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Article written for the academic journals in 1987 but not accepted for publication


J.J. Ray

University of New South Wales, Australia


B.J. Miller

James Cook University of North Queensland, Australia


It has been shown that in various samples the commonly accepted correlation between conservatism and racism does not occur. This suggests that such correlations might be found only under certain carefully specified circumstances. It is noted that there are many types of conservatism so it seemed to be suggested that the particular type of conservatism too might need careful specification. To this end two types of conservatism scale that seemed particularly likely to predict attitude to blacks were correlated with social distance towards blacks. The sample was a random general population sample of 250 Australians. Only negligible correlations between conservatism and attitude to blacks were found. It is concluded that any such correlations are an artifact of a particular time, place and sample.


Ever since Adorno et al (1950) demonstrated high correlations between politico-economic conservatism and various forms of racism, it seems to have been generally accepted that conservatives have a particular predilection towards racism. There is even some tendency to equate "liberal" with "tolerant", as if the two terms were of equivalent meaning (Weil, 1985). There are many problems with this view, however. The first is that any such correlation seems to be highly situational. Sniderman, Brody & Kuklinski (1984), for instance, found in their general population survey of the U.S.A. that there was such a correlation but that education level made a crucial difference: The correlation was completely absent among Americans with only a basic level of education. In Australia and Britain, on the other hand, the correlation seems to be absent across the board (Ray & Furnham, 1984; Ray & Lovejoy, 1986) whereas in Northern Ireland the correlation seems to be found among Protestants only (Mercer & Cairns, 1981). See also Williams & Wright (1955) and Weil (1985).

A second problem and one that has so far had less attention is that conservatism itself is hardly a unitary variable. Conservatives in one sense might tend to be racist while conservatives in other senses might not. Lipset (1959), for instance has shown that conservatism on economic and non-economic issues are differently determined and little related. Wilson too now scores his conservatism scale to produce a variety of largely orthogonal subscales (Wilson & Patterson, 1970; Wilson & Schutte, 1973). See also Boshier (1972) and the generally low correlations in Table 2 of Ray (1985). Both the population and the type of conservatism, therefore, might have to be carefully specified before we talk of any relationship between conservatism and racism. At the very least, the situation is not nearly as simple as Adorno et al believed it to be.

As it now seems well-established that the correlation varies from population to population, it seemed in the present work more appropriate to give closer attention to the types of conservatism that might be involved. To attempt to study conservatism in all its forms and guises would be a most ambitious project but it was believed that at least a start should be made on studying some of the more likely candidates. In keeping with the current interest in attributions and lay theories of behaviour, it was thought interesting to look particularly at the explanations that conservatives give for their policy preferences. One classical explanation that conservatives give for resisting welfare measures is that the poor "have themselves to blame" for their poverty. Another is that artificially equalized incomes would "rob people of incentive". It was thought of interest to see if conservatism in these two presumably related senses would predict attitude to blacks. As blacks are commonly an impoverished group in receipt of welfare payments it seemed on the face of it highly likely. As Kleugel & Smith (1983) have studied attributions of this sort at some length, it was thought appropriate to use their scales to provide measures of the attributions.


As Sniderman, Brody & Kuklinski (1984) have shown that sole reliance on respondents of a higher educational level is potentially misleading, it was desired on the present occasion to move beyond the usual (Sears, 1986) student sample. The sample was gathered randomly in the Australian city of Cairns with the assistance of voter registration information. As voter registration is compulsory in Australia for all Australians over 18 years of age, this did mean that the sampling frame was unusually comprehensive. With the aid of callbacks, over 60% of the sample initially drawn was eventually contacted. The final N was 250.

Attitude to blacks (Australian Aborigines) was measured by a Bogardus-type social distance scale essentially as adapted for Australian conditions by Taft et al (1970). It was administered in Likert format with six possible responses per item. The two conservatism scales were, as mentioned, taken from Kleugel & Smith (1983). There were 4 items that "blamed the poor" and four that rejected that. A sample item is "Lack of ability and talent" as an explanation of why some people are poor. There were 4 items that advocated equalization of income and 7 that rejected that. A sample item is "If incomes were more equal, nothing would motivate people to work hard".


