Wright focuses on prejudice

Oct 16, 2003, vol. 28, no. 4
By Carol Thorbes

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Social psychologist Stephen Wright hopes that his pioneering research on discrimination will lead to strategies that cultivate respect and harmony in multicultural settings.

Formerly an associate professor of psychology at the University of California in Santa Cruz, Wright has been appointed an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in social psychology at Simon Fraser University.

Wright's research is unique in social science in that it looks as much at how potentially conflicting groups get along as it does at the origins of prejudice. Most research focuses on the latter.

Wright identifies collective identities - the groups with whom a person identifies. He then analyzes how threats to collective identities can foster an us-against-them attitude.

Many social psychologists view this as the root cause of both global and isolated incidents of prejudice.

“Exclusion of a subgroup, for example Iraq, from a larger collective identity, say peace-loving nations, is a key determinant of our willingness to commit acts of discrimination and aggression against that group's members,” explains Wright. “On the flip side, increasing inclusion of subgroups, for example immigrants, in larger, meaningful collective identities, say Canadians, connects us to these groups and reduces the degree to which we discriminate against them.”

Social and economic instability is one of the fuels that can fan the flames of discrimination, as it can threaten any number of a person's collective identities, notes Wright. He points to ethnic cleansing, wrangling over banned beef and the invasion of Iraq as examples.

“Threats to our collective identities can be physical (e.g., terrorists will kill us), resource-based (e.g., they are going to take our land and jobs), or symbolic (e.g., their beliefs and actions threaten our values),” elaborates Wright.

The author of dozens of book chapters and articles on prejudice is also interested in exploring why and how some victimized groups are able to weather and even overcome discrimination better than others.

Some of Wright's work could have important implications for educators. His research indicates that protectiveness about collective identities can lead educators to unwittingly undermine the learning of minority-language children. One way is a reluctance to instruct children in their mother tongue.

“The constant and consistent poor performance of many groups of non-English speakers is well documented,” says Wright.

“We have strong evidence that school programs that support the child's development of both strong verbal and literacy skills in his/her heritage language can be very effective in improving their subsequent learning in English.”

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