Good relations work is needed now more than ever


Allport’s Scale of Prejudice

In the 1950s social psychologist Gordon Allport developed what has become known as Allport’s Ladder of prejudice (see below) to help understand how ordinary men and women in 1930s Germany overrode their common humanity to stand by, or worse, to actively contribute to the Holocaust. Today, post the referendum, with a five fold[1] increase in racist and xenophobic hate crime, we would do well to heed his warning about how quickly people can move from speaking against a particular group to attacking them physically.Allport Scale of Prejudice image


Influencing factors

So what factors influence movement on the ladder, and how have these been played out in the lead up to the referendum?

  • The role of national, local, civic, and political leaders is crucial. Leaders have the capability to either stoke discord or to calm tensions and promote cohesion, Most commentators have pointed to the toxic nature of the rhetoric regarding immigration from certain sections of the Leave campaign. It could be argued, however, that some Leave campaigners just took up and ran with a vein of tacit xenophobia that had been developing for a while in British politics, giving it further legitimacy and prominence, and therefore permission for an increase in spoken abuse.
  • Linked to leadership is the role of ‘divisive narratives’. In 2013-14 Talk for a Change ran a series of public conversations across England to examine local cohesion and social integration work and to test the appetite for an Alliance for Good Relations. Local organisations reported an increase in divisive narratives creating an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality, turning different groups against each other in local communities. Increased prejudice against Muslims, people with disabilities and those claiming benefits, were all cited as cause for concern. Both the management and perception of immigration were raised as hot topics. Some areas were worried about resources being stretched to cope with an influx of migrants from the A8 European countries and a subsequent impact on good relations. Other areas noted an increase in factually inaccurate stories about both numbers of migrants and their economic impact on communities.
  • Elements of the referendum campaign accelerated the divisive narratives described above giving them new life and urgency, strengthening rivalrous cohesion[2]. Rivalrous Cohesion describes groups where there are high levels of cohesion within the in-group and high levels of prejudice towards out-groups, (in this case immigrants), with the result that communities become more introverted and insular.
  • Rising inequality – many of the local organisations we spoke to in 2014 were concerned about ‘austerity’ as the double whammy of cuts to benefits and cuts to local services hit the poorest and most vulnerable in their communities the hardest.
  • The above, coupled with a lack of local accountability, can lead to a deeply felt sense of powerlessness reported by many of the organisations and areas we talked to. Communities need to feel a sense of agency, that they have some power to impact conditions at a local level. If we interrogate the slogan ‘take back control’ it points to a sense of change happening too fast, with not enough notice given and inadequate preparation. (Conflict transformation theory emphasises the need to build resilience in communities to withstand shock and change.) As local councils have been denuded of both power and funds by successive centralizing governments, and globalization increasingly impacts local economies with little accountability built in, it is no wonder that people feel that they want more control.
  • Segregated communities can lead to ‘Avoidance’. Many of the areas that voted most strongly for Leave had the lowest concentration of first, second and third generation immigrants (including black minority ethnic populations). Intergroup contact in areas with high diversity tends to correlate with greater tolerance and a reduction in prejudice[3]. Put simply if we don’t have the opportunity to get to know and understand people from other groups we are more likely to harbor misconceptions and prejudice against them.
  • Last but by no means least is the role of the media – a hostile national (or local) media whose focus is on stoking divisions and amplifying differences can undermine the slow patient work of building good relations.


The importance of good relations work

Good relations work is about building trust and long-term relationships, acting as a kind of ‘social glue’. It is complex, requires time and resource, and is work that rarely comes to public attention. It relies on being able to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations where we disagree profoundly yet still maintain social bonds and trust. It involves skilled resilient and resourced practitioners who are able to ‘sit in the fire[4]’ of difficult feelings and unresolved conflict; we can’t dissuade others from racism and xenophobia if we can’t bear to hear them out, and understand the underlying fears and concerns.

In 2014 this careful under the radar work was still happening, but it was increasingly under threat. People told us many inspiring and positive stories. A mosque that invited older white residents for afternoon tea to sort out nuisance issues during Ramadan, community workers brought Jewish and Muslim young people together to reduce fear and increase understanding, young people developing trust and goodwill across generational divides, organisations using activities such as the arts, sports, food, community gardening; these were all helping to develop a sense of common purpose and shared future in local areas. Good relations work is necessarily difficult to measure, its success is indicated usually by the absence of tensions and harmful community conflict, and a sense of belonging experienced by all.


What can we do post-Brexit?

Adam Curle, the University of Bradford’s first professor of peace building, identified the importance of addressing both ‘conditions’ and ‘relations’ in order to build a sustainable social peace. If we don’t pay attention to the underlying structural and systemic conditions and work only on relations then we risk creating an even greater sense of despair and cynicism as structural inequality and poverty prevail. Therefore we have to urgently tackle the underlying conditions that risk moving us up Allport’s Ladder.

Alongside that work on conditions we need to redouble our efforts and focus on strengthening Good Relations. Specifically public sector and civil society must adhere to the requirement to act in accordance with the duty outlined in the Race Relations Amendment Act (2001) to ‘promote good relations’, and that includes our political and civil society leaders.

At the same time we must resource local organisations that are building Good Relations. Local activists, residents and frontline staff will need training and support to be able to facilitate difficult dialogues and initiate community conversations. Social peace can take years to build, is maintained through consistent attention, and as we are discovering can be easily undermined. If we continue to take it for granted and don’t take active steps to tackle these issues then we risk the destruction of that invisible social glue, increasing xenophobia and racism, deepening divides, and doing long term damage to good relations.

Jo Broadwood

Talk for a Change

[1] Complaints filed to police online hate-crime reporting site True Vision increased five-fold in the week following the referendum result

[2] See the work of Professor Dominic Abrams, Director of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at University of Kent

[3] See the work of Professor Miles Hewstone, Director of the Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict at University of Oxford

[4] A phrase coined by one of the most skilled dialogue practitioners we know in the UK, to describe the process of facilitating through tough community conflicts