The classic definition of prejudice is the one put forth by the famous Harvard psychologist, Gordon Allport, who published The Nature of Prejudice in 1954: "Prejudice is an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group or an individual of that group".

    The keyword in this definition is "antipathy".  It is a strange word which Webster's Dictionary easily defines as a "negative feeling", but psychologists are hard-pressed to define it, and usually describe it NOT as an emotion or feeling, but as something in-between a personality trait and a personal habit.  Of historical note, long ago there was a debate in psychology between Theodore Adorno and associates (creators of the concept of authoritarian personality) and Gordon Allport/Thomas Pettigrew (of Harvard) over whether prejudice was a personality trait or not.  Although authoritarian personality theory was quite popular (and still is), it didn't explain Southern patterns of racism (people who were good egalitarian people but simply accepted segregation as the way things were) very well.   Basically, the Harvard definition won out, and it is generally accepted today that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PREJUDICED PERSONALITY TYPE.  It would be a conceptual mistake to blame racism on racist personalities or, to a lesser extent, use phrases like "prejudiced persons" or "racists" to connote the existence of certain personality types.  It's NOT part of the personality.  It's NOT even part of the socialization process (Prejudice is caught not taught).  Prejudice is a faulty and inflexible generalization precisely because it's purely arbitrary, not subject to change, and usually develops PRIOR to any actual real contact with the object of the prejudice.  It's the same as passing judgment on someone BEFORE you've ever met them (aka: a "prejudgment" if you will).  It's also NOT an emotion, but more of an intellectual position taken irregardless of how much objective information is available to a person.  What makes it close to being a habit is that the person thinks their intellectual position is well-thought out, and it serves as a core in all their intellectual thinking.  A social science research word with some of the same meaning is bias.  And finally, NO TWO CASES OF PREJUDICE ARE EXACTLY THE SAME because of the way each person internalizes it into the core of their thinking.

    As most people today use the word(s), "prejudice" refers to a negative or hostile attitude toward another social group, usually racially defined.   "Discrimination", on the other hand, refers to an unfavorable action, behavior,  outcome, or treatment.  The distinction is simple: prejudice is a thought or attitude; discrimination is the expression of that thought or attitude.   However, prejudice does NOT automatically lead to discrimination.  There is no one-to-one relationship. Prejudice can exist without discrimination, and discrimination can occur without prejudice.  The two are related, but not in a strong causal relationship.  Also, the institutions of society can discriminate (institutional discrimination) even though the agency is not staffed by people with prejudices. Prejudice and discrimination can take place on the basis of race (physical characteristics like skin color) or ethnicity (traditions, cultural practices, outlooks). Racism is prejudice and/or discrimination based on socially significant physical distinctions. What is made socially significant in racial prejudice is the opinion or attitude that automatically assumes superiority and inferiority based on racial differences. 

    Much of the controversy over the causal relationship question is tied into what is called the "attitude/behavior debate".  The question is how closely do behaviors reflect attitudes, or how often does an attitude lead to behavior?  This debate is still with us today (especially in criminology), and various estimates can be found depending upon who's research you use, but Allport (in 1954) reported a .80 (or 80%) correlation between prejudice and discrimination.   Actually, he used the word "belief" as a proxy indicator of discrimination.  He regarded attitudes as I-statements and beliefs as They-statements.  His most important finding in this regard was that BELIEF SYSTEMS SLITHER AROUND TO JUSTIFY ATTITUDES.  Many people mistakenly think that beliefs are more hardened, more permanent, but just the opposite is true.  Attitudes are more permanent.  A "belief" is defined as an overgeneralization, a kind of extreme that a person goes to in order to justify an attitude that they will never give up.  An example would be the phenomenon of "ethnocentrism", which Allport referred to as an "island of safety" for weak attitudes.  One of the more important principles of ethnocentrism is that if a person rejects one out-group, then they'll reject other out-groups too.  (We'll define out-group and/or minority group in a moment.)

