Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Dynamics of Prejudice (1 of 3): perceptions of downward mobility

One of the five volumes in the Studies in Prejudice series sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in the late 1940s studying authoritarianism and anti-Semitism in the United States was by Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz, Dynamics of Prejudice: A Psychological and Sociological Study of Veterans (1950).

This study was based on an in-depth survey of 150 veterans of the Second World War living in the Chicago area, apparently all of them white and male. "It was about August, 1945 that mass discharges began. The sampling period was therefore limited to August through November, 1945, and the interviews were carried out six to eight months after discharge." (p. 192) The study specifically aimed at examining the presence and intensity of anti-Semitism and anti-black racism among the subjects and to identify psychological factors that correlated with those prejudices. They explain their selection of veterans as follows:

In recent times, the outstanding instance of ethnic intolerance, anti-Semitism, had its roots in Germany after the first World War. The chief promoters and followers of the anti-Semitic movement were former soldiers, unable to reintegrate themselves successfully into society. If ethnic intolerance should approach critical limits in the near future, and in this country, the reasons may well be similar to those which accounted for its development in Germany. Thus, theoretical as well as practical considerations suggested demobilized soldiers as the particular group of individuals to be studied. (p. 4)
The study found that the following factors were significantly correlated with both anti-Semitism and white racism against African-Americans: feeling of deprivation; social mobility; rejection of controlling institutions; economic apprehensions; and, general optimism. Chapter 8 contains their general conclusions.

There is a lot of interesting material in the study, including both their discussions of individual factors they isolated and their analysis of the dynamic interaction of those factors in the context of case studies. In the 1950s and 1960s, social scientists and historians in the US were particularly fond of theories that explained attraction to political extremism on the basis of group status anxieties. So it's notable here that Bettelheim and Janowitz found in their sample that the status factor most correlated with the kind of prejudice they were studying was an individual’s perception of downward social mobility for themselves compared to their own previous situation:

In conclusion, it may be said that these data support the theory that intolerance becomes a more serious problem to the degree that large groups become downwardly mobile at a rapid pace owing to changes ii the structure of society. The data also seem to indicate that to understand intolerance it is less important to concentrate on the social and economic background of the individual than to investigate the nature of his social mobility. The question which must be answered for each individual is whether or not he is being forced downwards or prevented from fulfilling his expectations of upward social mobility. [my emphasis] (p. 61)
And they write:

The highest degrees of association established in this study were those between intolerance on the one hand and feelings of deprivation and downward social mobility on the other. The deprivations so highly associated with intolerance were not by and large of a predominantly private nature, such as having fallen out with one's family or being unable to have children, but ones very closely related to adverse economic experiences, or a fear of their recurrence. (p. 174)
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