Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment

Muzafer Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, Carolyn W. Sherif (1954/1961)

Preface to Original Release -- 1954

In the chapters to follow the main points of a large-scale experiment on intergroup relations are reported. It was carried out as a part of the research program of the Intergroup Relations Project at the University of Oklahoma. In this first presentation, sufficient time and facilities were not available to make use of data contained in recorded tapes and half a dozen short moving picture reels. Nor was it found feasible to include introductory chapters surveying major theories on intergroup relations and elaborating on theoretical outlines of the present approach, which determined the formulation of the hypotheses advanced and the design of the study in successive stages. These are presented more fully in our Groups in Harmony and Tension (Harper, 1953), which constituted the initial work unit in the present intergroup relations project.

Therefore, a brief statement of the cardinal considerations that shaped the conception of this approach to the study of intergroup relations is in order. It is not unfair to say that the major existing theories fall within two broad categories in terms of the emphasis placed in formulation of the problem and methods involved.

In one broad category of theories, the problems are expressed in terms of actualities of events in group relations as they exist in everyday life. On the whole, theories advanced by many social scientists fall in this broad category. In this concern over actualities the problem is frequently not stated and discussion not developed in a way that can be tested rigorously. In the second broad category of theories, problems are stated and analysis carried out in terms of more rigorous-appearing concepts and units of analysis. Theories coming from psychologists and social scientists heavily influenced by them fall within this broad category. In this line of approach, theories are advanced without due regard to actualities, and consequently they are plagued with serious questions of validity.

The present approach starts with a serious concern over the rise and functioning of actual small groups in social life. The hypotheses advanced are formulated on the basis of recurrent events reported in sociological accounts of small groups. Testing these hypotheses under conditions that appear natural to the subjects has been a theoretical and methodological consideration of prime importance. Therefore, a great point was made of carrying on observations without the awareness of subjects that they were being observed and of giving priority to the uninterrupted and uncluttered flow of interaction under experimentally introduced stimulus conditions. The techniques of data collection were adapted to the flow of interaction, rather than cluttering or chopping off interaction for the convenience of the experimenter. This imposed the task of securing an experimental site which is isolated from outside influences so that results could not be accounted for primarily in terms of influences other than the experimentally introduced ones and the interaction on that basis.

In such a natural, life-like interaction situation, there are so many items that can be observed at a given time that it becomes impossible to observe and report all behavioral events. Therefore, there is the possibility of being selective in the choice of events to be observed. In testing vital hypotheses related to intergroup relations, restricting the number of subjects to just a few is not the proper remedy. Circumscribing the number of reactions of the subjects is no remedy. Asking the subjects to remain within optimal distance of a microphone and asking them please to speak one at a time will destroy the very properties of the interaction process in which we are interested. The dining hall adjacent to the kitchen is not the place conducive to getting the subjects to cooperate in preparing a meal of their own accord. By trying to eliminate selectivity through such resorts we would have eliminated at the same time the essential properties of the very things we set out to study.

(1) One remedy lies in unmistakable recurrences of behavioral trends so that the observer cannot help observing them even if he tried to ignore them. If these trends are independently reported by the observers of two different groups, then they serve as a check against each other. We have secured such checks time and again in this study.

(2) The danger of selectivity can be avoided (without disrupting the flow of interaction) by having outside observers in crucial problem situations and by having them make, for example, their own independent status ratings in terms of effective initiative in getting things started and done.

(3) The most effective way of checking selectivity is the use of a combination of techniques. This consists in introducing at a few choice points laboratory-type experiments and sociometric questions. If the trends obtained through laboratory-type and sociometric checks are in line with trends obtained through observations, then selectivity of observation need not worry us as far as the relevant hypotheses and generalizations are concerned. The actual use of observational, experimental and sociometric techniques in a combined way, whenever feasible without cluttering the main flow of interaction, has been a major point of emphasis in our study. In our previous work, the feasibility of using judgmental indices to tap norm formation and intra- and intergroup attitudes was established in various studies. This series of experiments, whose logic and techniques were made part-and-parcel of this large-scale experiment, are summarized in a paper "Toward integrating field work and laboratory in small group research" (to appear in Small Group Research Issue, American Sociological Review, December, 1954).

The present study has for its background the invaluable experience of the 1949 and 1953 experiments, both carried out under my direction. In 1949 the design (in three stages) went as far as the end of Stage 2 of this 1954 study, namely in-groups were formed and intergroup friction was produced experimentally. The 1949 study was jointly sponsored by the Attitude Change Project of Yale University and the Department of Scientific Research of the American Jewish Committee, to both of whom grateful acknowledgment is extended. Without the effective help of Professor Carl I. Hovland this start could not have materialized. The second study was attempted in 1953 in four successive stages. We succeeded in completing only two stages in this attempt, which covered the experimental formation of in-groups. The experiment reported here, as well as other units during the last two years, were carried out with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to the University of Oklahoma, for which we are grateful.

It is a pleasure to note here the active participation of O. J. Harvey during the last four years in the development of this program of research. Especially his doctoral thesis, entitled, "An Experimental Investigation of Negative and Positive Relationships between Small Informal Groups Through Judgmental Indices," constitutes a distinct contribution in demonstrating the feasibility of using laboratory-type judgmental indices in the study of intergroup attitudes. Without the untiring and selfless participation of O. J. Harvey, Jack White, William R. Hood, and Carolyn Sherif the realization of this experiment and the writing of this report would have been impossible.

This program of research in group relations owes a special debt to the dedication of the University of Oklahoma and its administrative agencies to making development of social science one of its distinctive features. The close interest of President George L. Cross in social science has been a constant source of encouragement and effective support. Professor Lloyd E. Swearingen, Director of the Research Institute, has cleared our way for smooth sailing whenever occasion arose. We have turned again and again to the encouragement and unfailing support of Professor Laurence H. Snyder, Dean of the Graduate College.

                                                                                                                                        Muzafer Sherif

chapter 1