Back to my Conflict Resolution Page

visits since Sept. 1996, according to the Web-Counter

Psychological Explanations of Conflicts


Ethnocultural Minorities and Majorities

- An Overview -

Dimostenis Yagcioglu

[ 1996.


This article outlines three psychological theories that were employed most extensively to explain ethnocultural majority-minority conflicts. These models are: (1) the 'Realistic' group conflict theory; (2) the Social Identity theory; and (3) the Psychodynamic or psychoanalytical theory. After a critical evaluation through which the power and weaknesses of each of the three approaches are identified, the article examines the insights offered by cognitive psychological approaches to minority-majority conflicts, presents several conflict resolution practices and suggestions that are derived from all four theories, and concludes by emphasizing that any psychological approach should be used n conjunction with approaches from other disciplines, in multidisciplinary efforts to analyze and handle such conflicts.


Relations between ethnocultural minorities[1] and majorities in non-homogeneous societies all over the world, have almost always been uneasy and often conflictual. Moreover, such conflicts have often been characterized as 'intractable' and 'deep-rooted,' because their psychological dimension has prevailed over the political and economical ones. Problems between majority and minority communities that could be handled rather easily in the rational realm have become complicated due to the way ethnocultural groups identify and perceive themselves and 'the others' (the 'out-group'), and the way they perceive their history and the threats directed towards their existence.

This aspect of ethnic conflicts has attracted (especially recently) a significant scholarly attention. In this paper, I will try to outline what I consider the most influential theories (or groups of theories) on the psychological causes of ethnocultural majority-minority conflicts and on how they might be resolved.

More specifically, I will describe three categories of psychological theories that have guided most recent research and discussions on majority-minority relations [2] : (a) The 'Realistic' group conflict theory, which basically asserts that there should first be real or perceived incompatible goals leading to inter-group competition, in order for psychology-related misperceptions and hostility to emerge; (b) The Social Identity Theories, that assume that group members have a basic need for a positive social identity and that inter-group conflicts arise because each group inevitably compares itself to the other; and (c) Psychoanalytical, or Psychodynamic theories that attempt to explain intergroup conflicts by applying theories of personality development to group dynamics, and by assuming that groups need enemy-groups which serve as targets to project their negative images, and as reservoirs of their negative feelings. After having presented these theories, I will examine some of their shortcomings. I will also analyze two factors that exacerbate the psychological conflict-creating dynamics of minority-majority relations: (1) The size and the concentration of a minority and the degree of majority-minority contact; and (2) the degree of real and perceived threat toward either the majority or the minority. I will then present the insights to minority-majority relations offered by cognitive psychology, whose representatives have conducted few but important studies relative to this issue. I will continue by discussing conflict resolution suggestions that can be derived from these theories, and I will conclude by pointing out the interrelatedness of psychological factors with other factors (economic, political, historical, etc.) of such conflicts, and suggesting that multidisciplinary teams be used not just to handle these conflicts, but to analyze and explain them as well.

Three Psychological Approaches to Minority-Majority Conflict

(a) 'Realistic' Group Conflict Theory

This theory was first formulated by Muzafer Sherif (1966 & Sherif et. al., 1988), a pioneer in the study of intergroup relations. The theory suggests that hostility between two groups results from real or perceived conflicting goals which generate intergroup competition. When groups are engaged in reciprocally competitive and frustrating activities of a zero-sum nature, each group will develop negative stereotypes about, and enmity toward, the other group (the out-group). This hypothesis was validated by the first stage of the famous Robbers' Cave experiment (Sherif et. al. 1988) involving boys in a summer camp: When boys were split into two groups engaging in competitive activities with conflicting goals, that is, goals that can be achieved only at the expense of the other group (for instance, the two groups had to compete with each other in a tournament of games like football, tug-of-war, etc.) intergroup hostility emerged very quickly and almost automatically. Similar experiments confirmed intergroup competition as a crucial source of out-group hostilities not only in children, but also in adolescents and adults (Tzeng & Jackson, 1994).

Sherif's works (see, for instance, 1953) have also emphasized the need for a society to achieve cohesion, and the tendency of majority groups to see minorities as an anomaly, or an obstacle to bring about that cohesion. On the other hand, in some cases, certain individuals' desire to become members of the dominant group is met with resistance. Both situations lead to majority- minority conflict. The same psychologist, also emphasizes (Sherif, 1953) the frequent incongruence between one's 'reference group' and 'membership group:' A reference group is a group to which the individual relates him/herself as a member, or to which s/he aspires to relate him/herself psychologically. A membership group, on the other hand, is a group of which the individual is (in actuality) willingly or unwillingly a member. Quite frequently, some people's reference group happens to be different from their membership group. In that case, they are considered troublemakers by the latter, for they behave according to the norms of the former. The loyalty of such individuals lies with their reference group, and, hence, they are distrusted by their membership group. This incongruence can be observed in almost every conflict between a majority and an ethnocultural minority.

(b) Social Identity Theories

The most important theorist in the Social Identity approach is Henri Tajfel (1981). His theory is considered by many social psychologists to be providing "the most detailed and incisive [...] explanation of minority group psychology to date" (Hutnik, 1991: 51).

Another important social identity theorist is Michael Billig (1976). Both Billig and Tajfel (1981) have observed in their research that, contrary to Sherif's theory, the mere fact that there were two distinct groups seemed sufficient for the creation of group identities which reduced the importance of each members' individual identities. Strong group identities resulted in an 'us' versus 'them' division that lead to intergroup animosity. Competition between these groups simply intensified the mutual dislike. It is this paradoxical process, particularly its more complex version which takes place at the societal level, that Social Identity Theory aims to explain.