    Once we are in the realm of beliefs, we're talking about social comparison processes.  At this point, someone holding a prejudice has probably had some kind of contact with the object of their prejudice.  It is important to remember, however, the sociological conception of self, the I-Me (or homo duplex) model of the social self.  It's been called various things by famous sociologists: homo duplex by Durkheim, the looking glass self by Cooley, the I-Me model by George Herbert Mead, etc., but the basic idea is that society (with all its symbolism) somehow gets inside your head whether you want it to or not.  It just happens.  It's not genetic, but a person is practically born with society in their head.  This separates sociology from the psychological tripartite (Id-Ego-Superego) self.  In psychology as you probably know, the personality is assumed to form around age 5.  In sociology, the personality is already formed, and consists of the I (more permanent I-statements) and Me (less permanent They-statements based on reflective comparisons).  Sociologists (of the Iowa School) also believe that I-statements reflect the roles in society (witness the TST - Twenty Statements Test which are mostly expressed in terms of social statuses).   The important thing about all of this is that it offers a possible explanation for the causes of prejudice through social comparison processes.

    People compare themselves to others in both real and imaginary ways.  It's easy to understand the real way which involves direct contact.  But, the imaginary way is harder to understand.  Sometimes, it's called "vicarious" experience because someone feels like they have experienced contact with an out-group because one of their friends really had the experience, and they "lived" it through their friend.  Other times, it's called "REFERENCE GROUP experience" which involves fantasies about groups that are "out there".  In forming their attitudes, people often compare and identify themselves with other groups, real or imaginary.  People do not have to join or become members of any group in order to compare themselves to reference groups.

    Two approaches (hypotheses really) exist that are relevant at this point.  One is the FRUSTRATION AGGRESSION hypothesis (Dollard 1980) and the other is the RELATIVE DEPRIVATION hypothesis (Stouffer et al 1949).  The frustration-aggression approach is that some kind of blockage or thwarting of goal-directed behavior leads to some kind of negative reaction, like a prejudicial attitude.  The relative deprivation approach is that people develop unfavorable attitudes because they have compared their own situation unfavorably with others.   One is more like greed and the other is more like envy, to oversimplify things quite a bit.  Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, and I'll leave it at that for now (because we'll come back to social psychology and the causes of prejudice repeatedly in the course).  

    Allport had a model, an integrated theory of prejudice, which collected all the causes of prejudice.  It is NOT a model of any psychological stages a person goes through, but the size of each area in the model estimates how important and prevalent those causes are in society:

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    At the historical level, Allport said that there were certain groups in society that have been traditionally exploited by all societies across time.   This is also known as SCAPEGOAT THEORY.  Communists, Alcoholics, and Atheists are examples of the most-often scapegoated group, according to NORC (National Opinion Research Center) data.  The socio-cultural level includes both institutions of society and the man-made culture of the time.  Urbanization, with its impersonality and anonymity, are regarded as the causes here.  The situational level refers to the atmosphere or context of the environment; the presence of poverty, with its accompanying disease, dilapidation, and despair.  Social disorganization is another term with same meaning as atmosphere or context.  The personality level points to the production of individuals who for organic reasons mainly have character disorder problems.  By the phenomenological level, Allport means linguistics, semiotics, signs, and symbols.   Certain words have stereotypical action.  The stimulus-object level refers to real contacts between people.  It is the least common cause of prejudice. 


1. They are oppressed or persecuted at the hands of a dominant group, and as a result of the power differential that develops, they are disadvantaged, and the dominant group is advantaged.
2. They are distinguished by physical or cultural traits that distinguish them from the dominant group, allowing them to be easily "lumped" together and "placed" is less desirable locations.
3. They are self-conscious, with an idea of one-ness or peoplehood, based upon the perception of common suffering and burdens.
4. Membership is not voluntary, but is instead an ascribed position where the person is born into this status.
5. By choice or necessity, they usually marry within their own group (endogamy).  It is by choice to preserve a unique cultural heritage or by necessity because the dominant group scorns or discourages intermarriage.


