Intergroup and Interorganizational Relations

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The focus here is first on the meaning of intergroup relations and next on interorganizational relations. Although the emphasis in both cases is mainly on research and conceptualizations based in the United States, we consider to some extent research based in other nations and cultures. We also occasionally consider the uses of sociological research.


A group is a collection of persons who have shared problems and act together in response to those problems, have shared expectations, and have a sense of common destiny. There are many kinds of groups, ranging from informal friendships to ethnic groups, to societies, and even to intersocietal groups. Intergroup relations refers to patterns of relationships that develop between groups. Extensive reviews of the literature in intergroup relations may be found in Seeman (1981) and Stephan (1985).

Although intergroup relations refers to all types of groups, it is not possible to avoid focusing on ethnic-racial group relations, because this has been the central concern in the United States since the social sciences and sociology, in particular, became established academic disciplines. Intergroup relations has been approached from the level of analysis of the group on the one hand, and from a social psychological perspective on the other.

This latter approach examines intergroup relations from the point of view of the individual and his or her relations with a group. In the latter part on the nineteenth century, the United States experienced huge immigration from southern, central, and eastern Europe. Since the new immigrants arrived from cultures that were markedly different from those of Americans who were already established here, conflicts developed, a pattern in some ways not materially different from conflicts that now exist between U.S. citizens and recent immigrants from Central and Latin American and Asia. The history of research on intergroup relations in sociology shows a profound emphasis on problems created by these massive immigrations.

Lieberson (1980) has thoroughly studied the question of why those who migrated to the United States from south, central and eastern Europe after 1880 in large numbers (such as Italians, Russians, Lithuanians, Poles) have been so much more successful than blacks. He found that blacks, in part because of their visibility, confronted much more serious social and competitive disadvantages than did these groups, even though the European groups did have many obstacles to overcome. Because of the slave period and the initial contacts with Africans, white society had and still has very unfavorable dispositions toward blacks, much more unfavorable than their dispositions toward white Europeans and even more unfavorable than their dispositions toward Asian immigrant groups. The competitive threat of Asian groups at the same time period was not nearly as great, since the Asian immigration was much smaller. Blacks also faced greater barriers than did Europeans from labor unions. Thus, Lieberson asserts that blacks and Europeans confronted intrinsically different situations that produced very different sets of opportunities for socioeconomic advancement.

Conflict and competition between groups is only one—albeit important—pattern that may develop, although it is the adaptation that is most likely to make headlines and be reported on the television news. William Graham Sumner (1906) applied the concept of ethnocentrism to explain intergroup conflict. Ethnocentrism is a "view of things in which one's own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it" (p. 13). Sumner believed that ethnocentrism served to highlight and then exaggerate differences between groups and hence contributed to in-group cohesion and strong hostility to the out-group.

One of the oldest social-psychological theories of intergroup relations stresses personality determinants. The leading exponent of this view is Gordon Allport (1954). Allport's definition of prejudice has two components: attitude and belief. Allport defines ethnic prejudice as "an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization" (p. 9). In his book, Allport refers to the generality of prejudice. A number of studies in this tradition report large intercorrelations of prejudices—that is, persons who are anti-Semitic are also anti-Catholic and antiblack (Epstein and Komorita 1965). The claim is that these views stem from a deep-seated personality syndrome, called by Allport "the prejudiced personality." The prejudiced person is highly moralistic and has a need for definiteness, among other features. As Seeman (1981) has noted, the evidence on cross-group generality and its personality basis is easily challenged on both methodological and theoretical grounds. In general, the trait approach has slowly given way to a more situationalist view.

A note on discrimination and prejudice is in order, since much of the intergroup relations literature concerns these concepts. Discrimination is typically defined as treating people unequally due to their group membership, while prejudice is often seen as "a rigid emotional attitude toward a human group" (Simpson and Yinger 1972, p. 24). As Seeman (1981) points out, in prejudice persons are categorized wrongly or prejudged, and this process is a complex rather than a simple one:

The error comes in misconceiving and misjudging such a group, and the individual members thereof, as a consequence of misreading thenature of the category involved. Often enough the misreading occurs because the cultural and historical sources of supposed category qualities are not taken into account or are attributed to irrelevant features of the category, that is, to blackness, Jewishness, and so on. What makes all this extremely tricky is that (a) it is difficult to demonstrate what, in fact, the appropriate characterizations are for the social categories we find it necessary to employ; and (b) given the powerful control that majorities exercise, pressures are generated that tend to socialize the members of a given category into the very features we discern: to make Jews "intellectual," blacks "hostile," Chicanos "indolent," and women "dependent." Thus, though demonstrable relevance (correctness) of the attributed qualities to the category is critical, there is typically a seeming relevance (a misread relevance) that beclouds the issue both for the participant and the analyst (p. 380).

