Realms of recognition

Rupert Brown considers the life and legacy of Henri Tajfel (1919-1982).

Just over one hundred years ago, a little boy was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Włocławek, a small town in northern Poland. That boy was named Hersz (or Heniek) Tajfel. He was later to become known as Henri Tajfel, one of the most important European social psychologists of the 20th century. Although his career was cut tragically short when he died at the age of 62, it was a glittering one in terms of his influence on social psychology, both intellectually and organisationally. However, for all his academic success, he was a complex man with some undoubted personal failings in terms of inappropriate conduct towards women. These have only recently come to light, leading some to question his legacy.

Growing up as a Jew in Poland in those inter-war years was no fun. Anti-semitism was rife, both in the daily life of Jews in schools and on the streets, and in the form of anti-Jewish decrees and restrictions on the numbers of Jews permitted to enter Polish universities and professions. Probably because of this, Tajfel emigrated to France in 1936 to pursue his university studies. His original choice of degree was chemistry, not a subject that ever much interested him. As a result, he failed some exams (in the summer of 1939), causing him to remain in France to re-take them. That’s where he was when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. Along with hundreds of thousands of his fellow emigrés, Tajfel was conscripted into the French army soon after. In May 1940, he was taken prisoner by the Germans, together with 1.8 million other French soldiers.

He spent the war in various prisoner-of-war camps in Germany and Austria, most probably hiding his Jewish identity (cf. his entry in Wikipedia). On his release at the end of the war, he returned to Paris to discover that nearly all his family had died in the Holocaust. For the next four years, he worked in children’s homes in France and Belgium, helping Jewish orphans rebuild their lives. Then he returned to Germany to assist in the rehabilitation of refugees and other displaced persons, under the auspices of the International Refugee Organisation. He was later to write that these experiences during and after the war provided the motivational mainspring for his entire academic career. They drove him to seek a new explanation of intergroup conflict, and convinced him of the need to incorporate a thoroughgoing analysis of intergroup relationships into social psychological theory.

To Britain
In 1951 Tajfel emigrated to Britain, his fifth country of residence. He undertook a psychology degree at Birkbeck College, graduating (with First Class Honours) in 1954 at the age of 35. This marked the start of his academic career. He spent two years as a research assistant to Fred Smith at Durham University where he conducted his first empirical research (on weight estimation) and where he developed his ideas for his first publication on the effects of value on perceptual judgements of magnitude (Tajfel, 1957). This paper was a theoretical integration of several experiments that had been conducted as part of the New Look movement initiated by Jerome Bruner. One intriguing discovery of this approach was that size judgements of physical stimuli (e.g. circular shapes) were affected by the association of symbolic value with those shapes (as in the case of coins) and by the social background of the perceiver (whether they were from poorer or wealthier families; Bruner & Goodman, 1947). In his paper, Tajfel showed that several disparate findings could be reconciled with the use of a single psychological principle – accentuation, either within or between ordered series of stimuli. He later tested a hypothesis he derived from this paper, showing that length estimates of lines could be reliably altered by the imposition of an arbitrary categorisation (A or B). If this categorisation was correlated with length (shorter lines A, longer lines B), then the perceived difference between the A and B categories was accentuated by about 100 per cent (Tajfel & Wilkes, 1963).

Tajfel moved from Durham to Oxford in 1956. His position was as a ‘Tutor’ rather than a ‘Lecturer’ and was in the Delegacy for Social Work Training rather than in Experimental Psychology. Both these facts rather rankled with him, since they meant that he occupied a rather marginal status at Oxford. Perhaps they also induced him to seek a year’s leave of absence shortly after his arrival there, to work with Bruner at Harvard. This experience was formative for Tajfel, both professionally and personally. He initiated several new lines of research and, perhaps as important, developed a close friendship with Bruner that persisted for the remainder of his life.

Take off
Over the next decade, Tajfel’s career took off. He won sizable research grants from both the British and American governments and published prolifically on such topics as stereotypes, the development of nationalism in children, prejudice and cognitive biases in judgements more generally. He also worked tirelessly to develop social psychology internationally, playing a leading role in setting up the European Association of Experimental Social Psychology (EASP), now one of the leading professional organisations of social psychologists in the world.

