CAIN Web Service

Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster

Centre Publications

[Centre for the Study of Conflict - Home Page]
[Background] [Staff] [Projects] [CENTRE PUBLICATIONS] [Other Information] [Contact Details]
[Chronological Listing] [Alphabetical Listing] [Subject Listing]

Text: Ed Cairns ... Page Design: John Hughes

front cover

A Welling Up of Deep Unconscious Forces, Psychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict

by Ed Cairns
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1994
ISBN 1 85923 070 9
Paperback 29pp £4.00

Out of Print - full text of publication below:

This material is copyright of the Centre for the Study of Conflict and the author(s) and is included on the CAIN web site with the permission of the publisher. Reproduction or redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

A Welling Up of Deep Unconscious Forces
Psychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict

Ed Cairns

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster

Social Identity Theory
Does Social Identity Theory apply to Northern Ireland
Is this Analysis of Practical Significance to Northern Ireland
The Contact Hypothesis
Changing Intergroup Boundaries
Summary and Conclusions


The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict. It has recently published a Register of Research on Northern Ireland which has been widely praised, and a termly newsletter on current research called Research Briefing.

This new series of six research reports and papers on aspects of the Northern Ireland conflict represents the results of recent work as well as a reprint of an earlier work still much in demand.

It includes the extensive evaluation work of Colin Knox and his colleagues on the Community Relations and Local Government initiative, a major experiment in the promotion and encouragement of inter-community activity through the medium of district councils; a ground-breaking report by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser (carried out in association with the Centre for Research on Women) called The Company We Keep: Women, Community and Organisations, on the role and influence and cross-community activities of women in small towns and rural communities; the first in a new series of reports on the concept and experience of alienation, called Protestant Alienation in Northern Ireland; the most recent Majority-Minority report (joining earlier reports on education and on employment/unemployment) this one by Martin Melaugh on Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland; a paper by Ed Cairns onPsychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict, one in the series of occasional papers written by distinguished scholars. Finally, a reprint of the much discussed report by Duncan Morrow and his colleagues on The Churches and Intercommunity Relationships first published in 1991.

A second new series of reports will be published in July 1994 on topics such as Geographical Segregation, Education for Mutual Understanding, Disability, Community Development and Peace Education.

Seamus Dunn
May 1994.

Return to publication contents


As my title suggests the main aim of this lecture is to discuss the role of psychology in relation to understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland. There is, I believe, general agreement among social psychologists that understanding conflict in general is an area where psychology has made a contribution and hopefully will continue to do so.

However I have to admit that psychologists in Northern Ireland were not always so confident about their role in understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland. Indeed it is true that Northern Ireland had to teeter on the brink of civil war and become the focus of the world's media before the interest of local psychologists was aroused (Cairns, 1987, p.13).

To understand this reluctance to get involved with research on the conflict one must take into account the general history of psychology as an academic discipline and in particular the status of social psychology within that discipline.

The history of psychology reveals that there has always been and continues to be a tension between those who see the discipline as a social science and those who see it as a biological science - or as the latter like to refer to it - between soft psychology and hard psychology.

This tension is probably more keenly felt in North America where social psychology has flourished particularly since the Second World War. Involvement in the war effort had opened up avenues for social psychologists to become involved in practical problems and after the war they turned their attention to what they saw were the main social problems in their society, particularly the racial problem. In the United Kingdom however the idea of psychology as a biological science dominated and indeed still does to this day.

In the early 1970's this background presented problems for local psychologists who wanted to apply psychology to the conflict in Northern Ireland. To begin with psychologists in Northern Ireland had no experience of trying to apply their discipline to social problems. Secondly what social psychology there was available in psychology in general, was largely Northern American social psychology, dominated by an individualistic (as opposed to a social) framework - a point that I will return to later.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, as I said earlier, I feel it is now safe to say that psychology has reached a point where it can claim to have made a modest contribution to understanding the conflict here and I would argue is now positioned to make an even greater contribution in the future.

In this lecture of course there is not time to cover everything accomplished by psychologists in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years and so I will be concentrating on two areas in particular:

first the way in which psychology has contributed to a better understanding of the conflict here, particularly through theoretical developments;

second at a more practical level, ways in which this approach may provide insights into improving methods to promote reconciliation and peace.

As well as looking at the contributions which local researchers have made to understanding these apparently local problems, I also want to suggest how we in Northern Ireland can benefit from an understanding of social psychological research in general.

