A map of social stereotypes in Poland.

Polish respondents perceive politicians, Roma and left-wing party supporters in a clearly negative manner. Such negatively stereotyped groups commonly evoke contempt and disgust – and become socially marginalized and excluded. There are also several groups in Poland that are objects of envy: Germans, Jews, feminists, wealthy people, and scholars. They are often seen as scapegoats for dominant group’s misfortunes. These are the main results of our survey which makes it possible to depict a map of social and ethnic stereotypes in Poland, performed on a sample of 1,259 Internet users.

Research on stereotypes has attracted the interest of social scientists for almost a hundred years. The results of many studies  show that overgeneralized and often inaccurate knowledge that we may have about certain groups determines our expectations towards and perceptions of their behavior and in consequence our decisions and behavior towards them. Stereotypes can be discussed and analyzed also on a cultural level that is not as individual schemas but rather as shared ideas. On the global level, stereotypes that various groups within the society hold, play a crucial role in defining intergroup interaction situations.

The classic approach to measuring stereotype content was one-dimensional and concentrated only on positivity – negativity of perceptions. Modern theories (Fiske et al 2002) describe stereotype content in a two-dimensional space. The first dimension describes the perceptions of group’s intentions (warmth) and the other its capabilities (competence). This approach allows a more precise prediction of intergroup relations. Intentions and behavior towards a group that is perceived as having bad intentions (low warmth) but high abilities (high competence) would, according to this model, be diametrically different than those towards a group with bad intentions but no abilities (low competence). The analyses presented below are based on a large, representative sample (1259 participants), study done in 2011 on Polish internet users. Its primary focus was to establish how certain distinctive groups are perceived by Polish society at large. Participants were asked to describe their opinions on how certain groups were perceived within Polish society. Methodology and tools were based on studies conducted in the United States (Cuddy et al 2006).

The primary results indicate (see Figure 1) a relation between two dimensions such that groups perceived as higher on the warmth dimension are also perceived as possessing higher competence. This finding differs from previous results in other countries (e.g. USA) indicating that general perceptions in Poland might be more one-dimensional and focused on the friend-or-foe distinction. What is interesting, the content of some stereotypes is counterintuitive and different from results obtained in other cultures. The most spectacular example in this respect appears to be the extremely negative stereotype of politicians.


Figure 1. Perception of 42 social groups in Poland

In order to establish how consistent the images of evaluated groups were we assessed how individual descriptions (descriptions of each participant) matched four types of stereotype (high warmth-high competence; high warmth-low competence; low warmth-high competence; low warmth-low competence). We identified groups for evaluation that have been unambiguously (more than 50% of participants) ascribed to one of these types. It became evident that the low-warmth stereotypes (regardless of competence) were the only ones – with only three exceptions – to be classified consistently (see Table 1).

Table 1. Groups with clearly defined stereotype content.

The striking asymmetry between the level of agreement among participants as to which groups possess low or high warmth qualities proves that groups perceived as having negative intentions or as threatening are categorized more consistently.

Another interesting and atypical result is that some of the consistently classified, low-warmth groups are directly connected to the political area: politicians and the SLD (largest left wing party) electorate are perceived as both low on warmth and low on competences. Additionally, feminists (another politically active group), scientists, and the well-to-do (groups forming country elites) turned out to be perceived as cold but competent. These results, showing that Polish political and intellectual elites are perceived in a very negative way, are quite disturbing. However, they are consistent with several other social studies (Diagnoza Społeczna [Social Diagnosis], as well as many political polls) which typically  show a very low level of social trust and low social capital in Polish society. Groups who exert an influence on social life (e.g. politicians) or who have a more readily discernible impact on the shape of social structures than do other groups are perceived as having bad intentions. Such perceptions may cause a biased reception of any action by the aforementioned groups, be it proposing a social problems solution, an attempt to change social structure or a conflict with other groups. This in turn could be a source of new intergroup conflicts and a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

In recent years, it has become evident that a comparatively large proportion of Polish society is generally willing to accept conspiracy theories as an explanation for the root cause of its frustrations. Between 2005 and 2007, when the right wing party (PiS; Prawo i Sprawiedliwość; engl.: Law and Justice) was in power, two of the highest government officials utilized an entire system of conspiracy theories. The ruling party and its officials commonly used the term ‘system’ (“układ” in Polish) to describe relations between business and political elites and among secret service and military officials. Such alleged relations were supposed to employ corruption and be based on secret agreements in order to influence the country’s fate. The concept of ‘system’ had granted PiS its victory in the elections in the first place and later became a weapon against political opponents. During their government term, several other ‘systems’ were ‘uncovered’ to be operating in the public medical care, higher education, and in other institutions. Of course, certain abuses of power do exist in Polish public life but the eagerness of a vast majority of Polish society to accept explanations of these circumstances based on conspiracy theories seems to be given rather by the low trust and negative opinions about the national elites than by the actual situation.

Mikołaj Winiewski – Agnieszka Haska

Categories English, News, Poland | Tags: | Posted on April 27, 2012

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