National and Ethnic Identities and Differences Today: A Psychological Perspective

The formation of identity begins in childhood and varies from individual to individual, depending on context.


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National and Ethnic Identities and Differences Today: A Psychological Perspective


Several of the papers within this thematic session of the Athens Dialogues have addressed issues concerning identity and difference within the contexts of Classical Greek civilisation, the Hellenistic-Roman world, Byzantium, and the Islamic world. However, identity and difference do not only represent major issues in the historic past. They also represent major issues in the world of today. Indeed, many of the most significant and profound events which are taking place in today’s globalised world are driven precisely by issues of identity and difference. The politicization of national, ethnic and religious identities within contemporary affairs, coupled to the prejudice and hostility which many people direct at national, ethnic, and religious groups other than their own, and the global scale of the consequences which can potentially flow from these antagonisms, have made the task of understanding the construction of human identities and cultural differences especially urgent.

In this paper, I will comment on national and ethnic identities and differences as they currently exist in the world today. Because I am a psychologist, my perspective will be that of the social sciences in general and psychology in particular. My main focus will be on how social and psychological processes shape people’s identities and perceptions of difference, and how people’s national and ethnic identifications and attitudes are acquired and develop through the course of childhood and adolescence.

On Multiple Identities

It is necessary to begin by observing that national and ethnic identities are not our only identities. Instead, we all have a large number of different identities. These various identities are rooted in different aspects of our self-perceptions. Some of our identities are what may be called ‘social identities.’ Social identities are those identities which are derived from our membership of social groups (such as our nation, our ethnic group, our religious group, our gender group, our occupational group, the organisation that we work for, the sporting clubs or teams that we support, etc.). When our membership of one of these social groups forms a salient part of our own self-concept in such a way that we attribute emotional significance and value to that group membership, we may be said to have acquired a subjective identification with the group (Tajfel 1978). However, social identities are not our only identities. We can also use our personal attributes (e.g. caring, studious, tolerant, fun-loving, etc.), our interpersonal relationships and roles (e.g. mother, friend, colleague, etc.) and autobiographical narratives about our lives (e.g. born in London to middle class parents, educated at a state school, etc.) to define ourselves and our own uniqueness further (Stryker 1980; Deaux 1992, 1996). These multiple identifications with different social groups, attributes, relationships, roles and narratives help us to define, position and orientate ourselves within the social world relative to other people. Because the primary focus of this paper is on national and ethnic identities, most of the following comments relate primarily to social identities. However, it should be borne in mind throughout that these identities constitute only one part of the multiplicity of identities which constitute our self-concepts.

On Individual Variability in Patterns of Social Identification

Psychological research has revealed that people’s subjective representations of the relationships which exist between their various social identifications can differ from the objective relationships which actually exist between the social categories which form the basis of their identifications (Roccas and Brewer 2002). For example, in the case of an Italian person who is a Catholic, the objective relationship between being Italian and being Catholic is one of partial overlap: some but not all Italian people are Catholics, and some but not all Catholics are Italian. However, in subjectively representing the relationship between these two categories, an Italian Catholic may employ any one of a number of different patterns. One possible pattern is to keep the two identities completely separate cognitively, and to identify with only one of the categories at any one time according to context (e.g. Italian when at work, but Catholic when in church). Another possible response is to allow one identity to dominate and to regard the other identity as a subcategory within that dominating identity (e.g. to regard Catholics as being just one subgroup within the larger group of Italians, others subgroups being Protestants, Muslims, Jews, etc.). A third possible cognitive strategy is to regard one of the identities as being essential for membership of the other category (e.g. to regard Catholics as being the only ‘real’ Italian people), while a fourth strategy might be to regard one’s identity as being formed by the intersection of the two component identities (i.e. to identify oneself specifically as an Italian Catholic, a category exhibiting its own unique emergent characteristics which differ from those associated with being either just Italian or just Catholic on its own).

Hence, there are several ways in which the same set of multiple social identities can be represented psychologically, and different individuals with similar sets of identifications may represent the relationships between their component identities in very different ways from one another. Additional variability in patterns of identification can arise between individuals because the meanings, symbolic contents, evaluations and feelings which any individual attaches to a particular identity (such as their national or ethnic identity) are personalised as a consequence of that individual’s own life history, experiences, personality and cognitive and affective biases (Breakwell 2001). Hence, there may also be wide discrepancies between the subjective connotations which are ascribed to the same identities by different individuals.

