Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in Social Psychology 
by Henri Tajfel.
Cambridge, 369 pp., £25, April 1981, 0 521 22839 5
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It is said that when the electors to a vacant chair of psychology met recently in a small but by no means undistinguished university, a university with some past distinction in psychology itself, their first inclination was to agree that the subject had ceased to exist and that the chair should not be filled. The philosopher argued that mental events just were indeterminate. A cumulative and convergent science of the mental was absurd. The biologist argued that physiological reductions were unfounded. Such misunderstanding and misuse of biology should be stopped. The sociologist argued that extracting the social from the individual, and often extracting the human too, pre-empted all realism. What was the point of artificial precision? This was, of course, a game that could have been played with any of the human sciences. It is a game, often unsporting in its moves and vicious in its outcomes, that is played with them all the time. In this case, there was a draw and the chair was filled.

It is a game which Henri Tajfel has known for thirty years. Sometimes player, he has also been ball, for he professes social psychology, the human science which perhaps more than any other is claimed by some to be everything and by others to be nothing at all. In this collection of essays, he explains his choice. He got off a train at the Gare d’Orsay in May 1945, with others from the German camps, to discover that virtually no one he had known in 1939, including his family, was still alive. He wanted to come to terms with that experience and with what had led to it. He worked for a while to rehabilitate refugees, wrote an essay on ‘Prejudice’, found himself in possession of a British state scholarship, and began a new career. ‘The “academic” psychology,’ he recalls, ‘took hold of me.’

He also at once took hold of it. His first published piece was on Hull. It raged at that old behaviourist’s ‘bland indifference to all that one knows about human society while ... weaving his web of “hypotheticodeductive” oversimplifications’. His most recent book, still in the press, is on Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. In between, he has built up the most productive department of social psychology in the country and been the driving force behind a purportedly European (rather than imitatively American) approach to the subject. And yet, with compassion for his motives and admiration for his intent, one wonders whether in the end he, too, hasn’t succumbed to blandness and woven another web of pointless oversimplification.

This is not to say that he doesn’t have a moderately sharp eye for idiocy. ‘There is not much excitement,’ he says, ‘in knowing that subjects who expressed opinions contrary to their own for a reward of one dollar subsequently changed their original opinions more than those who did so for ten.’ But one might suggest that there is even less excitement in the ponderous tautology (which he quotes with approval) that ‘the social group is seen to function as a provider of social identity for its members through comparing itself and distinguishing itself, from other comparison groups, along salient dimensions which have a clear value differential,’ Why should Tajfel, once the critic of spurious scientism and the sillier sort of simplification, have come to give such remarks the time of day?

The first answer lies in a tendency within the ‘academic psychology’ which took his attention in the 1950s and which he has devoted almost all of his energy to disputing. This is to explain what individuals do in individualistic terms. ‘An “individualistic” theory contains the (most often) unstated assumption that individuals live and behave in a homogeneous social medium. This medium consists of a collection of undifferentiated individual particles which are assumed to relate to each other inter-individually following the laws of basic psychological processes. There is no room in this vision of randomly associating particles for the cognitive and socially-shared organisation of the system within which the particles float.’ If the truly social is recognised at all, Tajfel adds, it is so only as a set of ‘independent variables’ contingently connected to something more enduring and supposedly more fundamental. A simple experiment made the point. British students overestimated the difference in size between florins and half-crowns. American students did not. British students knew that one was more valuable than the other. American students did not. The extension to perceptions of people is almost self-evident. If members of one group think of themselves as a group and believe that members of another are more aggressive or sexy or lazy or cunning or whatever, they will assess them accordingly. Their own sense of themselves as a group is intrinsic to their perception of others. Strictly psychological – that is to say, strictly individualistic – explanations of ‘perceptual overestimation’ are inadequate.

