The principle-implementation gap in attitudes towards racial equality (and how to close it)

Dixon, John; Durrheim, Kevin and Thomae, Manuela (2017). The principle-implementation gap in attitudes towards racial equality (and how to close it). Advances in Political Psychology, 38(S1) pp. 91–126.



Research on attitudes towards racial equality has identified an apparent paradox, sometimes described as the “Principle-Implementation Gap.” White Americans accept equality as an ideal yet reject interventions designed to achieve that ideal. In this article, we provide a critical review of empirical and theoretical work in the field and outline some directions for future research. Drawing on a program of research conducted in post-apartheid South Africa, we argue for the value of: (1) widening the field beyond its traditional focus on White policy attitudes in the United States; (2) developing relational models that encompass more fully the perspectives of historically disadvantaged as well as historically advantaged communities; (3) making greater use of methods that elucidate how ordinary people themselves construct the meaning of the Principle-Implementation Gap and how this informs, and indeed justifies and normalizes, associated patterns of behavior; and (4) prioritizing the difficult question of how to promote social change in societies where most citizens embrace equality as a noble end but often reject the means through which it might be accomplished. With regards to the latter—and given the ascendancy of prejudice-based explanations of the Principle-Implementation Gap—the article evaluates in particular some strengths and limitations of a prejudice-reduction model of social change.

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