Prejudice is the judging of a person or idea, without prior knowledge of the person or idea, on the basis of some perceived group membership. Prejudice can be negative, as in the case of racist or sexist ideology, or positive, as in the case of a preference for a particular ethnic food, and can thus either help or harm a person so judged. Some writers, in defining prejudice, stress an incorrect or irrational component; others maintain that it is incorrect to do so because prejudice is often rooted in a quite rational self or group interest. Prejudice is often used synonymously with such terms as discrimination and racism.

Social scientists began to show great interest in prejudice in the early to mid twentieth century when anti immigrant sentiment was wide spread and often erupted in violence. Later concerns over fascism and the Holocaust fed scientific interest in prejudice. Psychologist Gordon Allport, in his seminal work The Nature of Prejudice (1954), described prejudice as the result of a normal – albeit emotion laden and faulty – psychological process of categorizing people into in groups and outgroups. In groups are considered desirable and in possession of positive attributes, while outgroups are seen as possessing negative or undesirable attributes and, thus, as appropriate targets for abuse. Allport noted the role of stereotyping in prejudice and discussed the acquisition of prejudice, its dynamics, personality types thought to be prone to prejudiced thinking, and possible ways to reduce prejudice, including legislation, education, and therapy.

Other works investigated further the idea of a prejudiced personality type, commonly known as the authoritarian personality, linking it with a tendency toward overly rigid thinking, acceptance of stereotypes, excessive conformity and submission to authority, discomfort with ambiguity, and highly conservative and/or fundamentalist beliefs. Uncomfortable with the linkage of prejudice and authoritarianism with right wing beliefs, other researchers attempted to show that those on the political left, too, could possess overly rigid thought patterns that might predispose them to prejudiced thinking.

Prejudice and Stereotyping

Stereotyping is thought to play an important role in the formation and maintenance of prejudice. Like prejudice, stereotyping involves the attribution of certain characteristics to a person based on her or his membership in a particular group. Experimental and survey based studies have shown variously that prejudice and stereotypes are both remarkably resilient and subject to change over time in response to changes in social norms, that stereotypes can be based in either illusion or reality, and that stereotypes and prejudice can either overrule or be overruled by evidence to the contrary. Some research suggests not only that people seek with their behavior to confirm the prejudices to which they subscribe, but also that this behavior can actually elicit responses consistent with the prejudiced belief. For example, students believed by their teachers to be gifted begin to display greater ability in their subject than their fellow students, even if the students identified as gifted are so identified randomly by researchers. Similarly, people who believe that they are talking via telephone with attractive, outgoing members of the opposite sex speak with greater warmth and humor to their phone partners than do people who believe their fellow conversant to be unattractive and socially backward. The phone partners, in turn, respond accordingly, with those perceived to be attractive, humorous, and confident actually displaying those traits, and those perceived to be unattractive and introverted responding coolly and with reservation.

Prejudice and stereotyping have been shown to influence not only current behavior but also memory of past events; holders of stereotypes are prone to selectively remembering information consistent with the prejudices they hold. Furthermore, people are more likely to view negative behaviors as internally caused (i.e., through some personal or cultural flaw) if per formed by those against whom they are prejudiced and externally caused if performed by members of their own group. Conversely, people credit positive behaviors by members of their own group to inner positive qualities, and positive actions by those against whom they are prejudiced as rare exceptions to the rule.

Formation of Prejudice

Early theories on formation of prejudice in children stressed the importance of personality characteristics of parents, hypothesizing that prejudice is the result of being reared in an overly strict and harsh home environment. Research, however, has shown that this is not necessarily true. Children from a very early age show an ability to categorize people into groups; they also show marked preference for some groups – especially the groups to which they themselves belong – over others. Moreover, children’s attitudes do not appear to be entirely determined by the attitudes of their parents, which suggests that children are far from being passive receptacles for their parents’ prejudiced views.

Herbert Blumer advanced the notion of racial prejudice as ”a sense of group position” in which the words and actions of influential public figures establish a public perception not only of social group hierarchy but also of the positioning of one’s own group relative to that of others. Blumer emphasized that feelings of superiority and identification of intergroup difference alone cannot account for prejudice; these must be accompanied by a sense of entitlement to certain resources or privileges and also by a sense that this entitlement is threatened by other groups. Attempts by oppressed groups to improve their social conditions are thus seen as threatening by the dominant group, which views these attempts as a rejection of the proper social order. Dominant groups are acutely aware of – and protective of – their superior social status, and prejudice flares when this status is questioned. Prejudice is thus not merely an individual ideology but a social phenomenon rooted in intergroup relations and arising from specific historical con texts. Blumer stressed that the formation of group identity, and thus of prejudice, does not take place in individual interactions but at an abstract level in the public sphere and is articulated most forcefully by widely respected figures in the public eye.

Blumer points out, as do other scholars, that prejudice is not only a way of identifying and denigrating out groups but also a powerful means of self definition of the in group in opposition to these out groups. Important qualities thought to be lacking in out groups are thus by definition thought to be possessed in abundance by in groups. Negative qualities attributed to members of out groups are overlooked or viewed as rare exceptions when exhibited by in group members.

