Actively addressing inequalities promotes social change

people stand at opposing sides of a chasm

What does it take for people to commit to take action to promote social equality? And how might this differ for people from advantaged and disadvantaged groups?

An international team, including Linda Tropp at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and researchers in 23 countries, finds more mutual support for social change among advantaged and disadvantaged groups when inequality is actively addressed and the psychological needs of each group are met. The new research, led by the University of Zurich (UZH), was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“What this research is showing is that people on both sides really need to acknowledge that they have different motivations and concerns when they interact with each other,” says co-author Tropp, the lead researcher in the U.S. who has examined how members of different groups experience intergroup contact for more than 20 years.

Prior research has shown that advantaged groups prefer to discuss commonalities among groups rather than differences between groups, at the same time as they desire to feel accepted and not be labeled as biased. But if members of socially disadvantaged groups simply have pleasant, positive exchanges with people who are not themselves targets of discrimination, they may emerge from those contact experiences even less committed to fighting for social justice and improving their own group’s social position.

As first author Tabea Hässler of UZH says, “They get the deceptive impression that their own group no longer suffers so much discrimination... It is therefore important that social inequalities and discrimination between different social groups are actively addressed and named.” This helps to meet the needs of disadvantaged group members, such as racial minorities and LGBTIQ+ individuals, who are motivated to have a voice and feel empowered in their relations with advantaged groups.

Each group’s psychological needs are therefore an important part of the equation. “If contact situations are structured where members of disadvantaged groups or minority groups feel empowered, that they have a voice and are being listened to and heard, that’s the time when contact with members of advantaged groups may support their interest in collective action to challenge the status quo,” says Tropp, professor of social psychology at UMass Amherst.

Similarly, when members of majority groups “feel welcome as allies in that cause and not presumed to be racist, then that can bolster their willingness to use some of their time and energy to try to promote social equality,” she says.

To gather their data, 43 researchers around the world conducted a survey with more than 11,000 individuals from a range of identity groups, including heterosexual individuals and members of sexual or gender minorities, migrants and members of their respective host societies, as well as indigenous groups and religious minorities.

“Overall, our findings suggest that contact across group boundaries fosters social change when it meets the targeted needs of disadvantaged and advantaged groups,” says Johannes Ullrich, professor of social psychology at UZH.

Tropp says one next step is to help prepare members of advantaged groups to engage in difficult conversations about power relations and discrimination.

“To the extent that the advantaged engage in those conversations with disadvantaged groups, talking about the structural inequalities that do exist and need to be addressed, then it’s likely that both members of disadvantaged groups as well as advantaged groups will be more prepared to engage in efforts to challenge the inequalities that we have in our society,” she says.