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Sectarianism, Children and Community Relations in Northern Ireland.

  Chapter 3:
Research on the Contact Hypothesis


Any review of the contribution that research has made to our understanding of sectarianism and community relations work with children, has to include a consideration of research on contact schemes. As highlighted in the introduction to this Report, cross-community contact organised through schools and various voluntary and community groups has arguably become the most significant element of community relations work with children. With this in mind, it is surprising that relatively little research has been published on the underlying processes and effects of contact on children’s attitudes and behaviour. The contribution that has been made by the research that does exist has been more than adequately discussed elsewhere (see Trew 1989; Cairns and Cairns 1995).

This chapter will broaden the focus slightly to examine current research and debates relating to the Contact Hypothesis more generally. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the Contact Hypothesis provides the basic rationale and theoretical underpinnings of cross-community contact in Northern Ireland. It is therefore worthwhile examining what contribution research can make to an understanding of the appropriateness and effects of the Hypothesis in relation to the situation here, especially in the light of the broadened definition of sectarianism outlined in Chapter One.

The chapter will begin by examining some of the broader political debates and controversies surrounding the Contact Hypothesis before offering a brief outline of the current nature and direction of research in this area. With reference to the earlier discussion on sectarianism, the chapter will conclude by assessing the future role that research in Northern Ireland can play in relation to the Contact Hypothesis generally and the development and refinement of cross-community contact schemes more specifically.

Current debates and controversies

As Ellison and Powers (1994: 385) have argued, the Contact Hypothesis has remained one of the ‘most durable ideas in the sociology of racial and ethnic relations’. For over four decades, since it was first introduced and developed by Williams (1947) and Allport (1954), it has provided

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the focus for a plethora of research studies and has exerted a significant influence on political debate and policy development across the US and Europe. Arguably, its popularity can, in part, be understood in terms of both its simplicity and its underlying political ideology. As regards the former, at its core the Hypothesis proposes that contact between members of different racial and/or ethnic groups will result in a reduction of prejudice between these groups and an increase in positive and tolerant attitudes. Of course, as will be discussed shortly, even Allport (1954) stresses the fact that much will depend upon the nature of the contact that takes place (see also Pettigrew 1971). However, while there may now exist a ‘shopping list’ of criteria that needs to be met in terms of the recommended type of contact that should take place (Werth and Lord 1992, Pettigrew 1997), this does not seem to have detracted from the simplicity of the message – that intergroup contact reduces prejudice.

For many commentators, however, it is not the simplicity of the Hypothesis that has ensured its popularity within academic and political circles so much as its underlying ideological premises (Brown and Turner 1981; Jackman and Crane 1986; Troyna 1987, 1993). In essence it is an Hypothesis that (some would say conveniently) appears to restrict the nature and causes of racism and ethnic divisions to individual ignorance and misunderstanding. The more that individuals can meet and thus learn about members of other ethnic groups, the more that their existing prejudices and stereotypes will be undermined. While such contact may only initially ameliorate an individual’s attitudes towards the particular members of another racial/ethnic group that she or he comes into contact with, such attitudinal change is thought, in the longer term, to translate into more general attitudes towards the racial/ethnic group as a whole (Allport 1954; Deforges et al. 1997). This theoretical individualism, as Brown and Turner (1981) argue, rules out any analysis of the broader social processes, institutions and structures that help to create and sustain racial and ethnic divisions. It is therefore not surprising that the Contact Hypothesis, and its variants, should prove to be a particularly popular idea within government circles. Within such an ideological framework, the state is seen to play little or no part in the construction and maintenance of racial and ethnic divisions and is therefore effectively absolved of any responsibility for it. At best it is charged with an essentially benign, peace-making role in attempting to encourage greater contact and positive attitudes between various racial and ethnic groups.

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This is certainly the impression that some commentators have in respect of community relations work in Northern Ireland. As Fitzduff (1995) has argued, for example, there was until relatively recently a growing feeling among many voluntary and community groups that they were being charged with the responsibility of community relations work by a government which was increasingly abdicating its own responsibility. This feeling is that much more acute, she goes onto argue, because many believe that they have been charged with an impossible task of tackling a problem (i.e. sectarianism) which has actually been caused by, and therefore can only realistically be rectified by, the government itself.

