Dixon, J., Tredoux, C., Sturgeon, B., Hocking, B., Davies, G., Huck, J., Whyatt, D., Jarman, N. and Bryan, D. (2020). ‘When the walls come tumbling down”: The role of intergroup proximity, threat, and contact in shaping attitudes towards the removal of Northern Ireland’s peace walls. British Journal of Social Psychology, 59(4), 922–944. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjso.12370
Background & Theory
Segregation represents the spirit of social inequality, intergroup conflict, and discrimination. At the same time, initiatives to dismantle it can provoke resistance. When authorities began to consider dismantling Northern Ireland’s peace walls by 2023, they documented the resistance that they faced in the form of a case study. Researchers studied reasons for why locals were uncomfortable with the removal of the walls in the form of this research.
The authors aim to answer the following question with the subsequent hypothesis:
- What is the role of physical proximity, realistic and symbolic threat, and past experiences of positive and negative cross-community contact on Catholic and Protestant residents’ support for removing the walls?Hypothesis: Residents living in closer proximity to interface barriers would be more concerned about the consequences of peace wall removal than those living further afield. More specifically, proximity to peace walls would be associated with heightened intergroup threat and reduced support for recent government proposals.
The authors collected data from 242 Catholic residents and 246 Protestant residents. They were tested on measures around perceptions of realistic and symbolic threat, positive and negative contact experiences, and attitudes towards government proposals to remove peace walls.
Questions for realistic threat had statements like “I worry about being physically attacked by members of the other community” and “Sometimes in Belfast I am afraid of being identified as a member of my community”.
Questions around Symbolic threat had statements like “I feel threatened when members of the other community celebrate their cultural traditions” and “The cultural traditions and values of the other community are no longer a threat to the group identity of my own community”.
Researchers first found that proximity matters: Participants living closer to peace walls tend to hold more negative attitudes towards their removal.
Secondly, they found that attitudes towards peace wall removal were shaped by residents’ experiences of positive and negative contact. Positive contact tended to encourage support for removal, for such contact diminished perceptions of realistic threat.
Thirdly, they found that realistic threat proved to be a more important predictor of resistance to peace wall removal than the symbolic threat in their study, which means that people are more concerned with personal safety than with threats to their identities, values, world views, or ways of life.
How This Translates for the Workplace
- Consult employees before making important decisions: Before rolling out a major policy or reversal of a major policy, it is important to see what employees think about it beforehand, and if it will fair well for them. The policy can have a differential impact depending on their past experiences, preferences, and identities. Knowing how they will react in advance can reduce the chances of discomfort and attrition. Contact us for tips on how to better recognize employee needs and preferences.
- Understand the nuances of their rationales: Some employees may be uncomfortable with policies that are better for promoting values of justice, peace, and equality, but that does not mean that those important decisions should not be made. It is in fact important to train employees on why these values are important, what it means to embody them, and how they can get more used to a company culture where they hold priority. We at PPS offer training for workplaces in diversity, inclusion, as well as conflict resolution. Contact us to make your employees more open to these ideas and make your workplace more inclusive!