The second answer, though, to the question of why Tajfel gives the time of day to statements of the kind he approvingly quotes from others and too often makes himself lies in a tendency within ‘the academic psychology’ which he never questions. This is to believe that explanations consist in generalisations (he even talks at times of ‘laws’) tested by prediction. Disregarding the purely tautologous (‘Attributes which have high rank in terms of frequency and priority tend to be judged as “more important in a person” than the low-ranking attributes,’ ‘Acting in terms of a group rather than in terms of self cannot be expected to play a predominant part in an individual’s behaviour unless there is present a clear cognitive structure of “us” and “them” ’), concentrating instead on those which are neither true by definition nor tautologous (dominators despise the dominated and the dominated despise themselves), one might nevertheless ask whether such propositions are at all worth having. It is a notorious truth, the one truly general generalisation in social science, that generalisations in social science, if they are to be made to stand up, have to be propped by so many specific conditions as more often than not to remain general only in name. The self-contempt of those who are or who believe themselves to be dominated does indeed seem to be widespread. Tajfel noticed it, as others did, in the concentration camps. But the reverse is almost equally widespread. Workers did find their pride, blacks did find their beauty and women did discover their personhood. As he himself says of the other end of the scale, a completely secure identity for those generally agreed to be superior is not something that they can take for granted. They have to maintain it by persistent exclusion.

It will not do to shrug off the difficulties posed by such complexity, as Tajfel does, by saying that it’s for historians to explain the ‘origin and development’ of social categories, for psychologists to explain how they are ‘transmitted’ to individuals. It surely cannot do to believe that one is saying anything inteesting at all with the claim that ‘ethnic stereotypes are relatively constant over time assuming no incident develops to change them.’ A more truly social psychology may be an advance on the reductive pseudo-explanations offered by Freudians, ethologists, games theorists and diverse Americans, but the substitution of bland vacuity is not. And it seems oddly self-denying wholly to dissociate thought from action. The original intention, after all, was to explain why one group did such terrible things to another.

Indeed prediction, at least in this sort of science, seems a pointless ambition. Understanding, of course, is not. And yet I wonder whether at the end of the experimental day and a set of almost unreadable papers, there is very much of that either. It’s not just that the external validity of experimental work in such a subject, its generalisability, is open to doubt. Tajfel does dimly see that, even if, as I have said, he shrugs it off. It’s also that the internal validity is in doubt too. For what is striking in these essays is that Tajfel never once asks whether the discriminations he describes are rational. When he got off the train at the Gare d’Orsay, of course, in the spring of 1945, that would have been the very last question to have asked of what had just happened across the border. That seemed to be the limiting case of unreason. Yet when a discrimination is made, whether or not it is then used to justify a decimation, reasons are given. Jews were, in fact, believed to be causing the collapse of capitalism and the Communist advance. Half-crowns were, in fact, believed to be more valuable than florins. Black men were, in fact, believed to have larger penises than white men. Protestants were, in fact, believed to have disadvantaged Catholics in Belfast. Some of these facts were true, others false. Others, like the belief that Untouchables pollute, are true in one sense and false in another. We all have some such beliefs and we all act on them. Hume exposed the rationalists’ mistake in supposing that reasons alone can drive men to act. But psychologists in general and this social psychologist in particular, whatever their other merits, seem to have gone far too far in the other direction. It is a peculiar and perhaps peculiarly liberal error, an error which Tajfel shares, simply to suppose that whatever we happen to think is nasty is ipso facto irrational and to be explained accordingly. It is indeed a high-minded and blinkered arrogance.

Tajfel’s own tone, it is true, is far from arrogant. But the generalisations are empty, the predictions do not predict. ‘The academic psychology’ has taken too strong a hold. Tajfel has played the disciplinary game with too much skill. With so many other human scientists, his focused energy has got him to the Moon. But now there, drawing breath in his artificial air, he can tell us little more than that the Earth is round.

