Rethinking the nature of prejudice: a lecture series from John Turner

In 2001 John Turner presented a series of four lectures at the Australian National University under the banner rethinking the nature of prejudice: from psychological distortion to social structured meaning.[1]

The Australian National University, where Turner spent the final phase of his career, has made the transcripts for three of those four lectures available online. They can be found here:

Rethinking the Nature of Prejudice: from psychological distortion to socially structured meaning

The records of this lecture series are a unique and valuable resource. This is in large part due to their accessibility.

Being a series of lectures, Turner’s style here is more conversational than you will find in his work intended for reading. This material is a particularly frank and straight forward introduction to his views on the social psychology of intergroup relations and intergroup conflict, as well as the social identity approach in general.[2]

In terms of those views, in these lectures Turner brings to the table some of the most insightful analysis in this domain to be achieved to date. What is contained in these lectures is a powerful criticism of the prevailing “prejudice theory” of social psychology; one that is just as applicable today as it was when the lectures were delivered. Turner argues, convincingly as far as we are concerned, that the bulk of the theory and research in this area has been getting it consistently wrong. And not just trivially wrong; wrong in a way that does real damage to efforts to address social injustice across the world.

In lecture 1 in particular Turner reasons strongly that the mainstream psychology of prejudice has…

  • progressed little since the 1950s,
  • has a real defeatist streak to it, and
  • avoids the group realities that are critical to intergroup relations and intergroup conflict.

Needless to say, these are huge issues for the field; so much so that I would find it hard to take anyone seriously on the topic of social conflict until they have engaged with these ideas at least on some level.

Lecture 2 is more tightly focused, and here Turner specifically debunks the myth that personality theories offer us much that is useful in this area. In fact, Turner goes on to pose a rebuttal to classic personality theory in general, suggesting an alternative where individuality is inextricably bound up in the present social context.

The final transcribed lecture, lecture 3, will be of particular value for those who may be interested in that introduction to the social identity approach we spoke of.[3] It is in this lecture that Turner gives an overview of social identity theory (one half of the social identity approach), introducing it as one of three “intergroup theories” in social psychology.

These intergroup theories are contrasted against individualistic theories of intergroup relations, and the juxtaposition here is of real value. Indeed, it is quite possibly a necessity for understanding social identity theory properly; a point which is owed to Michael Billig:

No intellectual theory can be property understood merely in terms of what the theorist is proposing, but it also needs to be seen in terms of rival ideas which the theorist is opposing. Tafjel’s [an architect of social identity theory] theoretical work is no exception.[4]

Lecture 3 is also available in video, which is a great boon. John Turner passed away in 2011 and sadly such records of his spoken presentations are scarce. For those of you who would like to put a face and a voice to Turner’s writing, this is one of your few chances.

It’s a bit grainy and the recording stops a bit before the lecture completes; but it was 2001, when horse drawn carriages and penny farthings filled the streets, so give them a break. I found that I forgot about such minor limitations very quickly anyway. The ideas are compelling and Turner delivers them with what I think is a restrained passion that commands attention.

We will, of course, be covering all these ideas elsewhere in this blog. The special circumstance here is that these lectures require that little bit less “translation”. This is therefore a fantastic opportunity for those not already well versed with social psychological language to hear things straight from the horse’s mouth.

Not that these lectures are light on. These are full one hour talks with a lot of content packed in, not the 1000 word blog posts or ten minute TED talks that we have grown accustomed to. Regardless, I would still encourage anyone and everyone to head over and have a look.

And hey, if there is something in there that you don’t quite follow, or a reference to something that is unfamiliar, feel free to pose us a question about it over here. We might be able to help.

[1] Supported by the Herbert & Valmae Freilich Foundation.

[2] This is not to say that Turner’s books, chapters, and journal articles are not great reading. It is just that in those mediums he sets out to do more (e.g. explore the evidence in greater detail and connect with a wider array of other relevant work), which means that he expects more of his audience in return. He also no doubt knew that in this format his audience cannot simply return to content that doesn’t hit home the first time around; syntactic complexity or the presence of jargon is much more likely to critically undermine understanding. Turner thus is careful to steer clear of such pitfalls.

[3] Judging by the viewing patterns for this blog, a lot of you visiting here are in this category.

[4] Billig, M. (1996). Remembering the particular background of social identity theory. In W. P. Robinson (Ed.), Social groups and identities: Developing the legacy of Henri Tajfel (pp. 337-357). Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

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