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Project 12.PD. Addressing Intergroup Inequality by Invoking the Moral Responsibility of the Powerful: Co-option and Sustainable Cooperation in Response to Collective Action (2 year project)


Aim of the project

This project examines the conditions under which advantaged group members are most likely to accept change in response to social protest (collective action by disadvantaged groups to address their disadvantage).  A key theme that concerns appealing to the agency and moral responsibility of the advantaged. 

Theoretical background

A central obstacle to sustainable cooperation is social inequality as highlighted in many recent social justice campaigns (occupy, me-too, time’s up, black lives matter, etc.). Social inequality and injustice present a chronic threat to sustainable cooperation and other positive social indicators (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Major theories of intergroup relations in social psychology and sociology address this social problem (e.g., realistic conflict theory, relative deprivation theory, social identity theory, resource mobilization theory). These theories predict intergroup conflict in response to social inequality, often manifested in collective action by disadvantaged groups. In the wake of the economic crash, Time Magazine named “the protestor” as the person of the year (2011). In sum inequality produces many undesirable outcomes, but attempts to redress it are fraught with difficulty because this threatens the interests of the powerful. How such intergroup conflicts unfold over time is of crucial importance because there is as much scope for escalation, intransigence, and hardening of interests (negative feedback cycles) as there is for conciliation and cooperation. So how can such apparent conflict facilitate sustainable cooperation between groups in the longer run?

                  Given the conflicting interests cooperation between parties might seem inherently unstable. We consider a factor that could render this sustainable: the case where the powerful group is co-opted as an active and willing partner in change. But if the high power group stands to lose (power, status, resources) why might they co-operate? One answer lies in their moral stake, as a party ostensibly responsible for the status quo and also having the power to change it. However, recent research within sociology suggest that action from the disadvantaged can lead to a backlash against the advantaged (McDonnell & Werner, 2016) and social psychological research suggests this can also result in a backlash among the advantaged, who react defensively to the threats to their moral image (Teixera et al., 2018). 

                  The temporal dimension is important here because invoking issue of morality around inequality may work in the short term, implicating the more constructive group emotions of moral outrage and guilt, but may be less effective in the long term if these invoke the less constructive emotions of contempt and shame. However, taking a longer-term temporal perspective also provides hope for solutions. Intractable conflicts are generally only resolved when addressed bilaterally over time rather than resisted by the powerful (IRA, ETA, Apartheid, etc.), and where the disadvantaged group stands its ground, often using radical means. Power minorities can have influence, especially when they are consistent, persistent and provide scope for the inclusion of the powerful group (David & Turner, 1996; Moscovici, 1976). Rather than seeing social conflict, resulting in collective action, as one-offs, or as flashpoints they can be seen as indicators of an ongoing social relationship between parties and which can take a constructive course in the longer term. 

                  In this vein, a range of moderating factors can be identified which could have the positive effects of including the advantaged groups as part of the solution (“co-option”), while allowing them to overcome the obstacle of conflicted interests and identity concerns. These include: 1) Highlighting advantaged groups’ active role in the change process (e.g., through voice in campaigns and implementation of equality policies) (Leach, Snider & Iyer, 2002); 2) Framing change in a “safe way” by underlying its benefits for the disadvantaged and society in general instead of the potential loss for the advantaged (Lowery, Chow, Knowles, & Unzueta, 2012); 3) A focus on the present inequality and on advantaged groups’ responsibility for changein the future instead of their responsibility for creation of inequality in the past (Nadler & Shnabel, 2015). These conditions should 1) decrease the sense of threat to resources and/or identity among the advantaged and 2) promote a sense of inclusion in a larger group defined by its stance against inequality. 

                  We hypothesize that cooperation will be predicted by such moderators that provide channel for advantaged group members to be part of the change process (through voice, moral responsibility, and an inclusive rhetoric). Whereas moderate collective action may also seem to serve this ameliorative role, it may be that radical action is necessary to signal the depth of the inequality and for it to be taken seriously (i.e. to convey anger but not contempt: De Vos et al., 2016). Thus in line with minority influence research whereby initial rejection of a radical position is overcome through persistence over time if the other “inclusive” moderators are in place.

                  In sum we investigate factors that capture the conscience of the advantaged group for sustainable change, implicating them as key change agents (co-option). Central to this quest are attributions of responsibility, not only for the past but for the future. Paradoxically, although disadvantaged groups are typically disempowered and excluded, we propose that sustainable cooperation requires that the powerful and advantaged interest groups are themselves included as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Research design

We propose a combination of lab and “modelled” field experiments, using repeated measures and longitudinal designs to capture the temporal dimension of the dynamic between the protesting disadvantaged groups and advantaged parties. In the basic paradigm, advantaged group members will be confronted with a protest/collective action (sometimes as part of an on-going campaign) that vary from moderate to more extreme in their actions/content. The main measures tap how the advantaged react to these campaigns and whether they are prepared to engage in allied action/solidarity/ support (“co-option”) to addresses grievances. The degree to which the interests and social image/reputation of the advantaged group is threatened are predicted to be key mediators, together with the emotions associated with these (e.g., anger, moral outrage and guilt vs. contempt and shame) and the level of perceived inclusion of both groups in an superordinate category.

                  By using repeated measures and longitudinal designs we can assess how the intergroup relation develops over time, and whether the intergroup conflict escalates and hardens or leads to co-option and cooperation. 


David, B. & Turner, J.C. (1996) Studies in self-categorization and minority conversion: Is being a member of the out-group an advantage? British Journal of Social Psychology, 35,179-199.

Leach, C.W., Snider, S., & Iyer, A. (2002). “Poisoning the consciences of the fortunate”: The experience of relative advantage and support for social equality. In I. Walker & H.J. Smith. (Eds.), Relative Deprivation: Specification, Development, and Integration (pp.136-163) New York, NY: Cambridge University.

Lowery, B. S., Chow, R. M., Knowles, E. D., & Unzueta, M. M. (2012). Paying for positive group esteem: how inequity frames affect whites’ responses to redistributive policies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology102, 323–36. doi: 10.1037/a0024598

Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behavior, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. 

McDonnell, M.-H., & Werner, T. (2016). Blacklisted Businesses: Social Activists Challenges and the Disruption of Corporate Political Activity. Administrative Science Quarterlyhttps://doi.org/10.1177/0001839216648953

Nadler, A., & Shnabel, N. (2015). Intergroup reconciliation: Instrumental and socio-emotional processes and the needs-based model. European Review of Social Psychology26, 93–125. doi: 10.1080/10463283.2015.1106712

Teixeira, C., Spears, R., & Yzerbyt, V., (under review). Is Martin Luther King or Malcom X the more acceptable face of protest? High status groups’ reactions to low status groups’ collective action.

Wilkinson, R.G. & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London, Allen Lane.

Project initiators

Russell Spears, Rafael Wittek


Department of Psychology, University of Groningen


Social Psychology, Sociology

How to Apply

For background information on this vacancy and further instructions, click here (portal opens June 1).

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