Peer Prejudice and Discrimination: The Origins of Prejudice. Second Edition, by Harold Fishbein, Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 2002, 335 pp., $34.50.
Prejudice and discrimination are, unfortunately, an integral part of the human experience. We see their manifestations in our daily lives, on the world's stage, and in our professional experiences as childcare providers. Among the questions that are inevitably asked is where do prejudice and discrimination originate? These phenomena are almost ubiquitous to the human condition. Thus, one must ask, what are their roots?
Harold Fishbein has written a second edition to his treatise on the origins of prejudice. In reading this book, one cannot help but be impressed by the scholarliness of the author's endeavor and his professional commitment to understanding these almost universal phenomena. However, this is not an easy book to read. It is dense, heavily referenced, and laden with data and the interpretations of the data. It is indeed a major review of the past and current literature addressing this topic.
Fishbein argues that prejudice and discrimination are firmly rooted in our genetic/evolutionary heritage and are influenced by individual and cultural/historical factors and experiences. He also argues that, while our genes have made culture inevitable, the reality is that they have co-evolved.
"The central arguments of the book are as follows. Prejudice and discrimination have an evolutionary basis, rooted in the nature of primate and human subsistence groups. Although the existence of cultures is also evolutionarily based, the particular culture in which individuals grow up and mature plays a significant role in determining the values assigned to the various groups. Members of certain groups become the targets for prejudice and discrimination. As with other cultural values, norms, and beliefs, prejudice and discrimination have to be learned." (pg. 37)
There is an excellent introductory chapter, which defines the field and its terms, followed by a chapter that presents an evolutionary model for the development of prejudice and discrimination. In subsequent chapters, the author employs the genetic/evolutionary model and the cultural/historical influences to analyze the development and nature of prejudice (perceptions and attitudes) and discrimination (actions) toward the deaf, the mentally retarded, women, and African-Americans. Fishbein provides an excellent and highly informative history-educational, political, and social-of the experiences of these groups in the United States. He then draws on an enormous database to support his argument of the genetic/evolutionary basis of prejudice and discrimination. At the same time he acknowledges cultural/historical contributions. Indeed, it is these contributions that he turns to when seeking strategies to ameliorate or extinguish prejudice and discrimination.
The final three chapters address strategies for change. Fishbein argues that, in order for change to occur, interventions need to be broad-based. Laws need to be enacted (which has begun to take place) and early intervention in schools, communities, and in the media need to be initiated. A single intervention (e.g., children of different racial backgrounds working together on a school project) will not necessarily change behavior. He notes that many of our interventions have been unitary and not multifaceted, and thus not successful in accomplishing the goals. There need to be concerted rather than isolated efforts and policies. While acknowledging the problem, he provides a positive spin to our dilemma by pointing out that, although prejudice and discrimination continue to be alive, inroads into extinguishing these negative and destructive phenomena have been made. However, the process of change will be a long one.
This is an interesting book. It is a sociological, psychological, and genetic/evolutionary treatise. If one likes to work through lots of data and graphs with often-conflicting results it is a book to be read. If one does not have the time or energy to pursue that endeavor a reading of the first two and last three chapters and the summaries of the remaining chapters are well worth our attention. They speak to our awareness of developmental trajectories.
Edward Goldson, M.D.
University of Colorado School of Medicine