Moreover, in relation to ‘race’, it is argued that this general approach not only enables the state to evade responsibility for racial and ethnic relations but it can also provide the ideological basis for distinctly racist policies and practices. Reicher (1986), for example, in charting the evolution of Immigration laws in the UK has argued that they were often legitimised within the basic Contact Hypothesis framework. The government’s concern during the 1960s and 70s appears to have been underscored by the belief that ‘positive’ contact between minority ethnic groups and the indigenous population can only be created by limiting immigration. As Roy Hattersley MP argued at the time: ‘without integration limitation is inexcusable, without limitation integration is impossible’ (cited in Reicher 1986: 152). Similarly, during this time, the UK government’s recommendation to Local Education Authorities that the proportion of ‘immigrants’ in any one school should not make up more than 30 per cent, and the policies of dispersal or ‘bussing’ that resulted, were also legitimised, in part, by reference to the Contact Hypothesis (Troyna 1993).

Such critiques of the Contact Hypothesis, both in terms of its underlying theoretical framework and its broader political implications, are well made and persuasive. It is not surprising that such a critique has led writers such as Jackman and Crane (1986) to recommend that the Contact Hypothesis be rejected altogether and replaced with a clear focus on power relations and broader structures. Indeed it is interesting to note that this is what appears to have happened in recent years where an academic gulf seems to have emerged between writers who emphasise the way in which racism and ethnic relations are inscribed in broader social processes and institutions and those who continue to research the Contact Hypothesis. It is certainly the case that a review of research on the Hypothesis conducted over the last few years reveals

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that while the area is still attracting a significant degree of academic attention, there is almost a complete lack of analysis within this from those adopting a more structuralist position (see, for instance, Alreshoud and Koeske 1997; Brewer 1996; Desforges et al. 1997; Gaertner et al. 1996; Pettigrew 1997; Powers and Ellison 1995; Sigelman and Welch 1993; Wilson 1996; Wood and Sonleitner 1996). It is impossible to state with any certainty why this gulf has appeared. However, it would seem reasonable to propose that it may partly reflect the sentiments of writers such as Jackman and Crane (1986) that either such research is largely irrelevant to the goal of addressing racism and ethnic divisions and/or that to continue to engage with the Contact Hypothesis is to accept its agenda and thus give it legimitacy.

It will be argued in this chapter, however, that this full-scale dismissal of the Contact Hypothesis is a little premature. We have already seen that sectarianism operates across all levels of society, from the systemic and structural levels to the more sub-cultural and subjectives ones. This acceptance of the multi-layered nature of ethnic divisions mirrors recent developments in the literature on racism among young people and children in Britain, for example, which has stressed the importance of adopting an integrated approach to understanding racism which can tease out the complex ways in which broader racialised processes at the ideological, political, local, sub-cultural, inter-personal and biographical levels articulate with one another (Troyna and Hatcher 1992; Gillborn 1995; Back 1996; Connolly 1998s).

It therefore follows from this that any strategies aimed at addressing racial and ethnic divisions (whether race relations work or community relations initiatives here in Northern Ireland) need to be equally ‘multi-layered’ and involve not only challenges to the broader structural and institutional forms of division and inequality but also to its more micro and inter-personal manifestations. In relation to Northern Ireland, alongside the broader attempts to reach political accomodation through the current peace process and also atempting to combat discrimination in the workplace, housing and so on, there is thus a need for more micro inter-personal work. This is certainly recognised, as already highlighted, by the increasing use of both ‘single identity work’ within specific communities and well-planned and sustained cross-community contact in order to encourage people to explore and examine their fears, anxieties and perceptions (Ruddell and O’Connor 1992; Logue 1993; Smith and Houghton 1995; Youth Council for Northern Ireland 1992, 1998).

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It is with this in mind that it is worth looking again at the nature of the research that is currently being published on the Contact Hypothesis and to assess the possible contribution it can make to helping to inform the development and refinement of cross-community contact schemes.

Research on the Contact Hypothesis

As mentioned above, since the early work of Allport (1954) in particular, the focus of research and debate in relation to the Contact Hypothesis has been upon the core conditions necessary for contact to be successful (i.e. to lead to a reduction in prejudice and the development of more positive attitudes about other ethnic groups). Alongside the need for contact to be personal and sustained (Brewer 1996), there appears to be general agreement that four core conditions are required (see Pettigrew 1971). These are: 1) there must be equal status between the groups who meet; 2) they must be involved in a co-operative venture with common goals; 3) competition between the groups must be avoided; and 4) the contact must be given legitimacy by having institutional support.

