Relationalizing Contact Theory: The Dynamics of Contact and Contention

Saturday, 21 July 2018: 14:45
Oral Presentation
Chares DEMETRIOU, Lund University, Sweden
Eitan ALIMI, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Contact theory argues that groups of people become less prone to conflict with each other the more they are in contact with each other, holding that contact reduces stereotyping, prejudice, and hostility. While empirical evidence for and against the theory exists in the literature, we argue that the flaws of the theory relate more to its conceptual and methodological underpinnings than to its empirical correspondence.

The theory pays attention to relations among groups primarily in terms of hierarchy, competitiveness, and interdependence. While this is a promising, it is neither sufficiently relational nor dynamic. Above all, the theory pays little attention to the role mechanisms play in the generation of conflict-prone and non-conflict-prone contact. Relaying on the analysis of variable covariance, it hints, at best, at the presence and consequentiality of mechanisms but does not investigate actual mechanism operation.

In order to better explain why sometimes contact leads to violence, we reconstruct contact theory conceptually and methodologically. Rather than conceptualizing groups as pre-given units, we conceptualize social formations resultant from boundary relations. Methodologically, we analyze mechanism operation, rather than treating mechanisms as intervening variables. Particularly, we analyze the interplay among mechanisms and reverse mechanisms. This allows analysis of the key process whereby contact becomes politicized, hence no longer contained in the private realm but rather consumed by the public realm, where the state is implicated.

We apply mechanism analysis in a comparison of two settings: colonial Cyprus (1945-1959), where members of the Greek and Turkish populations were in contact; and West Bank (1967-2001), where members of the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian populations were in contact. Each of the two settings featured, respectively, historical periods of politicized contact promoting violence and depoliticized contact impeding violence.