Salma Mousa on Contact Theory (and Football)
There’s an intuitive attraction to the idea that if we could just spend some quality time with someone from another group, we’d both come to appreciate, and maybe even like, the other person and perhaps even their group. Enormously simplified, that’s the basis of contact theory, which Gordon Allport posited in the 1950s as the United States grappled with desegregating its public schools.
If differing groups could be brought together cooperatively – not competitively – in a manner endorsed by both groups and where each side met on an equal footing, perhaps we could, as Salma Mousa puts it in this Social Science Bites podcast, “unlock tolerance on both sides and reduce prejudice.”
Mousa, currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University’s Department of Political Science, tells interviewer David Edmonds that since Allport’s heyday, “We have [had] a lot of studies about contact, but we need experimental tests of contact.” She’s been working to address that need, sometimes using the football pitch as a field site, with work that’s caught both the public and the scientific imagination.
One experiment she was part of examined the incidence of hate crimes once Mohamed “Mo” Salah, the talented Egyptian soccer star, signed with Liverpool Football Club. The results were heartening; Merseyside, where the club is located, experienced a 16 percent drop in hate crimes while anti-Muslim tweets from Liverpool’s fans dropped to half the number compared to fans of other Premier League clubs.
In this interview, Mousa details another experiment involving football and otherness, albeit an experiment made under harsher conditions: “We set out to learn if positive, social contact across social lines can reduce prejudice, can build friendships, can overall improve relationships between groups even in postwar settings, like Iraq.”
The experiment was conducted along the faultlines of northern Iraq where there’s a Kurdish enclave. Working with a Christian community organization which was helping Christians and Muslims displaced by ISIS, the researchers recruited Christian amateur soccer players for a football league. They then added three or four players to each team, randomly adding either all Muslims or all Christians as the newcomers, and tracked player attitudes and actions on the field and off for a half year after the season ended.
Amid some “really profound friendships” that formed, survey results and observed behavior showed that the Christian players came to be much more accepting and welcoming of their Muslim teammates. But that warming did not make the leap to their attitudes towards Muslims in general, suggesting some underlying prejudices remained in place.
While her promising findings nonetheless were not the “home run” people of good will would have liked, the research earned the cover of the journal Science, and left Mousa feeling optimistic about further possibilities of contact theory. Given the difficult context of postwar Iraq and subjects scarred by their flight from ISIS, “to find some evidence that these guys actually became friends and we changed something in these communities, I think is positive, especially given that these communities are persecuted and highly distrustful.”
Fostering tolerance and eroding prejudice, especially in the Middle East, matters personally to Mousa, an Egyptian-Canadian who grew up in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Canada. She’s focused on helping “fix” the region’s ethnic and religious divides: “I think of myself as an engineer but with a social science background.”
Mousa has held fellowships at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab, the Freeman Spogli Institute, the Stanford Center for International Conflict and Negotiation, the McCoy Center for Ethics in Society, and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Her work has been supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, the Innovations for Poverty Action Lab, the King Center on Global Development, the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, the Program on Governance and Local Development, and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.