Further variability between individuals can also arise because there are different ways in which an individual can identify with a social group (Leach et al. 2008; Roccas et al. 2008). One form of identification is in terms of how central or important the social group is to one’s own self-definition and self-concept. A second form is less cognitive and more affective in nature, being linked to the amount of pride, happiness and satisfaction which one derives from being a member of the group. A third form of identification concerns the extent to which one embraces and internalises the norms and values of the group, while a fourth form is more focused on commitment to and solidarity with the group as indexed by one’s willingness to do things for the sake of other group members. A fifth form of identification is in terms of the extent to which one views the social group as being superior to other groups. Research has revealed that these various ways in which individuals may identify with social groups are empirically distinguishable, so that one person can, for example, be high on group superiority and on adherence to group values but low on commitment to other group members, whereas another person may be high on commitment to other members of the group but low on superiority and adherence to group values. These patterns represent very different ways in which to identify with the group. For example, in the case of identification with a national group, the former individual would probably regard the defence of national values as being one of the most crucial aspects of citizenship, while the latter might regard concern for the welfare of fellow citizens as being of far greater importance. Both individuals may be highly identified with the nation, but the cognitive, affective and behavioural consequences of their identifications are likely to be very different.

On the Context-dependent Nature of Identifications

A further complexity is that the salience of identifications varies as a function of context. Indeed, there is very good evidence that a person’s multiple identifications are never all activated simultaneously; instead, the subjective salience of particular identifications tends to fluctuate in a fluid and dynamic manner as a person moves from one situation to another (Oakes, Haslam, and Turner 1994). These fluctuations are caused, in part, by the available contrasts which are highlighted within each situation (e.g. as an English person in Greece, my Englishness is made very salient to me; however, when I am teaching students at my university in England, my identity as a teacher is instead rendered more salient). In other words, particular identifications often become most salient to us when we are confronted with other people who differ from us in a way that is relevant to those identifications.

Fluctuations in the way in which we think about our various identifications are also linked to the changes which occur to our interests, needs, motivations, goals, and expectations as we move from one situation to another (Turner and Onerato 1999). The work of Baumann (1996) is especially revealing in this regard. He draws a conceptual distinction between ‘dominant’ and ‘demotic’ discourse about identity and culture. Dominant discourse treats identity, culture, and community in a reified manner as if these are clearly identifiable entities which are intrinsically linked to one another. This type of discourse enables simplistic judgements to be made about whether someone is, for example, ‘truly’ English or Greek (i.e. because they participate in either English or Greek culture, and belong to either the English or the Greek national community). Dominant discourse therefore permits a straightforward equation between identity, culture, and community, and permits people to talk about ‘Greek identity,’ ‘the Greek national community,’ and ‘Greek culture.’ By contrast, non-dominant or demotic discourse treats identities, cultures, and communities as multifaceted, internally diverse, contested, constantly changing, and subject to personal negotiation and choice. Identifications and culture are therefore regarded in demotic discourse as dynamic processes through which meanings and the boundaries of groups and communities are constantly being redefined and renegotiated by individuals according to their own current needs.

Baumann’s empirical work reveals how individuals often adopt both discourses about identity and culture in their everyday lives. If, in a particular context, there is a strategic social or political advantage to be gained by representing themselves and their group in reified terms (especially to an external audience), the goal being to achieve particular benefits for themselves or for the group, they are likely to use the dominant discourse for this purpose. However, in other contexts, exactly the same individuals may switch to a demotic discourse if it suits their purpose for facilitating other goals (such as challenging group norms, or questioning the attribution of characteristics to the group by individuals who are not group members). In other words, the way in which individuals represent the social groups with which they identify shifts according to their own goals, needs and motivations.

