- Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in Social Psychology by Henri Tajfel
Cambridge, 369 pp, £25.00, April 1981, ISBN 0 521 22839 5
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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?
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.