Although he eventually succeeded in obtaining a Lectureship and subsequently a college Fellowship at Oxford, his continued exclusion from the Department of Experimental Psychology and the negligible likelihood of ever obtaining a Chair there, led him to apply for (and obtain) a Chair at Bristol University in 1967. Securing this position, one of only three other Chairs in social psychology at the time, was to prove pivotal in establishing his international reputation.

The first step in that process was the publication of a paper entitled, ‘Cognitive aspects of prejudice’ (Tajfel, 1969). This was at once a coruscating critique of some then fashionable ideas about intergroup hostility – that it was due to some aggressive instinct or unconscious drive – and a powerful argument for viewing prejudice as the outgrowth of normal cognitive processes. Drawing together several of his own previous studies and those of others, Tajfel showed how negative intergroup stereotypes (or prejudice) are the end product of people’s search for meaning and coherence. This paper had a major impact, winning him the prestigious Gordon Allport prize, and is credited by some as initiating the social cognition movement in social psychology (Hamilton, 1981).

The second achievement of his move to Bristol was the development of an experimental paradigm which showed that the mere fact of being categorised as a member of one group and not another was sufficient to trigger intergroup discrimination. The paradigm came to be known as the Minimal Group Paradigm (MGP) because the groups that participants were assigned to were so minimal as to be meaningless – preference for one abstract painter or another or even, n one study, the mere toss of a coin. The fact that people were inclined to allocate more money to those they believed were in the same group as them than to people in the other group, even though recipients were always anonymous, flew in the face of explanations of intergroup prejudice at the time. These held that such discrimination was either the result of personality dynamics, or the product of frustration, or emanated from objective conflicts of interest between groups. None of these theories could explain why mere group membership was enough to cause people to favour one group over another.

Although the original idea for this experiment was not Tajfel’s – it was first mooted by a Dutch social psychologist, Jaap Rabbie, some years previously – it was he who had the insight and creativity to develop it into the form that yielded those dramatic results. The MGP has achieved landmark status. Of all classic social psychological experiments published between 1950 and 1980, only Zajonc’s (1968) ‘mere exposure effect’ has been cited more frequently (2578 times, according to Web of Science) than the first full report of the MGP (Tajfel et al., 1971; 2088 times). The paradigm is still widely used today in a range of research contexts – cross-cultural psychology, cyber-psychology, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology and social neuroscience (Otten, 2016).

Social Identity Theory
The MGP was not only an extraordinary discovery in its own right, it also paved the way for what proved to be Tajfel’s most enduring intellectual contribution, Social Identity Theory (SIT). This was sketched out initially by Tajfel himself (Tajfel, 1974) but was worked up into a more formal theoretical statement with the help of his former PhD student, John Turner (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

The essence of the theory rests on three propositions. First, it holds that on many occasions in our daily lives, who we are – our social identity – is defined by the groups we belong to. These may be small face-to-face groups like our family or a work-group, or they may be larger categories like social class, ethnicity or nationality. The particular social context we find ourselves in determines which of our many possible identities is most relevant to us in the moment. Once a specific group identity has assumed significance, the fortunes of that group become our fortunes, its misfortunes our misfortunes. Second, the theory assumes that this incorporation of the self into the group has motivational consequences. In general, we prefer to see ourselves – and hence our group(s) – in a positive light, and we will expend psychological and physical effort to achieve that. Third, the theory proposes that group evaluations are comparative in nature. We know how well we (and our group) are doing by comparing ourselves with others. If we are doing better than others (have better jobs, live in better houses), our identities are said to be positive; if not, they are negative. In either case, we will be motivated to maintain (or restore) some positive distinctiveness for our ingroup, often by displaying ingroup favouring biases in judgements and behaviour.

Although SIT was originally proposed to explain intergroup conflict, the past 20 years has seen an enormous proliferation of its applications. It is now used widely in business and management, health psychology, political science and even in branches of theological studies (Brown, 2019)! At the last count, it had achieved over 13,200 citations on Web of Science. By way of comparison, Festinger’s 1957 Cognitive Dissonance Theory has amassed 12,700.

Tajfel’s legacy?
For all the undoubted success that Tajfel enjoyed at Bristol, his time there was not positive for everyone. Earlier in his career, he had acquired the unenviable reputation of being a sexual harasser of young women. Once at Bristol, this importuning seemed to increase in its frequency and flagrancy. Undergraduate and postgraduate students, junior colleagues and other women were all the object of uninvited and unwanted advances. On at least one occasion, he was summoned to the university’s vice-chancellor, following a complaint from a student.

