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Racism and Sexism Linked, Scientists Find (and Are We Repressing Something?)

Another ‘who would have guessed?’ story, maybe – but it led me to another forgetting/changing the past story. That story is a long way down the page, but the long lead-in to it is a bit interesting

Prejudiced attitudes are based on generalised suppositions about certain social groups and could well be a personality trait. Researchers at the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU) have confirmed the link between two types of discriminatory behaviour: sexism and racism. They also advise of the need for education in encouraging equality.

As I read through this story, I thought “but haven’t they heard about The Authoritarian Personality* (AP), the famous post WWII study which looked at the links between anti-Semitism, other forms of ethnocentrism (AKA racism, roughly), political beliefs, personal beliefs and upbringing?” I guess maybe the original researcher knew about it, but that knowledge doesn’t come across in the press release.

Very roughly (the story is complicated) the AP researchers were looking for the roots of anti-Semitism: not surprising in research financed by a Jewish organisation in California in the late 1940s. They used several personality/opinion scales, and showed a significant relationship (remember all the issues about what that might actually mean) between anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, conventional ideas about sex and gender roles (a woman’s place is in the home), support for those in authority, and punitiveness towards those who broke society’s rules – and also far-right, anti-democratic values (using the F [for Fascism] scale). They also proposed a link between all those values and family dynamics and harsh discipline in childhood, and tied the whole ‘Authoritarian’ syndrome together with a Freudian/psychodynamic explanation to do with repressed and projected aggression. This research has been very controversial over the years, and took a slightly comic turn, in the 1950s, when the Enemies of the World changed from (sort-of) right-wing Fascists to (sort-of) left-wing Communists, and a UK researcher discovered the ‘authoritarian of the left’ to match the ‘authoritarian of the right’.

The whole thing is a fascinating study in methodology, kinds of explanation in psychology, and how political values are intertwined with ‘scientific’ psychology. Lots of the conclusions were questioned, and the whole package wasn’t really accepted as an explanation of racism and far-right values (especially the harsh upbringing bit), but I think the finding that these various prejudiced attitudes were to some extent associated held up. The best account I know is in Roger Brown’s book Social Psychology (first edition: not in the second edition) published in 1965. I can’t find any version of this available online. I’ve got a copy (bought new for my second year undergraduate social psych class when it was an exciting new book). I could loan out a photocopy of the chapter, maybe. I used to teach about the AP as a young psych lecturer in the 70s and 80s, but it’s sort-of dropped into the mists of history now. The whole of the (long, quite hard going, but wide-ranging) first volume of original report on the research is available on-line at the American Jewish Committee archive:
The E (ethnocentrism) and A-S (anti-Semitism) scales are at (this links them together as the E scale, but I think the first set of items were a separate scale in the original research). The statements you’re asked to agree or disagree with are pretty vile – maybe we’ve come some way in the last 60 years.

OK: what’s my point here?

Well, first, we’ve known for a long time that different aspects of racism go together, and were associated with conventional gender values in 1940s USA (what we’d call sexism today) so the Basque result isn’t surprising. The original AP suggested that authoritarianism was associated with over-positive self-image: the Basque researchers are reported to be surprised that racism wasn’t associated with low self-esteem – perhaps they hadn’t picked up the link with the AP, after all.

A bit more interesting – to me, anyway – is what I found when I started looking for modern information on the AP. There are quite a few short, fairly simple, not very academic accounts available online. The accounts seem to focus on the Fascism, anti-democratic aspect, and problems with the upbringing explanation, and downplay or leave out anything about the whole spectrum of attitudes, particularly various forms of racism, and how they might be associated and might be associated with political values. Examples:
(this summary starts with “Adorno et al. (1950) proposed that prejudice is the results of an individual’s personality type” – fair enough, but prejudice isn’t mentioned again)

Wikipedia gives a pretty good account, I think (it often does), but that plays down the prejudiced attitude stuff, too:

Seems like a clear case of (psychodynamic) repression to me – why won’t we recognise the study of racism as a vital part of a study which started as an inquiry into anti-Semitism? Are we not prepared to face up to something here?

* T.W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt Sanford (1950) The Authoritarian Personality, Studies in Prejudice, Volumes 1 & 2 Harper & Brothers

†Maite Garaigordobil at The University of the Basque Country. There’s no proper reference in the release (I hate that: this is why getting into the habit of proper referencing is part of being a good member of the academic community). Maite seems to publish mainly in Spanish, but a quick scan of the papers she lists on her web pages doesn’t show one that looks like this one, either in Spanish or English – please do let me know if you locate the original.


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