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Creating Peace in Post-Conflict Society: The use of Intergroup Contact Theory 

    In 2022, the Visualising Peace team at the University of St Andrews set up the Visualising Peace Library with the aim of promoting more interdisciplinary knowledge-exchange between people working in different areas of peace building and peace studies. In bringing together a wide range of publications, from diverse disciplines and sectors, we aim to stretch habits of studying, learning and thinking about peace.

    Some of my research for the Library led me to compare methods of peace-building discussed in International Relations theory with trends in social psychology. This led me to explore social identity theory, intergroup conflict and intergroup contact – methods and models which can offer practical solutions to issues facing communities in post-conflict societies. Theory around social identity and intergroup conflict/contact also offers psychological explanations as to why conflict can persist post-resolution and why it is so difficult to achieve full, lasting, sustainable peace.

    With difficulties currently arising in many post-conflict societies like Northern IrelandBosnia and South Africa, I wanted to highlight this critical research. Arguably, International Relations theories can often feel too broad, looking to the state and/or international level and missing out on critical factors which affect individuals. The presentation that follows discusses some aspects of intergroup contact theory and the positive effects it can have. It particularly highlights the importance of community-level peace-building and human-centred, individual-focused approaches.

    Intergroup Conflict 

    Intergroup conflict can be defined as competition between two or more groups over resources, values, and claims to status and power (Coser, 1967). Intergroup conflict is best understood as a spectrum. On one end, intergroup conflict exists as stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, with overt violence, military aggression, and genocide on the other (Fisher, 1994). Extreme intergroup conflict goes beyond mere prejudice and dislike for ‘the other’ or the ‘outgroup’ (Al Ramiah & Hewstone, 2013). Intergroup competition, paired with historical and structural factors like outgroup oppression, can lead individuals to feel sufficiently strong emotions to engage in violence against the other group/the outgroup (Mackie et al., 2000).

    Social Identity Theory 

    Social Identity Theory (SIT) is a psychological framework often used to explain intergroup conflict (Al Ramiah et al., 2011). Social identity can be defined as a person’s awareness that they belong to specific social groups, which they value, forming emotional connections with their groups and other group members (Tajfel, 1978). Social groups create shared identities, which guide actions and beliefs (Hogg, 2016).

    Realistic Group Conflict Theory demonstrates that when groups compete, individuals favour their group members, even for randomly assigned groups (Sherif & Sherif, 1973). SIT acknowledges the power of goal-orientated competition in shaping ingroup behaviour but argues that group categorisation alone is enough to produce intergroup conflict (Billig & Tajfel, 1973). SIT argues that the more an individual values their group membership, the more they promote their group’s superiority and goals over others (Tajfel, 1978). When groups have mutually exclusive goals, it highlights group salience, causing fiercer intergroup conflict and outgroup prejudice (Hogg, 2016). Ingroup bias and outgroup prejudice can increase as individuals spend more time within their groups (Brown & Pehrson, 2020).

    Intergroup Contact

    Allport (1954) argued that outgroup prejudices are learned behaviours developed and reinforced by ingroups. He further argued that if individuals had positive interactions with members of the outgroup, their negative perceptions would diminish. This was the genesis of the Intergroup Contact Theory. The most utilised form of intergroup contact is direct, face-to-face contact. However, there are several other contact methods that help reduce prejudice (Al-Ramiah & Hewstone, 2013).

    Allport (1954) established four critical conditions which should be met to create positive intergroup contact:

    • participants must be allowed to interact with equal status;
    • intergroup cooperation should be encouraged;
    • shared goals should be present;
    • and the contact should have institutional support.

    An extensive meta-analysis investigating the effectiveness of direct intergroup contact examined 515 studies and 713 independent samples, which utilised various designs from various geographical locations. The study showed a negative relationship between intergroup contact and prejudice in the presence of Allport’s conditions (mean r=-.287 p<0.001) (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). However, interactions that did not meet all conditions still produced a negative relationship (mean r=- .204 p<0.001) but to a lesser extent. 

    It is important to note that although, on average, intergroup contact produces positive results (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006), unfavourable results can also occur if conditions or group-level threats are present, reinforcing prejudice and conflict (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Intergroup contact is an essential method for reducing outgroup prejudice post-conflict, but it needs to be appropriately handled or could lead to negative results.

    What do you think?

    • Have you come across Intergroup Conflict Theory or Intergroup Contact Theory before?
    • What kinds of ingroups and outgroups does your own social identity promote or perpetuate?
    • Can you think of examples in your own community where intergroup contact would help reduce conflict and build peace?
    • What might these social psychology theories mean for state-level or international-level peace-building processes?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also enjoy Journey for Forgiveness, Achilles in Vietnam, Colombia: the long road to peace, Cambridge Union Debate and Jojo Rabbit.

    Harris Siderfin, December 2022


    • Allport, G. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading: MA: The nature of prejudice. 
    • Al Ramiah, A. and Hewstone, M. (2013) “Intergroup contact as a tool for reducing, resolving, and preventing intergroup conflict: Evidence, Limitations, and potential.,” American Psychologist, 68(7), pp. 527–542. Available at: 
    • Al Ramiah, A., Hewstone, M. and Schmid, K. (2011) “Social identity and intergroup conflict,” Psychological Studies, 56(1), pp. 44–52. Available at: 
    • Billig, M. and Tajfel, H. (1973) “Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour,” European Journal of Social Psychology, 3(1), pp. 27–52. Available at: 
    • Brown, R. and Pehrson, S. (2020) Group processes: Dynamicy within and between groups. Wiley Blackwell. 
    • Coser, L.A. (1967) Continuities in the study of Social Conflict. New York: Free Press. 
    • Fisher, R.J. (1994) “Generic principles for resolving intergroup conflict,” Journal of Social Issues, 50(1), pp. 47–66. Available at: 
    • Hogg, M. (2016) “Social Identity Theory,” in S. McKeown, R. Haji, and N. Ferguson (eds) Understanding peace and conflict through Social Identity theory: Contemporary global perspectives. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, pp. 3–19. 
    • Mackie, D.M., Devos, T. and Smith, E.R. (2000) “Intergroup emotions: Explaining offensive action tendencies in an intergroup context.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(4), pp. 602–616. Available at: 
    • Pettigrew, T.F. and Tropp, L.R. (2006) “A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), pp. 751–783. Available at: 
    • Sherif, M. and Sherif, C.W. (1973) Groups in harmony and tension: An integration of studies on intergroup relations. New York: Octagon Books. 
    • Tajfel, H. (1978) Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations. London: Academic Press. 

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