17 April, 2024


Things That Unite Us: The Contact Theory

By M. S. Thambirajah –

Dr. M. S. Thambirajah

In a recent book written by a female Tamil rebel fighter from the Jaffna who had been arrested in early 1980s, she talks of how she and her fellow detainees came across a group of Sinhalese girls belonging to the JVP in the adjoining part of Walikade prison. Separated by rolls of barbed wire and not knowing each other’s language, she says they communicated through gestures and signs and eventually formed a sort of camaraderie with each other to the extent that both groups staged protests against the prison authorities and at one point even went on hunger strike.

Reading her account, makes one realise that a generation of Sinhalese and Tamil youth have grown up where they do not know or understand each other’s language, leave alone their respective cultures. In this small island of ours we live in our isolated and barricaded social worlds with little capacity for communication across ethnic and religious divides. The generation to which I belong (in US terms, the baby boomers) the various communities had the opportunity of studying together in the schools and universities, meeting socially, working and playing games together. At the present, most Sri Lankans, with the exception of the English-speaking elite, are by and large monolingual. I am not talking of the English-speaking elite or the political class. I am talking of the ordinary men and women, boys and girls in the villages and small towns. It is no wonder that in this situation the ground is fertile for prejudice and paranoia to thrive. For the political class this is a god-sent vote catcher.

The fact is that the four communities in our country – the Sinhalese, the Tamils of the North and East, the Muslims and the Hill country Tamils – do not understand one another’s culture and the sources of their ethnic and religious pride. To be sure, the social identity and pride of the Sinhalese are based mainly on Buddhism and for them their language comes only second; for the Tamils their identity and attachment is mainly to their language. Muslims, like the Sinhalese, identify themselves with their religion; upcountry Tamils have little in common with their Tamil speaking brethren in the North and East but are united by common experience of exploitation and marginalisation.

But, as Sri Lankans, the four aforementioned groups do not understand one another’s culture, for example, Tamils do not fully appreciate the place that Buddhism occupies in psyche of the Sinhalese and their everyday life. Nor do the Sinhalese and Tamils realise how for Muslims Islam is a way of life and that their loyalty and devotion to it are absolute; the Sinhalese do not fully understand the importance their language plays in their identity and pride of Tamils.

To illustrate, most Tamils are woefully ignorant of the works of Martin Wickramasinghe or Simon Nawagaththegama. Even the well-educated among them know little or nothing about Sinhala classical Sinhala poetry such as the Sandesha kawya; the Jathaka stories and even Anderé stories are little known among the other communities. Over the last few decades Sinhala theatre, cinema and teleplays have been in the forefront of Sinhala cultural expression. To name a few, the works of highly celebrated directors like Simon Nawagaththegama and Akhila Sapumal have gone largely unnoticed by the other communities.

Similarly, even the educated Sinhalese are woefully ignorant of the corpus of Tamil Sangum literature (c. 300 BCE to 300 CE) that consists of 2381 poems written by 473 poets 30 of whom were female poets that for the Tamils is the embodiment of Tamil literature and civilisation; nor do the other communities have an understanding the history and experience of hill country Tamils powerfully expressed in the novel Mirage by Kokilam Suppiah which charts the passage of one family from South India to Ceylon through from Mannar to hill country by foot and life in the conditions of bonded labour the plantations during the colonial era; nor the Tamil novels of K. Daniel, the doyen of oppressed caste literature, that depict their lived experiences of the oppressed caste people in Jaffna. And these two communities know little about Islamic civilisation as exemplified by The Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt (250 BCE) or the fact that Islamic art is not restricted to religious work, but includes unique artistic geometric patterns not seen outside the Islamic world.

It is a fact that most communities prefer to live with their own kind. We see this in all countries. China towns, Korea town and Little Indias common in most western countries attest to this affiliation of ethnic groups. But in this little island of ours we have achieved the rare distinction of living in splendid isolation from one other, physically, linguistically and culturally. How has this been possible? The older generation had the benefit of English that was a link language; they had the opportunity of learning together in schools and universities and working together in government offices; there was a healthy degree of interaction among the communities. Moreover, although intermarriages have been not common, there were cross group friendships. This was evident during the ethnic the 1983 riots when many Sinhalese friends took Tamils under their wing cutting across communal boundaries.

