Sharing insights from more than six decades of social psychology research

New book by Professor Emeritus Thomas Pettigrew distills themes across his storied career

Thomas Pettigrew posing outdoors in front of plants
Professor Emeritus Thomas Pettigrew has studied racism in the American South, apartheid in South Africa, and discrimination against immigrants in Western Europe.

The latest book by Thomas Pettigrew, Dickson Emeriti Professor of Social Psychology at UC Santa Cruz, traces his 65-year career to share the greatest themes, perspectives, and advances from his lifetime of work. 

Pettigrew is an internationally renowned expert on racism and intergroup relations who has earned seven lifetime achievement awards from both psychology and sociology organizations. And now, in Contextual Social Psychology, he synthesizes his most important insights through a combination of personal stories, applied examples, and theoretical frameworks.

“The basic idea behind this book is that I’ve always wanted to see psychology, which often focuses at the personal level, concentrate more on the larger social context through social psychology,” Pettigrew said. “And I felt this need strongly because I grew up in the South, and that was absolutely a social context for racism, prejudice, and everything else.”

In the book, Pettigrew describes his youth, living in segregated Richmond, Va., during the 1930s and ‘40s. These formative experiences with structural racism would later shape his research. 

“With the way that society worked at that time, you couldn’t just think that racism was an individual thing,” he said. “You had to consider the laws, norms, and culture.”

Pettigrew became a leader and innovator in studying the social forces that enable prejudice. He followed these phenomena around the globe, studying racism in the American South, apartheid in South Africa, and discrimination against immigrants in Western Europe. 

The new book summarizes his major theories on these issues, including how social norms and resentments drive prejudice, how contact between groups reduces prejudice, and how racism can drive far-right voting patterns. Pettigrew sees phenomena from contextual social psychology in many of today’s toughest challenges, so he hopes the insights from his book might better equip new generations to make progress in addressing these issues.   

“For general readers, I want them to come away with the idea that social science of many types can help to explain major phenomena like prejudice, or the racist voting behaviors behind the 2016 Donald Trump election victory,” he said. “Social science can give explanations of these phenomena that you don’t get in the popular press.”