Robert E. Park was one of the first leading sociologists of race relations and is identified with ecological theory (Park and Burgess 1921). Park viewed human beings as competing for territory much like plants and other animals. Ecological processes foster competition for limited resources. The distribution of the population is itself shaped by competition over scarce resources, and this competitive process structures the economic interdependence of groups and individuals. Competition also makes people aware of their status and induces them to view themselves as of superior or of inferior status depending on their social situation. Those who see themselves as superior express their consciousness of felt superiority and seek to maintain their privileged position through prejudice. Hence, the intergroup competitive process expresses itself through the development of moral and political order. This order is a product of such processes, in addition to competition, as conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. Racial consciousness is therefore seen as developing out of the competitive process, which is born in the competitive struggle for status. An "inferior" status group might not wish to compete and instead establish a niche within the division of labor, and this might lead to a stable equilibrium.

A dominant intergroup relations paradigm is derived from Marxist thought and is called conflict theory. In this view, race relations and their consequences emerge from the system of social stratification in the society. Societies are seen as constantly changing. Societies distinguish between and among their members and award some greater rewards, such as power, prestige, and money, than others. The result is social inequality, which becomes an essential part of the stratification system. Hence, the stratification system is simply the structured inequalities of groups or categories or individuals. The different groups in the society, such as classes or ethnic-racial groups, compete for the limited resources available. Three conditions are necessary for intergroup conflict and inequalities to result (Cox 1948; Vander Zanden 1983).

First, there must be at least two identifiable groups. People must be aware of their group and another group on the basis of some characteristic or set of characteristics. These may be physical or not—that is, beliefs or values are sufficient.

Second, the two groups must compete with one another or feel they are competing for a limited pool of resources for themselves, if necessary at the expense of members of the other group.

Third, the two groups cannot have exactly the same amount of power, so that one group can claim an advantage in obtaining resources that another group also seeks. Under these conditions, one group becomes more dominant as the competition develops. The more powerful group defines the other group as inferior. As the group with less power seeks to protect and assert its interests, the dominant group may feel threatened and aggrandize to an even greater degree, and tension may mount. Most members of the dominant group soon find it easy and appropriate to view the other group in very negative terms.

Assimilation involves adapting another culture in place of one's native culture and usually is applied to the process that occurs when person adjust to a new society and culture by adopting it. For example, many Asian groups have recently immigrated to the United States. Typically their children learn English, dress in American style, eat American food, and are seen as and regard themselves as Americans. However, many adult Asians, although completely or partially bilingual, will retain an affinity for their native culture and understandably are more comfortable conversing in their original tongue.

Accommodation refers to a decision by two or more groups to put aside a significant difference that exists between them in order to stress common interests. This leads to cultural pluralism—that is, a number of different cultural patterns coexisting in the same society. The United States is a pluralist society in that it permits many distinctive religious, ethnic, and racial groups to exist side by side. The need of new Asian groups to retain their cultural identities is reflected in the existence in many large cities of Chinatowns, Koreatowns, and Japantowns. Some areas in large cities have signs only in Chinese or in both Chinese and English. This has produced some conflict with non-Chinese residents in these communities and has sparked "English-only" movements and resistance to bilingual instruction in public schools.

A great deal of research has been undertaken examining the impact of intergroup contact on intergroup hostility and prejudice (see reviews by Stephan 1985; Williams 1977). Many of the early studies looked at naturally occurring intergroup contacts. A substantial number of laboratory and field investigations have been undertaken focusing on those characteristics of intergroup contacts that foster positive intergroup outcomes. Stephan (1985) summarizes the findings with regard to this problem in a list of thirteen propositions, such as: "Cooperation within groups should be maximized and competition between groups should be minimized" and "Members of the in-group and the outgroup should be of equal status both within and outside the contact situation" (p. 643).

There is a wealth of information and research on intergroup relations. However there is a definite lack of application of this information when dealing with intergroup conflicts, especially in the area of public policy. Brewer (1997) identifies several reasons for this gap between research and practice in reducing intergroup conflicts.

There have traditionally been different approaches to researching the processes involved in intergroup conflict. Research traditions focus on different levels of aggregation, with some focusing on interpersonal processes and others focusing on the group level of analysis. Additionally there are theoretical perspectives that study intergroup conflict with a primary focus on concepts in the cognitive, affective, or behavioral realm. These different approaches tend to generate literatures that remain isolated, rarely citing research outside their own perspective.

While these separate research traditions might use different conceptual frameworks, they do have one thing in common that contributes to a lack of direct participation in the policy arena. Science has a norm of objectivity, and this leads many researchers to avoid advocating for specific action by governments or groups. Scientific research is seen as producing facts, and the role of the scientist is to produce those facts, not to decide what to do about them. The expert is hesitant to become the advocate.

History may contribute to this feeling, both for the researchers and the policy makers. In the 1950s and 1960s, much social science research (specifically the "contact hypothesis") was used as the basis for public policy designed to reduce racial tension and conflict through the integration of schools. The research outcomes on desegregation were mixed, due in part to an oversimplified application of theoretical ideas that were very specific and conditional in nature. Additionally, the social science research on which desegregation was in part based was developed in carefully controlled laboratory experimentation. In real-life situations, which are far more chaotic and complex, the mechanisms of the theories might be overwhelmed by other factors, factors the theories were never intended to deal with. While the research community might be happy to learn from the failure of experiments and to argue about the failure of the assumptions of models to be met, the policy maker sees failure of a program and an increase in conflict among constituents. So the scientists see the politicians as understanding neither the restricted nature of most theories nor the process of the growth of knowledge as including failures. The policy makers see only that the experts were wrong and that their advice created conflict (or a perception of increased conflict) when a reduction was expected.

While research on desegregation was based on the contact hypothesis and ideas of assimilation, current research is based more on ideas of pluralism and multiculturalism. This perspective focuses on promoting positive in-group attitudes by emphasizing group identities and characteristics, and trying to make these identities respected and recognized by other groups; to be proud of one's own ways while recognizing the pride of other's for their own ways. This creates some tensions and potential pitfalls when using this branch of theory and research as a basis for public policy.

Much of intergroup theory has focused on and developed from the situation in the United States; however, recently more attention and research have been applied to the problem in other areas of the world. With increasing migration and diversity in western Europe has come a concurrent increase in tension and conflict, and this has generated a surge of research. Pettigrew (1998) shows that "despite sharp differences in national histories, political systems, and minorities, this new work reveals considerable consistency across the nations of western Europe. It also largely replicates and extends, rather than rebuts, the North American literature" (p. 98). He shows similarities such as the higher level of "subtle" prejudice compared with "blatant" prejudice. Blatant prejudice is tied to perceived biological differences between groups and is "hot, close and direct" (p. 83). Subtle prejudice is tied to the "perceived threat of minority groups to traditional values" (p. 83) and the "lack of positive feeling towards minorities" (p. 83). In addition, the mechanisms of intergroup contact and relative deprivation seem to function in similiar ways in many North American and European populations.

Given the tension between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, it should not be surprising that theories of intergroup relations should be tested there in attempts to reduce conflicts. One such study attempted to use the contact between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel that occurred in joint medical teams to mitigate intergroup stereotypes and prejudice (Desivilya, 1998). The study found that while the contact reduced prejudice in the local work situation, that reduction was not carried into the larger societal context and overall national image and ethnic stereotypes were not changed.


An organization is a group with three main features: a goal or set of goals, a boundary, and a technology (Aldrich 1979). Although we say organizations have goals, what is meant is that much of what organizations actually do seems as if it is directed to a shared objective or set of objectives. This may be for the sake of appearance, and/or the organization may really be goal-oriented. The boundary feature simply refers to the distinction that an organization makes between members and nonmembers. Finally, technology refers to the organization's division of labor or to the set of activities that the organization performs as part of its daily routines in processing new materials or people.

Each of these characteristics can be illustrated by the university. Its goals are often set forth, albeit in glowing and idealized terms, in its general catalogue. These typically include teaching, research, and public service. One must apply to become a member of the university—student, faculty or staff. And such statuses are frequently difficult to come by. The university's technology includes its classrooms and laboratories as well as the lecture and discussion methods of instruction.