On Identity Threat

While the discussion up to this point has emphasised the complexity and context-dependency of identifications, there are nevertheless also cases where particular identifications can become chronically salient to individuals, dominating their perceptions across many different situations. These cases typically involve what has been called ‘identity threat’ (Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears and Doosje 1999). Identity threat can take many different forms, including: being categorised by other people against one’s will and subjected to prejudice on that basis (e.g. being judged solely on the basis of one’s race or ethnicity); when the group to which one belongs is directly attacked either verbally or physically by members of another group (e.g. when members of a minority ethnic group are insulted or physically assaulted); when external factors prevent a group to which one belongs from becoming a distinct and meaningful category from other categories (e.g. when an indigenous minority national group is denied political recognition or rights); when the value of a group to which one belongs is undermined in some way (e.g. when a minority ethnic group has a low social status within a country); or when other members of a group refuse to accept an individual as a full member of that group (e.g. when migrants or ethnic minority individuals are denied full citizenship rights within a country).

It has been found that individuals engage in a variety of psychological responses to identity threat (Branscombe et al. 1999). First, the identity which is the target of the threat can become chronically salient to the individual who experiences the threat, remaining salient across all contexts and situations. Second, the social group which is under threat may be perceived to exhibit greater internal cohesion and homogeneity with little internal variation (i.e. the group comes to be perceived in more stereotypical terms). A third type of response which can occur is for members of the threatened social group to engage in collective political or civic action to try to mitigate the perceived threat. A fourth possible response is to engage in either strong ingroup favouritism or strong outgroup denigration (i.e. to psychologically enhance the positive evaluation of the threatened social group to which one belongs, or to enhance the negative evaluation of other groups to which one does not belong). Fifth, if the individual under threat simultaneously has other identities deriving from membership of other higher status social groups, then that individual may reduce the centrality or importance of the threatened group membership to the self-concept, and instead enhance the centrality or importance of their membership of these higher status groups. Which of these responses occurs can depend on the specific type of identity threat which is involved and on whether the individual has a strong or a weak identification with the threatened group. For example, sometimes low identifiers will simply disidentify still further with the threatened group, with only high identifiers exhibiting one or more of the above responses.

Social identity threats which arise from the way in which other people categorize the self can be particularly marked in the case of ethnic minority individuals, especially when the other-ascribed categorizations differ from minority individuals’ own self-ascribed identifications. In some cases, minority individuals may strategically choose to use the ascribed identity to engage in collective action aimed at ameliorating the social position of all the people who fall within the invoked social group. For example, within the USA, people of Asian origin commonly reject the use of the terms ‘Asian’ or ‘Asiatic’ to describe themselves, and instead tend to identify subjectively as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc. However, they may nevertheless unite behind an Asian pan-ethnicity for political purposes in order to acquire greater effectiveness in challenging existing power hierarchies and institutions (Espiritu 1992).

That said, discrepancies between the identities which are ascribed by other people vs. the subjective identifications which minority individuals ascribe to themselves can sometimes be a significant source of stress, impacting on minority individuals’ psychological well-being and sense of social inclusion. These outcomes may also be influenced by whether there is congruence or incongruence between the way in which minority individuals perceive the relationships between their own multiple identities and the way in which other people perceive those relationships. For example, within the UK, there has been an intense debate in recent years about whether being British and being Muslim are compatible identities. Many white British people currently deny that these are compatible identities. By contrast, many British Muslims feel that these are fully compatible identities from which no conflict in either values or duties arises; however, they feel that they are constantly being required to display their loyalty towards Britain and being asked to choose between their Muslim and British identities. Hence, while many white British people view Muslim people’s self-segregation and refusal to assimilate as a barrier to their effective integration within British society, many Muslims themselves view the ‘policing’ of the boundary of the British nation by the white British majority as the principal barrier to their inclusion (ETHNOS 2006).

On the Psychological Construction of Difference

An inevitable concomitant to the process of psychological identification is the parallel process of constructing patterns of difference in order to differentiate the group with which one identifies at a psychological level from other groups to which one does not belong (i.e. to differentiate the psychological ingroup from outgroups). Over the years, there has been a substantial body of research into the way in which people construct boundaries between categories. This research suggests that boundaries between categories are not positioned arbitrarily. Instead, boundaries tend to be located on the basis of patterns of perceived similarities and differences (Tversky 1977; Rosch 1978; Oakes et al. 1994). In particular, the likelihood that a group of items will be placed into the same category is driven by the extent to which the differences within that set of items are judged to be less than the differences which exist between that set of items and other items. As the number of common features within the set of items increases, and the number of distinctive features which differentiate those items from other items also increases, the greater the likelihood that the set of items will be categorised together. Hence, category formation is based on both characteristic features which tend to be shared by category items, and distinctive features which tend to differentiate those items from other non-category items.

