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Social organizations are formed to accomplish specific goals, such as the acquisition of valued resources necessary for the survival of the group in question. Crucial to this process is the recognition that some goals are more important than others, and that some people are better equipped than others to aid in their acquisition. As a consequence, hierarchies of both people and goals are frequently established to facilitate group functioning, whether that group is a small social unit such as a family, or a larger cultural, religious, or political group.
This pursuit of specific goals sometimes results in conflict when a goal involves a valued resource that cannot be shared by competing subgroups. Hostilities are further exacerbated by self-categorization, which uses status or physical attributes to characterize “in-group” people (those like me) and “out-group” people (those not like me) for the purpose of treatment or differential allocation of resources. Such self-categorization occurs in (1) nation-states that compete for human and natural resources, (2) corporations that compete for customers and sales, and (3) other groups that are physically distinguishable and that compete for services and opportunities within the same society. This conflict between groups has no simple cause, and no totally effective solution. Nevertheless, Muzafer Sherif (1958) did demonstrate that it is possible to achieve harmony between opposing social groups, by introducing what he called “superordinate goals.” These are goals for both groups that can be achieved only through the cooperation of both.
In Sherif’s “Robbers Cave” experiment (so named for its site, Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma), boys attending a summer camp were, in the first phase of the study, divided into two groups that functioned independently of each other. In the second phase, the groups opposed each other, participating in competitive and frustrating activities in which only the winning group could have valued resources. The experiment demonstrated that (1) members developed unfavorable attitudes and derogatory stereotypes of the out-group, (2) social distance developed to the point of mutual avoidance, and (3) hostile attacks sometimes occurred. In the final phase of the experiment, the technique—superordinate goals—proved effective in reducing tension between groups by introducing goals that were shared by members of both groups and required collaborative efforts.
Several recent studies have identified aspects of Sherif’s technique that contribute to the effectiveness of superordinate goals in reducing conflict. One of the most critical aspects is the ability of superordinate goals to create a sense of shared identity. John Dovidio and colleagues (2001) intervened in the functioning of two groups to change people’s conceptions of their membership from that of diverse membership (in different groups) to common membership in a single, more inclusive group. The study revealed that if members of different groups are induced to conceive of themselves more as a single, super-ordinate group rather than as two separate groups, attitudes toward former out-group members will become more positive. Thus, cooperative relationships between groups, such as those established in Sherif’s Robbers Cave study, can reduce bias not only by ameliorating realistic group threat, but also by establishing a more inclusive, superordinate group identity (Gaertner et al. 2000).
There is little doubt among scholars regarding the ultimate benefits of the pursuit of superordinate goals rather than goals peculiar to nationalistic or individualistic interests. Superordinate goals enable people from opposing sides to come together and work toward a common end. In the everyday work environment, for example, the alignment of employer and employee goals with regard to job security can minimize conflict (Worchel and Simpson 1993). Within corporations there are superordi-nate goals that emphasize, in the words of AT&T’s slogan, “being the best.” The adoption of such a common goal has served to boost morale as well as minimize labor-management conflict. Superordinate goals also can be introduced to minimize group conflict at the level of large social groupings; at the global level these include activities such as space exploration, medical research, pollution control, and nuclear disarmament (Frank 1983).
- Dovidio, John F., Samuel L. Gaertner, Yolanda F. Niemann, and Kevin Snider. 2001. Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Differences in Responding to Distinctiveness and Discrimination on Campus: Stigma and Common Group Identity. Journal of Social Issues 57 (1): 167–188.
- Frank, Jerome D. 1983. Nuclear Arms and Violence toward Children: Sociopsychological Aspects of the Nuclear Arms Race. Political Psychology 4 (2): 393–408.
- Gaertner, Samuel L., John F. Dovidio, Brenda S. Banker, et al. 2000. Reducing Intergroup Conflict: From Superordinate Goals to Decategorization, Recategorization, and Mutual Differentiation. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 4 (1): 98-114.
- Sherif, Muzafer. 1958. Superordinate Goals in the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict. American Journal of Sociology 63 (4): 349–356.
- Sherif, Muzafer, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, et al. 1961. Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Worchel, Stephen, and Jeffry A. Simpson. 1993. Conflict between People and Groups: Causes, Processes, and Resolutions. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
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