1. They have an attitude that they are superior to minority groups.
2. They believe that minority groups are by their nature different and alien.
3. They believe that they have a proprietary claim to privilege, power, and prestige.
4. They have a fear and suspicion that minority groups have designs on dominant group benefits. (Williams 1964)

    Although minority group members, like anyone else, can express prejudice (although often in the form of extreme self-consciousness), it is the prejudice of majority groups that allows study of discrimination in the classical sense. WHY the focus on majority group prejudice? 

    The majority or dominant group in society is the group which controls the majority of power and resources within the different institutional settings. Those institutional settings that tend to be most important for shaping society include government, religion, education, and workplace (or economy). Minority groups lack the access, resources, privileges, and opportunities that characterize the power of majority groups. It is this basic POWER IMBALANCE that reinforces the prejudice that minority groups are inferior. It's a chicken-and-egg problem; prejudice leads to power imbalance and power imbalance reinforces prejudice. One of the most interesting things about this phenomenon, however, is that because of power imbalances, the norms of any minority group are almost always considered deviant. 

    The expression of raw, naked power to control minority groups is usually a process associated with terms like disadvantage, oppression, or disenfranchisement. The control of minority groups by expressing, as fact, that their norms are deviant is usually a process associated with terms like labeling, deviantizing, or criminalization. The latter is a much more insidious process that is covered at length in courses on Deviant Behavior or the Sociology of Criminal Justice. In the sociology of discrimination, we are more concerned with describing and analyzing the basic processes leading to status differences, particularly minority group status differences. 

    There are many dimensions to minority group statuses. A partial list of things worthy of study would include:
1. an origin or basis in race, ethnicity, or religion
2. a result of unequal or differential group treatments
3. common AND unique self-images based on different degrees of social isolation
4. shared identity traits based on similar experiences with prejudice and discrimination
5. cyclical senses of loyalty and solidarity to out-group attempts at empowerment

    All of this leads naturally to the question of how to reverse or eliminate the processes of prejudice and out-group formation. A functionalist (Durkheimian) approach would, of course, say it's impossible. Every society needs its out-groups in order to maintain stability and growth. A conflict approach might recommend we learn how to celebrate differences and create better institutional frameworks. There is one way to totally eliminate prejudice - although it's a fairly utopian solution -- and that is to actively pursue policies of ASSIMILATION, or attempt to turn a heterogeneous society into a homogeneous one. Assimilation and related methods are discussed in the next lecture.          

Colorado's Conflict Research Consortium

The Prejudice and Discrimination WebQuest's Links on Prejudice

Vernellia Randall's Home Page

University of Maryland's Diversity Database

Adorno, T., Frankel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. and Sanford, R. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.
Allport, G. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Boston: Beacon Press.
Clark, K. (1986). Prejudice and Your Child. Middletown: Wesleyan.
Cobbs, P. & W. Grier. (1980). Black Rage. NY: Basic Books.
Dollard, J. (1980). Frustration and Aggression. Westport: Greenwood.
Peters, W. (1987). A Class Divided: Then and Now. New Haven: Yale.
Pettigrew, T. (1980). The Sociology of Race Relations. Cambridge: Harvard.
----------------. (1982). Prejudice. Cambridge: Harvard.
Rosenthal, R. (1986). Pygmalion in the Classroom. NY: Irvington.
Ryan, W. (1972). Blaming the Victim. NY: Random House.
Silberman, C. (1964). Crisis in Black and White. NY: Random House.
Smith, L. (1978). Killers of the Dream. NY: Norton.
Stouffer, S, Suchman, E., Devinney, L., Star, S. and Williams, R. (1949). The American Soldier. Princeton: Princeton.
Walker, A. (1982). The Color Purple. NY: Washington Square.
Williams, R. (1964). American Society. New York: Free Press.
Wright, R. (1969). Black Boy. NY: Harper and Row.
Yette, S. (1982). Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America. MD: Cottage.

Last updated: 01/06/04
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