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Attitude is one of the oldest concepts in the field of social psychology, but its proper meaning has often remained obscure. The basic understanding has been that, when presented with an “object of thought” regarding a person, group, policy, or idea, an individual will possess an attitudinal judgment on a scale of favorableness. However, this definition is contested; others argue that attitudes are much more complex cognitive structures than simple judgments regarding an object of thought (e.g., van Dijk 1987). Nevertheless, social psychologists most often use the former definition and measure racial attitudes, and how they change over time, using survey methods. In many ways, this dominant form of measurement downplays the complexity within people’s belief systems.
Problems with Measurement
The study of racial attitudes arose in the 1930s from concerns over anti-Semitism and the European Holocaust. The first major study of racial attitudes linked individual possession of anti-Semitic views with authoritarian personality traits (Adorno et al. 1950). These early researchers conceptualized racist views as stemming from the larger society but as choice items a person could choose to either adopt or decline, based on one’s psychological needs. The continued focus by social psychologists on individual characteristics of the attitude-holder has been criticized, because the historical, social, and rhetorical aspects of the attitudes are often ignored. In other words, thinking itself is a cultural product rather than an individual process, which emerges from a certain social context (Billig 1991).
The most well-known, comprehensive study of racial attitudes in the United States analyzes changes in survey data from the early 1940s until the mid-1990s (Schuman et al. 1997). The findings show a consistent liberalization of racial attitudes of white Americans toward African Americans. One major problem with this and other studies of racial attitudes is that much of the alteration in survey responses over time could be attributed to changes in social norms, not necessarily attitude changes.
A related problem occurs when old survey questions are reused for the sake of longitudinal analysis, but, eventually, their relevance diminishes. All questions are created within a certain context, and the social environment inevitably changes over time. For example, a question asked throughout six decades in the United States is: “Do you think white students and Negro/black students should go to the same schools or to separate schools?” This question found nearly 70 percent in favor of separate schools in 1942, and by 1996, decades after the matter had been settled by federal law and public schools were integrated, only 4 percent retained a preference for separate schools—to which they would admit when surveyed.
Some changes in attitude trends can be attributed to changing social norms, but it is likely that another significant factor in the apparent liberalizing trend is people learning how to express themselves in a way that will prevent them from sounding racist. In a society like the United States, where being a “racist” is now equated with being a bad person, many people try to avoid sounding racist, even if they do hold some strong, prejudiced views (Bonilla-Silva 2006).
Traditionally, attitude theorists see the views that people express in surveys as representing the inner thoughts and feelings of respondents. Rather, in people’s talk there is evidence that responses to abstract objects (“blacks”) rely on specifics (e.g., marriages between whites and blacks)— the context of the question in the discussion or the particular social issues of the day. Additionally, people express their views in much more complex ways than can be predicted by traditional attitude theory (e.g., Billig 1991; Potter and Wetherell 1987; van Dijk 1987). For example, an initial positive reflection on the object of thought may in actuality be a disclaimer, after which the individual, if allowed, will explain why they do not actually feel completely favorable on the issue (Potter and Wetherell 1987; Bonilla-Silva 2006). Because of this, survey responses may be better viewed as discursive acts instead of attitudinal expressions, and they should be used in conjunction with in-depth interviews whenever possible.
However, there are additional factors to consider within the more in-depth interview format. For example, how the question is framed will affect the respondent’s interpretation; the object of thought may not be consistent between researcher and respondent (Potter and Wetherell 1987). Additionally, whether it is within the format of a survey, interview, or focus group, the researcher (a stranger) may not put respondents sufficiently at ease to answer openly in an artificial environment.
Attitudes and Behavior
A final critique of racial attitude research is that the correlation between attitudes and behavior is indirect and unclear (Fishbein and Azjen 1975). Research frequently finds inconsistencies between people’s behavior and their stated attitudes. One major factor in this dynamic is that behavior arises not simply from attitudes but is also shaped significantly by social norms (van Dijk 1987). “Social behavior is controlled to a considerable extent by exactly the same norms that control the expression of attitudes in surveys, and one should not look to either for final evidence of what goes on in the hearts of men and women” (Schuman et al. 1997, p. 7). Thus, even when there is consistency between behavior and expressed attitude, there is no assurance that the attitudes themselves are dictating the behavior. Furthermore, there is evidence in social psychological research that one’s behaviors can affect attitudes and feelings; people observe their own behavior and make inferences about their internal motivation for such acts.
How important are racial attitudes if their correlation to behavior is not direct? From the perspective of those experiencing racial oppression, gauging the internal feelings of oppressors may not seem nearly as important as understanding, in a practical way, the behaviors of racially dominant group members. From this understanding, strategies may be devised to challenge the way dominant groups treat subordinate groups. These are the tangible battles that can be fought in courtrooms—places where people are held accountable for their actions, not their attitudes, or emotions, or fears, which they may or may not reveal to others, no matter the circumstances.
- Adorno, Theodor W., Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.
- Allport, Gordon W. 1935. Attitudes. In Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 2, ed. Carl A. Murchison, 798–884. London: Oxford University Press.
- Billig, Michael. 1991. Ideology and Opinions: Studies in Rhetorical Psychology. London: Sage.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Fishbein, Martin, and Icek Azjen. 1975. Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Potter, Jonathan, and Margaret Wetherell. 1987. Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour. London: Sage.
- Schuman, Howard, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, and Maria Krysan. 1997. Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- van Dijk, Teun A. 1987. Communicating Racism: Ethnic Prejudice in Thought and Talk. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
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