As the social distance items were administered in Likert format, it was appropriate to score them as a Likert scale. When this was done, the scale reliability (alpha) was found to be a highly satisfactory .94. The eight items forming the "blame the poor" scale, however, did not scale well at all -- with an alpha of .41. The 11 items dealing with equalization of incomes, however, scaled reasonably well -- with an alpha of .81. The product-moment correlation between the two conservatism scales was .418 and their correlations with social distance were -.004 for the "blame the poor" scale and -.122 for the equalization of incomes scale. The latter correlation is in the expected direction and, given the relatively large N, of borderline significance at the <.05 level. It is by any substantive criterion, however, negligible.


It has been shown that even when conservatism is measured in ways that seemed particularly likely to produce a correlation with racial attitudes, no substantial correlation of that kind was to be found among an Australian general population sample. Where such correlations are found, therefore, they should surely be regarded as an artifact of a particular time, place and sample.

The finding by Sniderman et al (1984) to the effect that education was the key variable does help to suggest one particular circumstance that could produce such a correlation. It seems likely that at least American teachers at the tertiary level and even to an extent at the secondary level tend to be both anti-racist and liberal in political ideology. Thus as students become acculturated to the educational system, they tend to learn both anti-racist and liberal values. The degree to which students become so acculturated does presumably vary but being both liberal and anti-racist does come to be generally associated as a result of such acculturation. The correlation between conservatism and racism would, on this explanation, be greatest among those who had received the most education and this is precisely what Sniderman et al (1984) found. The correlation seems, then, to be mainly an artifact of current American educational practice. It may be noted that Adorno et al (1950) also used respondents who were in general well-educated. The warning by Sears (1986) about the danger of relying on college students as subjects would then seem to be well-justified.


Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The authoritarian personality New York: Harper.

Boshier, R.W. (1972) To rotate or not to rotate: The question of the Conservatism scale. British J. Soc. Clin. Psychol. 11, 313-323.

Kleugel, J.R. & Smith, E.R. (1983) Affirmative action attitudes: Effects of self-interest, racial affect and stratification beliefs on whites' views. Social Forces 61, 797-824.

Lipset, S.M. (1959) Democracy and working class authoritarianism American Sociological Review 24, 482-502.

Mercer, G.W. & Cairns, E. (1981) Conservatism and its relationship to general and specific ethnocentrism in Northern Ireland. British J. Social Psychology 20, 13-16.

Ray, J.J. (1985) Acquiescent response bias as a recurrent psychometric disease: Conservatism in Japan, the U.S.A. and New Zealand. Psychologische Beitraege 27, 113-119.

Ray, J.J. & Furnham, A. (1984) Authoritarianism, conservatism and racism. Ethnic & Racial Studies 7, 406-412.

Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1986). The generality of racial prejudice. Journal of Social Psychology, 126, 563-564.

Sears, D.O. (1986) College sophomores in the laboratory -- Influences of a narrow data-base on social psychology's view of human nature. J. Personality & Social Psychology 51, 515-530.

Sniderman, P.M., Brody, R.A. & Kuklinski, J.H. (1984) Policy reasoning and political values: The problem of racial equality. Amer. J. Polit. Science 28, 75-94.

Taft, R., Dawson, J.L.M. & Beasley, P. (1970) Aborigines in Australia: Attitudes and Social Conditions Canberra: A.N.U. Press.

Weil, F.D. (1985) The variable effects of education on liberal attitudes: A comparative-historical analysis of Anti-Semitism using public opinion survey data. Amer. Sociological Review 50, 458-474.

Williams, R.J. & Wright, C.R. (1955) Opinion organization in a hetero- geneous adult population. J. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol. 51, 559-564.

Wilson, G.D. (1970) Is there a general factor in social attitudes? Evidence from a factor analysis of the Conservatism scale. British J. Social & Clinical Psychology 9, 101-107.

Wilson, G.D. & Schutte, P. (1973) The structure of social attitudes in South Africa. J. Social Psychology 90, 323-324.

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