Poverty and ethnicity - Social psychology

Psychology: an introduction (Oxford Southern Africa) - Leslie Swartz 2011

Poverty and ethnicity
Social psychology

Martin Terre Blanche & Garth Stevens


After studying this chapter you should be able to:

•describe global levels of poverty

•place South Africa in a position relative to other countries in terms of its levels of poverty and inequality

•describe the relationship between race, gender, the urban— rural divide and poverty

•describe the negative effects of poverty on physical health

•describe the effects of poverty on mental health in terms of the unique challenges poor people face

•explain why claiming that poverty always leads to mental ill health is problematic

•describe key elements of how people experience and respond to poverty as individuals and collectives

•describe some of the negative effects of consumer culture on both rich and poor people

•describe the depletion of social capital and the phenomenon of cultural imperialism as forms of impoverishment

•briefly describe some of the intersections between poverty, ethnicity and race

•define the concept of ethnicity and critically examine its characteristics

•understand related social-psychological concepts and processes that facilitate the expression of ethnic identities

•define ideology and understand how it informs the content of ethnic identities in specific socio-historical contexts

•discuss the contemporary racialisation and politicisation of ethnicity by examining the relationship between expressions of ethnicity and the socio-historical contexts in which they occur.


Xolani couldn’t decide if he had grown up rich or poor. If he compared himself to the sports stars and millionaires he saw on TV, or even to people who lived in the smart suburbs and drove big fancy cars, he supposed he would be considered poor. But when he compared his family to many of those who lived in the township, he felt that he had been quite well off. His father had enjoyed a good job as a salesman and his mother worked as a nurse. They had always had enough to eat, they could buy nice clothes, and they even had enough money to help out relatives who were struggling financially.

Both his parents still spoke about their own experiences of having grown up in poor families. They had to work very hard to give their children certain advantages that they themselves never had. Xolani’s mother had told him how she had studied nursing in the day and worked at night to cover her fees and board, and still send money home. Her father had given up his own dream of going to university because his family couldn’t afford it. He had to go out to work instead. Xolani felt very grateful that he didn’t have to sacrifice his goals in life. Everyone said that money doesn’t buy happiness — but Xolani knew that his life would probably have been a lot more difficult if his family had been very poor.

While growing up, Xolani had attended a racially mixed school, but outside of school hours he had little to do with many of the white children. Xolani had grown up in an area with only black families. He didn’t think of his family or friends as being racist, but it was just accepted that he wouldn’t ask the white children home. They didn’t invite him over either, and that didn’t bother him. But sometimes people in the neighbourhood would talk about how different white people and other black people were. In the past, Xolani had accepted this as a fact. But now, at university, he had met students from different backgrounds who would have been classified as members of different race groups during the apartheid era. It was a real eye-opener to see how much they actually had in common. It was awful to realise how much a political philosophy and system such as apartheid could take ethnic differences and exaggerate them. When people didn’t know one another, it also made them suspicious or even afraid of one another. Xolani used to think that race and ethnicity meant the same thing. But he had recently been studying social psychology and he had learned that ethnicity indicated aspects that groups have in common which go beyond their simple commonalities in physical appearance and skin colour. This included language, religion and culture, and a common heritage, ancestry and history. With so many years of apartheid in the past, Xolani realised it would take a long time for people from different backgrounds to understand and trust one another as equals.


This chapter discusses concepts in social psychology related to poverty and ethnicity. The first part of the chapter considers poverty as a social psychological phenomenon. It also reviews local and global statistics on poverty and shows how poverty is related to physical ill health. It discusses the dangers of attributing mental ill health to poverty, and details how poor people deal with the challenges of poverty individually and collectively. Finally, it discusses how both poor and rich people are affected by the psychological effects of consumer culture, the depletion of social capital and cultural imperialism.

South Africa is classified as an upper middle-income country (Neff, 2007), yet most South Africans are poor (see Box 18.1). This apparent contradiction is due to the fact that ours is a country of extreme inequality, with a small group of very wealthy people and a much larger group of poor people (Neff, 2007). The South African Regional Poverty Network (2014) estimates that as many as 40% of people in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region live below the poverty line of $1 per day.

These disturbing figures apply not only in South Africa. Globally, as many as one in five people are poor, and in some regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, every second person is poor (World Bank, 2000). Douma (2006, p. 60) argues that ’poverty remains the most pervasive feature of livelihood of Africans, urban and rural dwellers alike’. In South Africa, as elsewhere in Africa and globally, poverty is very unevenly distributed. In most African countries, there is a massive gap ’between a small elite group, an embryonic middle class and an impoverished mass of peasants and urban poor’ (Douma, 2006, p. 60). The causes of this are varied but many relate to the history of economic exploitation by European and other powers. In South Africa, the policy of apartheid led to political, economic and social discrimination against black people. As a result, black people are far more likely to be poor than white people and poverty is particularly severe in rural areas and in female-headed households (May, 1998).

In considering poverty globally, it is helpful to understand aspects of the global economy. According to Odeh (2010, p. 338), ’there are broadly two economic worlds that cut across the globe; these are the Global North and the Global South’. Odeh (2010) notes that there is a significant link between poverty and under-development; by the same token, the developed world has a lower incidence of poverty. Using this development approach, it can be seen that the world can be divided into zones that are developed and those that are under-developed. The latter situation is mostly associated with countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia (Odeh, 2010), and these countries are known as the Global South. The Global North includes North America, Western Europe and developed parts of Asia. Although this is a socio-economic (and political) division, it also reflects differences in education provision, health care, population growth and provision of food and shelter.

The negative effects of poverty

The fact that most South Africans are poor has an obvious and direct effect on their physical well-being. Poor people may have insufficient food, cannot afford to eat a varied diet (every tenth child in South Africa is malnourished), often work long hours, and usually do not have access to adequate heating, water and sanitation. As a consequence, they are more susceptible to a variety of poverty-related diseases, including tuberculosis (TB) and HIV/AIDS, as well as to injuries such as burns from open fires or paraffin stoves.

The consequences of this can be seen in South Africa’s high infant mortality rate of 44.4 per 1 000 live births (compared to 4.9 in the UK, for example), and low life expectancy of 49 years (compared to, for example, 78 in the UK) (Central Intelligence Agency, 2010).

Rather than thinking of poverty as having a direct causal effect on mental health, it is more productive to consider the unique psychological and other challenges that poverty presents people with and the opportunities that it takes away from them. For example, these are some of the challenges that children who grow up in poverty face:

•Poor children are more at risk of malnutrition, physical disease and injury, including uncorrected hearing/ vision problems, and this may affect their intellectual performance.

•Poor children are more likely to have to take on parental responsibilities, including acting as the head of a household. While they develop positive skills in this process, they miss out on opportunities for peer socialising and schooling.

•Poor children typically grow up in relatively crowded environments which can entail considerable stress and a greater risk of physical and sexual abuse.


One important distinction in terms of poverty between countries and regions is how unequally wealth is distributed. The GINI coefficient is commonly used as an index of income inequality; this coefficient ranges from 0 (absolute equality) to 1 (absolute inequality). According to the World Bank (2014), in 2009 South Africa’s GINI coefficient was 0.63, second only to Namibia at 0.64 (in 2004).

As the map indicates, even developed and supposedly wealthy countries such as the United States have considerable income inequality, as well as a substantial underclass of poor people who do not have regular employment and who are dependent on increasingly limited state grants (Short, 2005; United States Census Bureau, 2001).

Why should psychologists, in South Africa and elsewhere, care about poverty? First, being poor has an impact on a person’s physical and mental well-being. Second, being rich or poor (or somewhere in between) leads to people experiencing the world in very different ways, and forming different kinds of social structures to try to improve their lives. Third, poverty is more than just an unfortunate condition from which some people happen to suffer — it is an important part of how the world is currently organised.


Figure 18.1 Income equality globally as indicated by the Gini coefficient (www.criticalmethods.org)


Figure 18.2 Living conditions in informal settlements place people at increased risk of contracting a variety of diseases and of suffering physical injury


The Carnegie Commission on the poor white problem was launched in 1928 and resulted in government initiatives that greatly improved the conditions of poor white people — many of them Afrikaners impoverished as a result of the Anglo-Boer War. However, the majority of poor people in South Africa, then as now, were in fact black. Their situation in the aftermath of the war was eloquently described by Sol Plaatje in his 1916 book Native Life in South Africa. Plaatje was the first of many authors to trace the ways in which black South Africans were systematically impoverished through legislation such as the Natives’ Land Act (which reserved most of South Africa for white people) and apartheid-era measures such as job reservations (which prevented black people from occupying many better-paying positions).

Although black South Africans are no longer excluded from economic opportunities on the basis of race, it is clear that, as a group, black people have been historically disadvantaged. Thus a series of strategies to economically empower black people have been implemented, including the policy of affirmative action. This entails giving preference to suitably skilled black, female and disabled applicants.

Some people argue that affirmative action is simply reverse discrimination. Others argue that affirmative action is needed at this point in our history to correct past injustices, and that, in the long term, organisations will benefit from having a more diverse and representative workforce. What do you think?


Figure 18.3 Sol Plaatje, the first secretary-general of the South Africa Native Congress (the forerunner of the ANC)

•Poor children are more likely to witness, or to be victims of, crime and violence.

•Health services (including mental health services) are far less accessible to poor children, either because they cannot afford these or their local health facilities are poorly resourced.

The links between poverty, inequality and mental health are complex and we should be careful not to stereotype poor people as inevitably mentally unhealthy. Many people in difficult circumstances have considerable resilience, which is defined as ’the ability to thrive, mature, and increase competence in the face of adverse circumstances’ (Rouse, 1998, p. 1). Resilient individuals often come from caring families and live in communities that, although poor, offer them opportunities for personal and social development (Rutter, 2006).


Infant mortality (the number of children in every 1 000 who die before they reach the age of 5 years) and life expectancy (the average age at which people die) are frequently used indicators of a country’s health status, and are strongly related to poverty and inequality. In South Africa, the infant mortality rate is 41.61 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014).

While, as a general rule, poor countries have high infant mortality rates and low life expectancies, there are exceptions. For example, the infant mortality rate in Cuba (a much poorer country than South Africa) is only 7.39, and life expectancy is as high as 76.41 years. This is because Cuba’s history as a socialist country has ensured that there is far less inequality than in South Africa. Its health care system has also been built up over a far longer period to cater for the primary health care needs of ordinary people, whereas in South Africa, health care facilities are still very much oriented towards those who can afford to pay for quality treatment. Only some 16% of South Africans belong to a medical aid (Central Intelligence Agency, 2010).

In view of the clear evidence that poverty leads to physical ill health, it would seem to follow that being poor would also have a negative impact on mental health, and there is indeed a substantial body of literature on this issue (for example, Murali & Oyebode, 2010; Onyut et al., 2009; Patel & Kleinman, 2003). Some of this research claims that low-income people are two to five times more likely to suffer from specific mental disorders than those of the highest income group (Murali & Oyebode, 2010). However, in making claims about the relationship between poverty and mental ill health, we should be careful not to portray poor people as being somehow more psychologically defective than rich people. To say that a child is at risk of contracting a respiratory tract infection because they are growing up in conditions of poverty is a relatively neutral statement of fact; to claim that they are at risk of becoming emotionally disordered or intellectually stunted is not only far less well supported by research evidence but also more directly affects their dignity as a human being.

The psychological experience of poverty

Poverty is not simply about being deprived of necessities such as food, medicine and clothing, but is often also about living in a situation of:


•uncertainty about the future

•alienation from mainstream society.

Matthewman, West-Newman and Curtis (2007) report on people’s experiences of poverty noting that the effects are multidimensional and include hunger, shame, powerless ness, depression, humiliation and multiple material deprivations. Likewise, Santiago, Wadsworth and Stump (2011, p. 218) say that ’living with persistent poverty is toxic for one’s psychological health’. These authors report that poverty-related stress predicts a number of psychological problems including relationship problems, aggression issues and conflicts with the law.


Often, being poor is associated with hopelessness because poor people tend to feel themselves caught in a depressing situation with little prospect of ever escaping. Middleclass people generally assume that people achieve things through their own efforts, and that all that is therefore needed to get ahead in life is to be determined and to work hard. However, most middle-class people, regardless of whether or not they are determined and hard-working, tend to rely to a very large extent on their network of relatives and friends, and their ability to present themselves (through subtle cues such as dress and accent) as being the sort of reliable, sophisticated person who can be trusted with a responsible job.

For example, most young people growing up in a poor township simply do not have the right sort of network, nor will they ever have the opportunity to develop the kinds of self-presentation skills needed to enter into the formal economy. While they may be strongly embedded in local social networks (via the church, family, friendship groups and so on), and highly skilled in presenting themselves within their immediate community, these things do not buy them access to the world that lies beyond the horizon of poverty. When this situation persists through several generations, with only the occasional exceptional individual finding a way out, people become resigned to the idea of always being poor; they are said to be caught in a poverty trap. However, not all poor communities are trapped in a spiral of hopelessness, with only a few individuals emerging unscathed owing to their greater individual resilience. Chaskin (2007) has argued that resilience should in fact be viewed as something that many poor communities and families have or can develop. Poor communities, for instance, often have extensive networks of mutual support which help families and individuals overcome difficult circumstances, much like middle-class communities.

Uncertainty about the future

For many people, poverty places them in a state of uncertainty about the future. While everybody goes through life with a certain degree of anxiety about unforeseen events, poor people are particularly vulnerable to economic shocks such as losing a job, becoming seriously ill, or becoming a victim of crime. Middle-class people are often buffered against such economic risks (either directly through insurance or by the fact that they can appeal to their bank manager, friends or family if they get into financial difficulties), but poor people do not have the same safety nets and consequently have to live with greater levels of uncertainty and anxiety. Again, community structures such as church groups, stokvels and burial societies provide some poor communities with the resilience to deal with an uncertain future.

Alienation from mainstream society

Perhaps not surprisingly, middle-class people usually believe that the system is just (Liu, Pickett & Ivey, 2007), although they may complain endlessly about the government’s performance (or lack thereof). Poor people, on the other hand, often feel alienated from society (Giddens, 2006), and can therefore be more fundamentally critical about the capitalist system itself, rather than simply about the performance of a particular government. While the vast majority of poor people are law-abiding citizens, for some their sense of alienation and their need to survive translates into economic crimes such as theft and robbery, as well as service delivery protests. For other poor people, their sense of alienation places them in a better position to develop a critical theoretical understanding of how the system works. Karl Marx (1887) spoke of this ability as class consciousness and considered it a necessary first step towards liberation. In a similar vein, the radical educationist Paulo Freire (1971, 1973) argued that, through their first-hand experience, poor people are better able to develop critical consciousness and think theoretically about the relationship between individual lives and the ways in which wealth and power are distributed in a society.


•South Africa is classified as a middle-income country, yet most South Africans are poor. South Africa has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world.

•Poverty has many negative effects on the lives of poor people. They are vulnerable to disease and injury. Poor children are vulnerable to emotional, physical and sexual abuse, crime and malnutrition, and miss out on developmental opportunities. Poor communities are poorly served in terms of health and security.

•However, many people in difficult circumstances have considerable resilience and are able to maintain appropriate developmental trajectories.

•Poverty also has psychological impacts:

”a sense of hopelessness and inability to escape the poverty trap (existing networks can be developed to assist with this)

”uncertainty about the future and vulnerability to adverse life events

”alienation from mainstream society which may manifest in criminal activity. Alienation may also lead to a more highly developed class consciousness.

The other side of the coin

It would seem obvious that the solution to poverty is simply to throw money at the problem, and to some extent this is indeed true. When governments collect taxes from the rich and spend them effectively on health care, education and work-creation programmes for the poor, or when a country’s economy grows and everybody becomes a little richer, people’s lives do, in fact, improve in measurable ways.

However, simply being rich is not in itself a guarantee of physical and mental well-being. Between 1970 and 1999, the average American family’s income increased by 16 per cent (adjusted for inflation), but the percentage of people who described themselves as very happy fell from 36 to 29 per cent (LaBerre, 2003). The process of wealth creation in the Western world seems to have led to psychological and social impoverishment. South Africa and most other developing countries are now trying to emulate this process of wealth creation, and therefore should be aware of its pitfalls, particularly the psychological effects of a consumer culture, the depletion of social capital, and cultural imperialism.

Many upper middle-class people find themselves spending more money than they have, thus digging themselves into a debt trap. The reason for this apparently irrational behaviour is people following a consumer culture (Shevchenko, 2002; Schor, 2004). This is the cultural fantasy that the solution to all life’s problems is to buy more and more material things (Kasser, 2002). Consumer culture involves a kind of psychological impoverishment in that it takes away from people their sense of what is important, such as relationships, and leaves them with an exhausting sense of never having enough. The 2013 FinScope SA Consumer Survey (Finmark Trust, 2014) found that 4.7 million South Africans are in a debt trap.

The Western model of wealth creation has led to impoverishment in that it has depleted what is known as social capital (Putnam, 1995; Sacchetti & Campbell, 2014). Social capital is a form of stored wealth, but rather than being stored in money or property, it is a sense of mutual trust embedded in the networks, spaces and institutions of society. Societies with a good stock of social capital are more likely to have low crime figures, better health and higher educational achievement. Social capital can be seen in informal shared spaces such as on the street and in more formal spaces such as church meetings or schools. Putnam and others have shown how in developed countries, the more people have in the way of material goods, the less they have in the form of social capital. All over the world, people have tended to withdraw from participation in the processes that once made them feel part of society. For example, in the UK, it is said that more people voted for the reality TV show Big Brother than in the national elections (epolitix, 2001).

The kind of wealth creation that goes with Western capitalism has led to another kind of impoverishment known as cultural imperialism, which is the process whereby a stronger culture imposes its understandings and practices on weaker cultures. Cultural imperialism is not a modern phenomenon; however, in recent decades, the US and Europe have achieved a level of global cultural domination unparalleled in history. This has become so pervasive that other cultural practices have often had to position themselves as strange and exotic simply to survive (Said, 1978); this is known as orientalism. Examples of this are ’cultural villages’ established so that tourists can observe indigenous cultural practices.


Figure 18.4 South Africans are subject to a global culture of material consumption

The future of poverty

Discussions on poverty sometimes create the impression that the poor will always exist in society. Although most South Africans are trapped in poverty, this situation is not necessarily a permanent one. The unprecedented wealth that has been created in developed countries, and among certain privileged groups in developing countries, has largely been at the expense of the poor and has been psychologically damaging to both rich and poor. However, sustainable technological innovation has made it possible to create sufficient wealth so as to eradicate poverty entirely. By applying these technologies, and by becoming more mindful of the processes of psychological and social impoverishment that have accompanied capitalist wealth creation, the kind of modest utopia foreseen in the Freedom Charter remains within reach, where ’[a]ll people shall have the right to live where they choose, be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security’ (The Freedom Charter, adopted at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, 1955).

Poverty and ethnicity

The first part of this chapter has clearly shown how globally, but especially in South Africa, the experience of poverty is not divided evenly across racial or ethnic groups. This is a direct result of how access to resources has historically tended to be held in the hands of specific racial or ethnic groups. Despite the advent of a democratically elected government in South Africa in 1994, as well as an emerging black middle-class, socio-economic class continues to be divided primarily along racial and/or ethnic lines. However, it is important to note that, as markers of social difference, race and ethnicity are not the same thing. These differences will be discussed later in this chapter.

The links between class and race/ethnicity also exist in other countries. An interesting study on sleep patterns in the US (Patel, Grandner, Xie, Branas & Gooneratne, 2010) showed that sleep quality was associated with both race and poverty. In the study, poorer African-American and Latino participants had worse sleep quality than better-off people from these groups. These authors argued that this related to employment, education and health factors.

It is arguable that these poverty/ethnicity links in other countries also relate to different ethnic groups having had unequal access to resources or having been systematically disadvantaged through political action or armed conflict. An example of this is Rwanda, where the Tutsi people were established by the Belgian colonial government as the political and economic elite. This led to the repression of the Hutu people and these somewhat artificial ethnic divisions ultimately led to the bloody conflict and genocide in Rwanda, with inevitable consequences for people’s financial well-being.

Neff (2007) notes that in South Africa, race has often been used an indicator of socio-economic status. However, Neff (2007, p. 314) argues that simply using race hides useful understandings, and that combining race with language allows for a clearer understanding of ’inter-ethnic differences in poverty or well-being’. Neff’s results show that, apart from the well-known socio-economic differences between the race classifications (white, Indian, coloured and black), there are also significant differences in income, expenditure and well-being between the different African language groups. Black English- or Afrikaans-speakers have the highest income, while North Sotho-speakers have the lowest. Expenditure is highest for Swazi people and lowest for the Xhosa. Neff (2007) concludes that ethnicity is a useful unit of analysis for poverty research.


•Poverty can be alleviated by economic growth and by effective government spending on services.

•However, not being poor does not guarantee physical and mental well-being. Research suggests that wealthier people are less happy. This may be partly due to a consumer culture which leads many people into a debt trap.

•Social capital has been depleted by the Western model of wealth creation; in developed countries, the more people have in the way of material goods, the less they have in the form of social capital.

•Western capitalism is also characterised by cultural imperialism (the imposition of cultural understandings and practices).

•Ongoing global poverty is not inevitable; technological innovation has made it possible to create sufficient wealth so as to eradicate poverty entirely.

•There are clear global and local links between race and poverty; in addition, there are links between ethnicity and class.


According to Giddens (2006), ethnicity refers to cultural values and norms which distinguish the members of a group from other groups. It involves an expression of in dividual and group identity based on shared subjective social features including language, religion, customs, traditions and history. Giddens (2006) goes on to note that ethnic differences are almost always associated with differences in power and material wealth. This then supports Cashmore’s (1996) view that ethnicity is basically reactive in that it develops out of shared adversity or deprivation.

