The Social Psychology of Perceived Prejudice and Discrimination

Article excerpt

D.O. Hebb Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology as a Science (2001) - Prix D.O. Hebb pour contributions remarquables it la psychologie en tant que science (2001)


Most research on prejudice has followed a unidirectional orientation of investigating why or when majority- or dominant-group members become prejudiced toward members of minority or subordinate groups without considering the effects of prejudice and discrimination upon its victims. By contrast, my research program over the past quarter-- century deals with the "phenomenology" of prejudice and discrimination from the perspective of the victim and has sought to answer questions such as the following: What is it like to be discriminated against on the basis of an arbitrary characteristic such as ethnicity, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc.? What are the social-psychological and affective correlates and consequences to individuals who confront prejudice and discrimination by virtue of membership in a minority or subordinate group? This paper presents a sampling of my research on the "phenomenology" of prejudice and discrimination, along with several theoretical perspectives that I have used and developed to help to understand this issue.

Canada prides itself, quite rightly, as being a tolerant society in which people from different racial, ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds can live together amicably in forming our national "mosaic." Nevertheless, members of some groups often feel themselves to be discriminated against in personal, economic, social, and/or political spheres.

Feeling one is a victim of discrimination or prejudice is hardly rare. A national Gallup poll in the early 1990s showed one in four Canadians believed they had been discriminated against on some basis. The same question posed 10 years previously found one in five Canadians felt discriminated against. So, perceived discrimination is increasing, slowly but surely, and may continue to do so in future as individuals' sense of entitlement increases and/or their willingness to tolerate inequity declines or disappears.

Moreover, a national survey of Canadians by Angus Reid in the early-1990s showed that Canadians are generally aware of discrimination against some groups in our country. Nearly half strongly agreed that discrimination against nonwhites was a problem in Canada. Younger Canadians, particularly those under 24 years old, were especially likely to agree that discrimination is a problem in Canada.

In the early-1970s, I began conducting research into the then neglected topic of prejudice and discrimination from the perspective of the "victim" or target. I wanted to explore what I called the "phenomenology" of prejudice. My colleagues and I asked questions such as: What is it like to be a victim of prejudice or discrimination? What are the affective and socialpsychological consequences or correlates of perceiving prejudice and discrimination aimed at oneself and one's group? To explore these issues, we have used methods ranging from controlled experiments in the psychological laboratory to correlational and survey studies assessing the correlates of perceived discrimination in the community and society outside the laboratory. With my collaborators, I have tried to show that the phenomenology of prejudice and discrimination is not only researchable, but also very informative about the groups and individuals who confront them. The picture that emerges from this research is complex, with some clearly negative features but also some positive - or at least, apparently non-negative - features, as well.

Not surprisingly, perceiving oneself to be a target of prejudice or discrimination has demonstrable, negative impact upon the individual, and I speculate theoretically about why and in what sense it is a negative experience. However, every cloud usually has at least a bit of a silver lining. The silver lining here is that perceived prejudice and discrimination, under some circumstances, may help buffer or protect aspects of the self-concept for members of certain minority or subordinate groups, in some instances. …


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