SOCIAL HIERARCHIES, PREJUDICE, AND DISCRIMINATION

Postgraduate

Introduction

A brief background

Prejudice and discrimination based on ethnicity and gender influence the every day lives of people all over the world. They affect our thinking about other people and ourselves, which in turn may give us different opportunities and different behaviours. Prejudice can be shown as an intergroup phenomenon that inhibits contacts between different social groups. Intergroup contacts and prejudice will also have different effects if the groups are equal in social and economic status or if they are on different levels in a social hierarchy. This is because social hierarchies make discrimination of subordinated groups possible. Hierarchies and prejudice may have various shapes and effects in different cultures but psychologically they share the same underlying mechanisms and they shape our every day reality.

Social hierarchies

The social hierarchies examined in this thesis are group based. A group- based social hierarchy can be defined as a social construction that influences the intergroup contacts, individual behaviours and the self constructs of its members (Pepels & Hagendoorn, 2000). Membership of a specific social group is a fundamental aspect of the definition of the self, and can orient people’s perceptions and conducts in the social arena (Tajfel, 1981). The main psychological factors behind the tendency to form a social hierarchy are cognitive biases, like stereotyping and ethnocentrism (Pepels & Hagendoorn, 2000), status-based social constructions like those explained in social identity theory (SIT; Tajfel, 1981), and personality-related factors like authoritarianism and social dominance orientation (see page 12).

In modern societies, some of the most common social hierarchies are based on ethnicity, gender or economic status. This is accepted and upheld by society members all over the world. History shows that when a societal hierarchy ceases to be accepted by its members, the hierarchical system is not put out. Instead, people tend to replace the old hierarchy with a different one (Mc Kay, Hill, & Buckler, 1993). In short, in established social hierarchies the super- and subordination of groups is socially shared by the members of the groups involved. 

Ethnic hierarchies often show intergroup consensus (Hagendoorn, Drogendijk, Tumanov, & Hraba, 1998; Pepels & Hagendoorn, 2000), that is, members of the groups involved in the hierarchy agree on the status order between the groups. This can not be explained solely by theories like realistic conflict theory or social identity theory (Haagendoorn, 1995). The acceptance of a subordinated position in an ethnic hierarchy may be justified by status concerns and the need for a positive view of the in-group. A group may accept a position at a middle level of a hierarchy because it is better than a position at the lowest levels (Haagendorn, 1995). No further explanations of this consensus about the hierarchies have been presented but it may correspond to a similar acceptance of the gender hierarchy. Thus, women who accept and act in line with the role of the female gender may get a few advantages and they may therefore chose not to lessen their social position further by being both deviant and women (Glick & Fiske, 2001). My point here is that accepting an ethnic hierarchy may give a few advantages that being in opposition to it would not give. Another factor behind the tendency to accept a social hierarchy, like the ethnic hierarchy, may be modelling. Bussey and Bandura (1999) have shown that by learning how to act like our role models we also learn how to act in line with their gender hierarchy. This is probably the case with other social hierarchies as well.