Stateways versus Folkways: The Role of Authority Approval in Intergroup Contact


Betsy Levy Paluck, Princeton University
Robin Gomila, Princeton University


Around the world, educators, policy makers, profit- and non-profit-based organizations and governments implement intergroup contact interventions to overcome prejudice. These “people-to-people” encounters rarely happen in a vacuum. To the contrary, they often occur in the middle of heated public debates, and sometimes even during or in the aftermath of wars. Allport recognized the importance of the context of intergroup contact interventions as early as 1954 when he postulated authority approval as one of the conditions for optimal intergroup contact. Yet, more than 60 years later, we still do not know whether authority approval or disapproval causes positive or negative bias in intergroup interactions.

Very little previous research has investigated if and how an authority’s position on intergroup relations troubles or improves one-on-one especially if the contact experience itself is negative. When discussing the need for anti-discrimination laws, Allport deviated from most of his contemporaries who believed in the primacy of individuals over laws as sources of prejudice and hate. He proposed that “stateways” (the position of governmental and non-governmental authorities) and “folkways” (individual levels of prejudice and stereotyping) interact (Allport, 1979). The current research puts this idea to a rigorous empirical test.

We completed one survey experiment taking the form of a 2 (authority disapproval: salient versus not salient) X 2 (intergroup contact: positive versus negative) design. The experiment took place in a region where authority approval of the presence, safety and equality of low status groups is low (the US state of Arizona). For outcomes we measured discrimination and negative attitudes towards Latinos. We selected Arizona immigration laws as our authority disapproval case for two reasons: First, to stay close to Allport’s original writing we focus on restrictive laws as authorities. Second, based on the Immigration Climate Index (Pham & Pham, 2014) Arizona ranked last among all US states in terms of friendliness of climate with regards to immigrants’ daily lives.

Our main hypothesis is that intergroup contact and salience of authority disapproval interact to predict discrimination. The highest level of discrimination should occur when a contact experience is negative and authority disapproval salient, the lowest level should occur when a contact experience is positive and authority disapproval not salient. We also plan to investigate the role of a few interesting moderators (authoritarianism, political orientation, support for current governor, local pride etc.). As a next step, we plan to analyze our results and then replicate the experiment in California, the state that ranked first in terms of friendliness of climate.