Early theories of ethnicity suggested that it is based on evolutionary demands to promote and protect the interests of one’s kinship group (Thompson, 1989). This view argues that ethnicity is biologically based; however, ethnic expression can be influenced and overridden by social and cultural phenomena, as suggested in the definition above (Van den Berghe, 2001). In a stronger statement, Giddens (2006, p. 487) notes that ’ethnic differences are wholly learned’. An example of ethnic expression is the practice of virginity testing that has recently been revived in Zulu culture as a tool to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, the Commission on Gender Equality has deemed virginity testing an invasion of privacy and it may currently not be practised on girls under the age of 16 years.

An alternative view sees expressions of ethnicity as being determined by social and historical changes in social systems. For example, a country such as Rwanda is still struggling to form a national identity based on its two major ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi.

Many psychological processes are related to expressions of ethnicity, such as the acquisition of attitudes and stereotypes, their translation into prejudice, discrimination and violence. Other processes involved are perceived intergroup differences and the establishment of intergroup hierarchies. Ethnicity often results in entrenching intergroup difference and inequality. For example, in South Africa between 1948 and 1994, Afrikaans-speaking South Africans were dominant over English-speakers.

Ethnicity is a form of group Othering, which is the process of defining the Self as different and separate through the creation of an Other. In this way, ethnicity frequently overlaps with dominant ideologies that promote a range of social inequalities, such as racism, nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism. Through the influence of political and ideological processes, ethnic identities become based upon, and recreate, social inequalities within different socio-historical contexts.


Source: Lane, Mogale, Struthers, McIntyre and Kegeles (2008) South Africa has unique constitutional protection for gay and lesbian people against discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. However, people often say that homosexuality is ’not African’. Lane et al. (2008) used semi-structured interviews and a focus group to investigate interactions between gay men and health care workers in Soweto and Mamelodi townships in Gauteng. The topics for the interviews and focus group included issues of identity, sexuality, community life, use of health services and experiences of stigma and discrimination. The study participants reported that they experienced homophobia and verbal harassment from the health care workers. Some of the participants challenged this or they sought out clinics with a reputation for respecting the rights and privacy of gay men. Other participants avoided disclosing their sexual orientation, presenting themselves as heterosexual. Lane et al. (2008, p. 480) concluded that these experiences and strategies were ’not conducive to sexual health promotion in this population’.

Giddens (2006) also states that ethnicity is defined in terms of shared cultural values that are expressed in specific forms. It also provides a space for communication and action, and has a membership that defines itself as such. In this sense, ethnicity becomes the group and intergroup expression of culture. An example might be a club based on shared language such as the ’East Rand Italian Club’.

Culture refers to the shared meanings perceptions and beliefs (i.e. the social information) that humans use to interact with each other (Baron, Branscombe & Byrne, 2009), and comprises collective symbols and learned aspects of society such as language, values, customs, belief systems, conventions and ideologies (Giddens, 2006). However, the formation of ethnic groups is based partly on group members’ subjective interpretations and experiences of what cultural information they have access to and partly on the prevailing social conditions that either enhance or constrain such access to cultural information.

Worchel (2003) notes that the meanings attached to ethnicity are shaped by their contexts. He argues that ethnicity is not a natural set of characteristics with which we are all born; rather, our experiences of ethnicity are dependent on, and influenced by, the power relations, histories, levels of social conflict and inequalities operating in any society at a given point in time.

Definitions of related psychological concepts

In understanding ethnicity, it is useful to consider some of the basic concepts from social psychology to identify the key processes that facilitate the manifestation of ethnic identities. These concepts include ethnocentrism, attitudes, stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination.


Much of the psychological literature has focused on the concept of ethnocentrism as a group process. Ethnocentrism generally refers to the degree to which individuals perceive their own social group as being unique and superior to others, while simultaneously harbouring feelings of negativity towards out-groups (Giddens, 2006). This is in opposition to cultural relativism, which is attempting to perceive the beliefs and actions of others in terms of their own cultural or ethnic perspective (Newman, 2012). However, most people are raised to respect and perhaps revere their own culture and do not take a view of cultural relativism. Newman (2012, p. 114) notes that ’sixty per cent of Americans believe that their culture is superior to others’. Hogg and Abrams (2003, p. 408) argue that all intergroup behaviour tends to be ethnocentric — it simply differs in ’form and extremity’. Ethnocentrism can also lead to some interesting practices. Newman (2012, p. 115) reports on a restaurant in Hawaii where a 15 per cent service charge was added to the bills of non-English-speaking guests. The owner justified this by saying that Asian guests regularly do not tip as it is ’not part of their culture’.


Ethnocentrism often develops into a more structured set of attitudes which makes up a belief system about both the in-group and the out-group (see Chapter 17). An attitude is a belief that is essentially learnt, is evaluative, can be deduced from both verbal and non-verbal behaviour, has an affective component and forms a relatively stable part of the individual’s character (Ajzen, 1988). In addition, an attitude always has a referent (some thing or person to which it applies) (Augostinos, Walker & Donaghue, 2006). However, the difficulty with this definition is that it sees attitudes as the product of the individual’s mind.


Each year, many African immigrants enter different countries in Europe. Simply because they are immigrants, they are often viewed and view themselves as a social group that is unique and different from Europeans. This common process through which different social groups are formed is referred to as ethnocentrism. When these different groups develop structured beliefs about themselves and each other (such as their differences in language, food, group behaviours and histories), these are referred to as attitudes, which may have both negative and positive aspects. When these attitudes become overgeneralised to the point that all African immigrants are seen to be hardworking, but unskilled and unemployed, and all Europeans are seen to be highly skilled, wealthy, but lacking in compassion and understanding for less fortunate people, these beliefs can be characterised as stereotypes. However, when attitudes towards groups are entirely negative (e.g. when African immigrants are viewed as lazy, unintelligent criminals), this is referred to as prejudice. Prejudice may be felt or expressed, but when it is translated into a social practice or action that diminishes a group’s status, social position, power or access to resources, it is referred to as discrimination. Discrimination can occur in the form of institutionalised social practices, such as the passing of legislation to prevent or minimise African immigrants from being employed in certain instances, or through everyday social practices, such as physical attacks on African immigrants to discourage them from settling in certain neighbourhoods.

Other writers (e.g. Augostinos et al., 2006) have argued that attitudes must be viewed as part of the social, historical and cultural context from which they emerge, and that they are in fact products of this context. These authors also argue that these belief systems are not merely expressed by individuals, but rather by entire social categories. They are therefore collective phenomena that reflect both positive and negative beliefs held by, and about, both the in- and out-group(s). Attitudes are also shifting, dependent upon these groups’ status, power and perceived legitimacy within a society (Augostinos et al., 2006; Tajfel, 1981b). Ethnic attitudes therefore act as structured belief systems that allow different ethnic groups to be distinguished from each other.


Stereotypes are quick, overgeneralised and often inaccurate assessments and beliefs which are applied to entire perceived social categories or members of these categories. They arise from the wider socio-historical context within which the intergroup relationship exists (Hogg & Abrams, 2003). Ethnic stereotypes shape the manner in which we interact with people from perceived ethnic groups. Stereotypes may be either negative or positive, but they can have various harmful consequences. These include failing to see a member of a group as an individual and they commonly lead to faulty attributions about people based on their perceived group membership. An example of a stereotype is found in the commonly held beliefs that people of Indian descent have straight black hair, are shrewd business people and enjoy owning their own stores.