This means of course that I will be concentrating on academic work only and even then this will be a fairly narrow sweep of the field omitting mention of the contribution made by many psychologists who work in applied areas such as the health services the educational field and of course the civil service.

It also means that I will be omitting one of the major areas where local psychologists such as Frank Fee, Liz McWhirter and my colleague Ronnie Wilson have made a significant contribution -understanding the impact of the conflict on the people (adults and children) of Northern Ireland, especially the impact on their mental health (for recent review see Cairns & Wilson, 1992).

However I want to focus on psychological research and thinking on the causes of conflict for two reasons.

First because this is a topic which I believe can have an impact on the way people at all levels of Northern Irish society think about what is happening here and secondly because how we think about the conflict is in turn is related to the way in which we seek to contribute to the search for reconciliation.

But first some theoretical background. In the late 1960's and early 1970's psychological explanations for intergroup conflict tended to be ideas based largely on Freudian thinking and tested mostly by researchers from the USA. These theories contained ideas often loosely based on the notion of the displacement of aggression. Originally the idea was that individuals would deal with their aggression by displacing it outward on to other individuals and it was believed that this same process also applied to intergroup relations with the groups chosen to receive this displaced aggression inevitably weaker groups.

From this basic idea others have derived theories to explain intergroup conflict involving unconscious process such as projection and scapegoating or more complex schemes involving the development of a particular personality type central to which is authoritarianism which in turn is related to outgroup hostility.

Put simply these theories see the attitudes and behaviour of people towards outgroups as 'ways of working out individual emotional problems in an intergroup setting'. (Tajfel, 1978). A sort of sophisticated group form of 'kicking the cat'!

These views of intergroup conflict based on some form of individual pathology became very popular, especially after the Second World War, when people were trying to come to terms with the horrors of the holocaust. In the 1970's however European psychologists in particular began to be disenchanted by these ideas as explanations for intergroup conflict. While acknowledging that they might play a role in explaining interpersonal conflict their problem was how to directly extrapolate from interpersonal aggression or conflict to intergroup conflict.

What these social psychologists pointed out was that intergroup conflict does not involve random collections of individuals who somehow come to act in unison because they all happen to be in a similar psychological state. Instead they suggested that it was impossible to explain the uniformities of masses of individuals if we start with laws governing individual behaviour.

For psychologists in Northern Ireland the Freudian based theories provided some particular problems. Perhaps the most important of these was that they suggested that the primary explanation for intergroup conflict is psychological. However, anyone who lives in Northern Ireland knows that other factors such as religion, history, demography, politics and economics also play a role in the conflict here.

This meant that when an alternative view of intergroup conflict which did not psychologize the problem in this way became available psychologist here embraced it willingly and moved from a North American to a more European perspective as they adopted what is known as Tajfel's (after the originator Henri Tajfel) Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986).

Social Identity Theory

What is different and important about Social Identity Theory is that it is based on normal psychological processes that operate under all circumstances not just under conditions of intergroup conflict.

For example it is known that in order to deal with the vast amount of information in our environment we have to simplify, to develop short-cuts by categorizing objects. In the same way Social Identity Theory suggests we categorize our social world in order to reduce the complexity of that environment.

One consequence of this categorization which takes on particular significance in the realm of social behaviour is the tendency to accentuate similarities within categories or groups and at the same time to accentuate differences between groups.

Incidentally perhaps at this point I should say that when I refer to groups I am not thinking of face to face groups. Instead Social Identity Theory suggests that a group is any body of people who feel that they are a group. In other words we are not talking about objective group membership but simply that the individuals concerned are consensually referred to by a common label both by other people and by themselves (Tajfel, 1978).

This means that social categorization is not merely a way of dividing the rest of the world into groups but also provides us with a way of defining our own place in society. This self-categorization leads to the development of what is referred to as social identity, whereby we place ourselves in certain social categories and exclude ourselves from others.

Social identity theorists believe that this self categorization (or as it is more commonly referred to our social identity) becomes an important part of our self-concept and thus becomes one of the central social psychological constructs underlying the manifestation of intergroup behaviour.

One of the things that is different about social categorization, compared to the categorization of inanimate objects is that the perception of social groups involves an evaluative component and what Social Identity Theory suggests, is that it is through the process of social comparison, that the evaluative dimension of group membership is determined.

There is a tendency to compare our own ingroups with specific outgroups and the result of this will in turn contribute not only to the way we think about the groups we belong to but also to the way we think about ourselves- in particular how we evaluate our social identity.