Interorganizational relations refers to the relations between or among two or more organizations. There have been several overviews of the field of interorganizational relations (Aldrich 1979; Aldrich and Whitten 1981; Galaskiewicz 1985; Mulford 1984; Van de Ven and Ferry 1980).

Every organization has relationships with other organizations. In the case of the university, if it is to function it must have students, and to recruit them it must have relationships with high schools, junior colleges, and other universities. These students (and faculty and staff) must eat, work, and play, so the university has relationships with food, housing, energy, and other suppliers of various kinds in the community. And, of course, the university needs other resources, especially funds, and therefore must relate to government agencies and alumni to obtain them (Clark 1983).

Organizations are ambivalent about establishing an interorganizational relationship to obtain resources (Yuchtman and Seashore 1967). On the one hand, they want and need resources if they are to survive; but on the other hand, organizations wish to maintain their autonomy, and insofar as they establish an interorganizational tie, they will be expected to reciprocate, and hence their freedom will be constrained. It is assumed that organizations want their autonomy from other organizations, but their survival needs induce them to relinquish some autonomy.

Galaskiewicz (1985) claims that interorganizational relations take place for three major reasons: to obtain and to allocate resources, to form coalitions to enhance power, and to achieve community acceptance or legitimacy.

Interorganizational relations research has been undertaken at three levels: the dyad (Hall et al. 1977), the action set (Hirsch 1972), and the network (Burt 1983; Galaskiewicz 1985). The simplest form of interorganizational relation is the dyad, which simply refers to the relationships of two organizations to each other. The action set concept developed form Merton's (1957) notion of role sets. Caplow (1964) and Evan (1966) took Merton's idea and applied it to the relationships between a focal organization, such as a university, and its pairwise relationship with other organizations with whom it interacts. One might examine the relationship between a university and the office of the mayor of the city within which it is located, and then study the effects of changes in this relationship as they influence other relationships in the set of organizations (Van de Ven and Ferry 1980). Aldrich (1979) has termed the group of organizations that constitute a temporary alliance for a particular or limited goal the "action set." Networks of organizations contain the complete set of ties that connect all the organizations in a population of organizations (Aldrich 1979; Hall 1987; Van de Ven and Ferry 1980). Although the approaches of Aldrich and Van de Ven and Ferry are not identical conceptually, both orientations toward networks focus on identifying all connections of specified kinds that take place within a particular organizational population. Hence, the analysis of networks is far more complex than that of action sets or dyads.

The body of knowledge in the area of interorganizational relationships is not extensive, and what there is has focused on social services. There exists quite a bit of theoretical information but very few large databases. With the exception of research on corporate board of directors' interlocks (Burt 1983; Burt et al. 1980), there is little work on the private sector.

An early area of interest to theorists was the general state of the organizational and interorganizational environment. Aldrich (1979) identified six dimensions of environments: capacity, homogeneity/heterogeneity, stability/instability, concentration/dispersion, domain consensus/dissensus, and turbulence. Capacity refers to the relative level of resources available in the organization's environment. A rich environment refers to one where resources are plentiful, while a lean environment is the opposite.

Homogeneity/heterogeneity refers to the extent to which organizations, individuals, or even social forces that influence resources are relatively similar or different. For example, does a focal organization deal with a relatively uniform and a highly heterogeneous population? If one contrasted the labor forces that a Japanese and an American firm draw from to recruit, one would find that the Japanese firm confronts a more homogeneous environment than does its American counterpart. This is, of course, because American workers are much more heterogeneous than are Japanese workers in education, ethnic-racial background, and many other features (Cole 1979).

Stability/instability concerns the degree of turnover in various elements of the environment. Again, if Japanese and American firms are compared, we would anticipate greater turnover in the latter than in the former. The advantage of low turnover or a stable environment is that it permits the organization to develop fixed routines and structures.

Aldrich (1979) refers to the extent to which resources are distributed evenly in the environment or concentrated in a particular area as concentration/dispersion. For example, the RTD is the major bus company in Los Angeles, and its potential ridership is dispersed over an area of more than 400 square miles. Such long transportation lanes present major problems, in contrast, for example, with the Santa Monica Bus Company, whose ridership is concentrated in a much smaller and geographically homogeneous area.