Prejudice refers to a specific form of negative attitude that may be associated with stereotypes about the outgroup (Wright & Taylor, 2003). Although prejudice is commonly thought to involve strongly negative feelings about an out-group, Wright and Taylor (2003, p. 433) caution that it would be wise to suspend ’our own evaluation of prejudice’, noting that these judgements and feelings about out-groups nay be neutral or even positive.

Based on the above, ethnic prejudice often exists in relation to different ethnic groups in situations where social inequality or conflict is experienced between such groups and it carries an increased risk of ethnic discrimination and violence. For example, in South Africa, people from other parts of Africa commonly experience various forms of prejudice as they are seen as makwerekwere (foreigners who may be illegal immigrants).

Wright and Taylor (2003) note that both stereotypes and prejudice are social phenomena in that they are socially shared (they are individual attitudes which gain power by being widely shared), they involve depersonalisation (people from the target group are not seen as individuals) and they are closely connected to intergroup relations.


From 1992 to 1995, approximately 200 000 Muslims, Croats and Serbs were killed in Bosnia’s ethnic civil war (Burg & Shoup, 2000). During the same period, from April to June 1994, an estimated 800 000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were killed in just under 100 days in the Central African country of Rwanda (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 2001). More recently, in the US, some US citizens, outraged at the hijacked airliner attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, unleashed their own retaliatory strike — on American citizens of Arab descent, on legal immigrants, on Muslims and anyone else whose looks, speech, dress or names somehow matched Middle East stereotypes (Telhami, 2002).

Closer to home, on 27 February 1999, Andrew Babeile stabbed a fellow pupil, Christoffel Erasmus, in the neck with a pair of scissors. The assault was allegedly precipitated by the leader of a group of white pupils ’being racist towards him’ (Mangcu, 2003, p. 112). Mangcu (2003) goes on to note that Babeile was sentenced to a prison term, whereas when white schoolboys at a Johannesburg school attacked a black pupil, damaging his eye, they got suspended without charges being brought.


While attitudes, stereotypes and prejudice are fundamentally belief systems, the action arising from these attitudes is known as discrimination. Discrimination results in privilege, status and power for one social group at the expense of another and may result in violence, depending on the extent to which it is legitimised within the socio-historical context and the degree to which it is perceived to be socially desirable or undesirable (Hogg & Abrams, 2003; Stevens, 1997). Ethnic discrimination refers to any social practice that may contribute to the unequal access to power or resources between different ethnic groups (e.g. not employing someone simply because they belong to a particular ethnic group).


•Ethnicity is a dynamic expression of individual and group identity based on shared social features such as language, religion, customs, etc.

•There are different theories about how ethnicity emerges: reaction to shared adversity, evolutionary pressures for group survival and well-being, social and cultural influences, and historical changes in social systems.

•Many psychological processes are related to expressions of ethnicity: the acquisition of attitudes and stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination, perceived intergroup differences and intergroup hierarchies.

•Ethnicity involves a form of Othering.

•Culture provides the social information that humans require in order to interact with one another; ethnicity overlaps with culture. Ethnicity develops within a social context with its existing power relations, histories, levels of social conflict and inequalities.

•Ethnocentrism is the degree to which individuals perceive their own social group as being unique and superior, while seeing out-groups as inferior.

•Ethnocentrism often develops into a more structured set of attitudes which makes up a belief system about both the in-group and the out-group. Attitudes may be seen as individual attributes or the product of the social, historical and cultural context from which they emerge.

•Stereotypes are quick, overgeneralised assessments which are applied to entire perceived social categories or members of these categories. They are harmful in several ways.

•Prejudice is a specific form of negative attitude towards the out-group; it is based on irrational in-group beliefs about the out-group(s), as well as a tendency to stereotype the out-group.

•Discrimination is the action that arises from stereotypes and prejudice.

Ethnicity is both social and psychological

What is common to the incidents outlined in Box 18.6 is that they are all based on the presence of perceived ethnic identities of Self and Other. While the severity of the consequences differs from incident to incident, in each instance there is a clear interface between social psychological processes (such as attitude expression, the use of stereotypes, the presence of prejudice, discriminatory acts) and socio-historical conflicts that amplified existing intergroup differences and hierarchies and shaped the particular form of these terrible acts.

For example, in Rwanda, increasing civil strife between minority Tutsis and majority Hutus, which had dated back to Belgian colonialism in the region, was fuelled when an aircraft carrying the Hutu president of Rwanda was shot down by unknown forces, prompting the massacre of Tutsis by government troops and civilian militia (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 2001). Thus, existing attitudes, stereotypes and prejudices regarding ethnic differences between these groups were utilised to incite genocide in this regional conflict.

In the US, which has a Christian majority and an influential Jewish minority, there has been a longstanding suspicion of the Muslim minority. This reflects the international situation where several countries in the Middle East (many of them with predominantly Muslim populations that sympathise with the Palestinians) have antagonistic relationships with Israel, while the US implicitly accepts the Israeli domination of Palestinians. The US military has also intervened in the Gulf region, exacerbating these tensions. In 2001, the terror attacks in the US, commonly understood to be perpetrated by Muslim extremists, crystallised these differences even further (see Box 18.6).

Finally, in South Africa, despite constitutional reform after 1994, 300 years of segregation and 46 years of institutionalised racism were likely to erupt into conflict under circumstances of integration in the absence of meaningful interventions directed at reconciliation. Existing attitudes, stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination continue to influence and shape social behaviour, especially in situations of potential conflict, such as competition for jobs. However, it should be noted that, despite the examples discussed here, the expression of ethnic identity does not always lead to overt acts of violence.

Ethnicity is contested

The expression of ethnicity is not fixed or consistent within social categories, as is evidenced in South Africa where identities are often varied (see Box 18.7). A further example can be found among Arab and Muslim immigrants from the Middle East in the US after 11 September 2001. While large sections of the American population stereotyped them as being anti-American and religious fundamentalists, many of these Muslim Americans resisted these imposed identities. In many instances, they made a clear attempt to separate political identity and religious identity, highlighting that their adherence to Islam did not imply a universal ethnic identity, a fundamentalist approach to religion, or anti-American political opinions and feelings (Telhami, 2002). From this, it is clear that one social group may simultaneously subscribe to different forms, expressions and interpretations of ethnicity. In this example, the resistance to an imposed identity may partly be a result of attempts to counter this simplistic and stereotypical overgeneralisation that Muslims are all religious fanatics with malicious intentions against the West. In addition, it may also have served a defensive function and allowed this sector of the population to maintain group safety in a time of threat.


The imposed (and sometimes accepted) category of coloured during apartheid was resisted by many (but not all) in the 1970s in favour of the unifying black consciousness concept of blackness, which referred to all people not classified as white (Ramphele, 1995). However, in post-apartheid South Africa, the understanding of coloured is once again being challenged and is often rejected by many as a racist label, interpreted by some as it was intended during apartheid, and still further understood by others as being related to an indigenous and cultural heritage associated with people of KhoiSan descent (Martin, 2001; Stevens, 1998). Moreover, despite the rejection of imposed ethnic and racial identities during the anti-apartheid struggle, acceptance of the existence of distinct ethnic and racial groups continues to be actively propagated by politicians, academics and ordinary people in post-apartheid South Africa (Stevens, 1998). Clearly, this form of identity expression is neither stable over time nor universally understood and accepted within the population.