For this reason, insofar as human beings exhibit both characteristic and distinctive features, they are likely to be perceived as falling into categories. However, it has also been found that perceptions of similarities and differences are subject to social influence. For example, merely attaching verbal labels to items causes individuals to attenuate the differences between items which have been given the same label, and to accentuate the differences between items which have been given different labels (Tajfel and Wilkes 1963). Thus, simply giving names to social groups can enhance the perception that there are differences between those groups and reduce the perception of differences within the groups, amplifying the tendency to stereotype group members. Other social and cultural factors can also contribute to the consolidation of these perceptions of similarity and difference. For example, school education, by frequently purveying ethnocentrically biased representations of the people who belong to different national groups, can further contribute to the entrenchment of the perceived categorical boundaries between the people who belong to different national groups (Schleicher and Kozma 1992; Barrett 2007).

In other words, social category formation and the construction of perceived boundaries between categories are the product of a complex interplay between, on the one hand, patterns of human similarity and difference, and, on the other hand, linguistic, social, and cultural representations and practices. I will return to the influence of social and cultural factors on the psychological representation of ingroups and outgroups at a later point in this paper.

On the Psychological and Behavioural Consequences of Identification

Once social categories have been constructed at the psychological level and an individual categorises himself or herself as falling within a particular category, the potential for the formation of a personal subjective identification with that category is present. In this section, I want to focus on some of the potential consequences of identifying with a category.

As has already been noted, identifying with a social category serves a cognitive function of helping an individual to define and to locate themselves within the social world. However, social identifications can also be used to fulfil other basic human needs. As Tajfel (1978; Tajfel and Turner 1986) argued, human beings have a fundamental need to achieve a positive sense of themselves. For this reason, when a social group membership is internalized as part of an individual’s self-concept (i.e. the individual subjectively identifies with the group), then that individual needs to view that group in a positive manner. To this end, the ingroup may be compared with outgroups using dimensions of comparison which produce more favourable representations of the ingroup than of the outgroups. The positive distinctiveness which is then ascribed to the ingroup over the outgroups on these comparative dimensions produces positive self-esteem. Thus, the process of social comparison can result in either ingroup favouritism or outgroup denigration (or both). Hence, negative stereotyping and the devaluation of outgroups which are perceived to be different from the ingroup can be a direct consequence of identification with the ingroup coupled to the need to maintain high self-esteem.

However, as Tajfel and Turner (1986) also noted, these effects are by no means universal, and occur only under certain conditions. For example, the social context within which the evaluation of ingroups and outgroups occurs must allow the comparison with outgroups to be mad e on dimensions which have significant evaluative meaning. Not all dimensions have such meaning. Furthermore, outgroups must be perceived to be relevant to the definition of the ingroup. If an outgroup is irrelevant to the way in which the ingroup is perceived, then these effects also will not occur. Consequently, ingroup favouritism and outgroup denigration will only be exhibited if there are at least some meaningful dimensions for intergroup comparison which permit the ingroup to be viewed as being superior to an outgroup and if that outgroup is relevant to the way in which the ingroup is perceived by the individual.

If these conditions do not prevail, then alternative strategies are required to achieve positive self-esteem (Tajfel and Turner 1986). One possibility is for the individual to try to leave the group, that is, to engage in individual social mobility. This might occur, for example, when an ethnic minority individual assimilates to the national majority culture. However, this will not always be possible if the boundary between the social groups is, for example, marked by race. An alternative strategy is to redefine the meanings which are associated with the ingroup. This occurred, for example, in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s when the Black Power and Black Consciousness movements generated a sense of racial pride among African-Americans in order to counteract the negative images of blackness which were prevalent within America at the time. A third possible strategy is to change the basis of the comparison, for example by changing the comparison outgroup against which the ingroup is evaluated. Thus, members of a low status group may look for a group with an even lower status with which to compare themselves, in order to boost their self-esteem. A fourth strategy is to challenge the social or political status quo in an attempt to change the prevailing societal structure and the relative status of different groups within that structure. This strategy is most likely to be used when the existing status differentials are perceived to be illegitimate or when the high status of an outgroup is perceived to be unstable. Hence, the particular identity strategy which is used depends on the societal structure which is in place, the relationships which are perceived to exist between different groups within that structure, beliefs regarding the legitimacy and stability of the structure, and perceptions of the permeability of group boundaries. It has also been found that choice of strategy depends on the strength of identification with the ingroup. For example, low identifiers are more likely to adopt an individual mobility strategy while high identifiers are more likely to try to challenge the existing social structure (Branscombe and Ellemers 1998).

