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College Quarterly
Winter 1993 - Volume 1 Number 2
Their Words Fail Them: Diagnosing Discrimination
by Howard A. Doughty and Philip H. King

Canadian society differs only in degree from other contemporary cultures in terms of the ways in which certain groups of people are set apart from the social mainstream and suffer discrimination. Sexism, racism, ethnic intolerance, ageism and all manner of other inequities persist, despite the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and various provincial human rights statutes.

Since the 1960s, the Government of Canada has made its wishes known. The Bill of Rights (1961), the subsequent endorsement of multiculturalism, and efforts to bring about fair hiring and housing policies have all been part of a government initiative to ameliorate unjust social relations. Too often, though, such initiatives become weak palliatives and sceptics mutter: “You just can’t legislate peoples’ attitudes.” Accordingly, much of the burden of reducing prejudice has fallen to education in the hope that future generations of Canadians can overcome traditional stereotypes and learn, in that sadly inadequate expression, to “tolerate” one another.

For their part, ministries of education, schools and teachers have done a commendable job in expressing a commitment to learning processes that will, in their characteristic language, promote mutual understanding and an appreciation of the contributions of all Canadians to a rich and pluralistic culture. The problem comes when teachers try to put such goals into practice.

There are a number of books that do a creditable job of surveying the sociological literature or of celebrating the communities that comprise Canada's cultural mosaic. However, in light of a pervasive anti-intellectualism that shies away from abstract analysis and disdains history as “irrelevant,” many teachers despair of achieving their affective objectives. Inducing students to partake of a meal from the culinary tradition of another culture or rehearsing the racism inherent in the treatment of Canadians of Japanese origin during World War II will not go far toward reducing bias at the fin de siècle. Instead, they may merely promote an ideology of recreational ethnicity or androgyny in which little genuine understanding in achieved.

No single method can offer an escape for the current impasse; still, we would like to introduce a modest proposal that has several practical advantages: it is easy to use; it gives both immediate and longitudinal data on the existence and reduction, if any, of deeply discriminatory attitudes; it can, when explained to students, provide insights into their own feelings toward others; and, not least, its apparently exotic character means that, properly employed, it can even appear to be fun.

The technique in question is known among professional social scientists as the semantic differential. Developed by Charles Osgood and his colleagues, it has been applied cross-culturally with remarkably consistent results and, while claims for universality must be treated with some scepticism, appears to provide reliable data no matter where or when it is used. (Osgood, 1952).

Although it has been about for almost half a century, many people were, without knowing it, first exposed to its possibilities through the Hollywood film, The Three Faces of Eve. Just as Inherit the Wind-in either the Lawrence and Lee play or the Spencer Tracy film had remarkably little to do with the Scopes Trial, so the actual clinical effort to deal with multiple personality disorder had little to do with the doings of Joanne Woodward's character(s) in the movie. Still, in the real life of mental disorder, the work of Charles Osgood et al., made a significant contribution to the use of quantitative semantics as a diagnostic device. (C. Thigpen and H. Cleckley, 1954). Closer to home, James Snider's early work with Canadian school children remains a model for inquiries into prejudice using the semantic differential technique. (J. Snider, 1962).

The idea behind semantic differential analysis is deceptively simple. It is based on the assumption that clues to the structure of prejudice can be obtained by inquiring into the psychological meaning of concepts and perceptions. Social stereotypes can be explored by inviting subjects to respond to specific items by checking that position on a bipolar adjective scale which best represents the direction and intensity of the respondent's judgement. Thus, to the word PACIFIST, a person might reply:


This would indicate that the word PACIFIST evokes an association of WEAKNESS in the mind of this particular subject.

For a more complete interpretation, students may be given sheets of paper with a particular concept at the top and a series of scales below. Instructions can be provided to mark on the paper the degree to which a concept strikes the person as, for example, HARD or SOFT. It is critical that the respondent note down first impressions rather than reflecting for a long time. The questionnaire may appear bizarre or even meaningless but, if the respondents are encouraged to treat the matter seriously, important information can be gleaned. Some of the scales that can be used are contained in Figure 1; they have all been tested for their validity and form a data base that can be used for extremely sophisticated statistical manipulation using factor analysis. For most classroom teachers, however, simple averaging of the results will be adequate for the heuristic purposes we have in mind.

Once the questionnaires are completed, their results can produce an aggregate profile of attitudes toward a specific culture or as the basis for comparisons of attitudes toward several groups.

The method is quite unpretentious. The scales break down into four groups: (1) an evaluative dimension (bright/dark; good/bad; beautiful/ugly; pleasant/unpleasant); (2) an activity dimension (angular/rounded; fast/slow; sharp/dull; active passive); (3) an understandability dimension (understandable/mysterious; simple/complicated; predictable/unpredictable; familiar/strange); (4) a potency dimension (deep/shallow; heavy/light; rugged/delicate; strong/weak). By assigning values from one to seven to each of the points of the scales, and then adding up the values on each group of scales, an overall measure of the fundamental perceptions of a group will emerge. Thus, if a respondent reacted to the concept of LEUTONIANS by marking the items in the evaluative dimension thus:


the overall evaluation of the group would be positive (Bright = 6; Good = 5; Beautiful = 4; Pleasant = 6: Total = 21 and Average = 5.2. By adding and averaging all classroom responses, the general disposition of students can be accurately measured at the outset of the course. This will provide not only a profile of the class' attitudes but will yield two additional benefits.

Taken once, and then studied in terms of possible explanations for why such attitudes exist, a diagnosis of stereotypes can be obtained. While many students may be unwilling to reveal bluntly prejudicial opinions or may even be unaware of their own deeply felt attitudes, they will usually respond well to this type of questionnaire and then be compelled to encounter their own attitudes when asked, for example, why Group A fared better that Group B. By thus bringing prejudices into the open, rather than by encouraging their repression under a thin veneer of public politeness, opportunities for valuable social therapy arise.

This initial exercise will, it is hoped, be followed by a meaningful educational experience related to the history, culture and social position of the group or groups under study. Then, a second application of the questionnaire, days, weeks or months later, can be used to measure the degree to which attitudes have changed, if at all, and the direction which attitude shifts have followed.

The college classroom is of course, not the only place in which semantic differential analysis can be applied. As a diagnostic and a program evaluative instrument, it is equally appropriate in the workplace or in workshops in which people wish to confront the daily reality of prejudice and discrimination.

Figure 1
(Ethnic group, religious group, political movement, etc.)

Instructions: Think for a moment about the group mentioned above and then quickly place an “×” on each of the scales below indicating the degree to which the group strikes you as closer to one or the other adjective. If no answer comes to you quickly, simply mark the middle space.

Dark Bright
Angular Rounded
Mysterious Understandable
Fast Slow
Deep Shallow
Good Bad
Dull Sharp
Light Heavy
Rugged Delicate
Active Passive
Weak Strong
Predictable Unpredictable
Ugly Beautiful
Pleasant Unpleasant
Familiar Unfamiliar

Osgood, C. [1952]. "The Nature and Measurement of Meaning." Psychological Bulletin, No. 49.

Snider, J. [1962]. "Profiles of Some Stereotypes Held by Ninth-Grade Pupils." Alberta Journal of Education, Vol. 8, No. 3.

Thigpen, C and H. Cleckley. [1954]. "A Blind Analysis of a Case of Multiple Personality Using the Semantic Differential." The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 49, No. 4.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the School of Liberal Studies at Seneca College; Philip H. King is Associate Professor of Psychology and Sociology at Hawaii Pacific University.