Ethnicity relies on sociocultural symbols

The expression of ethnicity is always linked to prominent sociocultural symbols in any given context (Vail, 1989). For example, in contexts of social transition where cultural renewal or national pride takes root, the expression of ethnicity may be characterised by an emphasis on language, cultural rituals and symbols, and popular patriotic talk and emotion. This was evident among African-Americans returning to their African cultural roots in the US at the height of the Civil Rights Movement (see Figure 18.5), and in Bosnia when national pride was actively encouraged through the use of historical claims to land and nationhood.


Figure 18.5 During the 1960s, many African-Americans returned to wearing traditional African dress as a symbol of their cultural renewal

Ethnicity sustains social inequality in times of conflict

Where social conflict is heightened between different social groups, ethnicity and its associated identities often become more formalised, overgeneralised, internalised and imposed, resulting in more rigid in-group/out-group boundaries and relationships. In such instances, ethnicity frequently becomes the key factor by which social groups are distinguished from each other.

In this context, ethnicity is commonly politicised by those who are in disempowered positions as a rallying point around which to muster political support (e.g. by minority political parties who campaign on an ethnic basis for votes). Alternatively, those in a position of power may politicise ethnicity in order to repress and suppress others (e.g. the former South African government’s racial and ethnic categorisation of the population which maintained apartheid). Where ethnicity is politicised, it is invariably linked to unequal social relations through ideology (e.g. political doctrines advocating social inequality) and structural hierarchies within the social system (e.g. legislation favouring one group over another) (Schalk, 2002; Walker & Smith, 2002).


Figure 18.6 The apartheid era in South Africa was characterised by racial divisions


During the 1970s in South Africa, black consciousness emerged as the dominant political ideology opposing apartheid. While many have argued that this was a form of ethnic identity, others have argued that it was in fact a political identity. Black consciousness drew on historical, linguistic and cultural heterogeneity (people with different languages, cultural practices and histories), but its defining element was that it attempted to unify a fragmented population (those labelled ’other than white’) who had similar experiences of oppression under apartheid, and was in fact a political defence against white racism. Unlike ethnic identity, which is based on the commonality of sociocultural markers within a group, black consciousness was premised on the commonality of social, economic and political experiences of being other-than-white in South Africa. In other words, it joined politically oppressed groups that had been artificially separated through apartheidimposed racial or ethnic categories (Biko, 1978).


•Incidences of ethnic conflict are rooted in social psychological processes (attitudes, stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination) as well as socio-historical conflicts related to existing intergroup differences and hierarchies.

•The expression of ethnicity is not fixed or consistent within social categories; identities may vary widely within ethnic groups. One social group may simultaneously subscribe to different forms, expressions and interpretations of ethnicity.

•Ethnicity is expressed through sociocultural symbols like language and cultural rituals.

•In times of conflict between social groups, ethnicity is strengthened and entrenched resulting in more rigid in-group/out-group boundaries and relationships. Ethnicity may also be politicised in order to repress and suppress others.

The relationship between the social and the psychological

Ideology and its functions

This part of the chapter has thus far argued that all forms of identity expression at an individual and group level (including ethnicity) are in some way influenced and shaped by the societies in which we live. But how does this process occur? One of the primary processes through which ethnic identities are given social meanings is through ideology. While there are differing understandings of ideology (e.g. Althusser, 1971; Foster, 2000; Giddens, 2006), there are several core elements that characterise it (see Stevens, 1996):

•It is a system of beliefs that is reflected in all social practices such as a society’s laws and in the ways that people talk. Racism, as a system of beliefs about the inferiority of blacks and the superiority of whites, could therefore be found in the laws of South Africa during apartheid, but was also seen in the ways in which people spoke about the society.

•It often becomes widely accepted in any society. Thus, people tend to take the system of beliefs as their own and then behave and speak in ways that support and perpetuate this ideology. In South Africa, many people believed in the superiority of whites and the inferiority of blacks, and so behaved and spoke in ways that taught younger generations to adopt the same system of beliefs.

•Humans also have the capacity to act as active agents in the development of alternative and opposing ideologies. The liberation movement in South Africa is a good example of how alternative systems of beliefs were developed to promote democracy and equality.

Ideology, ethnicity and psychology

Ideologies such as racism, nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism all contribute to the particular forms of ethnicity in specific societies, as they determine the most important social features around which ethnic identities are formed. In the case of racism, identities are structured around physical features; under the influence of nationalism, identities may be structured around citizenship; with regard to anti-Semitism, identities are determined by who is Jewish and who is not; and anti-Islamism helps define identities in terms of who is Muslim and who is not.

In each of the above instances, it is important to note that these ideologies all help to create and maintain unequal social relationships, with one group having more access to power and resources at the expense of the other. At a psychological level, these present-day ideologies such as racism, nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism, also influence the specific forms and expressions of attitudes, stereotypes, prejudice and discriminatory practices in any society. These psychological processes are then likely to be arranged around social characteristics such as blackness and whiteness, citizenship or non-citizenship of a country, being Jewish, or being Muslim. Here again, the social meanings given to these psychological processes are likely to benefit one group at the expense of the other and also to perpetuate this inequality.

The racialisation of ethnicity

The racialisation of ethnicity involves using the notion of inherently different and unequal biological races to define ethnic in-groups and out-groups (Giddens, 2006). It developed as European populations increasingly came into contact with people from other parts of the world. Thus, ’non-European populations were “racialised” in opposition to the European “white race”’ (Giddens, 2006, p. 487). Race itself is by no means an accepted construct and the validity of using physiological characteristics to define groups of people is often contested (Giddens, 2006). However, this process is extremely common and highlights the role of one of the most widespread ideologies that influences the expression of ethnicity in many societies — racism.

Defining racism

Most theorists agree that racism as an ideology originated from the changing economic systems that reach back to European expansion, colonialism and slavery, and which continue currently in the increased globalisation of trade (Augostinos et al., 2006; Foster, 2000; Giddens, 2006). Although many people still believe that human beings can be divided into groups on the basis of biological differences, this idea has been thoroughly discredited today (Augostinos et al., 2006). However, racial prejudice and discrimination continue, albeit in more subtle forms (Hogg & Abrams, 2003). As an ideology, racism has historically been employed as a means of justifying the continued social oppression and economic exploitation of one social group by another — most notably, black people by white people.

Racism is not only reflected in the social structures of societies (e.g. the 1948 apartheid policy), but in less formalised social institutions (such as the family and religion), which continue to sustain and perpetuate it (Stevens, 1996). As an ideology, racism also attempts to minimise the potential conflict that could arise from these uneven social relations, by providing both the oppressed and oppressor with frameworks through which to understand the racist social order (Hogg & Abrams, 2003). For example, if both white and black people believe that black people are lazy, unintelligent criminals and that white people are hardworking, intelligent and law abiding, then this maintains and justifies (for both groups) the exploitation and maltreatment experienced by many black people.

As suggested above, more recent research suggests that the forms of racism in society have changed (Hogg & Abrams, 2003). This is due to changes on social norms — it is no longer ’socially acceptable to believe in racial superiority, or to express prejudice’ (Augostinos et al., p. 237). ’Modern’ racism has been known by various terms: ’subtle racism’ is a common one and refers to racism that is not openly expressed or only expressed among like-minded individuals. Other terms are ’ambivalent racism’ and ’aversive racism’; these terms reflect the way opposing attitudes towards someone (e.g. positive beliefs and negative feelings) may exist within one individual (Augostinos et al., 2006).

