Examining the “Contact Hypothesis”

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.

Take conflict. Add basketball. Out comes peace. Right?

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.”

Periodic overnight camps and retreats also help PPI foster “friendship potential.” Here, Arab and Jewish girls play cards at a PPI Peacebuilding Retreat.

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:

  1. The activity is guided and has a purpose beyond mere “goodwill.”
  2. The groups in question have “equal status,” at least within the context of the interaction.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

According to the Contact Hypothesis, friendships built on the court can carry over to stop prejudice off it.

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:


9 thoughts on “Examining the “Contact Hypothesis”

  1. much respect to these attempts, but frankly, one of the many problems with Allport’s thesis, beyond simply the mutual auspice or authority and the impossibility of equal status in the Israeli-Palestinian context, is the fact that, just like this project, which purports to only place team members and opponents on the field together when they are reasonably matched, is that the entire contact hypothesis has been tested and tested over and over again in remarkably artificial experimental settings completely incongruent to anything resembling reality. Furthermore, this theory disproportionately favors similarity between ingroups and outgroups failing to assert and/or accept a group’s normative claim to positive distinctiveness, i.e, that being unique is or can be positive, case-in-point, the notion of “black is beautiful” during the US civil rights movement of the 60s, which in many ways confounded the assumptions and findings of contact hypothesis experimental studies. My point is not that this is a failed theory or that it should be discarded, but its use in this fashion may be irresponsible as it leads both Israeli and Palestinian youth participants to congeal to the notion that they are in fact equals and because both as innocents have good intentions, the potential for ignoring real social and political differences and power imbalances–to include the immorality and illegality of Israel’s occupation.

    1. Will – You certainly bring up some valid points. We recognize the significant asymmetry that exists within the Palestinian – Israeli context. We also recognize that we are limited in our ability to quickly change the reality on the ground. After all, we are not a political organization.

      However, we do hope to stimulate gradual bottom-up change. While we cannot directly and immediately change the asymmetric status of Palestinians and Israelis on the macro-level, but we can do so on the micro-level (within the encounter setting). Our goal is to provide a safe space that engenders conditions which allow Palestinians and Israelis to see and relate to each other human beings, rather than objects. These conditions give participants the opportunity to develop genuine friendships, which promote empathy and can inspire young people to become active agents of social change in their communities (and we has some concrete examples of this already). We hope that this microcosm can eventually spill over to the macro-level.

      Our participants have grown up in the Palestinian-Israeli context. No one is under the impression that Palestinians and Israelis are equal in society (at least in the current political context). After all, we do live here (not in Canada), the inequalities are as clear as day. However, our participants, at least come to learn that we are all human beings, and should be equals.

      Three of our Israeli participants have left for mandatory military service — yes, this an example of the asymmetric power relations and the reality on the ground. That being said, all three have remained involved in PeacePlayers, and spoken about how their experiences have changed the way they see Palestinians, and thus behave toward them. These new perceptions have also been expressed to peers and family members. They have shared many examples.

      Regarding similarities and differences: We do try to demonstrate that everyone is a human being, but this does not mean that we do not celebrate diversity. Many of our activities engender learning about the “others” culture, holidays and rituals. We try to encourage respect for one other as human beings, rather than teaching that we are all the same. It is plainly clear to all us, just how different we are.

      We have conducted rigorous evaluations since we began working in Israel and Palestine in 2005. Until now, we have worked with two local universities. Data have shown that participants are significantly more willing to engage in social contact with the “other” side following participation in the program (this included: willingness to invite an outgroup member to one’s home; willingness to have a friendship with an outgroup member and willingness to study in the same school). These positive attitudes were maintained and became stronger over the long-term (from 2007 – 2010).

      Independent evaluators from Columbia and Yale Universities are currently launching a long-term study on our program, which is significantly more sophisticated. The study will be a randomized control trial that will include a variety of behavioral measures. We would be happy to update you with the findings.

      We are not under any illusions regarding the challenges. After all, we live it every day.

      1. Excellent. Thank you for responding. I suppose my remarks were in response to the overly positive tone of the blog post above. My real question is how has the Israeli separation barrier impacted the format, strategy, implementation, and measurable success of PPI? And regarding “success” itself, how do you measure it? The above indicators are great regarding shifts, but I imagine those shifts are at least slightly different for participants from the West Bank versus those from Israel proper. And furthermore, as you said per the difference between the reality of micro versus macro-level change and your lack of illusions, are these shifts more tenuous during times of increased political instability, i.e., realistic social-political “on-the-ground” changes. I have been looking more closely at Seeds of Peace than PPI for my own research, though I would be thrilled to interview someone at your organization, and from that organization, while the overall regression line in longitudinal shifts has been positive, it has been less so during periods of increased violence and border closings, but moreso during, for example, the 2003 cease-fire. I imagine that for your organization since the encounter occurs in the field as opposed to (as you say) Canada or North America in general, PPI is more negatively impacted if there is, for example, an attack like the Ittamar massacre, or a serious political event, such as Nakba day or last years statehood bid at the UN and the subsequent US response… But my question here is most focused on the impact the barrier has had. Thanks again. ysalam idaykom/toda raba

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