According to this theory, every individual divides his/her social world into distinct classes or social categories. Then, within this system of social categorization, individuals locate themselves and the others. The sum total of where they are located with respect to each category and classification constitutes their social identity. In other words, one's social identity consists of how one defines oneself in each social category (gender, geographic location, class, profession, etc.).

The basic assumption of Tajfel's theory is that people strive for a positive social identity (van Knippenberg, 1989). As social identity is derived from membership in groups, a positive social identity is the outcome of favorable social comparisons made between the in-group and other social groups (Druckman, 1994). As long as membership in a group enhances one's self- esteem, one will remain a member of that group. But, Tajfel argues (1978), if the group fails to satisfy this requirement, the individual may: (i) try to change the structure of the group (social change); (ii) seek a new way of comparison which would favor his/her group, and hence, reinforce his/her social identity (social creativity); or (iii) leave/abandon the group with the desire to join the 'better' one (social mobility).

Tajfel then asserts (1978) that it is difficult for a member of a minority group to achieve a positive social identity, given that minorities almost always have an inferior status in comparison with the majority. So minority groups usually do not contribute to their members' self-esteem (Turner, 1982). In fact, Tajfel (1981) has observed that minority members may exhibit high levels of self-hatred[3] . How do minority members confront this problem?

Tajfel identifies three ways:
* If the social system is perceived as legitimate and stable, and there are no visible alternatives to the status quo, or there is no conceivable prospect of any change in the nature of the system (such as in a feudal society), they just accept their inferiority; they acquiesce.

* If the system is perceived as illegitimate by the minority, very soon alternatives begin to be envisioned. The system loses its stability, and oppression and terror by the majority-controlled state becomes the only way to maintain it (e.g., South Africa during the late apartheid era) (Hutnik, 1991).

* If the majority-minority relations are perceived as illegitimate and the system is no longer stable, the minority group members will tend towards a rejection of their inferior status. They then may reinterpret and redefine their group's characteristics and, thus, try to transform their social identity into a positive one.

Yet, according to Tajfel, most minorities, and their members in particular, when they reject their inferior status, in situations of unstable intergroup boundaries, prefer assimilation with the majorities to self-redefinition. Therefore, in such social systems, majority- minority conflicts mostly have to do with the opportunities of minorities to assimilate, or with the degree of penetrability of social walls (Social walls may be erected both by the minority group to stop its members from assimilating, or by the majority group to prevent minorities from joining them) (Huttnik, 1991).

This situation, combined with tangible differences of economic and political interests between the two groups, leads to minority-majority conflict, which, if not managed at an early stage may result in interethnic violence and bloodshed.

Tajfel's theory has been further developed by Taylor and McKirnan (1984) who try to explain how and through which stages a rigidly stratified society with a minority that has accepted its inferior status becomes an unstable society in which majority and minority compete and often are in conflict with each other. Just like Tajfel, they too emphasize causal attribution and social comparison as two social-psychological processes that play a crucial role all through this transition.

Taylor and McKirnan (1984) identify five stages:

(i) Strictly stratified intergroup relations.

Such relations could be observed in feudal and caste structures, or in the Southern US states in the 18th and early 19th Centuries (slavery). In such societies, the majority group defines the stratification between the groups and the minority is led to believe that they are in some way responsible for their status; that they deserve their low status. In other words, minority members attribute their low status to their own responsibility. Moreover, the social comparisons they make minimize their self-esteem, usually leading to self-hate.

(ii) The emergence of an individualistic social ideology.

The rise of such an ideology is the result of such social, political, or economic processes as industrialization, urbanization, the growth of capitalism, the spread of literacy, modernization, etc. In this stage, minorities no longer see the social structure as legitimate. Minority members start making social comparisons on the basis of individual ability and merit, and any stratification that is not attributed to differences of individual skills or worth is considered unacceptable. Such a change, of course, marks the beginning of intergroup conflict.

(iii) Social mobility.

In this stage to highly-skilled, better educated minority members attempt to join the majority group. They try to assimilate either completely, or partially. They make social comparisons on an individual basis and they develop strategies for themselves and for their families, not for the whole group. Taylor and McKirnan (1984) suggest that individual strategies always precede collective action. The majority usually tends to accept these highly qualified members, both because their desire to assimilate is seen as proof of its superiority, and because the encouragement of this assimilation process brings some stability to the society. The other members of minority are pacified with the expectation that if they tried hard enough they, too, would be able to move up.

(iv) Consciousness raising.

Some highly qualified members of the minority, for various reasons, fail to (emotionally) assimilate with, or are not accepted by, the majority. In addition, the less qualified members of the minority realize that assimilation and improvement of their status will not be possible. Then, the highly qualified non-assimilated minority members begin to raise the consciousness of their group and to claim that the stratification should change, not just at the level of individuals, but at the group level, as well. Self-hate is replaced with pride and ethnocentrism. The minority group now attributes the responsibility for its low status to discrimination on the part of the dominant group.

(v) Competitive inter-group relations.

Consciousness-raising is followed by collective action: The minority begins to struggle against what it now perceives as social injustice[4] . As a first response the majority group attempts to present group divisions as illegitimate or obsolete. But if such ideological arguments do not reduce the majority-minority conflict, the conflict may either continue at a low intensity or it may escalate. If it does escalate, the majority group may either resort to violence and suppression, or it may decide to negotiate with the minority group to create mutually acceptable social norms.

(c) Psychoanalytic/Psychodynamic Theories

The most important representatives of the psychoanalytic approach to intergroup conflict are Vamik Volkan (1988, 1992, 1994) and his colleagues at the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction of the University of Virginia (Harris, 1994, and Apprey, 1994), Marc H. Ross (1993, 1995) and Joseph Montville (1990).

Their approach is based on the works of Freud and Erikson, as well as the 'Object Relations Theory.' This theory, at least as it has been interpreted by Volkan (1988), mainly tries to explain how people form images about themselves and others.

According to this version of the theory, ego, while becoming separate from id, acquires certain functions that have to do with the external world, i.e. relations of one's self with objects (persons and things). One of those functions is constructing images and representations: Self images as well as images of other persons and objects.

Volkan (1988; see also Ross, 1993) claims that the ability to construct images develops in infancy and early childhood in three stages:

(i) Infants begin to differentiate themselves from the outside world and other people. At the same time, they start forming simple images about themselves and others. But because in this initial phase they cannot grasp that pleasure and pain might be evoked by the same person/object (e.g. their mothers, sometimes feeding them and sometimes depriving them), the images formed by infants are either all-good or all-bad, in other words "unwelded", unintegrated.

(ii) Infants begin to integrate these opposing images about other objects and about themselves. (This takes place between the second and third year of age.) But that integration (or "welding") can never be completed: Some good or bad self images remain unintegrated, absolute, and primitive.

(iii) During super-ego formation, some of those unintegrated images of one's self and one's parents are idealized.

Children then externalize those unwelded or idealized positive or negative images into certain people or objects of the outside world (Ross, 1995). This, according to the theory, is necessary in order to maintain cohesion of the integrated self- and object images/representations.

Volkan argues that there are suitable targets of externalization (STEs) (reservoirs of images) determined either by culture (familiar objects of a child's environment), or shown to the children by parents and other adults. STEs are such symbols as flags, songs, special dishes, places of worship, religious icons, memorials, certain animals (Ross, 1995), but also people, and groups of people (Volkan, 1988). Some of those symbols are negative, some are positive.

* People who are positive STEs, i.e. reservoirs of unintegrated good representations, are seen as allies, friends, leaders, etc...

* On the other hand, People who are negative STEs, i.e. reservoirs of unintegrated bad representations are regarded as enemies.

Every person, the theory says, needs STEs in order to maintain his/her cohesiveness, his/her sense of self, and to differentiate it from the representation of others.

As one's personality begins to crystallize in early and midadolescence so do one's positive and negative STEs.

This theory also tries to explain, how group identity is adopted by individuals, how it can prevail over individual identity, and how it can contribute to the emergence and perpetuation of intergroup conflict: Volkan asserts that in every culture there is roughly the same set of positive and negative STEs for every child who belong to this culture. STEs tie them together, they connect them, and children, by adopting those STEs, reinforce them even further. This connection through common STEs contributes to group cohesion (Volkan, 1988).

Members of an ethnic group have their own individual identity. Volkan likens this identity to a garment which belongs only to the individual who wears it, and among other things, protects him/her from the harmful effects of the environment. But every individual who belongs to an ethnic group (or any basic identity group for that matter) also has a group identity. Group identity is like a "large tent" that protects the individuals "like a mother" (Volkan & Itzkowitz, 1994: 11). As long as the tent remains strong and stable, the members of the group will go about their daily lives without paying much attention to it, i.e. without feeling the need to constantly prove or express their ethnic identity. If the tent is shaken or disturbed, however, those who are under it will become collectively preoccupied with trying "to shore it up" again. At such instances the group identity supersedes individual identities (Volkan & Itzkowitz, 1994).

In addition to cultural symbols and rituals, an ethnic identity, in order to be defined, needs enemies (who help the group members define who they are not), chosen glories (important, usually mythologized and idealized achievements that took place in the past), chosen traumas (losses, defeats, humiliations -also mythologized- that are usually difficult to mourn), and borders (physical and/or mental) that help eliminate the confusion about the in-group and the out-group, about "we" and "them." These borders are extremely necessary when "they" (the out-group) are also the enemies (Volkan, 1992).

Minorities, especially those that are considered non-assimilable by the majority can easily become suitable targets for externalization (or projection) of the latter's negative feelings and images (Volkan, 1988). In other words, not only do such minorities attract the hatred, the suspicion, the rage of the majority because of the characteristics they have, they also serve as reservoirs of the majority's negative self-images.

Finally, there is a more dreadful psychological dynamic that can often be observed in minority-majority relations: Relations between the minority and the majority become even more strained if that minority is linked to a state or nation that in the past inflicted a deep trauma upon the majority group; a trauma so painful that cannot be mourned. In that case, and after the balance of power changes in favor of the majority, the minority may be seen as so dangerous, so contaminated, that it should be eliminated. The government supported by the majority group might intend to "purify" the society from its 'dirty and harmful' elements. These perceptions and intentions can pave the way for policies of "ethnic cleansing," for mass expulsions, massacres, even for genocides. Such policies, or strategies to deal with minorities, according to Volkan (1992), are "malignant forms of purification rituals."

