Conflict and Prejudice

Lewin approached the problem of intergroup conflict and racial prejudice by describing the life spaces of the members of the conflicting parties. For example, Lewin saw the life space of many minority group members (such as religious and racial minorities) as full of obstacles and barriers which restrict movement in the life space. The life space of the majority member often consigned the minority member to a small and rigidly bounded region (for example, a ghetto). By isolating minority group members, majority group members can develop unrealistic perceptions or stereotypes of the out-group. Such life spaces are very likely to result in intergroup conflict.

The field theory analysis of racial prejudice suggests that one way to reduce intergroup conflict is to remove obstacles and increase the permeability of intergroup barriers. In the later part of his career, Lewin established the Commission on Community Interrelations as a vehicle for discovering ways of removing intergroup barriers. Lewin and his colleagues discovered some of the following successful techniques for promoting intergroup harmony: enacting laws that immediately removed barriers, such as racial quotas limiting the number of Jews who could attend certain universities; immediate hiring of blacks as sales personnel, thereby increasing the permeability of intergroup boundaries by making contact between group members more likely; responding directly to racial slurs with a calm appeal based on American traditions and democracy to provide a countervailing force to the slur; promoting meetings of warring groups in a friendly atmosphere as a means of breaking down group boundaries; and immediately integrating housing as a successful way of promoting racial harmony.

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