Henri Tajfel biography project

Tajfel quotations

For someone who wrote mostly in his third acquired language, Tajfel was an elegant, lucid and sometimes witty writer of English. Here are some quotations from his various publications.

On the perils of reductionism

This was from one of his first publications, in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, co-authored with one of his undergraduate teachers, R S Peters. In the paper, they advanced some vigorous arguments against classical psychological theories that attempted to reduce human behaviour to the workings (motions) of the physiological system:

 “To say that sensation and the conceptual processes are nothing but motions is rather like saying that kissing is simply the mutual movement of lips or that work is moving lumps of matter about”

In what sense can a physiological theory of the brain be said to explain a geometer’s conclusions or a move at a game of chess?” (Peters & Tajfel, 1957, p. 41 & 43; emphasis in original).

On the relevance of perceptual accentuation phenomena for social perception

This was from one of his first publications, in Psychological Review. Towards the end of this paper he makes the case that perceptual overestimation (and other) effects revealed in psychophysical experiments also have implications for how we perceive groups of people:  

“It may be said that, in a sense, “overestimation” as discussed in this paper is a special case and a convincing experimental paradigm of a more general aspect of social perception. Many social objects and events are sharply classified in terms of their value or relevance. When judgements concerning some quantifiable or ratable aspects of stimuli which fall into distinct categories are called for, differences in value or relevance cannot fail to influence the quantitative judgments in the direction of sharpening existing differences between stimuli. A very similar conception has recently been formulated by Hochberg, and applied by him to the perception of in- and out-group individuals:

   ‘If a group of individuals is perceived as different from the non-group of individuals, the perceived differences between those within the group and those outside the group will automatically be sharpened, and the differences perceived between the members of the group (i.e., intragroup differences), and between those outside the group will be lessened’.

……Thus, it may well be that an accentuation of differences in size will hardly occur between two paintings, one liked and one indifferent or disliked. But when skin color, or height, or some facial traits of social ‘value’ are concerned, there will be marked sharpening of differences in the degree of these characteristics perceived as belonging to individuals who are assigned to different categories” (Tajfel, 1957, pp 202-203).

On Nationalism

This is his first published discussion of the concept of Identification, published in The Listener:

We can say that the psychological basis of nationalism is an individual’s identification with a large group of people whom he conceives to be his nation. And, like most other group identifications, nationalism can vary in two ways at least: first, in the intensity of the reactions that it may arouse; and, secondly, in the nature of those reactions”

 “Nationalism can scale the heights of emotion for which a parallel can hardly be found; it also encompasses a tremendously rich range of feelings: love and hatred, joy and anger, pride and humiliation, admiration and contempt.”

 “…a strongly felt identification with one’s national group, or with any group, need not be aggressive; it need not be nationalism ‘against’, it may be nationalism ‘for’. It could then become a useful psychological lever for constructive action, and it could help preserve a diversity of identities which, in our age of rapid mass communication, seems more worth preserving than ever” (Tajfel, 1960, p. 846-847).

 On the need for caution in providing psychological explanations of social phenomena 

He was forever warning his readers about the dangers of trying to claim too much for social psychology. Here is an early comment, written in Race, the house journal of the Institute of Race Relations:

“No psychologist who has a sense of proportion about the possibilities and the limitations of his discipline would claim that prejudice can be ‘explained’ and dealt with on the psychological level alone. This is an infinitely complex problem, and in its handling we need the cooperation of legislators, social workers, economists, historians, sociologists, psychologists and many others” (Tajfel, 1963, p.5).

 On stereotyping

 In that same 1963 article, he notes the normalcy of stereotyping and its functionality for everyday living. This, too, would be a recurring theme of his later writing:

 “Stereotyping can, therefore, be considered an inescapable adjunct to the human activity of categorising. As such, it is neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good’, it is there and presumably serves some purpose in our continuous efforts to simplify the world around us” (Tajfel, 1963, p. 8).

 On defining the group

 His first published definition of a group appeared in The Eugenics Review. This would anticipate by some years his later concept of group identification, for which he is well known:

 “I shall define a group as a category of people fulfilling two criteria: the first, that an individual identifies himself as belonging to the category; and the second, that this identification is to him of some emotional significance” (Tajfel, 1966c, p. 78).

On prejudice

One of his few essays explicitly on the subject of Prejudice was published in the Journal of Social Issues in 1969. This won the 1968 Gordon Allport Prize, awarded by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues for the best article each year on intergroup relations. In this article, he argues against what he calls “blood and guts” models of prejudice and, instead, urges us to take more account of people’s cognitive processes and their search for meaning.

 “A psychological theory of intergroup relations must provide a two-way link between situations and behaviour, and it can do this through an analysis of the motivational and the cognitive structures which intervene between the two” (Tajfel, 1969, p. 80).

 “The etiology of intergroup relations cannot be properly understood without the help of an analysis of their cognitive aspects, and also that this analysis cannot be derived from statements about motivation and about instinctive behaviour” (Tajfel, 1969, p. 81). 

On intergroup conflict

In his Scientific American article in 1970, where he first presented results from the minimal group paradigm, he stressed again the multiple causation of intergroup conflict, echoing his comments in his earlier 1963 Race article. This was a position he shared with Gordon Allport, who also rejected single explanations of intergroup prejudice.

h2“Most cases of conflict between human groups, large or small, reflect an intricate interdependence of social and psychological causation. Often it is difficult, and probably fruitless, to speculate about what were the first causes of real present-day social situations. Moreover, there is a dialectical relation between the objective and the subjective determinants of intergroup attitudes and behaviour. Once the process is set in motion they reinforce each other in a relentless spiral in which the weight of predominant causes tends to shift continuously” (Tajfel, 1970, p. 96).