It’s pretty easy, right? Take some kids who don’t know each other very well, separated by communal divisions in their neighborhoods, schools and religions, put them together on the basketball court, and, just like that – peace. Simple.
Not quite. Though we do think that the simplicity of the premise is one of the strength’s of PeacePlayers International’s programs, peace-building and community building is complicated work. When not implemented correctly, “mixing” two groups with histories of conflict can often only serve to deepen divides. Today on “From the Field,” we’re going to briefly look at one of the academic ideas that underpins our work, and helps us achieve the outcomes we’re looking for: the “Contact Hypothesis.”
First proposed by a psychologist named Gordon Allport in 1954, the Contact Hypothesis might be most well known for its influence on the U.S. Supreme C0urt’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which desegregated public schools in the United States. In its simplest form, it says that bringing two groups together can reduce prejudice when the interaction meets four key criteria:
- The activity is guided and has a purpose beyond mere “goodwill.”
- The groups in question have “equal status,” at least within the context of the interaction.
- There is a realistic opportunity for deep, meaningful relationships to form. Allport called this “friendship potential.” In practice, it means that interaction is frequent and/or long-term, and more than superficial.
- The activity is sanctioned by some form of authority figure, for example a family, religious group or government body.
Subsequent research has broadly supported Allport’s ideas, with a special emphasis on the importance of his first requirement – activity that goes beyond mere goodwill. Specifically, the thinking now prioritizes the pursuit of “super-ordinate goals” – goals compelling to both parties to a conflict that cannot be achieved by any one party alone.
So how does the hypothesis play out in PPI? Well, the “super-ordinate goals” of a basketball team are pretty obvious – make the basket, stop the drive, win the game. The interdependence of basketball is at the heart of PPI’s work – with only five players on the court at a time, each one responsible for both defense and offense, a team’s success is truly dependent on the efforts of every one of its players. Importantly, this is true in practice too: to get better, you need to push and be pushed by your teammates in even the simplest drills.
As for equal status, PPI is careful to only pair teams when they are ready for the pairing, when skills are roughly equal and when there is a supportive surrounding context. If different languages are in play, PPI ensures that activities are bilingual, facilitated by a trained pair of coaches (one from each community). In terms of “friendship potential” most of PPI’s programs are year-long, running in parallel to the school year, with interactions occurring as often as multiple times each week when logistically feasible. Finally, PPI recruits the vast majority of its participants through partnerships with schools, community centers, youth clubs and other institutions, ensuring its activity always has the explicit blessing of a trusted community member.
So that’s a brief overview of one of the concepts we rely on when designing programming at PPI, upholding the key criteria of the Contact Hypothesis and ensuring that all activity is structured to produce positive interactions. For more on the theory behind PPI’s work, check out this slideshow, which explains our unique peacebuilding curriculum, developed in partnership with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and the Arbinger Institute: