One common problem for students is that words used by social scientists often take on a different meaning than the same words used in our everyday language. There are numerous reasons for this, including the need of sociologists and psychologists to share precisely the critical definitions of their theory. In informal discussion such precision is seldom necessary. However, for social scientists whose goal is to construct a theory of prejudice and to devise techniques of measuring prejudice, a high degree of specificity is required.
Students are sometimes further confused by the fact that different social scientists use different definitions of the same term. Again, there are numerous reasons for this, but the central reason is that different theorists want a concept to take on a meaning specific to their particular theory. This is what we do here. That is, we specify a definition of prejudice that is in common usage. For a review of definitions of prejudice, see Ehrlich ( 1973). The way prejudice is defined has some important implications for understanding the chapters that follow.
We define prejudice as an attitude toward a category of people. Note that we are not talking about an attitude toward a particular person. There is an obvious difference between hating your boss and hating all bosses. There is a difference between hating Salim because he is an obnoxious person and hating Salim because he is an Asian Indian.
Attitudes can be favorable or unfavorable, positive or negative. However, when we talk about prejudice, most of the time we are talking about unfavorable attitudes. Therefore we specify the direction of prejudice only when it is positive.
Quite obviously, the key to understanding the concept of prejudice requires understanding the meaning of the term "attitude." An attitude is an interrelated set of beliefs, feelings, and motivations about some object or class of objects. Beliefs, feelings, and motivations--all three are involved in an attitude; and all three are interrelated. To say a person is prejudiced against some group means that he or she holds a set of beliefs about that group; he or she has an emotional reaction to that group; and he or she is motivated to behave in a certain way toward that group. These components are all learned. We learn what people around us believe about a group. We learn how to respond emotionally to a group, and we learn how we should organize our behavior to that group.
Prejudice, then, is not something people are born with. One reason it looks that way is that beliefs about groups are learned very early. Children as young as three or four years of age often begin to learn the prevailing stereotypes of a group long