Of course, many of these factors (the relative status of ethnic groups, beliefs about the legitimacy and stability of the societal structure, and perceptions of the permeability of group boundaries) vary considerably from one country to another. For this reason, different national contexts are likely to result in minority individuals adopting different identity strategies depending on the specific social realities characterising the position of their own ethnic group within the particular national context in which they are living.

On Variability in the Development of National and Ethnic Identifications and Attitudes

Studies into the way in which national and ethnic identifications and attitudes develop through the course of childhood and adolescence provide a further useful window on the processes that underlie the psychological construction and representation of ingroups and outgroups (Barrett 2007; Quintana and McKown 2008). Perhaps not surprisingly, and consistent with the preceding discussion, these studies have revealed that national and ethnic identifications and attitudes develop in very different ways depending on the specific national context in which individuals live.

For example, in my own research on the development of national identifications and attitudes, we have worked with children and adolescents living in England, Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Andalusia, Italy, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan (Barrett, Riazanova, and Volovikova 2001; Barrett 2007). This research has revealed that national identifications are often, although not always, established in children by the age of 6 years (the youngest age that we examined). In addition, there is no standard pattern in how children’s representations of and attitudes to other national groups develop. Sometimes children’s attitudes become more positive with increasing age, sometimes they become more negative with age, sometimes they initially become more negative but then become more positive again, sometimes they become more positive but then become more negative again, and sometimes they do not change at all as a function of age. Furthermore, among any one group of children living in a particular location, different developmental profiles are exhibited depending on the specific national outgroup which is involved. For example, among Russian children living in Moscow, we found that attitudes towards Ukrainian people became more positive with increasing age, while attitudes towards Georgian people did not show any changes with age; however, attitudes to American people initially became more positive but later on became more negative once again. We discovered similar variability in developmental profiles according to the particular national outgroups involved in the children living in all of the other locations as well. A similar diversity of developmental patterns has been uncovered in other independent studies into the development of children’s attitudes to ethnic and racial groups (Quintana and McKown 2008).

We also found variability in patterns of development depending on the specific national languages which were spoken in the family home. For example, in the Basque Country, there were systematic differences in the children’s attitudes to national groups depending on whether they came from families that spoke only Spanish, only Basque or both Spanish and Basque in the family home. The children who came from the Spanish-speaking and bilingual families were much more positive towards French, Italian, British and German people than the children who came from the Basque-speaking families, while the children from the Basque-speaking and bilingual families were much more positive towards Basque people than the children from the Spanish-speaking families (Reizábal, Valencia, and Barrett 2004). Parallel findings were obtained in Catalonia (Vila, del Valle, Perera, Monreal, and Barrett 1998).

We also found variability in the development of the children’s national attitudes depending on their language of education. For example, we found systematic differences in the development of Ukrainian, Georgian and Azeri children’s attitudes to national groups depending on whether they attended Russian-language schools or schools which provided education in the national language (Barrett et al. 2001; Barrett 2007). For example, in Georgia, attitudes to Russian people were much more positive among the children attending Russian-language schools, while attitudes to Georgian people were much more positive among the children attending Georgian-language schools.

On the Sociocultural Factors Which Influence the Development of National and Ethnic Identifications and Attitudes

This variability which occurs in the development of children’s national and ethnic identifications and attitudes stems from a number of different sources. First and foremost, parental attitudes, discourses and practices are a major source of influence. For example, in the Basque Country and Catalonia, it is parents who decide which languages are spoken in the family home, while in Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan, it is also parents who decide which type of school their children will attend. These decisions are typically made on the basis of parents’ national-ideological orientations, and these orientations are systematically linked to their discourse and practices in relationship to nations within and beyond the family home (Elejabarrieta 1994; Valencia et al. 2003). It is these parental behaviours (which are systematically linked to and indexed by the use of language) that are the actual drivers of the national attitudes and representations of the children (rather than language use per se ). This interpretation is fully consistent with many other studies which have also revealed that what parents say to, and do with, their children does indeed impact on the national, ethnic, and racial identifications and attitudes which are exhibited by their children (Hughes et al. 2006).

