Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>
Table of Contents:

Intergroup Threat Theory

Intergroup Threat Theory (Stephan and Stephan, 2000) provides a useful theoretical framework for describing and examining the nature of threats which can be represented and perceived as being posed by particular outgroups. The theory adopts a social psychological approach to threat which argues that whether or not threats have any basis in reality, the perception of threat in and of itself has consequences at both the intergroup and intra-individual levels. The theory
draws upon Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1986) and thinking about the inevitability of perceiving threats from other groups due to basic human tendencies towards cautious perceptions of outgroups (Haselton and Buss, 2003). The theory posits that there are two basic types of threat, both of which revolve around potential harm that an outgroup could inflict on the ingroup, namely

realistic and symbolic threats.

Realistic threats are posed by factors which could cause the ingroup physical harm or loss of resources, and can also be represented as individual-level threats causing potential physical or material harm to individual group members as a result of their membership. For instance, the long-standing social representation that Israel seeks to invade and usurp the land and resources of neighbouring countries, including Iran, renders the country a realistic threat in the minds of individuals who accept this representation.

Symbolic threats represent threats to the meaning system(s) of the ingroup, such as challenges to valued ingroup norms and values, and at the individual level of analysis may be associated with loss of face, challenges to self-identity and potential threats to self-esteem (Stephan, Ybarra, and Rios Morrison, 2009). For instance, the social representation that Jews seek to distort Islamic scripture, which has been disseminated by the Iranian authorities, may render the Jews a symbolic threat to Islam.

There has been considerable research into perceptions of realistic threats, largely conducted in the US context. For instance, in a meta-analytic review of intergroup threat and outgroup attitudes, it was suggested that the negative stereotype that Blacks are violent and aggressive might make White Americans fear for their physical well-being and, thus, construe Blacks in terms of a realistic threat (Riek, Mania and Gaertner, 2006). Similarly, given the rise in Islamophobic social representations associating Muslims with terrorist activity reported in many media analyses, it is possible that British Muslims may be construed by sections of the general population as a realistic threat (Cinnirella, 2014).

It is plausible that the perception of group-level threatmayalso have implications for identity processes at an individual level. The impact of realistic threats for identity processes is likely to depend upon the nature of the realistic threat itself. For instance, the social representation that Israel seeks to cause physical harm to Muslims may severely compromise the (group) continuity principle of identity, since the implication is that the ingroup risks annihilation, thereby, ceasing to exist as a group (see Jaspal and Yampolsky, 2011). On the other hand, the perception that Israel poses threats to the economic well-being of Iranians by supporting and encouraging economic sanctions may threaten the self-efficacy principle of identity, given that Iranians may feel that they lack competence or control over their economy and livelihoods. These observations fit with the argument made by Intergroup Threat Theory researchers that negative stereotypes of an outgroup (for
example, as aggressive) are predictive of both perceived realistic and symbolic threats to the ingroup (Stephan, Ybarra and Rios Morrison, 2009).

Symbolic threats, on the other hand, refer to the perceived violation of symbolic self-aspects which are perceived by group members as underlying ingroup identity (e.g. morals, norms, values, standards, beliefs, attitudes, social representation). This type of threat may also ensue from perceived intergroup differences in worldviews (Corenblum and Stephan, 2001). Clearly, some selfaspects are perceived by group members as endowing their group with a sense of distinctiveness from other groups (Simon, 2004). For example, many Iranians believe that their country should have the right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and Israel's opposition to this perceived right can challenge this aspect of Iran's distinctiveness from other countries in the region. It is easy to see how this can challenge both self-efficacy (in terms of the agency and autonomy to take decisions relevant to the ingroup) and distinctiveness. Thus, a symbolic threat may be conducive to threats to self-efficacy and distinctiveness. Moreover, like realistic threats, symbolic threats might also jeopardise the perceived continuity of the ingroup. For example, Iranian leaders have publicly stated that Jews seek to alter and misconstrue Islam in order to “contaminate” Islamic teachings (Shahvar, 2009). This is likely to threaten the continuity of ingroup identity given that Jews are depicted as seeking to destroy a key tenet of the ingroup's ethos and collective identity. In other words, Jews are depicted as seeking to install discontinuity in the lives of ingroup members.

In their discussion of Intergroup Threat Theory, Jaspal and Cinnirella (2010b, p 290) have argued that some groups can be positioned “in such a way that they represent a hybridised kind of threat, that combines both realistic (e.g. physical well-being) and symbolic (e.g. cultural) threats to the dominant ethno-national ingroup”. Groups that are positioned as posing a hybridised threat are deemed to be particularly threatening, which can invite hostile responses from perceivers. Given the interchangeable use of the categories “Jew”, “Israel” and “Zionism” and the widespread perception of synergy between these constructs, it is plausible that they are collectively represented and perceived as posing a hybridised threat in at least some contexts.

By reconciling Social Representations Theory, ideas around delegitimisation and dehumanisation, Intergroup Threat Theory and Identity Process Theory, it is possible to understand how particular social representations, disseminated in the media and in other channels of societal information, may challenge identity processes among individuals and lead to particular patterns of cognition and action. Cinnirella (2014) provides a typology of group-level threats (as defined in Intergroup Threat Theory) and how they may map onto individual-level threats (as defined in Identity Process Theory) (see Figure 4.1). Although the focus of Cinnirella's work is on social representations of Muslims in British society (against the backdrop of Islamophobia), this framework can provide a fruitful lens for examining representation, cognition and discourse in the context of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

Figure 4.1 The identity principles potentially threatened by social representations of Israel and Jews (adapted from Cinnirella, 2014)

The perception of realistic, symbolic and hybridised threats to the ingroup, reified in social representations, are said to have negative outcomes for intergroup relations (Jaspal and Cinnirella, 2010b; Stephan and Stephan, 2000), while threatened individual identity (in an Identity Process Theory sense) will induce a range of coping strategies which can shape patterns of cognition and intergroup relations. Thus, in aligning these theories, it may be possible to elucidate the reasons underlying individuals' motivations to behave in certain ways in the intergroup setting. Crucially, while Intergroup Threat Theory sheds light upon the nature of threats reflected in media representations and the social representations voiced in individuals' talk, Identity Process Theory provides insight into the potential repercussions of these threats for identity processes, cognition and behaviour.


This chapter provides an overview of an integrative theoretical framework in which social representations, cognition and everyday talk can be collectively examined. It is argued that identity processes, and particularly the concept of identity threat, can play a pivotal role in elucidating how and why groups and individuals may accept or reject particular social representations of Jews and Israel. It is shown how social representations can form and how they can acquire elements that induce patterns of negative intergroup behaviour. Moreover, the framework demonstrates some of the strategies that may be deployed by individuals in order to cope with identity threat. This integrative framework is useful because it marries various levels of human interdependence – individual, interpersonal and intergroup – thereby providing a holistic approach to the study of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. In
the chapters that follow, this integrative framework is invoked and applied to the qualitative data generated by studies of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics