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Breaking Down Barriers Through Social Contact

In this post, Jena Morrison illustrates how Allport’s Contact Hypothesis can create meaningful conversation about racial divides and historical monuments out of confrontation.

On Saturday, September 16th a protest about Confederate monuments was set to occur in what is basically my own backyard. As a sociologist, I felt obligated to go and observe the situation given the current social climate surrounding the statues, the controversial nature of these pieces of stone and metal from history, and to see how my own hometown planned to handle the situation. According to the news, a group from Tennessee in support of Confederate monuments was planning to arrive and organize a protest. Subsequently, a counter-protest had been planned by other groups in response to ideas of white supremacy, racism, and the idea of “outsiders” coming to the area to tell the locals what should be done. Neither side was issued a permit for the assembly. That didn’t stop either side or numerous groups across the entire spectrum from showing up. Groups represented at the protest included the Tennessee group, local members of the White Rose Revolution, local militia members, individuals seemingly associated with Antifa, community members and residents, field medics, the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, students from my alma mater (VCU), the Associated Press, dozens of news crews, law enforcement from at least five different jurisdictions, and several others that I was not able to place. Many items were barred from participants at the event (ie. Bats, helmets, etc.); however, the state laws allowing for open carry of guns was honored. This explosive potential for confrontation between members of these various groups combined with the numerous weapons present left many in the community scared, avoiding the area, and even warned by the Chief of Police to stay away from the event.

While there was a verbal confrontation earlier in the morning, much of the day was spent with people mulling around waiting for the next round of drama to occur. And, as the morning stretched into the afternoon, I got to witness a fascinating evolution in the scene from one of confrontation and discord to one of open dialogue and interest. Pockets of people from the different factions and with different, even opposing views, of the meaning of the statues and what should be done with them gathered in small groups. The conversations I overheard from these small gatherings were ones that allowed contrasting views to be shared openly and rationally. And, each person’s argument was met with curiosity and openness, thereby bridging the ideological divide and breaking down the barriers that had existed earlier in the day.

Ethnocentrism and the Contact Hypothesis

Once upon a time, as suggested by William Graham Sumner, intergroup contact was a precursor to hostility and eventually conflict (Dovidio, Glick, & Rodman 2005). This stems from ethnocentrism, the idea that the group that someone belongs to is superior to other social groups. When two groups share that same perspective, the most likely outcome is conflict and a fight for dominance or social power.

However, over time, this idea has been refuted. While conflict can occur, today’s view of this offers alternative results ranging from exacerbating prejudice on one end of the scale to building social cohesion and breaking down stereotypes on the other end. The latter is argued by Gordon Allport (1954) under his theory known as the Contact Hypothesis. Allport argued that if certain criteria were present, existing prejudices and barriers could be broken down. In order for this to happen, however, the following criteria must be met: equal group status in the situation, support from local authorities, intergroup friendship, common goals, and intergroup cooperation (Dovidio et al. 2005).

In this particular situation, one that had the potential for volatility and escalation, we can clearly see Allport’s hypothesis in play. Law enforcement and local residents were clearly available to support the community, welcoming everyone in and making themselves approachable. They also maintained order and treated everyone in attendance fairly, no matter which particular faction they belonged to. During the chanting earlier in the day, chants from small groups would be taken on by the larger counter-protester group in attendance, sometimes in place of their own group’s chants. This marked all of them as members of the larger counter-protester group rather than members of specific ideological groups. This provided a common goal between these smaller groups and helped to demonstrated Allport’s notion of intergroup cooperation. And, lastly, as hours of the day were spent mingling and waiting, it provided the opportunity for individuals of different factions to talk to other counter-protesters allowing for this open communication of ideology and for the development of intergroup friendships. As a result of these interactions, what began as a hostile and volatile situation has evolved into an opportunity for our larger community to finally have a calm, open, and critical look at these monuments and their future status.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How do you see Allport’s contact hypothesis applying to interactions within your community?
  2. Is there a way to utilize Allport’s ideas to construct a situation where an open-dialogue could occur among the different groups regarding the Confederate statues? What would this look like?
  3. What is missing in situations like that of Charlottesville or St. Louis that have contributed towards violence rather than promoting this air of curiosity and openness?
  4. Which of Allport’s criteria do you think are the most important for breaking down prejudice? Why?


  • Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
  • Dovidio, J. F., Glick, P. E., & Rudman, L. A. 2005. On The Nature of Prejudice: Fifty years after Allport. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.