter-school-class context in German high schools. Taken together, the results largely confirmed Pettigrew’s model, particularly the roles of friendship potential and affective processes in general. We also demonstrated the impact of extended contact. For the CIIM, the cross-sectional analyses show that interpersonal and superordinate levels of categorization are most important, but longitudinally the dual identity level affected intergroup attitudes most.

Are you currently continuing to pursue this line of research?

Yes, I have continued to work on intergroup contact. During my British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship I collaborated with the British Council, Dominic Abrams and Anja Zimmermann to examine the “knock-on effects” of international students’ experiences in the UK on their friends and family in their home countries. In two consecutive 4-wave longitudinal studies, spanning over a year each, we surveyed several hundred participants coming from 30+ countries worldwide. We found that inter-nation contact, as experienced by the international students during their sojourn in the UK, indeed ameliorated intergroup attitudes towards the British in people that had very little or no direct contact whatsoever.

Apart from this research I have been investigating public-police contact within a racial context in the UK (with Dominic Abrams, Tendayi Viki, Michelle Culmer, Dionne Imara, and Shafick Peerbux), intergroup contact and attitudes within a public-private school context in the UK (with Rupert Brown, Sarah Leeds, and Kim Stace), intergenerational contact and stereotype threat (with Abrams and Jacqui Bryant), the interplay between intergroup contact and relative deprivation (with Abrams and Steve Wright), the interactive effects of direct and extended contact (with Abrams and Angel Gomez), and verification of ingroup identity as a mediator between contact and attitudes (with Gomez and Alexandra Vazquez). In 2011 I also edited a Special Issue of Group Processes and Intergroup Relations on Extended Contact, together with Jack Dovidio and Miles Hewstone.

More recently, I have begun to study the emotion of embarrassment in an intergroup context. I just completed a three-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to study these issues in the UK. I am about to start a new project on group effects on embarrassment in Mexico.

What are some of the social issues that are important in your country/region of the world?

After living in the UK for many years I recently took up an Associate Professorship at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). It seems to me that there are four major issues that dominate the national conversation in Mexico at this time. I mention them in a sequence that doesn’t necessarily denote a hierarchy. One is the ill-conceived “war against drugs” to tackle a very real drug-related violence. Its consequences have been a collective fear and distrust with the current leadership of the country, whether political, economic, or judicial. On the positive side, the drug-related violence has also generated a sense of collective solidarity—a willingness to do something among the people. A second issue is poverty, in particular how it affects children and how it has been affected by the economic downturn in the US (money sent back to Mexico from Mexican immigrants to the US is usually among the top revenues of Mexico but in 2009 there were reports of the money stream in the opposite direction). Third, education is a particularly sore point. Students attending state-funded schools are often getting an under-par education that will not allow them to compete in the new economy. This will go on feeding the exodus of Mexicans to the US and other developed countries to take up poorly paid jobs which don’t require much formal training. This is compounded by the veto power held by the powerful (and reportedly corrupt) teachers’ union. It sees any kind of performance-based evaluation or even regular retraining as an unacceptable government intervention in its internal affairs. The fourth and final social issue in Mexico is intergroup relations: ethnic group membership, skin color, and socio-economic class are often confounded in Mexican society to the extent that in the public’s mind they are perceived to be somewhat interchangeable. There is, or at least my impression is, that there is a clear hierarchy where the non-indigenous, fair-skinned guero or guera—who also tends to be a person who is better-off (economically)—stands above the majority of indigenous or mestizo darker-skinned—who tend to be worse-off. This unwritten hierarchy is accompanied by all the typical phenomena of intergroup relations: stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, power relations, resentment, etc.

 How do you bring SPSSI’s principles and mission to your work/country?

“SPSSI seeks to bring theory and practice into focus on human problems of the group, the community, and nations, as well as the increasingly important problems that have no national boundaries.” My work is in the area of intergroup relations, based on national, ethnic, language, school-class divisions, and other criteria. I investigate how intergroup bias manifests itself in these naturally occurring groups and how intergroup relations can be improved through, for example, intergroup contact. I often do basic research but it usually has clear potential for application in the real world.

What do you feel is the best way to advance the psychological study of social issues?

Keep your eyes open and observe your surroundings (be it on a community, national, or international level) to identify the most pressing social issues. Then design high-quality studies to investigate these issues, conduct the studies, report the findings, and potentially design interventions based on the results in order to improve or change the relevant social issues.

What do you like to do when you are not working to advance the psychological study of social issues?

I love to travel. Many times this is actually connected to psychology conferences, but our particular family composition makes traveling inevitable too: we live in Mexico but our families are in Europe and South America. Together with my family and friends, I enjoy everything Mexico has to offer: culture (from pre-Hispanic to Colonial to modern), cuisine (local and international), and nature (from coniferous forests with millions of monarch butterflies to ancient pyramids on tropical beaches).

What is your favorite psychology book?

The two books that have influenced me most are Social Identifications (Mike Hogg and Dominic Abrams) and The Nature of Prejudice (Gordon Allport). I read Social Identifications one summer while on an ERASMUS exchange in Italy. I had studied psychology for two years and the book cemented my decision to pursue social psychology (as opposed to clinical psychology). Abrams, co-author of Social Identifications, went on to become my MSc, PhD, and Post-Doc supervisor.

During my PhD I read The Nature of Prejudice cover to cover. This is partly because it was highly relevant to my PhD research on intergroup contact, but also because I was amazed to find that so much of what he said in that book functioned like intellectual stem cells for numerous modern-day theories in the area of intergroup relations. Allport’s ideas were so incredibly rich and insightful that they still inspire us today – and some of his predictions remain unexplored thus far.

What is your favorite non-psychology book?

I guess I find it hard to limit my favorite to one book. If I had to think of non-fiction books, some of my favorite ones are Lyall Watson’s Jacobson's Organ: And the Remarkable Nature of Smell and Roy Porter’s The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. As for fictional works, some of my favorites are Richard Zimbler’s The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, John Updike’s Brazil, Patrick Suskind’s The Perfume, and Gabriel García Márquez’ A Hundred Years of Solitude.

-Anja Eller

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