This is important because it is known that individuals have a need for and are motivated to strive for a positive self concept and so it follows that individuals are also motivated to strive for a positive social identity.

Put simply this suggests that to achieve a positive social identity we have to make sure that our group comes off best in comparisons with other groups.

So we make comparisons between our group and other groups and do certain things to ensure that we achieve positive differentiation. For example we may change the rules of comparison - and the idea that black is beautiful is an outstanding example of this.

Or, if tactics such as these don�t work we may leave the group which is falling to provide us with a positive social identity and join another group. However in certain circumstances leaving the group may be impossible and it is under circumstances such as this that the social comparison process may become particularly significant.

Of course it is important to note that we do not go around all the time thinking of ourselves as members of particular social categories or groups. Instead Social Identity Theory suggests that our behaviours can be placed on a continuum that extends at one extreme to behaviours that are strictly determined by interpersonal considerations to the other end of the continuum where behaviours are strictly determined by intergroup considerations.

Where exactly our behaviours are located on this continuum will determine whether our behaviour is impacting on the personal identity aspects of our self-concept or on the social identity aspects of our self-concept.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that where behaviour is placed on this continuum is not related to the number of people involved. Two people could meet one day and discuss, for example, the weather and thus have an interpersonal encounter. On another occasion, or even the same occasion, the same two people could meet at the intergroup end of the continuum because now they were meeting as (for example) a union and a management representative.

This incidentally may explain the often whispered rumours that when the television cameras are switched off certain public representatives in Northern Ireland who seconds before had been metaphorically tearing each other apart can exchange pleasantries and appear almost to like each other - one moment involved in an intergroup encounter, the next in an interpersonal one.

In its most simple form therefore Social Identity Theory suggests that we tend to categorize our social world, and that part of our self-image - our social identity - is derived from our categorization of ourselves as members of various social groups.

We have a need to evaluate ourselves positively through comparison with others. This extends to part of our self image - our Social Identity and leads to intergroup comparisons. Normally this is not a problem but in certain circumstances we may find ourselves members of a group that it is difficult or impossible to leave.

In such circumstances the only way to enhance one�s self-esteem may be to act so as to preserve or defend the group�s interests. In extreme circumstances this may even lead to us taking action which in not it our own personal interests but is in the interests of our group.

The psychodynamic approach (the old approach) sees intergroup conflict as the product of individual psychopathology and groups as nothing more than the individuals that comprise them.

What Social Identity Theory has helped social psychologists at least to recognize is that individuals are different in groups and that it is this difference which produces recognizable forms of group action (Wetherell & Potter, 1992).

Further by showing how group belongingness can become part of a person�s self-concept, Social Identity Theory has helped to go some way to overcoming the duality inherent in earlier thinking which suggested that groups and individuals were somehow separate entities (Foster & Louw-Potgeister, 1991).

In other words what Social Identity Theory has done is outline a process which places the individual in the group and at the same time places the group in the individual.

However even if one accepts Social Identity Theory in the abstract this still raises two important questions. The first is can Social Identity Theory be used to help understand the conflict in Northern Ireland and secondly if it does apply here is it of any practical significance?

Does Social Identity Theory apply to Northern Ireland?

In fact the work of local psychologists such as Karen Trew, Tony Gallagher and Maurice Stringer (for a recent review see Trew, 1992) has established that Social Identity Theory can be applied in Northern Ireland.

However while psychological studies can look at the process in detail it doesn�t really take research to make this point. Consider for a moment the process of social categorization. This is, as l have said,

a normal psychological process. In Northern Ireland however, what is notable is that people will go to remarkable lengths, if necessary, to place other people in one particular category - that of Catholic or Protestant.

Indeed one observer from �the other island� has dubbed this telling noting that we in Northern Ireland are almost obsessed with �the fundamental and almost overwhelming question - what is he?� (Burton, 1979).

In fact I would go as far as to suggest that in Northern Ireland we are so adept at finding answers to this almost overwhelming question that most of the time we don�t even realized that we have asked and answered this question. This we do using cues well known to everyone here in particular school attended, first name, and area of residence. When this information is denied us we may fall back on less reliable cues such as surname, facial appearance or even type of swear words used (Cairns, 1987).

As John Hewitt put in his poem �The Colony�

... You may distinguish,
if you were schooled with us, by pigmentation,
by cast of features or by turn of phrase,
or by the clan names on them - which are they,
among the faces moving in the street.

