Ethnic Attitudes Developmental Essay

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Ethnic attitudes can be defined as the thoughts and feelings expressed by individuals in response to ethnicity. Ethnicity includes ‘group patterns of values, social customs, perceptions, behavioural roles, language usage, and rules of social interactions that group members share’ (Barth, 1969; Ogbu 1981). Therefore ethnic attitudes reflect the feelings about one’s own and other ethnic groups. Research has mainly been conducted in western society, and has focused on the developmental or social psychological factors contributing to the existence of positive or negative ethnic attitudes.

Negative attitudes include prejudice. Prejudice has been defined as ‘an organised predisposition to respond in a particular way to individuals on the basis of their own individual characteristics’ (Aboud 1988). Research has found that children display ethnic attitudes, in particular prejudice from an early age. This essay will examine the development of ethnic attitudes during childhood from different theoretical and methodological perspectives. It has been suggested that developmental changes in ethnic attitudes towards other groups be related to the growth of cognitive skills (Katz, 1976 ).

Cognitive developmental psychologists argue the process, which dominates a child’s functioning at a particular age, will also determine his/her attitudes. Aboud’s (1988) theory on the development of ethnic attitudes stems from a piagetian perspective. Piaget’s (1928) theory of cognitive development proposed those children’s understanding of social experience develop parallel to their understanding of the physical world. Aboud’s (1988) theory reflects the ideas put forward by Piaget (1932). She proposes two overlapping processes determine the child’s ethnic attitudes.

The first relates to a change in the process that dominates the child’s functioning-from affective and perceptual processes to cognitive processes. The second relates to the shift from self, to group to individual focus. Aboud’s (1988) theory explains how in the early years (up to 5 years of age) affective processes such as emotions and needs determine children’s attitudes towards own and other ethnic groups. Then the perception of one’s own and others’ appearance and behaviour influence ethnic attitudes.

Finally after the age of seven or eight cognitive processes, such as the knowledge that ethnic groups do not only have concrete but also psychological attributes influence the child’s ethnic attitudes. Cognitive developmental psychologists argue that cognitive understanding influences the way the child interpretates his/her experiences, consequently this leads to the formation of their attitudes towards other groups. From this perspective cognition is necessary for the development of ethnic attitudes. Research has shown that white children as young as 3 years old display negative attitudes towards blacks.

Asher and Allen (1969) conducted a study using a doll technique originally devised by Clark and Clark (1947). They presented children with a white puppet and black puppet. A series of questions regarding which puppet the child preferred were then asked by an examiner of the same race as the child. The questions were as follows: ‘which puppet is the nice puppet? Which puppet would you like to play with? Which puppet looks bad? Which puppet is the nice colour? Only 20% of the 3-4 year olds chose the black puppet on positive items compared to 77% who chose the black puppet on negative items.

However these results were not confined to 3-4 year olds only. Asher and Allen (1969) also questioned 5-6 and 7-8 year olds. Children in these age ranges displayed similar preferences for the white puppet over the black puppet apart from on the question of colour. This illustrates how negative attitudes towards blacks, otherwise termed as prejudice, is prevalent in children as young as three and continues to exist in 7-8 year old children. This opposes Aboud’s theory, as she believes there are age-related changes in the development of ethnic attitudes.

Asher and Allen’s (1969) study found no difference between ethnic attitude and age. However this may be due to the methodology employed by Asher and Allen (1969). He has been criticised for drawing conclusions about ethnic attitudes with the use of only four questions. Williams and Morland (1976) addressed this via the use of the multi item PRAM, which presents children with 24 positive and negative evaluative descriptions. They wanted to discover whether asking children (aged 3-9 years) more questions would result in similar ethnic attitudes being displayed as those in Asher and Allen’s study (1969).

According to Williams and Morland (1976) choosing the white person for the positive items and the black person for the negative items on at least 17 of the 24 items indicates bias. The results showed children aged 8-9 displayed less bias attitudes compared to children aged 6-7, and children aged 6-7 displayed less bias attitudes than children did aged 3-5. This contradicts the findings of Asher and Allen (1969) as it indicates as children get older their ethnic attitudes become less negative.

However the method undertaken by Williams and Morland (1976) had limitations, as it did not allow children to attribute positive qualities to both black and white persons. Therefore it was assumed the preference of one automatically meant the rejection of the other. This assumes bias when it was not explicitly stated; hence the results are questionable. Despite this the decline in prejudice with age has been supported by other studies (George and Hoppe, (1979); Vaughan, (1964). This evidence contradicts the social reflection theory of ethnic attitudes.

