Read Chapter 6

Srividya Ramasubramanian on Gordon Allport

CITE AS: Ramasubramanian. S. (2016). Srividya Ramasubramanian on Gordon Allport. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 85 - 93). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 6
Srividya Ramasubramanian on Gordon Allport
Gordon Allport remains one of the most influential, oft-cited, and leading social psychologists of the twentieth century. His scholarship is marked by its empirical rigor, breadth, pluralism, social impact, and ethical concerns; he boldly experimented with new methodologies and topics of study with the aim of bringing about social change. His landmark books, The Psychology of Radio (with Hadley Cantril; 1935), The Individual and His Religion (1950), and The Nature of Prejudice (1954), created a paradigm shift, establishing the parameters for future researchers to make significant developments in the field, and serve as foundational classics for contemporary social scientists. His research on stereotyping, intergroup relations, personality, radio studies, and religion continue to influence media scholars even today.

Allport took a pragmatic and applied approach to the social sciences, one that was deeply rooted in the political, cultural, and social issues of his times. He had a broad approach to psychology that accommodated multiple theoretical and methodological perspectives. He embraced major theories from a variety of fields, such as anthropology, sociology, theology, literature, and history. Although he was an experimental social psychologist, Allport was fascinated by biographies and case studies, both from a literary and scientific standpoint, throughout his life. Therefore, it is only fitting that I use personal narrative and autoethnography to pay tribute to my “academic grandparent,” Gordon Allport, by examining his contributions to media literacy. In this chapter, I examine the key ideas and life events that shaped my work, as well as those that shaped Allport’s, to highlight the sociocultural and historical contexts that play a significant role in shaping the media literacy discipline. In other words, I examine how scholarship on media literacy is socially constructed and embedded in the ideological values of the historical contexts in which it is situated.
Radio Research and Its Influence on Contemporary Media Literacy
In the 1930s, Allport was the first major scholar to examine the sociopsychological effects of mass media by conducting research on popular radio. Radio emerged as a powerful medium during this time, dramatically affecting the sociocultural, political, and economic milieu. By 1935, when Allport and his former student Hadley Cantril coauthored their pioneering book, The Psychology of Radio, almost 70 percent of U.S. households had a radio set and close to 78 million Americans were dedicated listeners (Cantril and Allport 1935; Pandora 1998). For the first time ever, broadcast programs could reach mass audiences from various regions, social classes, races, and ethnicities.

Allport’s choice of examining contemporary popular culture through his research on radio was pathbreaking and radical. During his time, psychologists were modeling their research agendas on the pure sciences by focusing on scientific objectivity, academic pursuits, and theoretical contributions (Pandora 1998). The Psychology of Radio (Cantril and Allport 1935) stands as a classic example of how social-science scholarship can connect to the wider social arena, contemporary social issues, political activism, and social democracy. By declaring that “the really important problems of the radio are now psychological problems” (4), Cantril and Allport were setting the foundation for the new applied field of media psychology and legitimizing it as a valid field of serious scientific study. Cantril’s (1940) detailed analyses of the effects of the radio broadcasting of the Martian invasion continues to be used by present-day media-effects scholars to highlight the situational contexts that lead to powerful effects of radio on mass audiences.

