Thursday, June 02, 2011

Dynamics of Prejudice (2 of 3): psychoanalyzing prejudice

Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz, Dynamics of Prejudice: A Psychological and Sociological Study of Veterans (1950)

Bettelheim and Janowitz use a psychoanalytical framework for their analysis, which yields some provocative observations and suggestions. They conclude that people who have a basically healthy functioning of their egos are unlikely to be especially susceptible to irrational racial and religious prejudices:

In summary, a study of attitudes toward symbols of external control supports the impression received from the earlier evaluation of individual interviews: only integrated attitudes make for true tolerance. Only a strong ego is able to synthesize the opposing tendencies of pleasure and reality in line with the pressures of the environment. Only a strong ego manages to gratify instinctual tendencies without having to resort to "persecution" and only such a strong ego is able to maintain balance without projecting or displacing those strivings which in a weak ego lead to unmanageable inner conflicts. (p. 159)
But that passage also suggests the tentative nature of their findings. That explanation basically says that people who are basically psychologically healthy have good reality-testing skills and therefore are very likely to be conned into buying into screwy and irrational prejudices. As good as that sounds, the reader has to wonder if there isn’t something of a circular definition going on. If healthy is defined as, among other things, not being a sucker for irrational prejudices, what other result could be expected?

They don’t take such a simplistic approach. But it’s a legitimate broader question about this particular study. As they explain:

In the planning and analysis of this study the authors have utilized the theory and observations of dynamic psychology [psychoanalysis] and of sociological analysis. ... It is clear enough from the findings that either system alone would have been inadequate. (p. 162)
One gets some sense from their book how the social environment interacts with individual personalities in shaping individual racial and religious prejudices. And how complex those interactions can be. As they point out, American society at the time of the survey provided a greater legitimacy for prejudice against African-Americans than for prejudice against Jews. So it wasn’t surprising that their sample expressed anti-black prejudices to a greater degree and with greater intensity than prejudice against Jews.

But this also gets to a larger problem about psychological definitions of health in the context of social dynamics like anti-Semitism or white racism. A well-adjusted white person growing up in the deep South at the time of the subjects in the survey would recognize and accept to a significant degree the structure of segregation and the social attitudes that went along with it. Would a white person who rejected those attitudes in favor of a non-racist position toward blacks be “healthy” in the context of that society? The same question would arise for “Aryan” Germans growing up at that same time and anti-Semitic prejudices.

Bettelheim and Janowitz don’t try to cover up those contradictory elements in their analysis. It's actually a strength of their approach that they allow such problems to stand out.

The limited nature of the sample involved is more problematic. Although they tried to draw a random sample, restricting the sample to Chicago only, and apparently only to white male and non-Jewish veterans, are significant limitations. Inclusion of Jewish veterans, African-American veterans or veterans from some rural area or a Southern city where legal segregation was practiced would have added important perspectives for their purposes.

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