Organizations differ in the extent to which their claim to a specific domain is contested or acknowledged by other organizations. Domain consensus refers to a situation wherein an organization's claim to a domain is recognized, while domain dissensus refers to a situation where disagreement exists over the legitimacy of an organization's domain.

The final organizational dimension is turbulence. This term refers to the extent to which there are increasing environmental interconnections; the more interconnections, the greater the turbulence. Areas where many new organizations are emerging are generally areas of greater turbulence.

Some factors have been shown to be involved in the dissolution of interorganizational relations. Institutional forces, power, and competition are factors involved in the stability of these relations (Baker et al. 1998). Institutional forces reduce the likelihood of ties being broken. Personal relationships and structural attachments (such as coordination of accounting methods) represent "sunk costs" for the organization. To break ties with one organization and forge them with another takes significant effort and time. Power may increase or decrease the tendency for relations to dissolve. Given a client–provider relation, if the client has high power it increases the likelihood of the relation being broken, while high power for the provider decreases the tendency for the relation to break. Competition tends to destabilize ties between organizations, although the effect of competition is weak relative to power and structural attachments. In situations where there is much competition, there are more opportunities for defection from a relation and more incentive to do so.

A great deal of the work on interorganizational relations has concerned delivery systems and stressed coordination (Mulford 1984; Rogers and Whetten 1982). This is because a central problem in service delivery involves overcoming the segmentation and fragmentation of services created by the large number of organizations with overlapping responsibilities and jurisdictions. Bachrach (1981) has identified a number of factors that discourage coordination among organizations serving the chronically mentally ill, including budget constraints, lack of a mandate to engage in interorganizational planning, and confusion due to separate funding streams for care. Other factors also discourage coordination, such as differences in organizational activities and resources; multiple network memberships and consequent conflicting obligations felt by constituent organizations; and a lack of complementary goals and role exceptions (Baker and O'Brien 1971).

Each organization in a delivery system relies on the other organizations in the system, since no single unit can generate all the resources necessary for survival. Hence, the organization in a system enters into exchanges with other organizations and consumers. It is assumed that each organization or system seeks to better its bargaining position. This perspective on delivery systems as interorganizational networks is generally labeled the resource dependence perspective (Pfeffer and Salanick 1978).

Contingency theory (Lawrence and Lorsch 1967) assumes that organizational functioning depends on the intertwining of technological and environmental constraints and the structures that emerge to deal with these constraints. The theory assumes, as does system theory more generally, that there is no single most effective way to organize (Katz and Kahn 1966), that the environment within which an organization functions influences the effectiveness of an organization, and that different organizational structures can produce different performance outcomes.

Scott (1998) uses systems theory to describe how organizations manage their task environments and their institutional environments, and adapt to their changing organization–environment interdependencies. Scott stresses the differences between technical and institutional environmental controls.

Although there is not a great deal of comparative research on interorganizational relations, some comparisons have been done, for example, on the differences in the patterns of relations in Japan and the United States. American companies tend to be connected to more organizations, have a more formalized and more extensive body of rules for the relationship, and exchange more information across the relations than their Japanese counterparts (Aldrich et al. 1998; Jang 1997). Claims such as these must be taken with a degree of caution, as there is a great deal of influence between Japanese and American firms. For example, Japanese auto assembly plants, which started in the United States, brought both intraorganizational and interorganizational patterns of organization, for example, team-based work groups and "just-intime" delivery of parts needed in product assembly (Florida and Kenney 1991). Since that time, these organizational characteristics have become more common in the United States, and this increasing interdependence and connection between organizations can be seen in the impact of labor disputes extending through the economy at an increasingly rapid rate. A strike at a parts production facility that makes transmissions can shut down numerous auto production plants in a few days. A strike at Federal Express or United Parcel Service leads to economic impacts nation- and world wide literally overnight.

This globalization of economic relations mirrors a globalization of international relations. Both on an ongoing basis (e.g., the G-7, or Group of Seven Economic Conferences; the European Union; the United Nations) and on a temporary basis (e.g., the Gulf War, U.N. peacekeeping missions), interorganizational relations are becoming more and more common and vital to the peace and prosperity of the world (Alter and Hage 1993).


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Oscar Grusky
Jeff Erger