Most of the time this program runs so smoothly that we don�t even notice that we do it.

We know that it is something that others do, but not us...

Perhaps the only time that we may notice it is when we get it wrong - or think that we may have got it wrong.

Of course not only do we categorize others in this way but we categorize ourselves. In survey after survey when people in Northern Ireland are asked to state whether they are Catholic or Protestant the majority are willing to answer the question. Indeed people here see no problem about stating that they are a Catholic or a Protestant and then stating that they never attend church. This is of course also related to the very old joke which has some psychological truth in it about the person who said they were a Jew being asked if they were a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew.

When I carry out exercises with my students which involve asking members of the public in on-street interviews to state their denominational background students are sometimes a little nervous about this - especially students from outside the province. What I like to point out to them when we get the results (and I apologize in advance if this is not politically correct) is that more women refuse to give their age compared to people who refuse to state their denominational background.

What then about the proposition in Social Identity Theory that there is a continuum from interpersonal behaviour to intergroup behaviour so that individuals at times think of themselves as individuals and at other times to a lesser or greater extent as group members and the proposition that these self-categorizations carry evaluative overtones and that attempts are made to enhance these evaluations by carrying out social comparisons.

A good example of both these processes at work is encapsulated in the observation by Rosemary Harris (1989, p. 86) that in the community she studied, the people despite their �genuine wishes to be good neighbours ... could easily, out of no particular malevolence, step into a kind of mystic world in which the neighbourhood was transformed and "our fellows" became exclusively good and "their fellows" were seen to be bad�.

Finally of course it can be argued that Northern Ireland all of this takes on a particular significance because this is a society in which the social mobility option of passing from one group to the other is not open and therefore people here are locked into their psychological struggle for supremacy.

Sadly it is therefore all too easy to think of examples of people taking action which is not in their own personal interest but is in the interests of the group to which they belong.

Is this Analysis of Practical Significance to Northern Ireland?

I now want to go on to argue that thinking about the Northern Irish conflict in Social Identity terms has had, I believe, several important consequences.

First, if nothing else it has been good for local social psychologists and has allowed them to appreciate that in order to understand the conflict here an interdisciplinary approach is required. And in this context I have to pay tribute to my colleagues in the Centre for the Study of Conflict here at the University of Ulster who have greatly facilitated such an interdisciplinary approach.

As a result psychologists have stopped trying to �psychologize� the conflict.

A second less tangible, but more important benefit has been the beginning of a change in the way that non-psychologist think about the conflict. Here I include of course people in other academics disciplines but also, and more importantly, people in other walks of life including policy makers and hopefully, eventually the public in general.

This idea, that in some way, academic theories can influence every-day discourse, is what is known as the trickle-down approach - the notion that scientific ideas trickle down through the various strata of society leaving behind a sediment of knowledge which comes to be thought of as �common sense

These sediments form what psychologist have come to call social representations which are consensual understandings which emerge from informal discussion and transform the unfamiliar into the familiar by providing a framework of knowledge which helps to satisfy our need to understand the world (Hogg & Abrams, 1988).

Until recently it would appear that common sense explanations for the conflict, or social representations of the conflict, have been largely determined by Freudian explanations for intergroup conflict.

Certainly this is the impression one gets from time to time from some of the more outrageous headlines in English newspapers when something terrible happens here - then stock phrases like �sick society�, �madness� �tribal� and �mindless� appear in banner headlines. This plus thinly veiled government references (not perhaps heard so often today) to the �psychopaths�, who are said to inhabit the ranks of or even be the leaders of the paramilitaries, lead me to believe that there are people at all levels of society who see the conflict in Northern Ireland as essentially a form of psychopathology.

What I hope Social Identity Theory will do is influence people to see the conflict as a form of behaviour which is instead determined by essentially normal psychological processes, but normal psychological processes which are operating in exceptional circumstances.

And happily there are signs that this trickle-down process is underway. John Whyte (1991) in his excellent book �Interpreting Northern Ireland� points out that "In recent years a number of authorities, none of whom are psychologist and most of whom, one may safely guess, have never heard of Tajfel, have talked about the Northern Ireland conflict as being fundamentally a clash of identities" (p. 97). Among those authorities he include the anonymous writers of a British white paper and Garret Fitzgerald in his 1982 Dimbleby lecture.