A Critical Evaluation of the Three Psychological Approaches

Each of the three approaches outlined here is based on different assumptions and is focused on different aspects of the psychological dimension of majority-minority conflicts. Each of them has its strengths as well as its weaknesses:

Sherif's theory and experiments demonstrate very vividly the crucial role of incompatible goals in the creation of intergoup conflict, but Tajfel (1981) and Billig (1976) have successfully argued that just the existence of a majority versus a minority (or even the existence of two groups irrespective of their relative sizes) is enough for the formation of prejudices and in-group biases. Furthermore, some experimental studies concluded that even when two groups enjoy friendly or cooperative relations, they might still seek ways to derogate each other by making judgments favoring the in-group (Druckman, 1994).

Social Identity Theories (Tajfel, 1981; Taylor and McKirnan, 1984) are particularly good in explaining how minority and majority groups define themselves as such, and how majority- minority conflict develops through stages. Yet they put too much emphasis on assimilation which they regard as the most common (and perhaps as the most natural?) process. In addition, they pay too much attention on minorities' tendency to self-hate, overlooking the fact that many ethnocultural minorities are rich in culture and history, and are proud of what they are, even before they pass through such stages as 'consciousness raising' or 'self-redefinition' (Hutnik, 1991).

As for the psychoanalytical theories, one could easily say that they provide an elaborate and very plausible explanation of why minority-majority conflicts have the tendency to become so intense (Ross, 1995); why we see such high levels of enmity in both groups; and why groups in conflict can resort so easily to violence. However, their perception of identity is too simplistic: Individuals have (i) their own personal identity (garment) and (ii) share with other group members a group identity (tent) (Volkan & Itzkowitz, 1994). Social identity, however, as Tajfel (1978, 1981) indicates, has many layers, or many components: Each social category (gender, birthplace, age, class, education level etc.) corresponds to a component of one's social identity. Moreover, psychodynamic theories tend to underestimate the role of differences in concrete economic interests and in power between majorities and minorities. Such differences are treated as superficial while theorists try to unearth the psychological causes that lie beneath them (Ross, 1995). And finally, these psychoanalytic theories are not very amenable to empirical testing.

Two Conflict-Amplifying Factors, Explicable through Psychology

In most minority-majority conflicts, there are two additional factors that are not adequately dealt with by the three theories I examine above. These two factors are explained below in turn:

(i) The size of the minority in comparison with the majority, the density of the minority population in a certain area, and opportunities for contact between majority and minority affect significantly the course of these conflicts. It has been argued (McIntosh et al., 1995) that when minorities are large, when they are concentrated in a certain area (and frequently being the majority in that area), and when there are more opportunities for minority-majority contact, a conflict is more likely to emerge, and it is more likely to be an intense one. Research conducted in Romania and Bulgaria tends to support this hypothesis (McIntosh et al., 1995).

(ii) Perceived or real threat is another important factor in majority-minority relations. Both groups may feel threatened. Minority groups often feel that their security as a group is in danger (McIntosh et al. 1995), and sometimes they are even afraid of extinction through violence or assimilation (Horowitz, 1985). Such fear inevitably destroys any trust the minority might have toward the majority, and any conciliatory gesture from the dominant group is misinterpreted as part of a plan to eliminate the minority. On the other hand, the majority may also feel threatened by the minority: It may realize or (mis)perceive that its cultural and political status is declining, relative to the minority group, and this may lead to a backlash and the restriction of minority rights (McIntosh, 1995). Moreover, majorities may often exaggerate the power of minorities and feel fear of extinction themselves. In that case, we are likely to see a very violent repression of the minority.

Given the important part these two factors play in minority-majority relations, it is imperative that they be incorporated into or analyzed by the three major theories I deal with in this paper. Although the perceived threat factor is implied in the second stage of Tajfel's and the fifth stage of Taylor's and McKirnan's analysis, and it is examined by the cognitive psychologists for intergroup relations in general (see below), there are few studies that deal with the threat factor in ethnic majority-minority relations specifically.

Cognitive Psychology and the Insights it Offers to Minority-Majority Conflicts

There is a relatively small number of cognitive psychological studies that deal with intergroup relations, and only a small proportion of these studies examine minority-majority conflict. Yet those few studies provide us with very valuable insights and, considered together with the other three approaches discussed in this paper, increase significantly our understanding of the problem. In this section, after giving some brief introductory information on cognitive psychology, I will describe and analyze those important insights offered by cognitive studies.

The 'Two Waves' of Cognitive Psychology

There are two basic approaches, 'two waves' in cognitive psychology that are sharply different from each other. The first one emerged in the early fifties and established this sub-discipline. Later, in the mid seventies, the second wave emerged, and successfully challenged the assumptions of the first one, revitalizing the cognitive school.

The scientists who initiated the 'first wave' of cognitive psychology (for example J. S. Bruner and G. A. Miller) were mainly concerned with the mental processes behind the observable behavior of people. They believed it was necessary to study these processes which they referred to as 'cognitive processes,' even though they were inaccessible to public observation. Their goal was to reveal the complex functions that underpin activities such as thinking, believing, recognizing, desiring, intending, and so on (Harre & Gillet, 1994).

In other words, the 'first wave' of cognitive psychology attempted to understand the mechanisms that mediated the transition from stimulus to response. One of its main assumptions was that there must be rules in the mind which somehow are followed, and that it was these rules that led to orderly behavior (Harre & Gillet, 1994). It examined such things as "semantic categorization and its effect on recall of information, explicit instructions and problem-solving strategies, the effect of cognitive anticipations of perceptions, ... and the hierarchical relationships between categories in the ordering and retrieval of knowledge." (Harre & Gillet, 1994: 15).