A second major source of influence is the school. First, the school curriculum can affect children’s national and ethnic identifications and attitudes (Schiffauer, Baumann, Kastoryano, and Vertovec 2004; Barrett 2007). For example, in Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan, national language schools and Russian language schools follow very different curricula, especially in relationship to the cultural and historical heritage of the nation. These divergences in curriculum content help to consolidate the differential patterns of national attitudes which are being transmitted to children by their parents (indeed, this is one of the principal reasons why parents make their decision to send their children to a particular type of school). It is precisely because the school curriculum provides a potential means of influencing children’s attitudes towards other groups that numerous anti-prejudice programmes have now been developed for use within schools, although it does need to be added that these are of varying levels of effectiveness in tackling entrenched patterns of prejudice (Pfeifer, Brown, and Juvonen 2007).

The contents of school textbooks are a further source of influence on children’s attitudes. For example, the textbooks which are used in schools in different countries can sometimes express very different kinds of narratives about the nation, and these national narratives are often appropriated and internalised by the children who use them (Schiffauer et al. 2004). Furthermore, the pictures which are included in textbooks can also affect children’s attitudes: for example, it was found in one study that children who read books in which the pictures displayed people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds developed more positive attitudes towards outgroup members than children who read books in which the pictures only displayed members of their own ingroup (Litcher and Johnson 1969).

A third type of influence emanating from the school concerns the way in which teachers themselves behave in the classroom and the kinds of explicit and implicit messages which they transmit to the children via their own discourse and behaviour. In particular, the practices which teachers adopt in relationship to issues of cultural difference, discrimination, and ethnic harassment in the classroom can have a significant effect on the attitudes of the children they teach towards other national, ethnic, and racial groups (Kinket and Verkuyten 1999).

Beyond the school itself, the mass media constitute a further major source of influence on children’s attitudes to, and representations of, other groups (Graves 1999). For example, in their classic study on the effects of television on children, Himmelweit, Oppenheim, and Vince (1958) discovered that children who watch factual television programmes about the people who live in other countries become less judgemental in their attitudes towards people from other countries than children who do not watch these programmes. They become more objective in their attitudes, with their representations of these peoples tending to reflect the ways in which they have been represented in the television programmes.

A further notable factor which can influence children’s attitudes to people from other national, ethnic and racial groups is direct personal contact with people who belong to these groups. Over fifty years ago, Allport (1954) argued that personal contact can lead to the reduction of prejudice towards other groups. Subsequent research (Brown and Hewstone 2005; Dovidio, Glick, and Rudman 2005; Pettigrew and Tropp 2006) has confirmed his insights and revealed that there are several specific conditions which need to prevail for such contact to be effective. Contact works best when the individuals who meet and interact are of roughly equal status (e.g. when the individuals who are in contact are of the same age); when the group memberships of these individuals are made salient and are emphasised within the contact situation, rather than underplayed; when the individuals engage in co-operative rather than competitive activity; and when, in the course of interacting with each other, they find things out about each other (e.g. about their divergent cultural practices).

On the Psychological Factors Which Influence the Development of National and Ethnic Identifications and Attitudes

However, it is not only external sociocultural factors which influence the development of children’s national and ethnic identifications and attitudes. Psychological factors can also play a role. For example, children’s cognitive abilities have been implicated here, with several distinct cognitive abilities having been linked to changes in levels of prejudice during childhood. These include cognitive flexibility (e.g. the ability to classify a set of people in multiple ways rather than in just a single way), the ability to perceive internal differences within groups, the ability to perceive deeper similarities between superficially different groups, and the ability to understand that different people holding different opinions can both be correct when considered from their own point of view (Aboud and Amato 2001). These cognitive skills are normally acquired between 6 and 12 years of age, and when reductions in prejudice occur across this age range, these have sometimes been found to be related to the acquisition of these abilities. However, as we have seen earlier, children do not always show a reduction in prejudice across these years: sometimes their prejudice towards a particular outgroup may actually increase rather than decrease. Furthermore, a child may exhibit a reduction in prejudice in relationship to one group but an increase in prejudice towards another group. The fact that these opposite patterns are occurring in one and the same child reveals that developing cognitive abilities cannot be the only influence impacting on the child’s attitudes.