To this list may now possibly be added the present Secretary of State who in his Coleraine speech of 1992 at the Centre for the Study of Conflict appeared to hint at the fact that he too understood the importance of Social Identity Theory when he stated that he believed that the first and most important division in Northern Ireland involved �national identities�.

Unfortunately Sir Patrick revealed that his views on the conflict in Northern Ireland still have something in common with Sun headline writers and that he is not a totally reconstituted Freudian when in another part of his speech noted that he believed that these divisions "represent the fault lines beneath the brittle crust of Northern Ireland, through which primal forces continue to produce eruptions".

However, on my more optimistic days I still like to think that the fact that a senior politician mentioned identity at all in the context of the conflict here is progress.

All of this is important, I would argue, because how one understands the factors that sustain the conflict will in turn influence where one searches for ways to dampen its ardour.

And this is related to the final way in which Social identity Theory has I believe proved useful and I hope will prove to be useful. This is in providing a context within which to evaluate and critique attempts to reconcile the two communities in Northern Ireland.

The Contact Hypothesis

One particular reasons that Social Identity Theory is applicable in this area is because a lot of work in Northern Ireland, especially with children, has been influenced to a greater or lesser degree by what is known as the Contact Hypothesis.

This is one of the most commonly held beliefs about the way in which conflict between groups can be reduced (Amir, 1969). The contact hypothesis basically states that contact between people will allow them to communicate with each other and thus to discover that they share similar basic attitudes and values, and to appreciate each others� way of life.

The end product of this, it is claimed, will be positive attitudes, not only towards the specific outgroup members with whom contact occurred but greater understanding of the outgroup in general and hence a reduction in conflict.

The contact hypothesis has been around for some time and has been tested in both laboratory and field settings - mainly, though not exclusively, with children. It has also been tested in several societies but principally in the USA and Israel. Unfortunately, despite its obvious intuitive appeal, the contact hypothesis has not received great empirical support.

The problem is that even when intergroup contact takes place under what are thought to be ideal conditions, the current literature provides little evidence that intergroup contact will normally elicit more positive attitudes towards the other group as a whole. In other words the research suggests that even if positive attitudes are formed towards member of the outgroup with whom one comes into contact these attitudes fail to generalise to the outgroup in general and outgroup stereotypes therefore remain in tact.

However recent research in social cognition taken in conjunction with some of the ideas on Social Identity Theory as outlined above have begun to provide clues as to more effective ways that contact can be used to alter stereotypes.

What this research in social cognition has shown is that stereotypes are highly resistant to change. Part of the problem is because category membership as it is understood in social cognition is not necessarily inferred from the objective characteristics of category members. In other words when people in social psychology use the term category they are not using it in the classical Aristotelian sense which holds that all members within a category are equally good members of that category.

Instead the prototype model as used in social categorization implies that category members vary in their goodness of fit to the category, with good members sharing more features in common with the category prototype than bad members. The problem with this is that an apparent member of a particular social category may not be mentally represented as a member of that category if their characteristics do not represent a good fit (Robarth & Lewis, 1988).

This in turn has implications for the contact hypothesis because the contact hypothesis assumes that the attributes of category members generalize to the category as a whole. As a result of this stereotypic beliefs show considerable inertia in responding to discrepant information.

For example, in the UK many people thought that having a woman PM would lead to altered attitudes about women in general or even to women in politics. It did not. Why? - because while Mrs Thatcher was objectively a woman she was mentally represented in cartoons, gossip and her spitting image puppet more often than not as a man. In other words her characteristics of toughness and aggression did not represent a good fit to the stereotype of the social category �woman� in our society.

In fact, what research in this area has shown therefore, is that what tends to happen when disconfirming information - that is information which disconfirms a stereotype - is presented, is that it leads to the formation of subtypes of the original social category which are thought of as unrepresentative of the group as a whole (Johnston & Hewstone, 1992).

This is almost certainly what happens as a result of successful contact. People form subtypes - they now know that �good� or �decent� Catholics or �good� or �decent� Protestants exist - but unfortunately the overall stereotype is left unchanged.

In order for stereotype change to occur what recent research has suggested is necessary is for the stereotype disconfirmers to be seen as typical of the group rather than as individuals. And this is where Social Identity Theory comes in - because what this means is that contact must takes place, not between individuals as individuals, but rather between members of respective groups. In other words, the contact must occur at the intergroup end of the continuum rather than at the interpersonal end.

