From anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, from the fear of terrorism to hostility towards asylum seekers, conflict between different cultural groups continues to be an alarming feature of the 21st century.
While governments and policy makers struggle to address these issues, a University of Sussex social psychologist has revisited 20 years of research on intergroup relationships and has produced an effective positive model of how to reduce prejudice.
Professor Rupert Brown, together with Professor Miles Hewstone of the University of Oxford, argues that to bring about a change in the attitudes of conflicting groups, members of those groups need to be brought together in a way that makes them appreciate each other's different social identities.
"Some policy approaches might make a point of not drawing attention to ethnicity or other group differences", says Professor Brown, "But we believe that a crucial part of successful intergroup contact is helping individuals to maintain them."
They have tested their theory with experiments and field studies in settings as wide-ranging as Catholic-Protestant relations in Northern Ireland, attitudes between different nationalities in Europe, Muslims and Hindus in Bangladesh, and young children's attitudes towards peers with disabilities and other stigmatised groups. In a very recent study with primary school pupils in Kent, conducted with Lindsey Cameron and Adam Rutland (from the University of Kent), groups of children were presented with different types of stories involving an English child and a refugee child, working together on various projects. In some of the stories, only the characters' names and individual characteristics were given. In others, the emphasis was continually on the fact that they belonged to the same school; in a third group more detail was given about the characters' different cultural backgrounds in their common school setting. After six weeks, the researchers found that the group given stories that contained the cultural references brought about the most positive change in the children's attitude towards refugees.
Professor Brown explains: "In multi-ethnic schools, where conflicts can sometimes arise, it is beneficial to integrate the students and to get them working collaboratively. They then begin to regard each other not just as individuals, but also as people who are Afro-Caribbean, Asian or White. What needs to happen is that they are reminded about each other's cultural background, so that they can make a connection between the peers they have met and all others from similar backgrounds." He adds: "These types of beneficial intergroup contact cannot resolve all the issues of intergroup conflict, but can make a real contribution to its reduction".
An academic paper by Professors Brown and Hewstone, entitled An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Contact, which pulls together their twenty years' work on intergroup contact, has won the 2005 Gordon Allport Prize awarded by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues for the best paper on intergroup relations. It is published in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2005.