Social Change in Intergroup Relations

"When you're finished changing, you're finished" -Benjamin Franklin

An analysis of intergroup relations is incomplete without analyses of social change and intergroup inequality. However, theorists often characterize social change and inequality as antagonistic and mutually exclusive, and theories of intergroup relations often focus on either one or the other. Because social dominance theory centers its analysis on the ubiquity of intergroup inequality, theorists and researchers have attacked the theory for not including an analysis of social change and for claiming that social change is impossible. Social dominance theorists agree that the theory omits an analysis of social change. I have argued, theoretically and empirically, that social change and inequality are not oppositional but are dynamic and mutually constitutive. In order to achieve this synthesis, I have had to reconceptualize what social psychologists mean by social change, which allows for social dominance theory to focus on both social change and inequality.

What Constitutes Social Change?

Despite (and perhaps because of) the importance of social change for intergroup relations, it is rarely defined explicitly. Intergroup theory and research often take the definition of social change for granted, which leaves its conceptualization unspecified and unclear. Implicitly, many theories define social change as the temporal difference in objective conditions, such as inequality. This prevailing view has numerous theoretical, empirical, practical, and logical problems. We argue that there are at least four reasons to abandon the prevailing view of social change:

(1) Social change operates as a circumlocution, viz., an indirect and ambiguous way of describing ideal forms of objective conditions (e.g., equality); (2) Social change is treated as a temporal absolute rather than as relative to a specific frame of reference; (3) Social change ignores the continual processes and dynamism of social change that is not easily observed in objective conditions; (4) Social change becomes unrealized potential for an ideal future, rather than as actual behavior in the present.

For all of these reasons, we provide an alternative definition of social change that avoids these problems. For us, social change is the dynamic process of intergroup behavior aimed at affecting intergroup status and power.

Social Change in Social Dominance Theory

Given the above critique of the prevailing view of social change, we offer a new definition of social change that is specific to social dominance theory. In social dominance theory, social change is the dynamic process through which ideology and intergroup behavior interact to disproportionately allocate social value to social groups. Social change as praxis conceptualizes social change as the dynamic interaction of ideologies and intergroup behaviors (e.g., violence, collective action, and institutional behavior) within the context of ecological affordances and constraints (e.g., geography, resource mobilization). This new definition allows us to make suggestions to existing interventions aimed at improving intergroup relations, including sexual assault prevention, intergroup contact, prejudice reduction, and stereotype threat. 

Various factors promote the potency of praxis, viz., strengthen the relationship between ideology and behavior at the individual level. These factors include: (1) ideological norms, (2) elite certainty, (3) embeddedness, and (4) legitimizing strength. Ideological norms are the extent to which an ideology is shared in a given population. When most people believe in an ideology, that ideology will have greater power to guide behavior. Elite certainty stresses the importance of elites in propagating the power of an ideology. Elites in religious institutions (e.g., priests), political institutions (e.g., politicians), ideological institutions (e.g., news media), and business (e.g., business executives) can promote a certain ideology and believe that it should guide the behavior of individuals and institutions. These elites can increase the power of an ideology in guiding individuals' behavior. Embeddedness refers to the environmental factors that promote an ideology, such as recycling bins (that promote recycling behavior), cash registers (that promote capitalism), and churches (that promote the practice of Christianity). Finally, legitimizing strength refers to the the salience of an ideology to be used to justify behavior and attitudes. When arguing with another person, for example, an ideology that has legitimizing strength could be used as an argument in defense of one's behavior or attitudes. For example, rape myths can have legitimizing strength to the extent that people us them to justify sexual violence.