17 May 2010

On Patriotism & Prejudice

National Identity and Outgroup Prejudice

Having a strong national identity does not necessarily foster prejudice or derogation of other groups. Antipathy toward other groups depends more on how one’s identity is represented - whether people draw us-them distinctions based on ethnic factors or civic factors, like citizenship, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

Professor Joke Meeus and colleagues from Katholieke Universiteit in Belgium undertook this study to better understand the nature of what is often called “intergroup discrimination.” Social psychologists have long observed that people construct their identities (sense of self) based – at least in part – on their perceived “membership” in various groups or categories. For example, a person might define him/herself as being both British and Muslim. People who are considered British would comprise one ingroup. People who are considered Muslim might comprise another ingroup. Those who are non-British would be outgroup members, as would those who are non-Muslim.

Two common dynamics that tend to drive ingroup-outgroup (intergroup) relationships are: (1) ingroup favoritism (a tendency to evaluate and behave more favorably toward other ingroup members); and (2) outgroup derogation (a tendency to evaluate and behave more negatively toward other outgroup members. The authors of this study suggest, however that these two dynamics are not always interrelated – and that they may vary independently. They cite prior research from political science showing that the strength of one’s national (ingroup) identity often does not predict the degree of outgroup derogation They believe this may occur because ingroup membership criteria are not always very clear cut. So – notions of what constitutes the British ingroup for some might be bounded by native birth, for others it may be citizenship, still others might more broadly include current residency (to include immigrants). For some people and for some countries, national identity tends to be based more on ethnic factors; that is, ethnicity, not citizenship, drives the ingroup-outgroup distinction.

This study sought to explore the role of these different bases for ingroup/national identity membership in understanding the connections between in-group identification and ethnic prejudice. They conducted this inquiry using the national context of Flanders, Belgium.

They assessed Flemish in-group identification with the following four items:

  • ‘I am proud to be Flemish’
  • ‘Being Flemish is important to me’
  • ‘I feel a bond with Flemish people’
  • ‘I feel Flemish’

Then the researchers assessed the basis for (representation of) participants’ national identification, using a series of items measuring an ethnic basis (e.g., ‘Mixing Flemish culture with other cultures should be prevented’) and a civic basis (e.g., ‘Someone who settles permanently in Flanders and who follows all basic rules, should receive all rights as a Flemish citizen’). Finally, the degree of ethnic prejudice was measured by a series of items pertaining to ‘Moroccans who are born in Belgium or who have lived here throughout most of their lives’ (e.g., ‘Their presence is a threat to our own culture and customs’).

The team conducted two studies. The first included 397 Dutch-speaking first year psychology students from a Belgian university, and the second study – a longitudinal one (measuring at two time points, one year apart) to predict prejudice over time– surveyed 443 Dutch-speaking 11th grade secondary school students.

They found the following results:

  • People with higher national (ingroup) identification tended to base their identification more on ethnic than on civic factors.
  • People with higher national (ingroup) identification tended to have higher levels of ethnic prejudice.
  • So –“ the more people identify with their Flemish in-group, the more likely they are to view this in-group in more ethnic terms, which in turn, should lead them to exhibit more ethnic prejudice” (p. 317).
  • A similar trend happened when they looked at the relationships over time. Students with a high initial level of national (ingroup) identification, tended over time, to increasingly rely on an ethnic basis for that identity, and that ethnic focus later produced higher levels of ethnic (outgroup) prejudice.

The implication seems to be that prejudice and the basis for national identity seem to be interrelated. People with a strong national identification tend to become more prejudiced than those with a weaker national identification. And, importantly, the greater prejudice seems to be caused by the fact they increasingly regard or represent the ingroup-outgroup differences in ethnic terms.

The flip side is that people who are more prejudiced also seem to base their national identity more on ethnic distinctions – perhaps to justify their outgroup derogation.

One wonders how this might apply in an ethnically complex area, where the sense of collective national identity is still relatively weak. And how this might affect outside efforts to shape or strengthen that identity. And how it might affect outgroup perceptions of those seeking to shape or strengthen others' ingroup identity.

ResearchBlogging.orgMeeus, J., Duriez, B., Vanbeselaere, N., & Boen, F. (2010). The role of national identity representation in the relation between in-group identification and out-group derogation: Ethnic versus civic representation British Journal of Social Psychology, 49 (2), 305-320 DOI: 10.1348/014466609X451455