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Vol. 3 No. 14 · 6 August 1981

SIR: I enjoyed much of Geoffrey Hawthorn’s review (LRB, 18 June) of my book on Human Groups and Social Categories, and sympathised with it even more. The enjoyment came from the richness and variety of his metaphors. The sympathy was mainly empathy: what would I do in his place if a book of a kind I had never read before suddenly landed on my desk and I had the task of showing that I could be wise, intelligent, witty, informed and altogether Olympian about it? Hawthorn chose one (the only possible?) solution, which he himself described so well: ‘a game that could have been played with any of the human sciences … often unsporting in its moves and vicious in its outcomes’. But I exaggerate. In parts of his review he also shows a good deal of insight.

As he so rightly wrote, social psychology is ‘the human science which perhaps more than any other is claimed by some to be everything and by others to be nothing at all’, I think he and I agree that both these claims are nonsensical. This was one of the reasons why I published my book. The idea was to show that a modest contribution can be made by the subject to the unravelling of one of our most important problems, and that this can only be done if, some general ideas can be connected with some reliable data. Hawthorn understood this when he wrote that my tone is ‘far from arrogant’. There are chapters in the book which are ‘speculative’ and others which concentrate on providing empirical examples in setting out in some detail both the data and the methods used to collect them.

But then, much of the review is devoted to playing a game (or several games simultaneously?) the rules of which I do not begin to understand. I must confess that even after all these years in England, I can watch Wimbledon on TV with enormous pleasure, and am still totally lost when I try to discover what it is that people are doing when they slowly walk from one end to another of a cricket field and then suddenly start running at great speed. Hawthorn’s piece left me with the same feeling of helpless puzzlement.

It is always possible – and Hawthorn knows it as well as I do – to extract from their context some general statements made in a book in any of the human sciences and to contemplate with awe their apparent triviality. Four or five examples are used in Hawthorn’s review. I shall try to deal briefly with some of them. He seems to approve of a small experimental study in which it was shown that when two coins differ in value, their differences in size are exaggerated when these perceptions are compared with the perception of two discs of identical respective sizes which do not differ in value. Can this really be seen all the way from the Moon and does it tell us ‘little more than that the Earth is round’? Of course, the argument in the book was not concerned with this esoteric little phenomenon, but with its possible relevance to the understanding of some limited (and specified) features of social stereotyping. ‘Almost self-evident’?

It is because of these intriguing connections between apparently unrelated phenomena that, as Hawthorn wrote, I quoted ‘with approval’ a statement by two young social psychologists that ‘the social group is seen to function as a provider of social identity for its members through comparing itself and distinguishing itself, from other comparison groups, along salient dimensions which have a clear value differential.’ According to Hawthorn, I (‘once the critic of spurious scientism’) should not have given ‘such remarks the time of day’. Two questions to Hawthorn (or anybody else): in what circumstances which groups are selected for these comparisons and on which selected ‘salient dimensions’? A discussion of these questions was the whole point of the exercise.

I agree with Hawthorn when he thinks that one is stating the obvious in saying that ‘acting in terms of a group rather than in terms of self cannot be expected to play a predominant part in an individual’s behaviour unless there is present a clear cognitive structure of “us" and “them".’ But the statement is certainly not, as he writes, tautologous. Hawthorn simply missed the point (expounded at great length in the book): one of the prime conditions when people are ready to treat others indiscriminately in terms of their group membership rather than as individuals is when for a number of reasons (also specified in the book) there exists either the reality or the perception (or both) of not being able to move at will from one social group to another. When this happens, there exists a finite number of psychological strategies and some of the conditions when they may be expected to appear are also described in the book Where is the tautology?

The same kind of oversimplification enables Hawthorn to drag out of the text the incredibly dull statement that ‘ethnic stereotypes are relatively constant over time assuming no incident develops to change them.’ When I read it in his review, I felt thoroughly ashamed of myself (I did not even remember the sentence) until it occurred to me, as it must have occurred to Hawthorn, that a whole chapter of the book is devoted to a detailed discussion of the forms taken by social stereotypes and the functions they serve both for groups and for individuals. I was rather pleased with this chapter, because I think that it brings together in a new way a diversity of scattered ideas about social stereotypes. I would not have dared to write anything at all about stereotypes if I had no more to say about them than the bland idiocy he ascribes to me.