At present, apart from the large towns, the groups live like gated communities with little scope for mutual communication or interaction. Lack of meaningful contact between the communities leads to ethnocentricity. It promotes bias and prejudice which in due course become the norm. Once institutionalized, lack of contact then reinforces negative attitudes and beliefs about the out-group, further hardening the boundaries between the in-group and the out-group. Is it a wonder, then that prejudice and discrimination are rife?

Evidently, there are economic, political and historical reasons for interethnic conflicts. But, intergroup relationships are instilled with high levels of emotions and sentimentality. Hence, methods of reducing prejudice need to consider the psychology that underpins people’s attitudes. Social psychologists have paid particular attention to measures that reduce prejudice and advanced one such postulate called the contact hypothesis. It proposes that meaningful intergroup contact under proper conditions is one of the ways in which prejudice may be reduced.

Contact hypothesis

The Detriot race riots of 1943 was a landmark event in race relationships in United States (similar to 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka). After witnessing the ferocity and destructiveness of interracial violence social psychologists started paying serious attention to measures that could be employed to reduce intergroup conflict. Obviously, there were many factors such as influx of Black workers, overcrowded housing and so on that had led to the riots. But the high levels of prejudice that underpinned the riots made social psychologists to pay special attention to the psychological drivers that led to the clashes. They concluded prejudice against the “other” was one of main factors in the dynamics of the conflict. In social psychology, prejudice refers to the attitudes and feelings, whether positive or negative and whether conscious or non-conscious, that people have about members of other groups.

Armed with data from studies of the riot, Gordon Allport, a professor of psychology at Harvard university proposed, in 1955, “the intergroup contact hypothesis” in his book, The Nature of Prejudice. Since then the book has become a classic work on the subject. Simply stated, the intergroup contact theory is based on the idea that intergroup contact under particular conditions can reduce prejudice between majority and minority groups. Allport paid particular attention to the conditions that reduced prejudice and concluded that for contact to be effective four conditions must be met. Firstly, members of the two groups have must have equal status. Contact in which members of one group are treated as subordinate would not reduce prejudice—and could actually make things worse. Secondly, members of the two groups must have common goals. Thirdly, the members of the two groups must work cooperatively. Emphasising this, he says, “Only the type of contact that leads people to do things together is likely to result in change in attitudes”. Fourthly, it should have the support of institutions, authorities, and law or custom.

Stated in this manner, in the prevailing situation in Sri Lanka, attempting to bring about the positive contact between the various communities may seem a futile exercise for we live in a climate where intergroup prejudice is seen as political capital and bigotry a vote earner. But, there are reason not to lose heart. All is not lost if one thinks about contact at grassroot level rather than seeking the blessings of the establishment. Contact between ordinary Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims is possible in the workplace, universities and educational institutions and informally in local communities. Moreover, recent research shows that that Allport’s four contact conditions facilitate, but are not essential to, the decreasing prejudice, i.e., even when Allport’s four conditions are not met, intergroup contact still diminishes prejudice.

The effectiveness of intergroup contact in reducing prejudice has now been established   doubt. It has been put to test among Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; Black and white people in South Africa, US and France; Germans and Turks; Maori and white people in New Zealand, White settlers and Indigenous population of Australia and many other multicultural societies. Since the introduction of the intergroup contact hypothesis in the 1950s it has been one of the most extensively researched subjects in social psychology. There have been more than 500 studies with more than 300,000 subjects from 40 nations that have reported positive impact on intergroup relations following constructive contact between groups. Thus, research has categorically demonstrated that intergroup interaction is an essential part of any remedy for reducing prejudice and conflict between groups.

Positive contact has been shown to enhance understanding for the outgroup and adoption of the outgroup’s perspective. And through contact participants begin to sense how outgroup members feel and view the world and the reasons for it. This increases empathy and perspective taking and thereby diminishes prejudice. Coming to like and trust an outgroup makes one less ethnocentric (seeing the world from only one’s own cultural perspective). As groups come to appreciate one another’s culture barriers are broken down and healthy are relationships established. Contact increases trust between the groups as old enmities are forgotten and forgiven.

Recent research has extended the scope of contact beyond one of direct contact to include two other types of contact, virtual contact and electronic contact. Given that, in the current political climate, direct contact between the four communities in Sri Lanka faces many physical, political and practical barriers, these forms of contact seem eminently suitable.