Another feature of this late phase of his career were his conflicts with senior colleagues in Europe. These were seldom intellectual disputes but were mostly fuelled by mutual rivalry. Most famously, he fell out with Serge Moscovici, the famous French social psychologist and, with Tajfel, one of the founders of EASP. The conflict arose from a book that Moscovici had proposed. He had wanted to publish a handbook of European social psychology but had not consulted or included Tajfel in the proposal. After a furious exchange of letters, the two men, who had known each other for 15 years, never spoke again.

Despite these personal failings, Tajfel has bequeathed us a rich intellectual legacy. His PhD students (Billig, Milner, Turner, Breakwell, Ng, Brown, Caddick, van Knippenberg, Ross and Philo) and their students, in turn, have developed and expanded his ideas on the importance of groups in people’s lives in myriad ways. It is no exaggeration to say that the social identity approach is now one of the liveliest and most fertile perspectives in social psychology.

Until quite recently, Tajfel’s legacy seemed secure. He was known as the discoverer of the minimal conditions needed to elicit intergroup discrimination. He was the architect of a theoretical perspective which provided the catalyst for several important theoretical and applied contributions in contemporary psychology. And he was one of the founders of a successful professional association which has evolved into a vibrant network of research collaboration and training for European social psychologists. In recognition of these achievements, in 1982 EASP inaugurated a triennial Tajfel prize for lifetime achievement in social psychology, and commemorative lectures and seminars were named after him by the universities of Bristol and Warsaw and the Social Psychology Section of the BPS.

However, the recent revelations of Tajfel’s history of sexual harassment (Brown, 2019; Young & Hegarty, in press) have led some to call for a re-assessment of Tajfel’s legacy. The executive committee of EASP took the unusual step of removing his name from that lifetime achievement award and there has been much discussion on social media and elsewhere about the wisdom of that decision.

I can understand the consternation that has been expressed in various quarters about this issue, especially in light of the many legitimate concerns of the #metoo movement. How can we best channel this controversy to the benefit discipline of psychology, or of science more generally? By focusing on Tajfel’s transgressions, however reprehensible they undoubtedly were, is there a risk of regarding the problems of sexism and gender inequality as one of individual pathology rather than an institutional (and societal) failure? Is there a danger that Tajfel’s very real contributions to social psychology, both intellectually and organisationally, will get obscured by the clamour of outrage about his sexual harassment? My own view is that it is perfectly possible and appropriate to recognise Tajfel’s many achievements without condoning his unconscionable behaviour in one realm of his life. That recognition can now take place in amongst discussion around those institutional and societal contexts, and I am pleased to see that happen in this trio of articles.

-  Rupert Brown is Emeritus Professor of Social Psychology in the School of Psychology, University of Sussex

[email protected]

Illustration: Nick Ellwood

Key sources

Brown, R. (2019). Henri Tajfel: explorer of identity and difference. Abingdon: Routledge.
Bruner, J.S. & Goodman, C. (1947). Value and need as organizing factors in perception. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 42, 33-44.
Hamilton, D.L. (Ed.). (1981). Cognitive Processes in stereotyping and intergroup behavior. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Otten, S. (2016). The Minimal Group Paradigm and its maximal impact in research on social categorization. Current Opinion in Psychology, 11, 85-89.
Tajfel, H. (1957). Value and the perceptual judgment of magnitude. Psychological Review, 64, 192-204.
Tajfel, H. (1969). Cognitive aspects of prejudice. Journal of Social Issues, 25, 79-97.
Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Social Sciences Information, 13, 65-93.
Tajfel, H., Billig, M.G., Bundy, R.P. & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1, 149-178.
Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. (1979). An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict. In W.G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The Social Psycholgy of Intergroup Relations (pp. 33-47). California: Brooks & Cole.
Tajfel, H. & Wilkes, A.L. (1963). Classification and quantitative judgement. British Journal of Psychology, 54, 101-114.
Young, J.L. & Hegarty, P. (in press). Reasonable men: Sexual harassment and norms of conduct in social psychology. Feminism & Psychology.
Zajonc, R.B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1-27.

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