The conclusion of his review passeth understanding, at least as far as I am concerned. I found myself accused of the ‘liberal fallacy’: i.e. of assuming that any views that we, the noble liberals, do not share must be irrational. Here is a quotation from another text I wrote, which I use in this letter because of its brevity: but the same argument is made in the book under review. In this text, I was concerned with criticising the frustration-aggression approach to conflicts between groups and the derivation from it that a displacement of aggression causes hostility towards certain groups. ‘The hostility (or overt aggression, whenever this is possible) need not be displaced from another target which is, somehow, really believed to be the cause of trouble … Thus, it cannot be said that the Germans acted against the Jews in the Nazi period in spite of having identified the real causes of their troubles. Many Germans believed that Jews were a major cause of these troubles … ’

Finally, I wish to thank Hawthorn for his ‘compassion or [my] motives and admiration for [my] intent’. Both are misplaced. I was hit no harder than millions of other people, Jews or not Jews. I have not been, as he wrote, an inmate of a concentration camp, but a prisoner of war in Germany, which was often a very different fate. This is clearly and explicitly stated in my book. Why not reread the whole thing more carefully?

Henri Tajfel
University of Bristol

Geoffrey Hawthorn writes: Professor Tajfel reads my review as cricket and not cricket. I was certainly a non-professional trying to understand a lifetime player. I was also trying to be a gentleman. I accordingly read every word of his form, marked the distinctive moves, and played no base ball. I did not misdescribe (I did not say that Tajfel had been in a concentration camp) and did not selectively quote with malice. Nevertheless, in the limited overs of a short review, the moves are fast and can be seen to be dirty. I should explain those which Tajfel objects to. First, I did not intend to suggest that the result of the experiment with coins was self-evident. I intended, in what I can see was an ambiguous phrase, to suggest that once this result is extended to perceptions of people as members of groups, the extension itself can in retrospect be seen as such. That it can, of course, is a tribute to Tajfel’s original insight. Second, however, and more importantly, I remain unconvinced both by Tajfel’s strategy and by its outcome. The strategy, as we agree, is to propose laws or generalisations and then to state their conditions. Its difficulty is shown by his own example. This is that the indiscriminate treatment of members of one group by those of another (in the book itself, as I said, he talks of indiscriminate perception) is a function of real or believed immobility between the two groups in question. In the relevant chapter in the book (a chapter in which he also encourages social psychologists to be less modest in their claims) Tajfel gives as an example of this the relations between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. In itself, this may stand up. I do not know whether there are conversions there from one to the other. Tajfel himself presumes that there are not. But as an indication of a kind of example, it clearly does not stand up. What of Reformation Europe? Tajfel would no doubt wish to refine the condition of immobility. The outcome of such refinement, however, as I said in my review, would be to make the generalisations general only in name. This is what I mean when I say that in my opinion the whole strategy, the strategy of ‘hypotheticodeduction’, may for this subject be misconceived.

Finally, I apologise for not having been aware of what Tajfel had elsewhere written about the truth of apparently prejudicial beliefs. Nevertheless, in what he gives us of this in his letter, he fails to distinguish between the fact that many Germans believed Jews to be a cause of trouble and the truth or falsity of the belief that Jews were a cause of trouble. This was the distinction I was pointing to in my remarks about ‘the liberal fallacy’. I was moved to make them by the interesting but bizarre and, to me, irritating chapter in which Tajfel reports coloured students’ views of the treatment they had received in Britain in the early 1960s. Many of these views rested on fantastical beliefs. Many, though, rested on very probably true ones. Tajfel did not mention this. I take it to matter. Indeed, I take it to matter so much that I took too lofty a line about it. There, I concede a high no-ball, but perhaps in bad light.

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