The relationship between racism and ethnicity

As an ideology, racism influences the expression of ethnicity in several ways.

First, racism informs the way in which ethnic groups are defined (racial categories are often utilised to distinguish ethnic categories). In societies with a long history of racism, such as South Africa, the racial categories of coloured, white, Indian and black became the same categories that were used to define ethnic groups. What is then perceived to be ethnic difference is in fact based on racism.

Second, the concepts of race and ethnicity come to be used interchangeably. Thus, ethnicity is often a synonym and euphemism for the notion of race. During apartheid (and even currently in South Africa, especially in terms of the policy of black economic empowerment), it was the norm to utilise the ethnic label to refer to groups which had racial differences imposed upon them, rather than for groups which actually shared common sociocultural elements. Sharp (1988, p. 80) noted that this interchangeable use of race and ethnicity was applied politically by people who ’seek to form groups, and to differentiate one set of people from another, by appealing to the idea of … cultural difference’. This involved a political attempt to invent distinctly separate ethnic identities, in order to strengthen the argument for distinctly separate races. Ethnic and cultural difference essentially came to mean racial difference, but was a more socially acceptable way of stating this racist belief system. In addition, the suggestion that these differences were more than variations in physical features, and were in fact based on sociocultural elements unique to certain groups, provided a further justification for segregating these groups (Giliomee & Schlemmer, 1989; Marks & Trapido, 1987). Ethnicity was therefore not only used as an interchangeable concept for race, but was used to support the argument for segregating people of different skin colour.

Third, ethnicity and ethnic groups start to take on the same meanings that are attributed to racial groups (some groups are defined as lazy, stupid, dirty, ugly, and so on, while others are viewed as hardworking, clever, attractive, and so on). Within this process, some groups are accorded a higher social status with greater access to resources and power, at the expense of others. The result is that the position (inferior or superior) of people within such a society is seen to be because they belong to a specific ethnic group, and those who find themselves in a subordinate position are said to be there because of their ethnic deficits (Giddens, 2006). In such contexts, ethnic hierarchies and oppression are essentially racial hierarchies and oppression.

Clearly, the racialisation of ethnicity has the potential to create societies in which deep ethnic divisions may occur. In countries with a legacy of racial divisions, ethnic divisions would rely on the most prominent historical differences between groups of people, and these would be fundamentally based on the ideology of racism.

The politicisation of ethnicity

While, as an ideology, racism contributes to the particular expression of ethnicity in various societies, other contemporary political ideologies such as nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism also inform the manner in which ethnicity is defined and articulated. This process is referred to as the politicisation of ethnicity.

Anti-Islamism and ethnicity

Anti-Islamism is the term used to describe a prejudice against Muslim people. Several writers have identified a long history of ideologies that have contributed to the subordination and domination of Muslims and the construction of this social category as a negative ethnic group. Matar (2010) notes that as early as the 1500s (and even as far back as the Crusades), Muslims were constructed as dark-skinned, barbaric and violent, intent on attacking and enslaving Christians. Muslims were frequently depicted in religious literature as demons, scorpions, dogs or locusts (Matar, 2010). These images were used to emphasise the Islamic threat when Europe began to set its sights on the Middle East, North Africa and India for colonial conquest, and served to justify such conquest. Said (1981) suggests that there has been a longstanding attitude towards Islam within Western culture that stereotyped Muslims as oil suppliers, terrorists and bloodthirsty mobs.

While these images have changed over time, it also became clear after 11 September 2001 that many of these images remain. Muslims are often characterised as violent, religious zealots, oppressive to women and anti-Christian. Such inaccurate and stereotypical overgeneralisations of all Arabs, Arab descendants, Middle Eastern communities and Muslims are fundamental to the ethnic construction of this social group. They have clearly contributed to images of Muslims as a dangerous, secondary-status ethnic group in contemporary society, and have provided the ideological justification for actions such as the US-led War on Terror in Afghanistan, as well as the invasion of Iraq.

Anti-Semitism and ethnicity

Similarly, the ideologies of racism, anti-Semitism and nationalism in Germany partly accounted for the construction of Jews as an ethnic group that was responsible for Germany’s poor domestic economy in the 1930s. The failing German economy paved the way for the emergence of heightened levels of nationalism, and together with the racist National Socialist (Nazi) philosophy of creating a pure Aryan race, facilitated the genocidal killing of approximately six million Jews in extermination camps. Jews were constructed as economically exploitative, anti-Christian and racially impure. This process also partly provided the ideological basis for the military expansion into Europe, Asia and Africa that was to become known as World War II.

It is important to note that the anti-Semitism characteristic of Nazi Germany emerged from long-standing roots in Europe. Prior to 1870, European Jews had enjoyed a period of tolerance and increased equality (Brustein, 2003). However, around 1870, there was an upsurge of social and political anti-Semitism. This was the result of the economic, cultural and political transformations taking place in Europe at that time (Bergmann & Wyrwa, 2012). As industrialisation and capitalism grew, Jews were blamed for these upheavals.

Nationalism and ethnicity

Examples of the relationship between nationalism and ethnicity can be found in Rwanda and Bosnia, as well as Iraq and Sri Lanka. As discussed earlier, in Rwanda, Belgian colonialism had imposed artificial and separate ethnic identities (Hutu and Tutsi) on the population and established the minority Tutsi as the ruling elite that would be open to influence by the Belgians. After independence, the legacy of this imposed ethnicity remained as the primary basis for social and political relationships in the country. As was the case among Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims, these ethnic identities became more rigidly defined within the context of national conflicts, ultimately contributing to the ethnic genocide in these countries.

Similarly, when President George Bush threatened to invade Iraq in 2002, Americans of Iraqi descent protested against this move (Worchel, 2003). The effect of the threat was for these American citizens to choose to align more closely with their ethnic heritage. This illustrates how some citizens can be ’reduced’ to the status of unwanted immigrant (Van Dijk, 1997).


•Ethnic identities often gain social meanings through ideology which refers to a system of beliefs that is reflected in all social practices and in the ways that people talk. Ideology often becomes widely accepted in a society. However, people are active agents and can develop alternative and opposing ideologies.

•Ideologies such as racism, nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism contribute to how ethnic identities are formed in societies. These ideologies help to create and maintain unequal social relationships, with one group having more access to power and resources at the expense of the other.

•Ethnicity often becomes racialised. However, race (the notion of inherently different and unequal biological characteristics) is not an accepted construct.

•The ideology of racism reaches back to European expansion, colonialism and slavery. As an ideology, racism has been used to justify continued social oppression and economic exploitation of one social group by another. If racist stereotypes are maintained by both the oppressor and the oppressed, this justifies (for both groups) the exploitation and maltreatment involved.

•Racism influences the expression of ethnicity in several ways:

”Racism informs the definition of ethnic groups.

”The concepts of race and ethnicity come to be used interchangeably, whereby ethnic and cultural difference essentially comes to mean racial difference.

”Ethnic groups start to take on the same meanings that are attributed to racial groups, such that ethnic hierarchies and oppression are essentially racial hierarchies and oppression.

•Ethnicity has been politicised in various contexts:

”The prejudice against Muslim people is known as anti-Islamism. It has a long history in the Western world and continues today, augmented by Western responses to the 9/11 attacks in the US.

”The prejudice against Jews is known as anti-Semitism. It combined with nationalism and racism to enable Nazi Germany’s genocidal killing of approximately six million Jews.

