Contact Theory’s Guidance for Good Community Engagement

Even with all the emphasis on assessing outcomes these days, it’s still important to pay attention to the existing theoretical research that should guide our work from the start.  Joseph A. Erickson, Professor of Education at Augsburg College, recently shared key insights from social psychology at a MNCC gathering.  Whether or not a course or program explicitly aims to develop students’ attitudes and beliefs as well as their skills and knowledge (something teacher education programs do), it carries a responsibility to do no harm—including not unintentionally increasing prejudice and stereotyping.

Research on Contact Theory over the last 70 years has identified five conditions through which face-to-face contact can improve understanding between members of different social groups:

  • Equal status contact – the extent to which people have comparatively equal social status – something that may be difficult to achieve in a service context, but can be promoted through a focus on everyone’s assets, the principle of equity, and the aim of reciprocity or mutual benefit
  • Pursuit of common goals – the extent to which people are working towards a unified goal, even if they are performing different tasks to contribute to that goal – a point that relates to the good practice of shared power and vision in community partnerships (and including youth voice, when engaging with youth)
  • Intergroup cooperation – the manner in which people recognize their own and others’ identities and perceive a constructive relationship between them – and which recent research suggests must first involve rousing a sense of identity among participants by inviting reflection and analysis of their own personal and social identities and the larger context in which they are situated
  • Support of authorities, custom or law – the presence of a larger culture and context demonstrating commitment to respect for all through anti-discrimination policies, diversity training, etc. – which reminds us that we teach not only in formal educational settings but also in the ways we operate and model (or don’t model) what we aim to teach
  • Long-term contact – interactions that are substantial, not superficial, in intensity or duration or both – which underscores the importance of developing experiences that extend beyond a single course (through engaged departments, for instance, multi-course partnerships with a single organization, minors/certificates or community engagement scholars programs), except when courses include significant work in community

Recent research has also revealed the important role of affect, particularly anxiety, in facilitating or inhibiting attitude change.  By intentionally providing students with opportunities for preparation and reflection that reduce anxiety, the faculty, staff, and community partners seeking to engage students will allow them to be open to new people and ideas.

Even when these conditions are in place, authentic, positive change in students’ dispositions is far from guaranteed.  People don’t change easily.  In fact, the guiding principle of perception is that we see what we expect to see, so experience without deep reflection will reinforce biases.  All of this reinforces the principles of good practice already well-known in the field – and the potential consequences.  As Dr. Erickson writes, “if we don’t meet the minimum necessary conditions laid out in Contact Theory, we risk making matters worse rather than better. ”

For more details and references, see Dr. Erickson’s PowerPoint and chapter in The Future of Service-Learning, available at http://web.augsburg.edu/~erickson/MCC2012/.

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