Research Shows Value of Indirect Contact to Create an Improved Society

Summary of:

White, F. A., Borinca, I., Vezzali, L., Reynolds, K. J., Blomster Lyshol, J. K., Verrelli, S., & Falomir-Pichastor, J. M. (2020). Beyond direct contact: The theoretical and societal relevance of indirect contact for improving intergroup relations. Journal of Social Issues, 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12400

Background & Theory

The authors explore the benefits of indirect contact, and delve into its various forms and how it can be used to improve intergroup relations and reduce prejudice. They note especially the importance of indirect contact in and of itself and how it can work with direct contact, not just in lieu of direct contact.

Research Questions

White, Borinca, Vezzali, Reynolds, Blomster Lyshol, Verrelli, and Falomir-Pichastor, in “Beyond direct contact: The theoretical and societal relevance of indirect contact for improving intergroup relations” (2020), seek to address the following questions:

    1. Does indirect contact impact intergroup relations?
    2. How can this be used to help improve society?

Methods

The authors provide a summary of many relevant research studies that they used to form a framework, showing the value of indirect contact and its impact, and the variables that play a role, such as whether contact is active or passive and how it happens (through a medium, self, or others). Specifically, the authors discuss extended contact, vicarious contact, parasocial (or media) contact, imagined contact, and electronic contact (e-contact). Also evaluated are how affect and social norms act as mediators, the need for experimental studies in order to drive more positive change and implementation of direct and indirect contact, and how we might use indirect contact in policy and practice to create positive intergroup relationships and reduce prejudice of outgroups. 

Results

The results show that indirect contact can absolutely be helpful in improving intergroup relations and reducing prejudice. There are various forms of indirect contact, and it may be most beneficial to ensure that someone is exposed to both active and passive indirect contact. Affect and social norms are critical to understand in order to use indirect contact efficiently; it is argued that while direct contact is very important in improving intergroup relations, indirect contact can work on a more massive scale due to the fact that no direct contact is needed (for instance, through adjusting social norms). Thus, the authors use this research to suggest that policy be more inclusive of indirect contact findings (especially in terms of shaping social identity) to encourage better intergroup relations and reduce prejudice.

There were some limitations in this study and suggestions to further study the relationship between direct and indirect contact (and how to use these more effectively collaboratively), as well as how majority and minority groups are impacted by the various ways of contact. 

What This Means

  • Indirect contact can certainly be a valuable tool when used in the correct contexts.
  • Indirect contact may be able to affect larger groups of people than direct contact and can be used to encourage more positive intergroup relations and reduce prejudice.
  • Direct contact and indirect contact are both critical to help move society forward in a peaceful way. Increasing an understanding for both and the ways they can be most beneficially implemented is necessary to create an even more peaceful world.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: Indirect contact can be just as useful as direct contact (if not more than). It may not always be possible, but when it is, finding ways to encourage appropriate means of indirect contact may help the situation improve and reduce the prejudice of those involved. Electronic contact may especially be helpful in mediating situations, especially in the current age of social distancing.

For everyone: It may not always be possible to travel the world and get direct exposure to all kinds of people and cultures, but you can utilize indirect contact to gain an understanding of the world around you and hopefully, also an appreciation of those around you.