When cognitive scientists started forming hypotheses about human cognition, they used concepts like "logical operation," "processing of information," and so on. Because their approach was basically a mechanistic one, they adopted computation as the prime model for mental activity and the analogy between computers and human brains is used very frequently in their works (Gillespie, 1992). The mind, in their model, was some sort of a 'central processing unit,' the center of operations and computations (Harre & Gillet, 1994). Hence, what they meant by cognition was "all processes by which the sensory input is transformed reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used" (Neisser, 1967: 4).

The mechanistic model adopted by the 'first wave' cognitive psychologists faced criticisms from the very beginning, but the most systematic and substantial critiques were first formulated in the mid-seventies by a group of scientists, such as James Jenkins, Theodore Sarbin (and later in the eighties, by Rom Harre and Diane Gillespie), who launched the 'second wave' of cognitive psychology, or what Harre and Gillet characterize as "the second cognitive revolution" (Harre & Gillet, 1994: 18-36; see also Gillespie, 1992: Preface). These scientists, frustrated by the reductionist and oversimplifying nature of the mechanistic model, emphasized the discursive, interactional and contextual, or situational elements of cognition (Gillespie, 1992). In other words, they decided to pay attention to the fact that "we all share and negotiate conceptualizations and significations according to the discourses in which we are adept" (Harre & Gillet, 1994: 26), and to focus on how interpersonal and social interaction influence the way human beings think, recognize, etc. They believed that in order to study cognition one should also study its "situatedness" (Gillespie, 1992).

In the social psychological studies on intergroup relations conducted with a cognitive approach one can see the influence of both waves. Though the researchers use experiments which often have a mechanistic nature, they also try to pay attention to the context or situatedness of the intergroup relations.

Cognitive Insights into Intergoup and Majority-Minority Relations

Cognitive social psychologists argue that there are underlying cognitive processes --and cognitive biases-- not just in judgments and behaviors at the personal and interpersonal level, but at the intergroup level as well (Mackie and Hamilton, 1993a). In cognitive appraisal processes, situations are evaluated not only in terms of their consequences for the self, but also in terms of their consequences for one's group (Mackie and Hamilton, 1993b).

Many social psychologists who use a cognitive approach in their studies of minority-majority relations are concerned primarily with stereotyping, and 'consensual stereotypes', that is, widely shared beliefs about the characteristics possessed by members of a social group (Esses et al., 1993). Together with such stereotypes, members of a social group share 'symbolic beliefs.' These are "beliefs that [other] social groups violate or uphold cherished values and norms" (Esses et al., 1993: 139). Symbolic beliefs consist of a wide variety of perceptions and values, including the perception of how certain groups fit into society and help to make it a better or worse place in which to live, and widespread views about how society should be organized and operate. According to Esses (1993) it is the dissimilarity of such beliefs, rather than ethnocultural characteristics, that induces prejudices, negative attitudes toward other groups, and intergroup antagonism. Schwartz and Struch (1989) enhance this conclusion by arguing that differences in symbolic beliefs, or differences in the hierarchy of such beliefs, or even assumed differences of the hierarchy of these beliefs damage the feeling of shared humanity between two or more groups and thus lead to such intergroup conflicts that are very prone to violence. In these conflicts, group members perceive not only themselves but also their values to be under threat. And when a group's shared values or symbolic beliefs are (or seem to be) threatened, they tend to become even more salient (Esses et al., 1993). That is why it is usually easier for a dominant group (for instance, a majority) to resort to violence and oppression against a disadvantaged group (a minority) advocating social change (as in stage two in Tajfel's and stage five in Taylor's & McKirnan's analyses), than it is for this dominant group to revise its own values and symbolic beliefs.

An issue tightly linked to stereotypes and symbolic beliefs is impression formation. Fiske and Neuberg (1990: 2) have argued that impression formation is a continuum "from category-based to individuating" processes. At one end of the continuum, impressions about a person are formed based solely on the categories that person belongs to, and not on his/her individual characteristics. At the other end of the continuum, individual characteristics, but not group membership, influence impressions. Building on Fiske and Neuberg's theory, Dovidio & Gaertner (1993) assert that category-based processes function as a filter and allow the perceiver to screen out irrelevant or, more importantly, inconsistent information[5]. Thus, categorization influences impressions of others in systematic and significant ways. Once categorized, individuals are seen as group members who are basically homogeneous in characteristics, and who possess attributes 'appropriate' to that group. Then, through an analysis of several empirical cognitive studies, Dovidio & Gaertner (1993) go one step further and conclude that the mere categorization of people into groups is sufficient to increase attraction to in-group members and tends to result in denigration of people identified as out-group members. This conclusion is very similar to the one reached by Billig and Tajfel (see above).

What Do These Theories and the Cognitive Studies Say about
How to Resolve Minority-Majority Conflicts?

The 'realistic,' social identity, and psychodynamic theories have quite different and significant recommendations for resolving minority-majority conflict, whereas the cognitive studies have only some general recommendations, and most of them are similar to the 'realistic' theory's. Below I outline the recommendations of all these theories.

(i) The 'Realistic' group conflict theory argues that as long as the two groups have incompatible goals there can be no resolution. Intergroup conflict can be resolved only when external conditions change, or when the two groups redefine their relationship, in such a way that "superordinate" goals (Sherif, 1966), goals that can be achieved only through the cooperation of the two groups, become apparent or perceivable. If this happens, the two groups will begin working together to accomplish these goals and intergroup hostility will gradually be replaced by intergroup friendship.