The major concern of research has been to assess the impact of inter-group contact usually by testing changes in the racial/ethnic attitudes of participants before and after the contact. Overall, the plethora of studies that has been conducted in this way has tended to produce mixed results. As Ford (1986) has argued following his own extensive review of the literature, it is a little ‘premature’ to conclude that ‘intergroup contacts reduce tension and prejudice’ (p. 256). While a number of studies have pointed to the positive effects of integroup contact, including more recent research (see Ellison and Powers 1994; Wood and Sonleitner 1996; Pettigrew 1997), Sigelman and Welch (1993) also counsel against a ‘naïve optimism’. They reach this conclusion on the basis of their own research based on a nationwide telephone survey of adult Americans where they examined the relationships between the extent to which respondents have friendships with members of another ethnic group and their general racial attitudes. They found that: ‘having friends of the other race or living in environments where interracial social contact is commonplace does not guarantee that blacks and whites will perceive race relations as more amicable or that they will feel more committed to engaging in social intercourse’ (p. 792). Indeed they found that the relationship between contact and positive racial attitudes was only found to be statistically significant for half of their sample.

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Within this broader set of conclusions – that the effects of contact are not conclusive but do appear to have some positive outcomes at times – recent debates within the literature have developed in relation to both methodological and theoretical concerns. It is worth briefly outlining the nature of these debates in turn.

Methodological considerations

Methodologically, there has been a focus on both the nature of the samples used and the ability of the research to adequately control for, and thus appropriately measure the effects of, the four conditions associated with the Contact Hypothesis. With regards to the former, many commentators have, for some time, suggested that those who engage in contact form a relatively self-selecting sample in that they are more likely to have positive attitudes to other racial and ethnic groups in the first instance (Robinson and Preston 1976). In other words, it is argued that positive attitudes leads to people choosing to become involved in intergroup contact rather than vice-versa i.e. inter-group contact leading to the development of positive attitudes. Indeed a recent study by Alreshoud and Koeske (1997) of Saudi Arabian students enrolled in US educational programmes appears to add support to this view in that they found no evidence that increased contact with American students helped to foster more positive attitudes among the Saudi Arabian students and yet those students with attitudes that were more positive initially were found to engage in contact with American students more than those with less favourable attitudes. However, recent research has tended to control for these effects and to challenge this view (Powers and Ellison 1995; Wood and Sonleitner 1996). Wilson (1996) for instance found that while prejudiced people may well tend to avoid contact, contact itself does have an independent effect in tending to reduce prejudice.

Alongside these debates about sampling, the other major methodological debate has been concerned with the ability of experimental tests to adequately control for, and thus measure, the impact of the four conditions for contact proposed by the Contact Hypothesis. According to Ford (1986) in his extensive review of the research literature, for example, the condition of ‘equal status’ has rarely been adequately defined and measured but has simply been assumed by the fact that respondents lived in close proximity, shared similar roles or were, in the case of the more recent research by Sigelman and Welch (1993) described above, ‘friends’. Such criticisms have led to

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writers such as Smith (1996) to develop and apply more advanced statistical techniques in order to adequately control for and measure the effect of these variables independently.

Theoretical considerations

Alongside these methodological considerations, more recent debates have attempted to explore and develop a theoretical purchase on the processes underpinning the Contact Hypothesis. More specifically, a number of writers have drawn upon various theories within social psychology, particularly social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner 1986) in order to explain both the processes underlying the development of positive attitudes following contact and the reasons why these attitudes develop. As regards the former, one particular concern in relation to underlying processes has been with the extent to which members of an ethnic group involved in intergroup contact are representative of that group. In reviewing the effects of contact on participants’ racial and ethnic attitudes, Hewstone and Brown (1986) concluded that while an individual’s attitudes may have changed in relation to the specific members of another ethnic group that they have had contact with, this change does not often generalise to that individual’s attitudes towards the ethnic group as a whole. For Hewstone and Brown, they suggest that one possible way in which generalisation of attitudes may be increased is to ensure that: ‘participants in the contact encounters see each other as representatives of their groups and not merely as "exceptions to the rule"’ (p. 18). This has been a proposal tested and seemingly supported by recent research. Hamburger (1994), for example, found that the use of ‘atypical’ participants who were not particularly representative of their racial or ethnic group did not lead to the development of attitudinal change that generalised to the group as a whole. Rather, it led to the creation of sub-categories into which the atypical participants were placed. At best, therefore, it leads to an increased variability within the general stereotypes held about that ethnic group rather than change the central tendency of the group stereotype per se. More recently, Desforges et al (1997) set out specifically to control for the representativeness of participants involved in contact and found that representativeness did appear to positively correlate with the generalisation of attitudinal change.

