Context-dependent variation in social stereotyping 1: The effects of intergroup relations as mediated by social change and frame of reference



During the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf conflict an experiment was conducted with Australian university students (N = 200) to investigate whether the social stereotyping of Americans varied with social contextual manipulations related to the hostilities. The study, conducted in two phases at the start and end of the conflict, examined how the assignment of standard stereotypical traits to Americans was affected (a) by the large-scale social change constituted by the war and (b) by variation in the frame of reference provided by relevant comparison groups. The elicited stereotypes were sensitive to both of these contextual variables, demonstrating significant variation and fluidity. Overall, stereotypes of Americans were relatively negative. They were significantly more negative (a) at the end of the war than at the beginning in the restricted frame (when Australia and Britain were comparison groups) and (b) in the first phase of the conflict when the frame was extended to include Iraq as a comparison group. The findings were in line with expectations derived from self-categorization theory (Turner, 1985) that the social categorization of self and other into ingroup and outgroup is inherently variable, comparative and context-dependent. They question the long-held view of stereotypes as fixed, rigid and resistant to change.