However, defining and pursuing superordinate goals is not as easy when we deal with large minority and majority groups, as it is with small groups that have to face challenges controlled and modified by the experimenters. Such a redefinition of goals for both the minority and the majority group can only be achieved by a country-wide campaign and possibly by radical structural changes.

(ii) For Social Identity theorists, majority-minority conflict can be resolved either by the removal of all barriers to voluntary assimilation of the minority to the majority, or by creating such conditions that would enable minorities to achieve 'accommodation' or 'acculturation,' whereby the minority would retain its own identity and distinctiveness while at the same time becoming more similar to the majority (Tajfel, 1978). Either of these desired outcomes can be achieved through radical, large- scale, structural changes that have to be initiated and carried out mainly by the government.

(iii) Unlike the other two types of theories, the psychoanalytic ones, primarily because they are more therapy-oriented, provide more possibilities for small-scale conflict resolution efforts. For example, these theories are currently guiding several Track-2, or unofficial diplomacy initiatives. The most important of them is the 'Baltic Peace Process' which involves representatives from Baltic States and Russia[6] (Apprey, 1994 and Volkan & Harris, 1995). This process consists of a series of problem-solving workshops[7] in which a team of facilitators from various disciplines, guided by a psychoanalyst, gives participants a chance to explore each other's core assumptions about the conflict outside the formal diplomatic setting.

The method Volkan and his team (the UVA team) have developed has been inspired by psychotherapy. Consequently, the role of the third party intervenors is considered to be analogous to that of a therapist.

According to Max Harris (1994) in every conflict, in addition to their "public transcripts" (what they say to each other and in public), parties also have their "hidden transcripts." Those are either unconscious (the parties are not aware of them) or carefully concealed, for they invariably contain feelings and intentions toward the other party that are much more negative and nastier than the publicly declared ones. It is in those transcripts that one can find hints about which needs are suppressed, and how. Before the parties start exploring solutions, therefore, they should be made aware of those hidden transcripts. That means that in this team's workshops, the facilitator should create a safe and secure atmosphere where parties' hidden transcripts can gradually emerge. After the hidden transcripts are unearthed, the intervenor should proceed by prompting the parties to search for mutually acceptable solutions.

In almost every conflict, each party wants to be recognized by its opponent. To achieve this recognition, the UVA team employs a piecemeal process. During this process, parties are first encouraged to acknowledge and recognize each other's sufferings. This acknowledgment usually follows a phase of competition in the expression of injuries (Volkan, 1988), when parties usually talk past each other. The next step is to get the parties to apologize to each other, or to express contrition (Montville, 1993). That is a very difficult step for the parties to take, but, when it is taken, it has a healing effect; it radically transforms and improves their relations. Then the parties have to acknowledge each other's values and interests as legitimate, and finally they should start to cooperate toward a resolution.

The important problem the UVA team has to deal with is how to satisfy the need for enemies. This need is very different from every other need. It could be characterized as a negative, or "malign" (Mitchell, 1990) need, because its fulfillment seems to require the perpetuation, perhaps the escalation of conflict, and not its resolution. But the UVA team contends that this is not really the case, and they try to find a way to satisfy that need and resolve the conflict.

That claim is consistent with Volkan's theory, for as I described above, enemies are defined as people or groups of people who are STEs for negative images. Yet enemies are just one type of negative STEs. STEs are mainly objects or symbols. It becomes theoretically possible, then, to divert or deflect externalized negative images from people to inanimate objects, or to symbols, or even to concepts and ideas[8].

Such attempts have been made by the UVA team in the Baltic workshops. Both Russian and Baltic participants were encouraged to direct their anger and hostility to "Communism", or to the Soviet Union that no longer exists. Thus, participants of Russian origin could also see themselves and be seen by the other side as victims (Apprey, 1994).

Another way to reduce enmity between two parties in a workshop or mediation, again according to Volkan and his colleagues, is to discern and then emphasize both parties' common positive or negative STEs . The acknowledgment by the parties of those commonalities, usually facilitates and accelerates the resolution process.

(iv) The implications related to majority-minority conflict resolution that are derived from cognitive studies are focused on changing group cognitions and thus attitudes (Esses et al., 1993) with the objective to reduce prejudices.

Dovidio & Gaertner (1993), having established that traditional ways of reducing prejudice (such as attempts at changing stereotypical beliefs) may not be completely effective, explore some other options:

The first option they consider is decategorization, that is, partially deemphasizing the significance of the in-group/out-group boundary. This could be achieved, for instance, through showing in-group members the variability of opinions held by out-group members, or through creating more personalized interactions on the basis of personal and intimate information.

The second option they examine is recategorization of former members as members to a common, superordinate in-group. In recategorization, in-group favoritism is not eliminated; instead, it is redirected in ways that result in more positive evaluations of former out-group members. The goal is to encourage new perceptions of former out-group members as members of a shared new in-group. Once recategorized as members of the new in-group, members of both former groups are likely to develop positive biases toward members of their respective former out-group. According to Dovidio & Gaertner (1993), this process can be achieved by increasing the importance of existing common superordinate group memberships or by introducing new factors (e.g., common tasks or fate) that are perceived to be shared by both groups.

As can be seen, the strategies suggested by Dovidio & Gaertner (1993), are almost the same as the ones formulated and tested by Sherif (see above). They can be very successful when applied to small groups in easily controlled experiments, but to use them at the societal level would be much more difficult: It would be social engineering, and it could not be done without the guidance and control of a strong government.

