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What is Prejudice Definition?

Prejudice refers to intolerant, inflexible and irrational attitudes, perceptions and opinions that a member of one group may hold about another group. It is thus a situation where one group has beliefs, attitudes and opinions about the way of behavior, cultural practices, religion, norms, and values of another group, which are not necessarily true but rather preconceived (Agerstron and Rooth 45). Although prejudice can be positive or negative, both forms are often difficult to distinguish between. The negative prejudices often easily lead to discrimination, although not all the time (Marger 65). This paper will focus on the sociological theories of prejudice and how they have been applied by scholars to explain the causes, nature and effects of prejudice in the society and the essence of its existence.

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The sociological theories that explain the existence of prejudice among humans have been generally grouped into three broad categories according to the sociological perspectives. These are the functional theory, the conflict theory, and the symbolic interaction theory. These will be looked into in turns in an integrative manner to include the theories that have been developed to explain prejudice as a social phenomenon

Functional Theory and Prejudice

The functional theory is also known as the structural-functional model. According to this theory, the society is structured in such a way that it has both manifest and latent functions. In this arrangement, the society should function as a well-organized and stable whole. Problems in the society such as prejudice and other forms of biasness result from situations when the social order and equilibrium are interrupted, rendering some important parts of the society dysfunctional. This is because prejudicial human interactions are responsible for the development of negative attitudes between an in-group and an out-group. Functionalists, therefore, believe that prejudice is caused by the failure of one social group to identify and appreciate the place and contribution of another group to the stability and functioning of the social system.

The functional theory focuses much on dysfunctions that result from prejudicial relationships and interactions in the society. For example, this theory contends that it is the feeling of the majority or the dominant group in a society that the other sub-groups ought to be assimilated. They, thus, consider other groups culturally, politically, economically, and even socially inferior. Andersen and Taylor (233) contend that this attitude leads to prejudice and jeopardizes the social stability and the functioning of the social system. This is explained by the fact that according to the functional perspective, each component of the society is absolutely essential for the stability and orderliness of the society.

The functional theory of prejudice contends that sometimes this phenomenon can be caused by ethnocentric tendencies that involve evaluation of one’s culture as superior to cultural norms and values of other groups. This promotes suspicion of anybody who is considered an outsider. These ethnocentric tendencies that propagate stereotypical and discriminative behaviors contribute to the strengthening of further prejudicial beliefs and attitudes towards other people within the same society.

In the functional theory, it is held that society can only be stable with the elimination of prejudicial attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and opinions about other members of the society . However, the theory quickly adds that this remains a daunting task since most minority groups must first be subjected to social, economic, and cultural assimilation by the dominant group. For the society to function normally, the minority groups must be absorbed and contained within the dominant society (Andersen and Taylor 112). The assimilation process is what is responsible for prejudice since it will often be met by opposition and sharp contentions. By fostering prejudice, the functionalists contend that the majority groups create a feeling of superiority over the minority groups. This new relationship promotes further tensions, irrational and inflexible attitudes towards people that are not in one’s own social group or category. This often leads to social disintegration, which is sustained for long by continued prejudice in the human society and by development of mistrusts.

Symbolic Interaction Theory and Prejudice

The symbolic interaction theory focuses much on the meanings that people attach to the interactive cues such as language, expression in the tones, body posture, visual cues and other modes of interaction in the social environment (Andersen and Taylor 234-235). The proponents of this theory maintain that the way in which people construct reality in their interactive radius is essentially central to the attitudes and beliefs that they develop in the process. This theory posits that human interaction is crowded with potentials for prejudice. For example, if you askan African-American colleague at work to give a comment on the level of stability of the African-American family institution, the odds are that the person will respond on behalf of the entire racial and ethnic group with which he or she is identified. Thus, the response received may be biased since there is no possibility that the person may know everything with regard to African-American families.

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According to the symbolic interaction theory, socialization process contributes overwhelmingly to the development of prejudicial attitudes and tendencies (Kendall 45). Thus, according to the socialization theory, most of the prejudicial attitudes, beliefs, opinions and behaviors are developed and passed down from the parental generations to their children and grandchildren. It, thus, remains an attitude that remains for a long time in the social orientation and interaction processes between one group and another group within the same society or social system. The role of socialization by the significant other, especially for children, is critical for the promotion of prejudicial attitudes, perceptions and opinions about another person or people in another social group which is not one’s own (Kendall 45-46).

The socialization processes that propagate prejudice in the society are enhanced through other than the family social institutions. These include the media, the polity, especially in a society that is popular for political racism or ethnicity, and even through religion (Andersen and Taylor 234). The media may perpetuate prejudice against the assorted groups like the ethnic and racial minorities, women, the elderly, the disabled and even lesbians and gays. This can be propagated through television programs, ads, and movies that target the lifestyle, cultural orientation, background, and beliefs of the assorted groups. Andersen and Taylor (234) assert that religious preferences and beliefs that look down on other religions as inferior through doctrinal teachings and orientations are also avenues of championing prejudicial attitudes through symbolic interaction (Andersen and Taylor 234). This is because the meanings that are attached to films and television programs by the religious doctrines may target espousing other people as inferior or just less useful in the society. This is what perpetuates prejudice from one generation to another in any society.