”Other examples of the relationship between nationalism and ethnicity can be found in Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Under conditions of conflict, ethnic identities become more rigidly defined and may lead to violence and ethnic genocide.


Ethnicity is not a set of natural features and characteristics with which we are born; rather, these ethnic features are socially determined. They become more pronounced under certain social conditions when they are used as markers to identify, differentiate and unevenly structure groups in relation to each other. The social expression of ethnicity relies on certain social psychological processes, such as stereotypes and prejudice, but the meanings attached to ethnicity and the related psychological processes are determined by the ideologies operating within the social context.

While some authors contend that ethnicity may act as a unifying force (e.g. Mazrui, 2001), history repeatedly shows that ethnic identities invariably rely on and recreate unequal social relations and result in further social divisions. This process was clearly illustrated in the first part of this chapter where the effect of such unequal social relations on the experience of poverty was described, especially in the context of apartheid South Africa where ethnic differences were racialised.

As we consider how to promote more democratic and equal social relationships, it is apparent that we must move beyond the exclusive nature of ethnic identities to more inclusive social relationships that recognise our common humanity at a national, regional and global level. This also seems to be a basic prerequisite for dealing with the terrible situation of poverty as experienced by many South Africans.


Imageactive agents: people have the capacity to develop alternative and opposing ideologies

Imageanti-Semitism: a prejudice against Jewish people

Imageanti-Islamism: a prejudice against Muslim people

Imageattitudes: learnt, evaluative belief systems that involve emotions and are exhibited in a fairly consistent way, and that are products of their context

Imageclass consciousness: a concept developed by Karl Marx that refers to peoples’ critical understanding of how the social system works

Imageconsumer culture: a cultural fantasy that the solution to all life’s problems is to buy more and more material things

Imagecultural imperialism: the process whereby a stronger culture imposes its understandings and practices on weaker cultures

Imagecultural relativism: ’the principle that people’s beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of their own culture’ (Newman, 2012, p. 113)

Imageculture: social information that humans require in order to interact with each other, and which comprises collective symbols and learned aspects of society, although different groups have different levels of access to this information

Imagedebt trap: a situation in which people habitually spend more money than they have

Imagediscrimination: the behavioural manifestation of belief systems, which may or may not result in violence, depending on the extent to which it is legitimised within the socio-historical context and the degree to which it is perceived to be socially desirable or undesirable

Imageethnicity: a particular group’s shared social features that in some way contribute to the distinct identity of that group

Imageethnocentrism: the degree to which individuals perceive their own social group as being superior to others, while simultaneously harbouring feelings of negativity towards out-groups

ImageGINI coefficient: a commonly used measure of income inequality

Imageideology: a system of beliefs that is reflected in all social practices that may be structural and/or discursive

Imageinfant mortality rate: the number of children in every 1 000 who die before they reach the age of five years

Imagelife expectancy: the average age at which people are expected to die

Imagenationalism: a proud feeling of sharing cultural characteristics with other members of a perceived nation, which often leads to exclusive boundaries around that nation

ImageOthering: the process of defining the Self as different and separate through the creation of an Other

Imagepoverty trap: a situation in which poor people feel they may never escape their poverty-stricken existence

Imageprejudice: a negative attitude that may be based on irrational in-group beliefs about out-group(s)

Imageracism: a system of beliefs about the superiority of some races over others

Imagereferent: the person or thing to which an attitude applies

Imageresilience: ’the ability to thrive, mature, and increase competence in the face of adverse circumstances’ (Rouse, 1998, p. 1)

Imagesocial capital: much like physical capital (a form of stored wealth), but rather than being stored in money or property, social capital is embedded in the networks, spaces and institutions (and in the sense of mutual trust) that make it possible for people to work together

Imagestereotypes: inaccurate overgeneralisations applied to all the members of a perceived social category


Multiple choice questions

1.In terms of per capita income, South Africa is classified as a:

a)lower-income country

b)lower- to middle-income country

c)middle-income country

d)higher-income country.

2.Which of the following statements is correct?

a)In South Africa, 1 in 2 children is malnourished.

b)In South Africa, 1 in 3 children is malnourished.

c)In South Africa, 1 in 5 children is malnourished.

d)In South Africa, 1 in 10 children is malnourished.

3.Which of the following statements is incorrect?

a)We should be careful about claiming that poverty leads to mental ill health because there is no research to support this claim.

b)We should be careful about claiming that poverty leads to mental ill health because poor people are not psychologically inferior to rich ones.

c)We should be careful about claiming that poverty leads to mental ill health because such claims affect people’s dignity as human beings.

d)We should be careful about claiming that poverty leads to mental ill health because it is more productive to consider how people experience and respond to conditions of poverty.

4.Which of the following statements is incorrect?

a)Middle-class people find it hard to understand the concept of a poverty trap because they believe that people get what they deserve.

b)Middle-class people find it hard to understand the concept of a poverty trap because they can rely on the help of other rich people.

c)Middle-class people find it hard to understand the concept of a poverty trap because they know how to present themselves to other rich people.

d)Middle-class people find it hard to understand the concept of a poverty trap because they are caught in a debt trap.

5.Which of the following is incorrect?

a)Western capitalist wealth creation leads to psychological and social impoverishment through the rise of a consumer culture in which people believe that material things can buy happiness.

b)Western capitalist wealth creation leads to psychological and social impoverishment through a steady increase in physical ill health even for those who can afford medical care.

c)Western capitalist wealth creation leads to psychological and social impoverishment through the depletion of social capital so that people stop trusting one another and forget how to work together.

d)Western capitalist wealth creation leads to psychological and social impoverishment through cultural imperialism in which people learn to devalue their own culture.

6.The tendency to perceive our own social group as superior to others, while simultaneously harbouring negative feelings towards out-groups, is referred to as:





7.Negative attitudes toward an out-group are referred to as __________ and acting upon this belief to marginalise this group can be characterised as _____________

a)racism; discrimination

b)stereotypes; racism

c)prejudice; discrimination

d)discrimination; prejudice.

8.During apartheid, the overgeneralisation that all blacks were unintelligent, unhygienic, and so on was an example of:





9.The contemporary negative constructions of Middle Eastern populations, the Arab world and Muslims are in part linked to:

a)the historical connection between racist ideology and Islam, according to Matar (2010)

b)Said’s (1981) research on negative Western stereotypes of Muslims c) both a and b are correct

d)none of the above is correct.

10.During apartheid, the racialisation of ethnicity occurred through:

a)the use of racial labels to refer to different religious groups

b)the use of ethnic labels to refer to groups who had racial labels artificially imposed upon them

c)the use of racial labels to refer to groups who adhered to different dress codes.

d)all of the above are correct.

Short-answer questions

1.Briefly explain why psychologists should care about poverty.

2.Why could it be problematic to claim that poverty has a negative impact on mental health?

3.Poor people often feel alienated from society. This has both positive and negative consequences. Explain.

4.In what ways are rich people mentally unhealthy?

5.What is social capital?

6.Referring to Box 18.7, discuss to what degree ethnic labels, groups and identities exist in post-apartheid South Africa. Compare these ethnic labels, groups and identities with racial labels that were utilised to differentiate the population during apartheid in South Africa, looking specifically at the differences and similarities in meanings associated with these labels, groups and identities across the two historical contexts.

7.Conduct independent research from general texts to examine ethnicity in China or India.