Another cognitive and social psychologist who has suggested some methods to reduce prejudice is Eliot Smith (1993). He has argued that in order to reduce prejudice, persuasive material directed specifically at the relevant group-level judgments might be the most effective. For example, if an out-group is viewed (due to cognitive bias) as threatening, Smith proposes that its peaceful intentions be stressed (preferably by third parties). Other types of arguments, according to Smith, such as the idea that out-group members have positive personal attributes, while potentially relevant to attitudes toward that out-group, would in most cases be irrelevant to the types of judgments that influence intergroup emotions.

Concluding Thoughts

Psychological factors, although very important, constitute only one aspect of minority- majority conflicts (or of any conflict for that matter). They are interlinked with other factors, political, economic, historical, etc. They reinforce those factors and they are reinforced by them.

Just as psychological factors are interrelated with other factors, psychological explanations, as well, are interrelated with other explanations of conflict, developed by other disciplines. No psychological theory, however sophisticated, can adequately explain a conflict without being accompanied by theories from other disciplines. The same is true for any theory based on a single discipline.

And yet, conflict analysts tend to overemphasize the theories from the disciplines they are most familiar with, and do not pay enough attention to theories from disciplines that are foreign to them.

In order to deal with a similar problem, facilitation teams of conflict resolution workshops are composed of members from various disciplines. It might be advisable, therefore, for conflict analysts or conflict researchers to form multidisciplinary teams, as well.


Andrews, Peter A. & Rudiger Benninghaus (1989) Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey. Wiesbaden, Germany: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.

Apprey, Maurice (1994) "Crossing Mental Borders in the Baltic Peace Process." Mind and Human Interaction, Vol. 5: 123-128.

Billig, Michael (1976) Social Psychology and Intergroup Relations. London, UK: Academic Press.

Clark, K. B & M. P. Clark (1940) "Skin Color as a Factor in Racial Identification of Negro Pre- school Children." Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 11: 159-169.

Dovidio, John F. & Samuel Gaertner (1993) "Stereotypes and Evaluative Intergroup Bias," in Diane M. Mackie & David L. Hamilton (eds.) Affect, Cognition, and Stereotyping: Interactive Processes in Group Perception. San Diego, CA: Academic Press: 167-193.

Druckman, Daniel (1994) "Nationalism, Patriotism and Group Loyalty: A Social Psychological Perspective," Mershon International Studies Review, Vol. 38, Supplement 1 (April): 43- 68.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (1993) Ethnicity & Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London, UK: Pluto Press.

Esses, Victoria, Geoffrey Haddock & Mark P. Zanna (1993) "Values, Stereotypes, and Emotions as Determinants of Intergroup Attitudes," in Diane M. Mackie & David L. Hamilton (eds.) Affect, Cognition, and Stereotyping: Interactive Processes in Group Perception. San Diego, CA: Academic Press: 137-166.

Fiske, S. T. & Neuberg, S. L. (1990) "A Continuum of Impression Formation, from Category-based to Individuating Processes: Influences of information and Motivation on Attention and Interpretation," in M. Zanna (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 23). Orlando, FL: Academic Press: 1-74.

Gillespie, Diane (1992) The Mind's We: Contextualism in Cognitive Psychology. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

Harre, Rom & Grant Gillet (1994) The Discursive Mind. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Harris, Max (1994) "Reading the Mask: Hidden Transcripts and Human Interaction." Mind and Human Interaction, Vol. 5: 155-164.

Horowitz, Donald L. (1985) Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Los Angeles, CA: Univ. of California Press.

Hutnik, Nimmi (1991) Ethnic Minority Identity: A Social Psychological Perspective. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Mackie, Diane M. & David L. Hamilton (1993a) "Cognitive and Affective Processes in Intergroup Perception: The Developing Interface," in Diane M. Mackie & David L. Hamilton (eds.) Affect, Cognition, and Stereotyping: Interactive Processes in Group Perception. San Diego, CA: Academic Press: 1-11.

Mackie, Diane M. & David L. Hamilton (1993b) "Affect, Cognition, and Stereotyping: Concluding Remarks," in Diane M. Mackie & David L. Hamilton (eds.) Affect, Cognition, and Stereotyping: Interactive Processes in Group Perception. San Diego, CA: Academic Press: 371-383.

McIntosh, Mary E., Martha A. MacIver, Daniel G. Abele & David B. Nolle (1995) "Minority Rights and Majority Rule: Ethnic Tolerance in Romania and Bulgaria," Social Forces, Vol. 73, No. 3 (March): 939-968.

Mitchell, C. R. (1990). "Necessitous Man and Conflict Resolution: More Basic Questions about Basic Human Needs Theory," in J. Burton (ed.) Conflict: Human Needs Theory. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press: 149-176.

Montville, Joseph (1990) "The Psychological Roots of Ethnic and Sectarian Terrorism," in V. D. Volkan, D. A. Julius & J. V. Montville (eds.) The Psychodynamics of International Relationships, Volume I. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books: 161-176.

Montville, Joseph (1993). "The Healing Function in Political Conflict Resolution," in Dennis Sandole & Hugo van der Merwe (eds.) Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice: Integration and Application. Manchester, England: Manchester Univ. Press: 112-127

Neisser, U. (1967) Cognitive Psychology. New York, NY: Appleton-Century- Crofts.

Ross, Marc H. (1993) The Management of Conflict: Interpretations and Interests in Comparative Perspective. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

Ross, Marc H. (1995) "Psychocultural Interpretation Theory and Peacemaking in Ethnic Conflicts," Political Psychology, Vol. 16, No. 3 (September): 523-544.

