Intergroup dynamic in the course “Us and Them: challenges and possibilities in intergroup relations”
by Elinor Amit *
Between the years 2012 and 2014 I was the instructor of the course “Us and Them: challenges and possibilities in intergroup relations” at the Psychology Department at Harvard University. The course included both lectures and an in-class intergroup dynamic. The purpose of the intergroup dynamic learning about the psychology of intergroup relations by applying the scientific literature discussed in class to a real experience. In addition, it was an opportunity for the students to learn about their social identity, through a real interaction in secure conditions and guided reflection by the facilitators.
The dynamic was modeled after the School for Peace approach. The School for Peace, established at 1979 and located in Neve Shalom in Israel, is specialized in meetings between Israelis and Palestinians. Below I will first describe the structure of the course and the principles that guided the intergroup dynamic. I will then briefly describe a sample of the underlying processes that characterized the 2014 course.
In the dynamic we had 3 people in charge: Prof. Jim Sidanius and I facilitated the dynamic, and Dr. Emile Bruneau, the TF of the course, led the viewing group.
We had a total of 4 meetings for the dynamic. We had a total of 16 participants in the dynamic (8 “Whites” and 8 “non-Whites”), and about 20 students who were “viewers” and viewed the dynamic from behind one-sided mirror. The viewers watched the dynamic, transcribed the conversation, and conducted a guided analysis of the meetings.
Each dynamic meeting was 1.5 hours long. After each meeting, the viewers, Jim and me, had a conversation about the psychological processes underlying the participant’s behavior.
The classification of students to the “White” and “non-White” groups was done by the students themselves. The categories of “White” and “non-White” were chosen based on a short demographic survey conducted in the beginning of the semester, in which students were asked to report (anonymously) their gender, economical status, and ethnic affiliation. Again, the “White” and “non-White” definitions are subjective (for example, a person who is bi-racial could define herself as “White” or “non-White”, depending on their self identification. It was also suggested recently in a NYT article that a growing number of Hispanic people identify themselves as White (1), and we considered these self-definitions as part of the dynamic process and material to work with. In our class, the White group consisted mostly Caucasians and Jews, and the non-White group consisted Blacks, Asians, Hispanic, and Arab students.
During the dynamic meetings, students freely discussed any topic of their choice, as long as it was related to the relations between “Whites” and “non-Whites”. Thus, the focus in the dynamic was the social identities of the participants and the relationship between the participants as belonging to different social groups, and not the interpersonal relations between the participants.
We based the dynamic on four assumptions regarding intergroup dynamic, which were developed in the School for Peace. Those assumptions are: (1) The dynamic attempts to expose beliefs on which a person’s identity and behavior are constructed, and permit people to grapple with them; (2) The conflict rests on an encounter between groups (e.g., national, gender), not between individuals; (3) The group is a microcosm of reality and thus offers an avenue for learning about the society at large; and finally (4) The encounter group is an open entity, linked to and influenced by the larger reality outside.
The role of the facilitators is to facilitate a dialogue, based on these four assumptions. By uncovering underlying structures, the facilitators try to deconstruct oppressive structures in society. Jim and I tried to be supportive, yet challenge the participants with reflections about the power relations between the groups, and the ways participants from both groups dealt with it.
We had 3.5 meetings that involved dynamic with all the participants together. These meetings are emotionally charged. Therefore and based on the model of the School for Peace, we added half a meeting in which the White participants set with me and the non-White set with Jim, in two separate rooms. The purpose of the “uni-ethnic” meeting was to create a safe space for group reflections on the processes they go through in the “multi-ethnic” meetings.
Finally, we added a fifth meeting, in which the viewers set at the center of the room, and the participants set around them (the “aquarium” meeting). During this meeting, the viewers discussed their thoughts and insights about the intergroup dynamic they viewed. We also had an empty chair in the viewer’s inner-circle, in case a participant from the dynamic group would like to comment on something (which they often did).
The participants in the workshop belonged to the Harvard community, and were all undergrad students in their second, third, and fourth year of studies. Their ages ranged between 18-22 on average, and to the best of my knowledge all of them lived in the dorms. This fact, along with the fact that the workshop was very short – essentially only 4 meetings – made it very hard for the participants to openly discuss their opinions and feelings toward the relations between the groups. Indeed, often times the participants made an effort to maintain a friendly atmosphere in the room. This pattern of discussion served well the interests and needs of the White group, who benefited from the pleasant discussion by building positive self-image as moral, non-racial people.
Another characteristic of the workshop was the heterogeneous nature of the non-White group, which was the result of the heterogeneous nature of the class members. As mentioned earlier, the non-White group was a composition of various minorities, among them Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Arabs. These groups experience power-relations among themselves as well. Minority groups in the US hold different social and economical status (2). The fragmented nature of the non-White group affected the non-White participant’s ability to gain power and challenge the White group. They almost did not try to challenge the White group and ask them to acknowledge their personal responsibility for the discrimination in the American society. Instead, they found creative solutions such as saying that they (the non-Whites) or their parents chose to immigrate and therefore it’s their own responsibility, or that they do not feel they belong to the US anyway. Both groups did not experience these arguments as genuine, apparently. Indeed, by the end of the workshop participants from both groups declared that the “White group won.”
The fact that the dynamic was relatively short, along with the fragmented nature of the non-White group, might contributed to the feeling of the non-White group that they are “wasting their time” in the workshop. This claim, which was made on the third meeting, expressed a feeling of desperation that something could change in general, and following this dynamic workshop in particular. Unsurprisingly, the White group did not share this sentiment and many of them expressed an interest in the workshop as a venue to “learn about the minorities life, experiences, and opinions”. This position enabled the White group members to be emotionally remote, almost as if they are observing and not actively participating in the dynamic.
Anther strategy that the White group adopted in order to win the moral-superiority battle is to use other dimensions of intergroup relations in order to take the victim side. Such dimensions were gender relations, and SEO power dynamic. This strategy turned out to be quite effective in changing the topic and blocking the non-White group from bringing up arguments about minorities discrimination, especially given their own privileged status as Harvard students, and therefor an outgroup within their ingroup.
Despite of the challenges mentioned above, the participants managed to bring up and discuss loaded issues such as affirmative action and the very existence of power relations in the American society. The White group turned out to be heterogeneous and enabled their members to hold different views regarding the responsibility of the minorities in their success/failure (versus discrimination as the causal factor). The openness of the White participant’s to diversity of opinions in their group could be viewed as a sign of strength – a luxury of a strong, relatively homogenous group that is not intimidated by (carefully) exposing varieties of views rather than letting the dominant voice to rule.
In sum, the intergroup dynamic was characterized by relatively dominant White group and less dominant non-White group. This characterization could have been the result of the heterogeneous nature of the non-White group, the fact the dynamic was relatively short, or the fact that all the participants lived together in the dorms and therefore had a strong interest to have a pleasant atmosphere in the room and not start a fight. Despite of that, the participants still managed to bring and discuss challenging issues, and learn about their social identities as well as expose hidden power structures between groups in society, and challenge themselves explicitly with core questions such as the role of the majority versus the role of the minority in their social positions.
- Elinor Amit participated in a joint School for Peace / Tel Aviv University course in 2000 – 2001. She later attended the School for Peace Facilitator Training Course.