Alongside attempts to understand the processes underlying the Contact Hypothesis, a number of writers have also been concerned with developing a broader theoretical framework that can attempt to

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explain why contact appears to create positive attitudinal change. In this regard, Brewer (1996) identifies three different models that have been proposed in an attempt to explain the success of intergroup contact. The first, the Personalisation Model, is offered by Brewer and Miller (1984) and argues that it is important for participants in contact to develop personal relationships with members of other ethnic groups. This, it is argued, will help to demonstrate that members of the other ethnic group vary greatly in terms of personality and character and will thus act to undermine their general perception of that ethnic group as a homogenous one. If this is not done and the broader ethnic categories predominate within intergroup contact then, however pleasant and positive that contact may be, participants will still tend to view members of the other ethnic groups as being ‘undifferentiated representatives’ of that group.

A second model, the Common Ingroup Identity Model (Gaertner et al. 1996) argues that it is not so much that existing ethnic categories are undermined within intergroup contact that leads to an increase in positive attitudes towards the outgroup, but that a wider, superordinate identity is created. In this sense, as Gaertner et al. (1996:271) argue, contact which fosters cooperative activity towards meeting a common goal tends to: ‘transform members’ perceptions of the memberships from "Us" and "Them" to a more inclusive "we"’. At times, therefore, participants develop a dual identity – their own sub-group identity and the broader, superordinate one.

A third, the Distinct Social Identity Model, approaches the issue of inter-ethnic conflict from a very different perspective. Hewstone and Brown (1986), the main proponents of the model, suggest that the most important element in intergroup contact is that it is pleasant and cooperative. It is the positive experiences of such contact that will consequently lead to participants generalising these experiences to the other ethnic group as a whole. In this sense, Hewstone and Brown argue that it is important to organise cooperative contact that maintains distinct but complementary roles for participants from the two different ethnic groups. There appears to be some evidence to support this model from the work of Deschamps and Brown (1983) who organised two teams of students from two different faculties into a cooperative venture to produce a two-page magazine article. One group were assigned the task of working on the text, the other on the graphics and layout. They found that the students involved in this contact developed more positive attitudes towards one another than those who were involved in similar

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contact but where there was no distinction made between their roles. As Hewstone and Brown contend, the overall purpose of such contact is not to challenge and undermine participants’ constructions of other ethnic groups as homogenous and distinct as is the focus of the Personalisation Model described above. Rather its aim is to change participants general perceptions of relations between their own and other ethnic groups from essentially negative to positive ones. In other words, they can begin to appreciate that contact need not have to be negative and confrontational, as may be their general experience, but one which can be rewarding and positive.

New directions for research on the Contact Hypothesis

Clearly, given the limited space available, the review above of the key methodological and theoretical debates that currently guide research on the Contact Hypothesis is necessarily incomplete. However, it does serve to highlight the general direction that the literature appears to be taking and, as such, will more than suffice for present purposes. Overall, it can be seen that the work outlined above has tended to create a rather self-referential field where the core assumptions and beliefs that underpin the Contact Hypothesis are simply taken for granted and thus remain unchallenged. Theoretically, the debates are clearly grounded in social psychological perspectives which focus on an individual’s potential for attitudinal change within intergroup contact. The underlying assumption that such contact can, in itself, lead to improved inter-ethnic relations has the consequence of denying the importance and effect of broader social structures and processes. As argued earlier, this is not to say that inter-group contact is unimportant or unnecessary. However, in attempting to theorise its influence and effects, it is clear that these cannot be fully understood without a proper appreciation of the broader social contexts within which participants are located and the various factors that help to construct and sustain racial and ethnic divisions. Certainly, in relation to the case of Northern Ireland, the general finding of research into several decades of cross-community contact is that while Protestant and Catholic children and young people’s attitudes may change towards each other when given the opportunity to be taken away on a short break or holiday together, such attitudinal change is only temporary and the participants are likely to revert to their previous beliefs and behaviour as soon as they return to their own neighbourhoods (Cairns 1987; Trew 1989; Cairns and Cairns 1995).

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Moreover, the nature of the methodological debates as outlined above only tend to reinforce this restricted focus. This can be seen, for example, in the preoccupation with how the presence or absence of the four key preconditions proposed for ‘successful’ contact to take place can be effectively identified and measured. In this case the general utility of inter-group contact for challenging broader racial and ethnic divisions is simply taken for granted and the question is simply one of how best can that contact be operationalised.

