The contact hypothesis holds that contact between the members of different groups tends to reduce whatever negative intergroup attitudes may exist. The greater the contact, the less the antipathy. This idea is a crucial part of the broader theory that ethnic antagonism (as shown in prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping) has psychological causes (misperception and projection) rather than social or economic causes (conflicts of interest).
The hypothesis can be traced far into the past, but it was given its contemporary form by Gordon W. Allport in The Nature of Prejudice (1954). He listed a large number of variables that could modify the effects of quantitative differences in contact. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, these are usually reduced to three or four key conditions for intergroup contact to reduce prejudice: equal status between the individuals having contact, common goals and cooperative interdependence in reaching them, and the support of social and institutional authorities for equal-status contact. In this qualified form, the hypothesis has figured prominently in discussions of racial desegregation in the United States.
As a conjecture about the effects of personal contact on individual attitudes, the hypothesis is easy to test, and the results of several hundred published studies are relatively easy to summarize. Regardless of whether the supposedly necessary conditions for favorable outcomes have been satisfied, greater contact is almost always associated, more or less strongly, with such outcomes (less prejudice and greater acceptance).
Difficulties arise when these results are extended from individuals to groups. It seems obvious that if an increase in contact improves the attitudes of individuals, it must do the same for the relations between groups, even if only a little. Nevertheless, both casual observation and careful studies suggest that there can be strong positive correlations at the group level between personal contact and negative attitudes. Comparisons of American states or counties on black-white contact and racial prejudice and discrimination provide the clearest illustrations of this relationship.
Allport’s qualifications were meant to deal with this problem. If contact reduces prejudice, how could there be more of it in the South (at least in the 1950s) than in the North or West? Under favorable conditions, he reasoned, more contact means less prejudice, but under unfavorable conditions (such as in the South), contact increases prejudice. As noted above, research at the individual level has not supported this view. Contact generally reduces prejudice, regardless of the situation.
An alternative approach starts from the assumption that different processes can prevail at the individual and group levels. As H. D. Forbes has shown in Ethnic Conflict (1997), the apparently contradictory correlations can be explained by a theory that distinguishes levels of analysis rather than situations or conditions of contact. When only individuals are compared, the standard correlation appears, but when all the individuals in an area are averaged and compared with all the individuals in another area of greater or less contact, generally speaking, the relationship is reversed. This approach is consistent with the contact hypothesis as a generalization about individuals, but it deprives it of much of its broader significance for social theory and public policy. It is not surprising, therefore, that recent reviews of the relevant literature still show a virtually undiminished allegiance to Allport’s classic formulation, despite its empirical shortcomings.
SEE ALSO Discrimination; Race; Racism; Segregation
Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Brewer, Marilynn B., and Samuel L. Gaertner. 2001. Toward Reduction of Prejudice: Intergroup Contact and Social Categorization. In Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Intergroup Processes, ed. Rupert Brown and Samuel L. Gaertner. Oxford: Blackwell.
H. D. Forbes