The contact theory is another theoretical framework within the symbolic interaction theory (Andersen and Taylor 234). The theory posits that prejudice remains deeply rooted in a society. It can only be eliminated through constant interaction between two competing groups. Nonetheless, three conditions must be met. First, the interaction must involve two people of the same status to enhance interaction between parties on equal grounds. Interaction between two people of different statuses may not limit prejudice. For example, interaction between a Hispanic cleaning woman and a wealthy white woman who is her employer may perpetuate prejudice. The contacts between two groups with prejudicial attitudes must also be maintained. Andersen and Taylor (234) believe that short-term interactions may not eliminate prejudicial attitudes. However, if the contact is maintained on a daily basis between the dominant and the minority groups, for example, prejudicial attitudes begin to subside gradually. The contact theory also contends that in order to root out prejudice from the society, social norms that favor equality must be consensually agreed upon (Andersen and Taylor 234).

Conflict Theory and Prejudice

This theory is based on the works of Karl Marx. It posits that society consists of the poor and the rich, the rulers and the ruled (Andersen and Taylor 234). Those in power are the “haves”, while the ruled are the “have-nots”. The relationship between these two groups is characterized by conflicts, mistrusts, suspicion, and uneasiness. The theory and its proponents, thus, maintain that conflict is inherent in the human society. The cause of the conflict often surrounds struggle for power, rare resources, and control. Prejudice, therefore, results in the dominant upper-class struggle to maintain the status-quo while the lower class, the “have-nots” or peasants, struggle for a revolution that will see the rich overthrown from their positions of dominance. Ownership of property and power renders one group superior over another group. Prejudice, thus, results in a situation when the dominated group becomes adamant to give in to the intention of the dominant group to assimilate it. This constant struggles for control over another group lead to development of mistrusts, suspicion, hatred, and a feeling by each group that is driven by the idea that one group is superior to the other (Andersen and Taylor 234).

Karl Marx in arguing in favor of the conflict theory maintained that the proletariat(which is those “have-nots”), plus poor peasants are victims of alienation. They are used in the industries, in production of goods, and services which in turn they are not able to consume. Kendall (234) says that the conditions under which they live and work are deplorable. Long hours of work, poor wages, and inaccessibility of the goods/products they produce is, thus, what leads to the conflict between the poor and the rich, owners of capital and owners of labor, and the ruled against the rulers. So prejudice results from the perception of the lower class that they are -subjected to their situations by the upper class. The upper class, on the other hand, consider themselves superior and prefer to maintain the status-quo through legislating laws and policies that protect their wealth and their positions of power. This, in the opinion of the conflict theorists, is the origin of prejudice in the society (Kendall 45).

The conflict theory posits that privileged groups employ prejudice as a tool for holding into their social status, wealth, supremacy, and control over the less privileged members of the society (Andersen and Taylor 234). This is used to ensure that there is limited competition for resources from the minority groups. In order to achieve this, the conflict theory suggests that group closure be applied. This is the process in which people keep clear boundaries between the members of their group and those of the out-group. Such prejudicial tendencies may exist even in the institution of marriage when certain groups do no marry outside their political, economic, social, or even ethnic area.

Prejudice also results from competition for scarce opportunities or resources (Kendall 289). For example, during the economic and social stress, prejudice is used in the allocation of resources, jobs or even services in the public sector. This is because such services and positions of power are manned by one social group that looks at members of his or her group favorably compared to members of the out-group.

Prejudice is bred by the existing differences between one social group and some other. The conflict theorists maintain that in the society there will always be stratification. The society is, thus. stratified in such a way that there must be the dominant, superior group and the less-dominant inferior group (Marger 54). Each group has intolerant, inflexible, and biased attitudes, perceptions, and opinions about people who are not in their group. This often leads to prejudice in terms of interactions, allocation of opportunities, resources, or just altruistic behavior. In order to eliminate prejudice in any society, the daunting task of firstly eliminating the existence of socioeconomic stratification which is so deeply embedded in the human society has to be fulfilled.

Proponents of the scapegoat theory base their explanation of prejudice on the conflict theory. According to this theory, prejudice perpetuates from frustration, especially among the people who are disadvantaged (Kendall 288). Scapegoat is a person or category of people that are typically weak and, as a result, are constantly blamed unfairly for their problems. This social theory thus contends that most often the most marginalized have little strength for self-defense. As a result, they are often considered their own enemies when in reality their troubles have been caused by another dominant and powerful group of people. This is a prejudicial act that further propagates prejudicial relationships and interaction between the advantaged and the less advantaged groups (Kendall 289).


In conclusion, prejudice remains rooted in the society. The prejudicial attitudes result from generalizations, perceptions and attitudes that are biased. When these take place , the privileged people continue to discriminate the less privileged and blame them for their socioeconomic menace even if it was caused by the dominant group. Prejudicial attitudes are acquired and reinforced by relationships linked to socialization and depend on orientation that people receive concerning the other group.

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