Virtual contact refers to indirect contact through books, plays, cinema and television and the social media. On this account, there are very few translations of Sinhalese books into Tamil and vice versa. The classic works of Sinhalese authors have bypassed the Tamil reader. Here we must take a leaf from India where award winning literary works get translated to most regional languages.

Virtual contacts are potentially excellent sources for building bridges between communities, In Sri Lanka the media too are strictly monolingual. It is understandable that Sinhala and Tamil print media speak to their respective audience in their respective languages. But, unfortunately, they see no purpose in translating articles, editorials and opinions from the other language from their sister papers. Thus, Sinhalese readers do not know what Tamil papers say and Tamils are kept ignorant of what goes on in the Sinhala media. The visual media are not any better either. None of the TV interviews, panel discussions and reports carry subtitles in the other language. This is true of films, plays and teledramas too. By rectifying some of these blind spots the media have huge potential to facilitate interethnic communication through virtual contact. When communities witness the effects of the conflict and war from the perspective of the other as in the case of a Tamil mother whose son had been killed or a Sinhala family that had lost a soldier in the war it opens up the potential for mutual empathy and understanding.

Unfortunately, again, the electronic media too are monolingual. There is an urgent need for bilingual presentations in print, visual and electronic media such as online papers and Facebook. Admittedly these involve extra effort and resources. If contact hypothesis is anything to go by, it would be foolish to ignore its potential to build bridges between communities and foster good relationships.

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Latest comments

  • 7

    The ethno, religious and language divisions in a country like Sri-Lanka can be partly attributed to “ignorance of the unknown ” and wested interest groups thive on the difference rather the common thread.
    These prejudices are accelerated by politicians to curry favour.When there isn’t a common ground and media of communication prejudices flourish and power hungry people exploit the status quo for their own advantage

    News channels should have subtitles and more multi lingual broadcasters

    It’s a shame that CT hasn’t a Tamil version though it has Sinhalese stream

  • 1

    Dr. M. S. Thambirajah,
    An extract from your article,“The effectiveness of intergroup contact in reducing prejudice has now been established It has been put to test among Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; Black and white people in South Africa, US and France; Germans and Turks; Maori and white people in New Zealand, White settlers and Indigenous population of Australia and many other multicultural societies”

    What was the impact? I am sure that the prejudices were not totally eliminated, but was the margin of reduction is significant?

    However the relationships in US between whites and blacks are still hostile. The long term impact is uncertain.

    Why these intergroup contact was not put to test in Sri Lankan context. Sri Lanka may not be an exception to the rule.

    Sociologists much continue with similar exercises much more widely because prejudice if allowed to persist, will damage the relationship among communities irrevocably and result in major conflict later

  • 3

    In Lanka politicians in cohort with religious heads are working together in keeping the conflict alive and volatile. It’s a goose laying golden eggs and they do not want it to be killed. Dr. Thambirajah, where in the world the head of the nation him self claims that he is there only to lead his people, and religious head requesting for a Hitler. The government stages shows, to incite violence as we saw after Easter, and in 83, JR in public wanted the pogrom to continue to keep his people happy. What is the purpose of Ganasara around ?, not allowing to sing national anthem in other languages ? Our president, PM, government, politicians, administration, media, religious heads, institutions desperately wants racial division and the conflicts to continue for their own survival. Now the public too has been conditioned to believe in “Sinha Lee”, own flag, own anthem, own history , own law, ….

  • 2

    Dr. Thambirajah, please do not get me wrong. Talking sociology, psychology, ethics, civics, morality …….. to Lankans is similar to educating healthy diet, nutrition to a poverty stricken starving community. Silly Lanka is an exception to the rule. If anyone disagree please give an example of a country in similar situation, 70 years after independence. (family dynasties, 30 years of civil war, two insurrections, bankruptcy, 90 % literacy with equal number of retardation, nepotism, corruption, crime, journalist killed, people disappeared, unsolved mysteries, political murders, mythology, …………….)

    • 1

      I will not explain the communal conflict on mere lack of contact.
      It was amid great contact that the likes of JRJ, DSS and SWRDB and their families built up communal politics.
      The 1915 riots were against Muslims who could speak Sinhala and lived side by side with the Sinhalese.
      Why did the LTTE attack Muslims?
      Even Shan’s problems in the Communist Party of Ceylon had a nasty communal twist. (SA Wicks was clean. But not Pieter K.).
      Later Rohana W played the communal card against Shan.

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