As social scientists began to uncover the structural foundations of racism and sexism, interest in prejudice as a research topic began to wane. Focusing attention on the individual ideological aspects of prejudice was thought to divert attention from its even more harmful structural counterpart: institutionalized racial and sexual discrimination and violence. The uncovering of the racist and sexist practices of the state, of business, of the legal justice system, of commerce and real estate and employers, of science and systems of higher education, seemed to render the beliefs and behavior of individual racists and sexists trivial and insignificant. More recently, however, scholars are reemphasizing the importance of prejudice and the severity of its consequences; several prominent sociologists have urged that cumulative daily encounters with prejudice not be discounted in the rush to study structural factors. These writers encourage scholars to consider the impact of repeated experiences with prejudice at an individual level in conjunction with experiences of institutional racism and sexism. Both, they argue, are crucial in the formation of group and individual identity and in determination of the response – or lack of response – of victims of prejudice.

Subjects of Prejudice

Another current debate within sociology concerns new versus old forms of prejudice. Since the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s, levels of racial and sexual prejudice have shown a decline by traditional measures. Some theorists maintain that this is evidence signaling that society is becoming less prejudiced. Others argue that the overt behaviors and vocabularies of racism and sexism have simply been driven underground by social pressures to be politically correct and that prejudiced ideology still flourishes in a more publicly acceptable new form. In terms of racism, this new form is sometimes described as aversive prejudice, in which people who score low on traditional measures of prejudice and antipathy toward out groups nevertheless display fear or discomfort at con tact with members of out groups and so seek to avoid this contact. Another theory of a new form of prejudice is colorblind racism; colorblind racists are those who view racism as a thing of the past and not something with which society ought to concern itself now. Proponents of a colorblind approach insist that those who wish to succeed can do so on their own merits and that to acknowledge race at all is to be racist. In this way of thinking, attempts to redress historical wrongs against non whites and females amount to current “reverse” discrimination against white males. Yet another theory, that of laissez faire racism, suggests that the new racists of today are characterized by protectiveness of their own group interest, their antipathy toward any kind of race targeted social programs, and their willingness to publicly condemn those who fail to achieve the American Dream. The laissez faire theory grew out of an earlier theory of symbolic racism; symbolic racism involved the substitution of ostensibly non racial vocabulary and symbols for the overtly racist rhetoric no longer considered acceptable.

All of these new theories are presented in contrast to old fashioned prejudice (often called Jim Crow racism), which had its roots in beliefs of the biological inferiority of non whites. The new forms, in contrast, are grounded in beliefs and rhetoric about the cultural inferiority of non white groups. Holders of the newer version of prejudice maintain that the unfortunate situation of the non white poor is their own fault. In these forms of prejudice, poverty and misfortune are viewed as pathology and the natural result of a failure to accept and conform to mainstream values. Those who do not succeed fail because they have simply not tried hard enough. The implication of such a view is that the dominant group has no responsibility to do anything to try to help members of less fortunate groups because the less fortunate are refusing to help themselves.

Because of the research linking prejudice to stereotyping and to various other traits such as conformity and lower levels of education, some social scientists have suggested education as a cure for prejudice. Others have suggested that prejudice arises from ignorance about the group (s) in question and hence that the remedy lies in increased contact between members of various groups. The theory in both cases is that access to new and better information can replace a flawed and harmful prejudiced thought process.

This contact theory, with its hypothesis that intergroup prejudice can be reduced by increasing the levels of contact between members of different groups, has been tested repeatedly, with mixed results. One such test was Sherif’s 1966 summer camp study in which researchers first stimulated intergroup antagonism and then attempted, with some success, to reduce it. Other studies monitored the effects of school or neighborhood desegregation on levels of prejudice. In some cases, increasing contact between groups actually results in higher levels of prejudice, especially when the quality of contact is negative or when the contact situation is competitive in nature. Those situations in which contact does seem to result in lower levels of prejudice are those in which members of different groups have ample opportunity to interact in positive ways and to work together on cooperative tasks. Another essential element of successful contacts is that the participants are of equal status in the social situation(s) under study. The mixed success of this theory has left researchers seeking new and better ways to reduce levels of prejudice.

There is some evidence that, because stereo types often have widespread social support, people’s attitudes and prejudices are not likely to change unless positive individual interactions occur in a climate which encourages prejudice reduction. A vital component of such a climate is leadership support for change, and the willingness of authority figures to impose rewards and sanctions to further change. This suggests that leaders who adopt a color or gender blind approach, insisting that prejudice and discrimination are no longer problems, may actually help to preserve prejudice.


  1. Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality. Harper, New York.
  2. Allport, G. W. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.
  3. Blumer, H. (2000) Selected Works of Herbert Blumer: A Public Philosophy for Mass Society. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
  4. Brown, R. (1995) Prejudice: Its Social Psychology. Blackwell, Oxford.
  5. Stangor, C. (2000) Stereotypes and Prejudice: Essential Readings. Psychology Press of Taylor & Francis, Philadelphia, PA.

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