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Reducing intergroup conflict through contact

Differences between groups of people, for example distinct ethnic or religious communities, can often lead to conflict driven by fear, prejudice and stereotyping.

The work of Professor Miles Hewstone in the Department of Experimental Psychology focuses on the causes and consequences of conflict and ways to address these.

Miles’ research has produced clear evidence on how contact between groups can reduce conflict. It has shown that contact need not necessarily be direct; just knowing that other members of your community have positive contact with other groups can be helpful. Contact reduces fear of outsiders and enables people to see the world from each other’s perspective. Importantly, once we improve attitudes towards a particular group this can have far-reaching consequences by changing people’s attitudes towards other out-groups.

This research into intergroup conflict has been recognised by government bodies and its recommendations adopted in community relations and educational policies.

Community relations

Following riots in English cities in 2001 the Cantle Report highlighted that many White and Asian communities were living parallel lives. The subsequent government commission on Integration and Cohesion drew on Miles Hewstone’s work into intergroup contact remarking that it was the strongest evidence available of the benefits of such work. Miles has also served on the technical committee of the government’s Citizenship Survey.

Educational policies

The theories developed by Miles Hewstone have formed the cornerstone of the Shared Education Programme, an important element of Northern Ireland education policy. In a community where 94% of pupils attend predominantly single faith schools, the programme encourages collaboration and mixing across the sectarian divide while accepting the existence of separate schools. A pilot study involving 577 students in 14 schools revealed that shared education increased trust and positive attitudes towards the other group at the same time reducing anxiety and promoting empathy. After only a year students who participated in the programme reported having 6% more friends of the other denomination than those who did not participate.  To date shared education has been extended to include 130 schools and 16,000 pupils. The scheme is accepted by all the main political parties and has been prioritised in the Northern Ireland Programme of Government. This includes a commitment that by 2015 every pupil will have some experience of shared education. In May 2013 the Office of the First and Deputy Minister announced a plan to build 10 shared education campuses over the next five years. This is likely to offer the shared education experience to around 50 schools and 20,000 pupils. Other countries are beginning to adopt a similar approach to help address their own intergroup conflicts.

Miles Hewstone appeared on BBC Newsnight in April 2011, talking about how intergroup contact theory can help schools in Oldham.