Paradoxically therefore, part of the solution may be to make people�s group affiliations more salient in the contact situation and not less (Brown, 1988), thereby ensuring that the participants see each other as representative of their groups and not merely as exceptions to the rule. In this way, what contact should ideally aim for, is to change people�s minds about what constitutes a typical group member (Werth & Lord, 1993).

Of course these things are easier said than done, except perhaps in the controlled conditions of a social psychology experiment -insuring that such changes can take place in more naturally occurring situations is rather more difficult.

Part of the problem is that the impressions that we form of a group will depend on the situations under which we sample that group�s behaviour. The difficulty here is that while some contact settings will permit the expression of the particular behaviour that we want to disconfirm we can�t be sure that this will always happen.

For example, if the particular stereotype is that the outgroup is lazy, then finding or creating situations in which members of the outgroup are working hard will not be difficult. But what if the stereotype is untrustworthy/devious/sly or treacherous? These are just the sort of traits that real life groups in conflict often ascribe to each other. It is much more difficult to find contact settings which permit the expression of behaviours which will disconfirm beliefs such as these.

Another problem is on how many occasions do we have to see the outgroup, for example, not being lazy for our stereotype to be disconfirmed - research suggests quite a lot and certainly not just once.

And of course a major problem is how to ensure that contact with typical outgroup members is not destructive rather than constructive. At the moment I suspect that in Northern Ireland intergroup contact is more likely to take place between atypical members of the two groups. Obviously those who organize such activities are only to aware that if stereotypical outgroup members are involved there is the distinct danger that stereotypes will simply be confirmed rather than altered.

For reasons such as these the most recent thinking is that for contact to successfully disconfirm key stereotypic beliefs it not only has to involve intergroup contact, it must also involve intergroup contact with a member or members of the outgroup who are prototypical in all respects with the exception of the one key factor to be disconfirmed. In addition the contact should take place over a long period of time and in order for the specific disconfirming stereotyped behaviour or belief to be expressed the contact should optimally take place under highly structured conditions in which the interactions may need to be loosely scripted (Desforges et al., 1991) for example by use of some game like format perhaps presented via computer.

Changing Intergroup Boundaries

I have concentrated on contact because as I said earlier this appears to be the most popular concept underpinning efforts directed towards reconciliation in Northern Ireland. What I have said will, I hope, not come over as being totally negative. I would contend, however, that if we are going to try to use contact to alter intergroup relations in Northern Ireland, and particularly if this involves precious tax payers� money, then we should be trying to approach the problem in a logical way and make use of the latest research.

For example, perhaps we should explore other ways to approach intergroup conflict, such as by attempting to manipulate the intergroup context either in order to eliminate intergroup boundaries or to make them less salient.

Wilder (1986) has been among the leading advocates of this approach and has suggested several ways in which the impact of social categorization can be weakened or diverted. In general three types of strategies have been advanced. First of all there are attempts to lessen the psychological distance between groups, secondly there are attempts to remove intergroup boundaries entirely and thirdly there are attempts to remove conflict by encouraging the creation of a superordinate category.

I mention this because I would not wish to give the impression that contact is the only way psychological research suggests a reduction in intergroup conflict can be achieved. For example, there is research which clearly indicates that contact is not actually necessary in order to alter stereotypes (Gaertner et al., 1990). And of course psychologists have long recognized that changes in stereotypic beliefs can come about by indirect means such as changes in social norms, changes in the law, as well as changes in images promulgated by gatekeepers such as the media. As long ago as 1936 Horowitz pointed out that among the white children he was studying in the USA "attitudes towards Negroes are chiefly determined not by contact with Negroes, but by contact with the prevalent attitudes toward Negroes" (P. 34).

Therefore one question which has arisen in the literature is -would contact be more effective if efforts were made to change stereotypes before contact actually took place (Pettigrew, 1986). I mention this because those involved in this work in Northern Ireland may need to think about such alternative approaches. The problem is that in Northern Ireland the two groups have evolved ways of interacting on a daily basis which tends to ensure that contact occurs only at the interpersonal level and not at the intergroup level. Contact schemes which attempt to change this habit of a lifetime in Northern Ireland have a particularly major hurdle to overcome.

An example of this is a story I was told by a teacher who was involved in the Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) program. In my talk to a group of these teachers I had made the point that EMU, where it involves contact, may mean that intergroup as opposed to interpersonal contact is more likely - because the children come from clearly different schools and thus are more likely to meet as two groups rather than as individuals - and that this would be made obvious by things such as the fact that both groups would be dressed in their respective uniforms.

After the lecture one of the teachers came up to speak to me and told me that she hadn�t really thought about it before - but when her school went on a visit to the Folk Museum or whatever with their local Catholic school both school heads instructed the children not to wear their school uniforms for that day but rather to wear track suits - thus of course facilitating interpersonal contact as opposed to intergroup contact.

Also this work has implications for those who advocate trying to alter, perhaps even eliminate, the categorization process itself. This is a radical and long-term alternative which suggests that something should be done to reduce the amount of social categorization which people resort to. The claim is, that to achieve this, something would need to be done at a very early stage of life, almost certainly with children, teaching them to think of people as individuals and not as members of social categories.

I fear that this is a pious hope which is bound to fail. All the research above indicates that categorization is an important and normal process. Rather than waste time trying to alter this essential psychological process it would be much better to spend time trying to alter the content of stereotypes as opposed to trying to eliminate stereotyping entirely.

This in turn is related to a frequently voiced criticism of Social Identity Theory. Critics sometimes claim that Social Identity Theory implies that intergroup conflict is in fact a default condition of human nature? (Weterell & Potter, 1992). The conclusion is drawn that because stereotyping and categorical thinking are needed to make sense of the environment this lends intergroup a sense of inevitability. Those involved in Social Identity Theory claim that this is a misunderstanding of their position. They would assert that Social Identity Theory shows that while intergroup conflict is based on normal psychological processes it is not of itself natural. It is therefore a mistake to believe that it is only prejudiced people who categorize and tolerant people who differentiate. The formulation and the use of prior assumptions is natural- what causes difficulties is the content of such assumptions (Eiser, 1990). Therefore while the absolute elimination of stereotyping is almost certainly impossible what can be done is to find ways to modify stereotypes in order to reduce "the harmful or unacceptable extremes of derogatory stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour" (Hogg and Abrams, 1988, p. 85).

I do not of course wish however to give the impression that psychologists have all the answers. So let me mention at least one serious criticism of the Social Identity Theory approach. One of the biggest weaknesses according to Pettigrew (1986) and one which I feel presents a particular challenge to researchers here in Northern Ireland is that Social Identity Theory treats intergroup conflict as if it were dealing simply with �cold cognition� thus ignoring what makes intergroup conflict problematic - its heat.

What appears to have happened is that in attempting to reject the idea of prejudice as a phenomenon in the guts of men rather than in their minds the pendulum has swung too far in favour of cognitive explanations. As a result at present relatively little research is being carried out which investigates the emotional as well as the cognitive components of intergroup relations.

Part of the problem is that much of the existing work has been laboratory based using artificially created groups. We here in Northern Ireland I would suggest are well placed to overcome this weakness in the existing research and the need for research in this area may provide an opportunity for cognitively oriented and socially oriented psychologists to join forces to good effect.

One useful starting point may be with a recent claim that the type of emotion involved depend on the physical proximity between the ingroup and the outgroup (Dijker, 1987). The suggestion is that at a distance the main emotion is concern, involving a perceived but vague threat. In situations where the two groups move closer together this gives way to irritation, which may take the form of general dissatisfaction plus elements of hostility and aggression. However, when the groups are in actual contact, then anxiety is likely to be the principal emotion.

If this analysis is correct, and there is some empirical evidence to back it up, then this not only has implications for the cognitive approaches which currently dominate the field but also for the contact hypothesis.

This is because this research suggests that intergroup anxiety tends to have one major behavioural outcome - intergroup avoidance.

In other words, if possible, groups in conflict tend to avoid each other. If this is not possible then intergroup norms develop which regulate interactions. Especially where two groups in conflict have a long history of mutual relations then normative behavioural responses will have developed over the years aimed at avoiding conflict.

However the claim is that these normative responses will be amplified by intergroup anxiety (Stephan and Stephan, 1985). In other words the suggestion is that as intergroup anxiety increases norms will be followed in more rigid and exaggerated ways. For example, if the norms prescribe politeness then individuals will tend to become more polite as they become more anxious.

Dealing with intergroup anxiety and/or overcoming normative behavioural responses well established in the behavioural repertoire of people in Northern Ireland again presents a major challenge to researchers and practitioners alike.

Summary and Conclusions

To conclude therefore I have argued that ...

Despite a hesitant start psychologists in Northern Ireland have, over the last twenty-five years played a modest but significant part in helping to understand the conflict and thus in the long term to promote harmony in the Island of Ireland.

