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This is one of a series of excerpts from older articles put online by John Ray as a public service. The articles concerned are in general otherwise available only by special request to a University or other major library.


Social Research, 1978, 45, 478-544.

The Biases In Contemporary Social Psychology



The Problem of Ideology

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the prevailing ideologies of American social psychology. We define social psychology broadly to include both the academic specialty and those aspects of clinical and developmental psychology that have social implications. Especially important here are theories of socialization and moral development-the metaethics and unstated assumptions pervading this area of research neveal most clearly the dominant ideological orientations of the current research enterprise.....

We shall argue here that social psychology has reflected and promoted forms of individualism and rationalism, perspectives which at a deeper level arise from and give support to the liberal political philosophy of American social scientists. This is worrisome for several reasons. It has dulled the critical reflex and reduced the value of social psychology as informed commentary on its own society. It has fostered a picture of social realities and social possibilities that is incomplete and unbalanced. It has diminished rather than extended our capacity to understand ourselves, and has done so at a time when self-understanding seems all the more critical....

Prejudice: The Pathology of the Individual

The social psychology of prejudice directly reveals many of the social scientist's own prejudices. The early research regarded prejudice as a cultural phenomenon. Bogardus's work on race and social distance began as a study of intergroup images and relations. Katz's and Braly's investigations of national and ethnic stereotypes point to the cultural origins of shared social images. Nonetheless, this research was quickly assimilated to the traditional preoccupation with the individual as information processor. Instead of treating prejudice as a symptom of collective social conditions, social psychologists came to see the individuals who manifested prejudice as the cause of the problem.

Stereotypes were originally defined as properties of a social group. Subsequently they came to be defined as images that were generalized to members of a social group. Stereotyping of the negative variety quickly became the explanation for prejudice. The problem with negative stereotyping, according to social psychology, is that it involves "faulty and inflexible generalization." As Fishman observes, the idea quickly caught on that stereotypes are,"inferior, shoddy, 'wrong' ideas about human groups" rather than unavoidable products of cognitive functioning, and Allport was only reiterating the rationalist view that had become common over three decades. This view subsequently, led social psychologists to the individualistic thesis that some people are more prone to these errors of thought than others, and that prejudice is therefore a function of cognitive style and perhaps of even deeper personality dynamics.

The Authoritarian Personality study was the most thoroughgoing effort in modern psychology to interpret prejudice as personal pathology. There is now considerable evidence that authoritarianism, defined in terms of a particular set of stereotypical attitudes and measured by the F scale, is a function of occupation, income, and educational level, which are in turn strorigly correlated with social class. Billig observes that it is absurd to suppose that every person with unresolved unconscious conflicts concerning parental authority will adopt the same set of stereotyped attitudes, yet precisely this conclusion is required by the authoritarianism hypothesis. Given the scale's correlations with social class, there is more reason to believe that it measures working-class political ideology. The net result of the study by Adorno and his associates is that it has allowed the representatives of one group (middle-class academic liberals) to stigmatize the beliefs of another (working-class conservatives) as pathological. This public hostility of liberal social scientists toward working-class political ideology is, of course, scandalous; it is in itself, moreover, an expression of prejudice.

Since the Authoritarian Personality research, attention has shifted back to the view that prejudice can be explained in terms of differences in cognitive style or cognitive maturity. However, Tajfel has not been concerned with individual differences but with the properties of the person as a processor and organizer of information that produce stereotyping in social perception. For Tajfel and others, stereotyping is not pathological; rather, it is a normal process reflecting a functional adaptation of the cognitive system.

Rokeach has developed a similar thesis, suggesting that prejudice reflects inferences about differences in belief systems. Skin color is not itself a basis for prejudiced perceptions but for inferences about beliefs. The implication is that prejudice results from errors of inference, reflecting the liberal preference for consensus and the view that in fact there are no, nor ought there to be, differences in belief systems within the society. If we accept that one group or class does hold beliefs that differ fundamentally from those of other groups, then prejudice cannot be explained simply in terms of the tendency of individuals to make faulty inferences; these inferences may often be correct.

These fundamentally individualistic theories of prejudice are still very influential. Both Jones and Billig argue that most social-psychological explanations of prejudice err in reducing what is essentially an intergroup phenomenon to intrapsychic processes. Both maintain that this reduction has profound ideological consequences. By locating prejudice in the individual, one is encouraged to search for remedies at this level, thereby distracting attention from the root causes of which the individual expression is but a symptom.

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