In addition, the type of ‘test/re-test’ methodology used to detect participants’ attitudinal change before and after their involvement in contact similarly acts to restrict debate. At its most basic level, in limiting its focus to the immediate post-contact effects, it is unable to take into consideration the longer-term impact of the broader social environment on the attitudes and behaviour of participants. Moreover, the measures used to test participants’ levels of prejudice are also often crude and do not allow for a consideration of the contradictory and context-specific nature of racial and ethnic prejudice. For example, Wilson (1996) in his study used data from the 1990 National Opinion Research Center (NORC) General Social Survey which, among other questions, asked respondents to indicate on a seven-point scale whether members of specifically identified racial/ethnic groups generally tended to ‘be hard-working … or lazy’, ‘be violence-prone or … not prone to violence’, ‘be unintelligent or … intelligent’ and ‘prefer to be self-supporting or … prefer to live off welfare’ (Wilson 1996: 47). Not only are such questions ethically dubious and questionably racist in that they can be seen to encourage respondents to distinguish between and generalise about the character-traits of different racial/ethnic groups, but it also prevents any analysis of where and when such attitudes become salient in the respondents’ lives. In other words, such a survey, used in isolation, lends itself to the construction of a decontextualised overall rating (possibly measured between one and seven) of respondents’ levels of prejudice. Without any consideration of the impact of particular social processes or contexts, it can only be assumed that the respondents will act upon their level of prejudice so measured in a uniform and consistent manner, irrespective of their social location or situation. And yet, as has been highlighted above in relation to sectarianism in Northern Ireland, attitudinal change measured at the end of a contact scheme is no indicator of how the participants are going to think and behave once they return to their own neighbourhoods.

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It is clear, therefore, that when considering the future direction of research on the Contact Hypothesis, three specific concerns need to be addressed. In relation to our present focus on sectarianism and community relations work with children, these are:

  1. Research needs to be better able to deal with the complex dialectical relationships between the nature of the inter-group contact itself and the broader socio-economic and political contexts within which the participants are located. In other words, there needs to be a synthesis in our understanding of how sectarianism operates across and between the systemic, structural, sub-cultural and subjective levels outlined in Chapter One.

  2. Research needs to move away from the rather blunt and crude approaches to ‘measuring’ sectarian prejudice through the use of scales and, rather, develop an approach that is sensitive to the contingent, contradictory and context-specific nature of sectarianism and thus be able to identify and chart its developments and changes.

  3. Future research needs to be able to offer insights into why particular forms of contact seem to be more successful than others. This appears to be an obvious point and yet the types of test and re-test approaches adopted can only tell us that attitudinal change has taken place (even if, often, only temporarily). The lack of focus on the social processes, practices and contexts within which the children are located means that the ability to understand what lies behind such changes (and indeed why they are often only temporary) is inevitably very limited.

The ability to address this third point clearly depends, in large part, on being able to address the previous two. However, it also represents a more fundamental and important concern in relation to current research approaches to the Contact Hypothesis. As discussed earlier, a number of preconditions have been identified in relation to the nature of inter-group contact and attempts have been made to measure their effects on attitudinal change. Moreover, various social psychological perspectives, especially social identity theory, have been utilised to try and explain these effects. However, these theories remain generalised and are, ultimately, rather speculative. In other words, explanations as to why

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particular respondents have experienced attitudinal change are not derived from a careful examination of their own experiences and perspectives but are simply ‘read off’ from the presence of particular conditions existing within the contact (i.e. that it was co-operative, that the participants were of equal status etc.). However, association does not mean cause. Given the context-specific nature of racism and ethnic prejudice and their contingent and contradictory forms, the production of such ungrounded assumptions is highly questionable.


In this chapter, we have looked at the broader approach taken to researching the Contact Hypothesis. As argued, the Hypothesis provides the theoretical underpinning of the many different cross-community contact schemes organised between children in Northern Ireland. An understanding of the limitations in research on the Contact Hypothesis generally will therefore help us to understand what future role would be most appropriate and productive for research to take on contact schemes here.

Overall, it is clear from the discussion above that research on the Contact Hypothesis has become largely self-referential. It continues to overlook the broader socio-structural influences that are in play and, instead, adopts a very micro, individualistic focus. It was argued in Chapter One that for research to contribute effectively to our understanding of the influence of sectarianism in children’s lives, we need to broaden our analysis to understand how it operates across the systemic, structural, sub-cultural and subjective levels. This is an argument that is just as applicable to research on the Contact Hypothesis generally and on specific cross-community contact schemes in particular. This is a point that is now developed in the following chapter where a potentially more fruitful and appropriate methodology for the study of sectarianism and community relations work with children is outlined and developed.