This, I have suggested, is largely because they have come to see intergroup conflict as a process which is based on normal psychological process operating in an atypical context.

There is, of course, still much work to be done - these are complex matters requiring painstaking research. However what I would argue is that progress can be made in this area but only if one adopts an empirical approach. Paradoxically it may be that if a political settlement is just around the corner as some believe then the more psychological aspects of the conflict will actually achieve a greater prominence.

Greater emphasis on matters psychological may also come because the world now realizes that Northern Ireland is not the only part of the globe where intergroup conflict occurs. Indeed intergroup conflict is now seen as a major threat to world stability.

The exciting prospect for the future therefore is that through the work of - INCORE - the new joint International Programme on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity - recently set up as a result of cooperation between the University of Ulster and the United Nations University - the prospect is that psychologists here, along with their colleagues in other disciplines, will have an opportunity to contribute not just to a more peaceful Ireland but to a more peaceful world.


Amir, Y. (1969) Contact hypothesis in ethnic relations. Psychological Bulletin, 71, 319-342.

Brown, R. (1988) Group Processes: Dynamics Within and Between Groups. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Burton, F. (1979) The Politics of Legitimacy. Routledge, Kegan & Paul: London.

Cairns, E. & Wilson, R. (1993) Stress, Coping and Political Violence in Northern Ireland. In J.P. Wilson & B. Raphael (eds.) International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes. Plenum Press: New York

Cairns, B. (1987) Caught in Crossfire: Children and the Northern Ireland Conflict. Belfast & New York: Appletree Press and Syracuse University Press.

Desforges D.M., Lord, C.G., Ramsey, S.L., Mason, J.A., Van Leeuwen, M.D. & West, S.C. (1991) Effects of structured cooperative contact on changing negative attitudes toward stigmatized social groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 4.

Dijker, A.J.M. (1987) Emotional reactions to ethnic minorities. European Journal of Social Psychology, 17, 305 - 325.

Eiser, R. (1990) Social Judgement. Open University. Milton Keynes.

Foster, D. & Louw-Potgieter, J. (1991) Social Psychology in South Africa. Johannesburg: Lexicon.

Gaertner, S.L., Mann, J.A., Dovidio, J.F., Murrel, A.J., & Pomare, M. (1990) How does cooperation reduce intergroup bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 4, 692 - 704.

Harris, R. (1989) Anthropological Views on �Violence�. In Alexander, Y. & O�Day, A. (1989) Ireland�s Terrorist Trauma: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. St. Martin�s Press: New York.

Hogg, M.A. & Abrams, D. (1988) Social Identifications: A Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations and Group Processes. Routledge: London.

Horowitz, E.L. (1936) Development of attitudes towards Negroes. Archives of Psychology, No. 194.

Johnston, L. & Hewstone, M. (1992) Cognitive models of stereotype change: subtyping and the perceived typicality of disconfirming members. Journal of Experimental social Psychology, 28,4, 360-386.

Pettigrew, T.F. (1986) The intergroup contact hypothesis reconsidered. In M. Hewstone & R. Brown (eds.), Contact and Conflict in lntergroup Encounters. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Robarth, M. & Lewis, S. (1988) Inferring category attributes from exemplar attribute geometric shapes and social categories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 861 - 872.

Stephan, W.G. & Stephan, C.W. (1985) Intergroup anxiety. Journal of Social Issues, 41, 157- 176.

Tajfel, H. & Turner, �J.C. (1986) The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behaviour. In S. Worchel & W.G. Austin (eds.) Psychology of Intergroup Relations. 2nd Ed. Nelson-Hall: Chicago.

Tajfel, H. (1978) Differentiation Between Groups: Studies In The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. London: Academic Press.

Trew, K. (1992) Social Psychological Research on the Conflict. The Psychologist, 5, 342 - 344.

Werth, J.L. & Lord, C.G. (1992) Previous conceptions of the typical group member and the contact hypothesis. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 13, 3, 351 - 369.

Wetherell, M. & Potter, J. (1992) Mapping the Language of Racism: Discourse and the Legitimation of Exploitation. Harvester Wheatsheaf: New York.

Whyte, J. (1991) Interpreting Northern Ireland. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Wilder, D.A. (1986) Social Categorization: Implications for Creation of Intergroup Conflict. In L. Berkowitz (ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Academic Press: New York.

Return to publication contents

© Centre for the Study of Conflict and the Author(s)
Last Modified by Martin Melaugh :

Back to the top of this page