Another psychological factor which we have discovered in our own work is sometimes linked to children’s attitudes is their level of psychological identification with their own ingroup. For example, among Basque, Catalan and Spanish children in particular, the higher their level of identification with their own national ingroup, the more likely they are to evaluate that ingroup positively over and above their evaluations of other national groups (Barrett 2007; Barrett, Lyons, and del Valle 2004; Reizábal et al. 2004). This finding is consistent with the idea that the more one identifies with a particular social group, the more highly motivated one will be to evaluate that ingroup positively over comparison outgroups in order to achieve positive self-esteem (Tajfel and Turner 1986). However, these Spanish children were the only children in our studies to show such a strong and clear-cut relationship between identification and attitudes. In other words, the potential effects of not only developing cognitive abilities but also the strength of subjective identification seem to be either attenuated or swamped out completely by other factors in other populations.

One such factor is perceived identity threat. In another research project, a group of colleagues and I have been investigating how national and ethnic identifications and attitudes develop in children who are growing up in national contexts which have recently experienced, or still are experiencing, intergroup conflict, violence or warfare, including the Basque Country, Bosnia, North and South Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Israel (Oppenheimer and Barrett, in press). This work has revealed that in such contexts, high levels of national or ethnic identification are often coupled to high levels of negativity towards the enemy group from a very early age, and these attitudes often do not moderate at all as children develop. This pattern is consistent with the notion that, in these contexts, the acute sense of identity threat elicits such strong negative feelings towards the enemy group that all other possible influences on the children’s development are swamped out. The result is that prejudice against the enemy group is acquired early, does not moderate with age, and sometimes even intensifies still further during adolescence (Cf. Bar-Tal and Teichman 2005).

One final important issue which also needs to be noted here is that children are not passive recipients of environmental influences; they are instead highly active selectors of the information which is made available to them (Bandura 1986; Durkin 1995). Out of all the information which is potentially available, they only attend to some of it, and this is often the information which is consistent with their own existing beliefs and representations or which fulfils their own current needs and motivations. Information which is incompatible with their beliefs, motivations, or needs may just be screened out and ignored. Furthermore, when children do attend to information, they often construct their own interpretations of that information. In other words, perceptual and attentional processes, as well as interpretative and cognitive-representational processes, invariably also impact on the uses which children make of the information which is made available to them within their environments.

Towards an Integrated Developmental Theory of the Factors Influencing Psychological Representations of Identity and Difference

From the preceding discussion, it is clear that there are many factors which can potentially influence psychological representations of identity and difference. It is also clear from this discussion that substantial variability exists in the patterns of identifications and attitudes which people exhibit at the individual and the group level, and across contexts. Hence, in developing an integrated developmental theory of the sociocultural and psychological factors which drive people’s national and ethnic identifications and attitudes, it is crucial to pay attention both to the full range of factors and to the existence of this individual, group and contextual variability. A theory which attempts to do this is shown in Figure 1.

The starting point of this theory is that the individual always develops within a particular societal niche. This niche is defined by a specific set of historical, geographical, economic and political circumstances which define the relationships between the individual’s own nation and ethnic group and other nations and ethnic groups, including the relative status of the ingroups in relationship to these outgroups.

The adult members of the societies in which children develop hold their own beliefs and attitudes concerning these macro conditions, and they often adopt ideological positions in relationship to them. Their beliefs, attitudes and values impact on their actions and discourse, and may even lead them to engage in political or social action to try to change those macro circumstances. The most important adults, from the perspective of the developing child, are parents, teachers and the individuals who produce materials for school curricula, school textbooks and the mass media.