Schwartz, S. H. & Struch, N. (1989) "Values, Stereotypes, and Intergroup Antagonism," in D. Bar-Tal, C. F. Graunman, A. W. Kruglanski, & W. Stroebe (eds.), Stereotyping and Prejudice: Changing Conceptions. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag: 151-167.

Sherif, Muzafer & Carolyn Sherif (1953) Groups in Harmony and Tension: An Integration of Studies on Intergroup Relations. New York, NY: Harper & Bros. Publishers.

Sherif, Muzafer (1966) In Common Predicament: Social Psychology of Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Sherif, Muzafer, O.J. Harvey, B. J. White, W.R. Hood, C. W. Sherif, & D. Campbell (1988) The Robbers' Cave Experiment: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press.

Smith, Eliot R. (1993) "Social Identity and Social Emotions: Toward New Conceptualizations of Prejudice," in Diane M. Mackie & David L. Hamilton (eds.) Affect, Cognition, and Stereotyping: Interactive Processes in Group Perception. San Diego, CA: Academic Press: 297-315.

Tajfel, Henri (1978) The Social Psychology of Minorities (Report No. 38). London, UK: Minority Rights Group.

Tajfel, Henri (1981) Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in Social Psychology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge, Univ. Press.

Taylor, D. M. & D. J. McKirnan (1984) "Theoretical Contributions: A Five-Stage Model of Intergroup Relations." British Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 23: 291- 300.

Turner J. (1982) "Towards a Cognitive Redefinition of the Social Group," in Henri Tajfel (ed.) Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press: 15-40.

Tzeng, Oliver C. S. & Jay W. Jackson (1994) "Effects of Contact, Conflict, and Social Identity on Interethnic Group Hostilities," International Journal of Intercultural Relations (vol. 18, No.2): 259-276.

van Knippenberg, Ad (1989) "Strategies of Identity Management," in J. P. van Oudenhoven & Tineke Willemsen (eds.) Ethnic Minorities: Social Psychological Perspectives. Amsterdam, NL: Swets & Zeitlinger: 59-76.

Volkan, Vamik & Max Harris (1995) "Negotiating a peaceful separation: A Psychopolitical Analysis of Current Relationships Between Russia and the Baltic Republics," in M.F. Ettin, J.F. Fidler and B. D. Cohen (eds.) Group Process and Political Dynamics. Madison, CT: International Univ. Press: 303-334.

Volkan, Vamik & Norman Itzkowitz (1994). Turks and Greeks: Neighbours in Conflict. Huntingdon, England: Eothen Press.

Volkan, Vamik (1988) The Need to Have Enemies and Allies: From Clinical Practice to International Relationships. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Volkan, Vamik (1992) "Ethnonationalistic Rituals: An Introduction," Mind and Human Interaction, Vol. 4: 3-19.


[1] An ethnocultural minority can be defined as a group of people, who firmly believe that they are ethnically and/or culturally distinct from the rest of the population (Eriksen , 1993). An ethnic group (majority or minority) is primarily an "emic group of ascription;" in other words, how its members perceive themselves and their differences from other groups is more important than any definition or categorization done by outsiders. It is, therefore, futile to search for an objective definition, i.e. a definition applicable for all ethnocultural groups, based on specific criteria like language, history, skin color etc., even though such criteria to a lesser or greater degree are included in the self-definition of ethnocultural groups.

An ethnocultural minority, in addition to perceiving itself as distinct, is, of course, numerically smaller and/or politically less powerful than the dominant group in a country's population. Moreover, it should be noted that 'minority' is a "relative and relational" concept (Eriksen, 1993: 121): It is meaningful, only in relation to the 'majority,' and it is not a permanent characterization for any ethnocultural group: Demographical changes, border changes, mass migrations, and radical social changes leading to redefinition of social boundaries can make a minority majority and vice versa. [Back]

[2] This is a heuristic categorization. It is also, inevitably, an "etic" categorization, that is, a categorization done by someone from outside the group (Andrews, 1989: 19). The psychologists and scholars I examine might not accept, or might not have accepted the way I classified them.[Back]

[3] Clark and Clark (1940), through their experiments in which they showed black children a white and a black doll, and asked which doll they would like to play with, which doll looked nice and which doll looked bad, had reached the same conclusion: Most black children showed a consistent preference for the white doll and disliked the black doll.[Back]

[4] One could argue that African-Americans in the US today are experiencing stages (iii), (iv) and (v) simultaneously. [Back].

[5]This selection hypothesis stems from a major assumption of cognitive psychology: The amount of attention available to experience the world is finite. To waste this finite amount of attention on details that could have no effect on the perceiver's well-being is not only inefficient but it can also be detrimental, because there might be no attention left for what is essential (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1993).[Back]

[6]The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) gained their independence in 1991, after about half a century of Soviet rule. Each of them has to deal with the fact that a significant proportion of their population consists of Russians who settled there during the Soviet period. Most of them are unwilling to assimilate or integrate with the newly independent Baltic nations, and the Baltic governments are reluctant to grant ethnic Russians full citizenship, unless they do so.[Back]

[7] Psychological theories were important in workshops conducted by other teams (such as those led by Kelman, Ronald Fisher, Burton, Mitchell, Doob etc.) as well. But they have not played such a crucial part. They have not been used to define the whole process.[Back]

[8] Then again, those common negative STEs, might be another group of people; a 'common enemy'. If that is the case, I believe it would be unethical and reprehensible to promote a rapprochement between two groups, by bolstering their enmity toward a third one. Such a tactic must be avoided.[Back]