Revisiting the contact hypothesis: The case of public exposure to homelessness

Lee, B. A., Farrell, C. R., & Link, B. G

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Lee, B. A., Farrell, C. R., & Link, B. G. (2004). Revisiting the contact hypothesis: The case of public exposure to homelessness. American Sociological Review, 69(1), 40–63.

Using data from a national survey of public attitudes toward homeless people, this paper evaluates the applicability of the contact hypothesis to in-group/out-group relations that fail to meet the optimal conditions specified in the contact literature. Past efforts are extended by (1) moving beyond face-to-face encounters to consider multiple types of in-group exposure to a highly stigmatized out-group, (2) examining a variety of attitudinal outcomes, and (3) incorporating community context as a possible antecedent of such outcomes. Even after taking selection and social desirability processes into account, all types of exposure are found to affect public attitudes in the predicted (favorable) direction. Moreover, the size of the local homeless population—our primary measure of context—shapes opportunities for most forms of exposure and thus influences attitudes indirectly. These findings suggest that the scope of the contact hypothesis needs to be widened rather than narrowed.

Main finding
The analysis supports the contact hypothesis. There is a positive correlation between in-group attitudes and exposure to a highly stigmatized out-group. Whether exposure is through everyday observation, face-to-face interaction, information from third parties, or out-group membership, these experiences appear to make a difference in how the public views homelessness. However, heavy exposure to homelessness through interaction or observation may have the opposite effect for a small portion of the population, lessening sympathy and increasing avoidance. Additionally, media consumption without personal exposure produces a negative attitude for those who are far removed from homelessness.

Description of method used in the article
The researchers use a sample of 1,388 from a 1990 Columbia University national telephone survey of 1,507 individuals. The sample underrepresents Latinos and overrepresents women, the well-educated, married adults, and people in the 25–54 year age group, but the discrepancies are small.

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