Parents have both direct and indirect effects on their children. First, what they say to and do with their children impacts directly on their children’s representations and attitudes. However, parents also determine where the family lives, where the family goes on holiday, and those with whom the child has kinship relations. All of these factors can affect the quantity and quality of direct personal contact which the child has with members of other national and ethnic groups. Parents also determine (or their economic circumstances determine) which school the child attends. The school then determines the particular curriculum, textbooks, and teachers to which the child is exposed. The school can also influence how much personal contact the child has with people from other national and ethnic groups. Finally, according to their economic and cultural situation, parents buy products for use in the family home, including televisions, books, CDs, DVDs, computers connected to the Internet, etc. And, at least in the case of younger children, parents may also control their access to some of these products.

Hence, all of the following are potentially available to children as sources of information about other nations and ethnic groups: parents’ discourse and practices, personal contact with members of those groups, the school curriculum, school textbooks, teachers’ discourse and practices, and representations of nations and ethnic groups in the mass media and in other literacy and visual resources. The representations of national and ethnic groups which appear in these various information sources encode information about the historical, geographical, economic, and political circumstances of the child’s own nation and ethnic group, and also often implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) encode attitudes towards those ingroups and towards comparison outgroups.

However, all of these sources of information are only potentially available to the developing child. Which information sources are actually attended to are influenced by the child’s own psychological processes as these are deployed within any given situation, including perceptual and attentional processes, interpretative and cognitive-representational processes, and affective and motivational processes (including the child’s levels of identification with the nation and ethnic group to which he or she belongs, and the child’s perceptions of threat to those groups). Thus, depending on these psychological processes, and depending on the particular sociocultural contexts to which the child is exposed, different clusters of environmental factors may be rendered salient for that child. In addition, the child determines his or her own level of engagement with the school curriculum, school textbooks and media representations—simply providing information through these means is certainly no guarantee that this information will actually be attended to by the child. Finally, the child’s own discourse and actions may also be responded to by parents, teachers or members of other social groups, depending on the setting, perhaps by challenging, questioning, or reinforcing the child’s behaviour, or by providing further information to the child.

This theory suggests that different subsets of factors can be the primary drivers of identifications and attitudes in different individuals, and in different groups of individuals, depending on those individuals’ own psychological processes, the particular societal niches which they occupy, and the particular sociocultural settings which they experience in their everyday lives. This theory therefore explains why there is considerable individual variability in the identifications and attitudes which are displayed across groups, across individuals within groups, and across different contexts for the same individual. Hence, it accommodates not only the multiplicity of different factors which have been found to influence identifications and attitudes, but also the individual variability and the context-dependency which have been found to characterise both identifications and attitudes.


In this paper, I have explored various aspects of national and ethnic identities from a psychological perspective, including the relationship between subjective identification with a national or ethnic group and the cognitive construction and representation of difference. It is clear from this body of work that identification processes are extremely complex at the psychological level, with identifications and their concomitant representations and attitudes being driven by a wide multiplicity of factors, both sociocultural and psychological.

The body of research which I have described in this paper may raise the hopes of those whose aim is to develop interventions for ameliorating negative attitudes towards particular groups of people who are perceived to be ‘different.’ This is because, if negative attitudes are influenced by a range of sociocultural factors, the implication is that by altering these factors which are external to the individual, one may be able to reverse the effects of the previous experiences which led to the construction of the negative attitudes that are being targeted.

However, this body of research also suggests some significant and daunting challenges for devising suitable interventions. This is because the sheer complexity of the patterns of exogenous influence, which are mediated by a web of endogenous psychological processes, render the task of designing effective interventions extremely difficult. This is due to the fact that the particular factors that will have been responsible for generating the prejudices in the first place will almost certainly have varied from one society to another, from one setting to another within a particular society, and from one individual to another within each setting. For this reason, there may not be any individual methods for reducing prejudice that will be equally effective across all societal settings, all social groups and all individuals. Instead, interventions may have to be tailored specifically to the particular constellations of influences operating within particular settings for particular subgroups of individuals.

Challenging though this may be, the task of devising such interventions should not be shirked. The consequences of intergroup hostility and conflict can be so devastating and far-reaching in the contemporary world that there is an urgent moral imperative on social scientists to draw upon all of the evidence which is currently available concerning how these forms of hostility and conflict originate in order to try to devise effective interventions. By addressing this task with a clear sense of commitment, my own hope is that social scientists will be able to contribute to the reduction of at least some of the entrenched antagonisms and destructive behaviours which jeopardise this globalised world which we all share.



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