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As human beings, we socially categorise people as members of social groups rather than as individuals. The reason why we do so is because it ‘provides useful information that cannot immediately be perceived and it allows us to ignore unnecessary information’ (Bruner 1957 cited in Smith and Mackie: 145).
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The danger of this social categorisation is that it’ makes a group seem more similar to each other than they would be if they were not categorised’. (McGarty et al cited in Smith E and Mackie D: 165)
The process of seeing one’s self as a member of a group or self categorisation can have positive effects for individuals within a group. Tajfel (1972) argues that ‘people seek to derive positive self-esteem from their group memberships’. (Smith E and Mackie D: 189)
As social care practitioners, we work with various social groups such as people with disabilities, the travelling community, young offenders, children in care, the elderly and many others social groups. These groups have been socially categorised and can often be considered as ‘outgroups’ by society. They are often considered by society to be vulnerable groups and are often’ pushed to the margins of society and excluded from the mainstream’. (Thompson: 2003)
The definition of social care is the ‘provision of care, protection, support, welfare and advocacy for vulnerable or dependant clients, individually or in groups’ (Joint Committee on Social Care Professionals cited in Share P and Lalor L: 5)
Each individual who is in need of social care can socially identify themselves as part of a group. Tajfel’s Social Identity theory suggests that members of a group gain a self-concept and self-esteem as a result of their group membership. ‘Seeing oneself as a group member means that the group’s typical characteristics become norms and standards for one’s own behaviour’. (Turner et al cited in Smith and Mackie: 195). This, therefore results in members of the group acting in group typical ways.
This theory can help us to understand the behaviours of various groups we are working with as social care practitioners. For example, a group of young adults who are engaging in criminal activity may be doing so as this behaviour is a norm within their group.
It also enables us to see why these groups are considered as outgroups in society and can help us to understand why these groups are seen as ‘oppressed’ by mainstream society.
Tajfel ‘s theory also tells us that often the individuals who make up the group are seen as ‘uniform’ and their diversity is underestimated.
This is certainly common with people who have intellectual disabilities. The ‘ingroup’, which in this case is the group who does not have intellectual disabilities, often views the ‘outgroup’, or the people with disabilities as all ‘being the same’. The individuals who have disabilities are categorised because of their disability rather than their individualistic characteristics and are therefore stereotyped due to their disability.
Stereotypes can be described as ‘over generalised sets of beliefs about members of a particular social group.’ (Schultz and Oskamp: 63) They are the views we form about groups as a result of social categorisation and ‘reduce the complexity of the world into a few simple guidelines that suggest how members of certain groups should be treated’ (Schultz: 63)
They act as ‘generalisations about a group of people in which identical characteristics are assigned to virtually all members of the group, regardless of actual variation among members’. (Aronson et al: 2004:466)
These stereotypes can lead to both positive and negative evaluations being made about the members of the group. They can also lead to the target group acting in stereotypical ways, for example, one of the reasons why a group of young offenders may be engaging in criminal activity could be a result of stereotype threat. This refers to ‘being at risk of acting in a manner consistent with a negative stereotype about ones group’. (Schultz: 69) The group of offenders are seen as an out-group and ‘may feel their offending behaviour is justified because they have been oppressed, but their treatment must be disproportionately severe’ (Harrower J, 2001:4)
Prejudices, ‘hostile or negative attitudes towards a distinguishable group of people, based solely on the membership in that group.'(Aronson et al: 2004:467) can have extremely adverse effects on the individuals within these categorised social groups.
‘Any group that shares a socially meaningful common characteristic can be a target for prejudice’ (Smith and Mackie: 143)
Prejudices against people in marginalised and vulnerable groups are prevalent in the society in which we live. ‘By virtue of their role and the social groups they engage with, social care practitioners witness the impact of inequality on the everyday lived experience of people affected'(Share and Lalor: 110)
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Ethnic groups such as the travelling community are constantly subjected to prejudices. Much research has been carried out in recent years in relation to this. One survey found that 42 percent of the population held negative attitudes towards the travelling community (Behaviour and Attitudes in Ireland 2000) and another revealed that 72 percent of the settled community did not want the travelling community to live amongst them. (Lansdowne Market research 2001).
People with disabilities are another group in society which are subject to prejudices. Often society has the ‘assumption that disability is a form of illness’ (Oliver: 1990 cited in Thompson: 128)
People with disabilities have also been viewed as ‘not fully human, or even subhuman’ (Brandon: 4). Despite the fact that society’s attitude towards people with disabilities has improved over time as a result of moving away from the medical model to the social model of disability which involves the integration of people with disabilities into our communities, people with disabilities are still not regarded as ‘complete human beings of an equal status to the remainder of society’. (Share and Lalor: 334)
Research suggests that prejudice is learned from the groups in which we belong. ‘Racial and ethnic identity is a major focal point for prejudiced attitudes’. (Aronson: 457)
Discrimination can be defined as ‘unequal or unfair behaviour toward an individual based on his or her membership in a particular group’ (Schultz: 63) and is commonly seen in the area of Social Care at many levels.
Thompson (2003) outlines many processes closely linked with discrimination. He refers to Invisibilzation, a type of discrimination whereby ‘ dominant groups are constantly presented to us, for example through the media, and are strongly associated with power, status, prestige and influence, while other groups are rarely, if ever seen in this light'(Thompson’: 2003.13) This is true of many social groups in social care. People with disabilities are rarely seen in the media.
Infantilisation, which Thompson refers to as ‘ascribing a child-like state to an adult’ (Share and Lalor: 2009:278) is also common in social care. Society tends to regard people who are elderly or who have a disability as ‘child-like and dependant, unable to interact in their own right’. (Thompson: 88)
Thompson also argues that discrimination occurs in other forms such as marginalisation, welfarism, medicalization, dehumanization and trivialization.
The Experience of discrimination in Ireland (2004), a piece of research carried out by the Equality Authority, found that people with disabilities reported one of the highest rates high rates of incidents of discrimination both while accessing services and at work.
Various theories in the area of social psychology focus on the ways to minimise prejudice and discrimination within society.
Allport’s theory known as the Contact Hypothesis, suggests that ‘intergroup contact’ can lead to reducing prejudice but only under a number of suitable conditions. These conditions are that (a) the groups in the situation have equal status, (b) are not competitive and (c) have support from the relevant authorities for the contact and (d) have common goals.
As social care practitioners, we can promote Allport’s theory through the work we do with the various vulnerable groups we are involved with. This can be done by promoting social inclusion within the community.
Although attitudes towards groups such as people with disabilities have changed over recent years, there is much work needed in order to ensure that this group has equal status within our society. The same can be said for the other vulnerable groups we work with as social care practitioners.
The subject of prejudice and discrimination is highly relevant to the area of social care and with the help of research carried out in this particular area of social psychology, we can have a clearer understanding of the reasons why, as human-beings, we develop and utilise these actions and behaviours. By having this understanding, we can develop skills and mechanisms to help reduce prejudice and discrimination, and combat the damaging effects that they can have on vulnerable groups in society.
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