Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Threat Perceptions

I'm having a very pleasant few days research in a very cold (for Ireland) Dublin. Mostly I'm reading Gibney's very interesting Ethics and Politics of Asylum, but I've also been pottering around other issues.

When looking at an article by James Gibson and Amanda Gouws on factors behind tolerance in South Africa, I came across the following paragraph on how people's threat perceptions drive their attitudes to specific events:
Based on a highly realistic experimental vignette presented to a representative sample of the South African mass public, we test the hypothesis that willingness to tolerate a demonstration by one's political enemies is affected by: (1) the community's antipathy toward the proposed demonstration; (2) whether the demonstration is expected to result in law breaking and violence; (3) the position of community leaders; and (4)the effect of deliberation and debate. Our general findings are quite unexpected: the general context of the civil liberties controversy matters little to South Africans. Instead, attitudinal predispositions - in particular, preexisting threat perceptions - seem to shape all aspects of tolerance judgements. We conclude that context matters for tolerance, but that it is the South African context - the immediacy and realism of the threat posed by one's political enemies - that is more influential, not the elements of the situation itself.1

So, South Africans don't tend to make their judgements about whether to put up with their political enemies based on the specific facts of any situation that arises, but based on their general perceptions and fears vis-a-vis their position in society.

I have to say, I'm really bad at getting my head around the sums that back this up, but let's take it on faith that the authors know how to do their own analysis. With that in mind, it's always interesting to see intuitions confirmed by quantitative or experimental analysis. And I suspect that this might have some relevance to our understanding of divisions and disputes in Northern Ireland. Something to muse over...

1 Gibson, J.L. and A. Gouws, 'Making Tolerance Judgements: The Effects of Context, Local and National,' in The Journal of Politics 63:4, Nov. 2001, 1067-90.

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