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The dimensional structure of prejudice. The influence of personality traits and the social environment on (generalized) prejudice

Prejudice remains a persistent social problem in Western societies. Critically, prejudices are often not directed toward one single target group but generalize across a variety of groups. People who dislike immigrants or Jews are also more likely to dislike homosexuals and Muslims. To put it in the words of Allport (1954, p. 69): “The fact that scapegoats of different breeds are so often harnessed together shows that it is the totality of prejudice that is important rather than specific accusations against single groups.” This totality of prejudice is often referred to as “generalized prejudice,” the central topic of this dissertation. If prejudices come as a package, they should be studied as such. Therefore, the main goal is to gain deeper knowledge on generalized prejudice, or the general tendency to devalue any kind of target group, irrespective of its characteristics, status or group membership.

There are two main lacunae in present research: the first is that research on generalized prejudice is almost exclusively focused on explaining the communality between prejudices without considering the target-specific part, i.e. the variance unique to a target group. The second is that this communality is dominantly explained with person-based characteristics such as personality, social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism, without recognizing the influence of the social context. Regardless the increase in research on contextual explanations of prejudice, these studies all remain target-group focused (e.g. only about anti-immigrant prejudice) and disregard the communality in prejudice. As such, research on generalized and target-specific prejudice seem to have lived separate lives in this regard.

To overcome these two shortcomings, an interdisciplinary and integrative approach is proposed: First, evidence in generalized prejudice research implies that target-specific prejudice should not be studied in an isolated manner, nor can the specificities of prejudice can be ignored. Therefore, it is crucial to model both the common and specific component of prejudice simultaneously. Second, indicators of the social context – such as economic conditions, cultural values and political propaganda – should be fully integrated in questions on the structure, origins, and consequences of generalized prejudice. One cannot understand how patterns of prejudice are formed if external influences are not accounted for. This results in two guiding research questions: (1) How are target-specific prejudices mutually associated and what is the role of the social environment on the structure of prejudice (i.e. the linkage between target-specific prejudices)? (2) What are the contextual triggers and consequences of the generalized and target-specific components of prejudice? Three aspects of the social environment are considered: the family context, the intergroup context and the socio-cultural context.  

The major results can be summarized as follows: (1) Different forms of prejudice are positively associated, but the exact structure of prejudice varies between different societies. (2) Parent-child similarity is larger for generalized prejudice compared to target-specific prejudice and is mediated by parent-child resemblance in social dominance and right-wing authoritarianism. Politicization of the family increases parent-child similarity in prejudice and ideological attitudes. (3) Next to a prejudiced personality, individuals show different levels of prejudice against different outgroups, resulting in prejudice hierarchies. This ranking is dependent on the intergroup context, i.e. characteristics of the target group, intergroup relations, and how society treats, perceives, portrays and stereotypes these groups. For example, target groups that are portrayed positively/negatively in television news are also the groups that are evaluated more positively/negatively by the public. (4) The origins and consequences of prejudices cannot simply be generalized across target groups. Prejudice toward one target-group may diverge from prejudice toward other groups contingent on the history, tradition, state of the economy, political discourse, and cultural values of a country. The translation of prejudices to political consequences is conditional on the particular socio-cultural and intergroup context of a society. (5) Generalized prejudice is more abstract and therefore primarily defined by personality traits and ideological attitudes, factors that are unspecific to a social group. Target-specific attitudes are more concrete and primarily defined by situational and contextual predictors.

To conclude, prejudices do not come in isolation (and should thus not be treated as such), but do not come as a psychological unity either. The overlap between prejudice types is not perfect and a significant target-specific component needs to be recognized. Otherwise, important information will get lost. People have a genuine inclination to (dis)like outgroups, but at the same time they have clear reasons to differentiate their evaluation of these groups. Here, it is shown that the social environment is responsible for the latter. Therefore, probably the most important conclusion is that context matters for the structure and content of generalized prejudice. Mechanisms of prejudice are not universal and cannot be applied to any person or in any contextual setting. The structure of prejudice is a dynamic process, continuously adapting to the justification and suppression mechanisms offered by society and must therefore be studied with a specific intergroup context in mind. One needs to know how target groups are perceived and what motivates bigoted people to direct prejudice against certain target groups.


Date:1 Oct 2011  →  1 Sep 2018
Keywords:Generalized prejudice, Target-specific prejudice
Disciplines:Other economics and business, Citizenship, immigration and political inequality, International and compartive politics, Multilevel governance, National politics, Political behaviour, Political organisations and institutions, Political theory and methodology, Public administration, Other political science
Project type:PhD project