As a child growing up in India, I witnessed how color TV became popular in the 1980s and how satellite television dramatically affected our family media habits in the 1990s; as a young adult, I witnessed how the rise of digital and social media in the new millennium drastically shifted the nature of mediated communication.{AU: Do the edits make this sentence accurate? If not, please clarify.} By focusing my scholarship on the stereotyping effects of popular media, I was following the path pioneered by Allport and Cantril (1935), which was then furthered by media psychologists Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant here} in the second half of the twentieth century. These founding figures of the media-effects tradition examined how popular culture and media entertainment influenced audiences’ attitudes and behaviors. When I arrived at Pennsylvania State University to get a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary mass communication, I was fortunate to inherit this rich legacy of empirical rigor, social-science research methods, and media-effects theories when I was adopted into the academic lineage of the Zillmann-Bryant school of media psychology as the first advisee of Mary Beth Oliver and as a student of S. Shyam Sundar.
Media Stereotyping and Prejudice Reduction
Intergroup harmony and peaceful coexistence among various ethnic and racial groups were central to Gordon Allport’s scholarship. Even as a young man, Allport had an open mind, a big heart, and a strong conscience (Bruner 1968). He often visited the Department of Social Work at Harvard University to assist scholars on field visits, and he volunteered his time for social work and to help foreign students. In 1919, right after completing his undergraduate degree, he spent a year in Turkey during the tenure of the last sultan. Additionally, after receiving his Ph.D., he spent a year in Germany and then in Cambridge, UK. He also assisted professors who moved to the United States to escape Nazi persecution.

The early twentieth century was marked by several social, economic, and political inequalities between colonizers and the colonized in various parts of the world, between Nazis and Jews in Europe, and between white people and racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States. Discrimination, bigotry, hostile prejudice, and other forms of antagonisms toward racial and ethnic minorities were openly practiced and institutionalized through segregation and political exclusion.

Allport took a complex and interdisciplinary approach to the study of prejudice. His extensive and brilliant volume on prejudice titled The Nature of Prejudice (Allport 1954) remains one of the most influential and foundational works in intergroup relations. He brought the subject of racial and ethnic stereotyping to the mainstream in the social sciences by examining it from a multilayered cognitive, functionalistic, motivational, and affective approach. His definition of prejudice as an irrational and faulty generalization was significantly different from how prejudice was conceptualized during his times. He is credited for organizing the scholarship on prejudice into categories of individual, internal personality structures; psychological functions; and external societal determinants of prejudice. His work examined the causal determinants, affective content, cognitive dimensions, motivational factors, personality characteristics, and psychological effects of prejudice. His research on right-wing authoritarianism, for instance, provides deep insights into the relationship between personality and prejudice.
True to his optimistic outlook on life and socially relevant approach to scholarship, Allport’s research on prejudice focused as much on theoretical explanatory analyses as it did on reflecting on remedial solutions to the social issue. He recognized that discriminatory behavior was not just a product of individual hostile attitudes but also influenced by situational factors such as social norms and the influence of authority figures. He also observed that state laws, segregation, and other discriminatory institutional policies obstructed racial equality.

Allport is credited with developing the contact hypothesis, also known as intergroup contact theory, which argues that interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice. By communicating with others, people are able to understand and appreciate different points of view involving their ways of life. This theory continues to be one of the most studied aspects of intergroup relations. Taking a multilevel approach, Allport suggests that not just any type of contact between majority and minority group members is effective. Specifically, he outlines four conditions that are needed for reducing intergroup bias and promoting positive attitudes toward out-groups: equal status between minority and majority groups, opportunities to cooperate, interdependence of goals, and support of institutional authority figures.

A contemporary of Allport’s but on another continent, my great-grandfather P. Vishwanatha Iyer, a journalist and freedom fighter, was working as an associate editor of a leading national newspaper, the Hindu. Although I never met him, his inspirational rags-to-riches story played an important role in shaping my decision to choose communication as my major. He pioneered research on media history in India by editing several volumes, including The History of Indian Journalism, which remains an important reference collection. When Mahatma Gandhi walked across India from village to village to resist salt taxes imposed on the common people, Iyer oined this civil disobedience movement and wrote about it for the Hindu.

Gandhi’s effective communication efforts toward raising consciousness among colonizers and unifying and mobilizing Indian citizens to fight for their freedom using nonviolent means remain a source of inspiration for people around the world, especially for scholars committed to social justice and nonviolence. Core Gandhian principles such as ahimsa (nonviolence), satyagraha (civil disobedience), and self-sufficiency are founded in universal positive human values. These principles of inclusiveness, diversity, and intergroup harmony have had a significant impact on my scholarship on media literacy.

Guided by Allport’s foundational scholarship on intergroup relations and my great-grandfather’s association with Gandhian values, my scholarship has focused on media literacy, intergroup harmony, and social change. Specifically, my research examines media portrayals of race and gender, the effects of positive and negative stereotypes on audience attitudes, and the effectiveness of counterstereotypical media exemplars and media literacy training in prejudice reduction. It has theorized about the complex affective, cognitive, and policy-decision–making effects of stereotypes and addressed conceptual issues in media literacy education and prejudice reduction (Martinez and Ramasubramanian 2015; Ramasubramanian 2007, 2010a, 2010b,{AU: There is only one 2010 source in references. Please clarify.} 2011; Ramasubramanian and Oliver 2007; Ramasubramanian and Sanders 2009).
A Multidisciplinary and Inclusive Approach to Research
Allport’s primary legacy is that of an inclusive, applied, and multidisciplinary approach to the social sciences. He was anything but a traditionalist and was way ahead of his time. No wonder he declared himself quite accurately as a “maverick” (Hiltner 1969). Although he conducted rigorous lab experiments, he also believed that clinical approaches using case studies were very important. This was a unique position during his time, when there was a lot of debate and polarization within the field between clinical and experimental approaches. He was an expansionist and inclusive scholar who fought against dogmatic extreme theoretical or methodological stances with the view of bringing a balance to the field (Pettigrew 1999). He emphasized the uniqueness of each human being and resisted the idea of measuring people as intersections of multidimensional factors. He advocated strongly for the comprehensive study, with respect and dignity, of the individual as a whole (Clark 1969).

An openness to various methodological approaches and multidisciplinary perspectives on scholarship has also played an important role in my journey into media literacy. Although my training in high school was in the natural sciences, I grew up in a family that was devoted to music, dance, theatre, and the arts. My artistically gifted mother and scientifically oriented father encouraged me to take up communication as my major, as they believed it would allow me to foster my creative expression as well as scientific approach. In my hometown in India, this program of study was offered only in a men’s college. The experience of being one of the few women in a men’s college was eye-opening in terms of gender and sexual relations, which shaped my scholarship on intergroup communication. Eventually, when I moved to the United States for my Ph.D., once again my identity as a minority, this time as a South Asian non-Christian female scholar, became salient, especially after the September 11, 2001, attacks. It was within this context that my scholarship on media stereotyping was shaped.

Allport was particularly concerned about the negative effects of the World Wars. He wrote about morale, rumor, public opinions, propaganda, and prejudice. In the postwar era, Allport’s work on social ethics and religion also intensified. His conviction that social psychology should be morally rooted and be of service to the society as a whole was strengthened. It is in the context of war and destruction that questions about the role of mass communication in persuasion, propaganda, and peace relations were examined. Allport was concerned about aggression, anxiety, and other negative effects of combat on people’s psyches. The contemporary digital-media literacy movement has similarly been concerned about the impact of media violence, health, and stereotyping.

Much of my own scholarship on media literacy education is similarly issue-driven, with social change as the overarching goal. I believe that media practitioners, parents, and educators will find it more useful to learn about practical and effective media-based strategies to undermine and eliminate prejudice than to merely learn about their prevalence and effects on audiences. My applied projects in this area identify two media-based strategies for stereotype inhibition and change (Oliver, Ramasubramanian, and Kim 2007; Ramasubramanian and Kornfield 2012; Ramasubramanian and Oliver 2007; Ramasubramanian 2007, 2011, 2013). The first is an audience-centered approach that focuses on developing critical-viewing skills, and the second is a message-centered approach that presents audiences with stereotype-disconfirming information. Using both of these strategies simultaneously is most effective in achieving prejudice-reduction goals.

Inspired by Allport and other scholars committed to public scholarship who take a socially conscious, applied approach to their research, last year I established Media Rise, a global alliance for media, art, design, and storytelling for social good. The alliance brings together media educators, artists, activists, and community leaders who are committed to using media to accelerate social change. Our mission is to promote meaningful media creation and consumption that focuses on universal human values, such as respect and dignity. We foster partnerships and collaborations among various sectors: media industry, academia, government, and nongovernmental organizations. Through a weeklong annual festival and monthly meet-ups around the world, we hope that digital-media scholarship is able to reach the citizens and public at large.
Allport’s socially relevant, solution-driven, and theoretically grounded empirical approach to the study of social sciences has served as an inspiration to contemporary media scholars to explore the role of digital media in addressing real-world social problems. Throughout his life, Allport championed several humanitarian causes and conducted research with the purpose of promoting greater intergroup harmony. His rigorous scholarship, sense of wisdom, open-minded pluralism, courage, and passion for accelerating social change make him a role-model academic ancestor for digital-media scholars, especially those studying media literacy and prejudice reduction.
Allport, G. W. 1950. The Individual and His Religion. New York: Macmillan.
———. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Bruner, J. S. 1968. “Gordon Willard Allport: 1897–1967.” American Journal of Psychology 81 (2): 279–284.
Cantril, H. 1940. The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Cantril, H., and G. W. Allport. 1935. The Psychology of Radio. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Hiltner, S. 1969. “Gordon W. Allport—In Memoriam.” Pastoral Psychology 19 (2): 65–67.
Martinez, A., and S. Ramasubramanian. 2015. “Latino Audiences, Racial/Ethnic Identification, and Responses to Stereotypical Comedy.” Mass Communication and Society 18 (2): 209–229.
Oliver, M. B., S. Ramasubramanian, and J. Kim. 2007. “Media and Racism.” In Communication and Social Cognition: Theories and Methods, edited by D. R. Roskos-Ewoldsen and J. Monahan, 273–294. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pandora, K. 1998. “‘Mapping the New Mental World Created by Radio’: Media Messages, Cultural Politics, and Cantril and Allport’s The Psychology of Radio.” Journal of Social Issues 54 (1): 7–27.
Pettigrew, T. F. 1999. “Gordon Willard Allport: A Tribute.” Journal of Social Issues 55 (3): 415–428.
Ramasubramanian, S. 2007. “Media-based Strategies to Reduce Racial Stereotypes Activated by News Stories.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 84 (2): 249–264.
———. 2010. “Television Viewing, Racial Attitudes, and Policy Preferences: Exploring the Role of Social Identity and Intergroup Emotions in Influencing Support for Affirmative Action.” Communication Monographs 77 (1): 102–120.
———. 2011. “The Impact of Stereotypical versus Counter-stereotypical Media Exemplars on Racial Attitudes, Causal Attributions, and Support for Affirmative Action.” Communication Research 38:497–516.
———. 2013. “Intergroup Contact, Media Exposure, and Racial Attitudes.” Journal of Intercultural Communication Research 42 (1): 54–72.
Ramasubramanian, S., and S. Kornfield. 2012. “Japanese Anime Heroines as Pro-social Role Models: Implications for Cross-cultural Entertainment Effects.” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 5 (3): 189–207.
Ramasubramanian, S., and M. B. Oliver. 2003. “Portrayals of Sexual Violence in Popular Hindi Films, 1997–99.” Sex Roles 48 (7–8): 327–336.
———. 2007. “Activating and Suppressing Hostile and Benevolent Racism: Evidence for Comparative Stereotyping.” Media Psychology 9 (3): 623–646.
Sanders, M. S., and S. Ramasubramanian. 2012. “Stereotype Content and the African-American Viewer: An Examination of African-Americans’ Stereotyped Perceptions of Fictional Media Characters.” Howard Journal of Communication 23 (1): 17–39.

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