This theory asserts the view that ethnic attitudes are obtained via social learning processes and increase with age. The opposite was found in Williams and Moorland’s (1976) study. Further evidence against the social reflection theory comes from Aboud and Mitchell’s (1977) study. Here results found that 8-year-olds liked their own group slightly less and liked three other groups more compared to 6 year olds. From this they concluded that from the ages between 7-8 white children although still preferred their own group were more accepting of other ethnic groups.

These studies provide support for Aboud’s theory as they reflect how as children get older they acquire ethnic cognition’s which result in them being able to see members of other ethnic groups as similar to themselves. However this pattern is not displayed among young black children. After 7 years of age, Black children tend to be more attached to their own ethnic group and more negative towards others. For example, in Asher and Allen’s (1969) study described earlier 73% of both black and white children, aged 3-4 years old preferred to play with the white puppet.

This figure increased to 80 % in 5-6 year olds. Newman et al (1983) further postulated these findings. He found black nursery children preferred whites and Hispanics equally over blacks. On the other hand the evidence for this is mixed, out of 12 studies, 6 showed pro-black attitudes. Perhaps such variation is due to social factors, in particular parental influence. Social learning theorists argue children acquire ethnic attitudes via the observation and imitation of attitudes displayed by their parents. These attitudes are maintained via positive and/or negative re-enforcement.

According to Allport (1954) preadolescent prejudice is an imitation of parental views. However support for this claim is mixed. Spencer (1983) found some relationships between Black children’s ethnocentrism and their mother’s knowledge and beliefs about black history. This suggests that because the mother was more aware of her ancestral knowledge this message is passed down via socialisation resulting in the child having a more pro-black attitude. Contrary to this, Branch and Newcombe, (1980), adopting a similar approach, found a negative correlation between parental ethnocentrism and the child’s choices on a doll-choice type task.

Therefore it seems that research does not fully support the notion of association between ethnic attitudes displayed by parents and those adopted by children. Parental socialisation does not provide strong evidence as to why the ethnic attitudes of black children do not follow the developmental sequence of white children. Milner (1983) proposed that the development pattern is mire complex for non-white children. Their attitudes seem to reflect social values about the dominant race, rather than who they are.

Aboud (1988) explains this in terms of her three-stage model theory. She sees early development of ethnic attitudes in black children as being directed by motivational and emotional needs, rather than social influences. This means that young black children misidentify with the wrong ethnic group because they want to fit in, this is later corrected at 5-6 years when perceptual and cognitive processes become mature. Although Aboud’s theory seems plausible it cannot possibly account for all the heterogeneity in black attitudes towards ethnicity.

At least some of the variation in young black attitudes is due to cultural and historical variables. Evidence shows that studies in which black children showed an in-group preference (preference for their own ethnic group) were conducted after 1968. There was a surfacing of political awareness in the late 1960’s which resulted in an enhanced more positive self image of blacks in America. Therefore due to this elevation of minority group pride after 1968 young black children displayed an in-group bias. It must be noted however this does not mean they were prejudice against white children.

Research over the past 20 years has established that ethnic attitudes are acquired around the ages of 3-4, and transform during the following eight years. Developmental and social psychologists have outlined factors, which they believe contribute to the development of ethnic attitudes. While social psychologists maintain social factors such as parental socialisation, peer influence and the effect of the mass media are important in the development of ethnic attitudes. Evidence for this view is equivocal. Research has shown that prejudice does not seem to increase with age contradicting the social reflective theory.

Although socialising agents are not the only roots of racial attitudes, they may still be influential. Aboud and Doyle (1996) assert how their influence may depend on how explicitly parents and friends present their views. If parents were more specific about their attitudes, then children would not be left to their own cognitive abilities in an attempt to interpret ethnic similarities and differences. The majority of evidence has supported a social-cognitive theory of ethnic attitude development, as proposed by Aboud (1988).

It explains how ethnic attitudes develop during childhood via the shift from affective to perceptual processes, to the use of cognitive processes combined with the shift of attention from the self, to group, to individual focus. However Aboud (1988) does not account for the cultural influences in the ethnic attitudes of children. Therefore perhaps the development of ethnic attitudes can be more effectively explained if social, cognitive and individual aspects were incorporated in one model. Research needs to focus on non-western societies in order to enhance our knowledge of the development of ethnic attitudes.

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