Liberal Education

Intergroup Dialogue: Education for a Broad Conception of Civic Engagement

Intergroup dialogue provides what students need in order to relate and collaborate across differences, something they have to do in community projects that usually involve interactions across racial, social class, religious, and geographical divides. In this article, we demonstrate the efficacy of intergroup dialogue, drawing from a multi-university study involving fifty-two parallel field experiments in which students were randomly assigned either to dialogue courses or to control groups. The results show that, as compared with the control groups, the dialogue students experienced greater increases in their understanding of race, gender, and income inequality; their intergroup empathy and motivation to bridge differences; and their commitment to postcollege social and political action. Moreover, they also experienced greater increases in the efficacy and frequency of their intergroup action during college, as well as in their cognitive openness and positivity in intergroup situations.

What is intergroup dialogue?

Intergroup dialogue brings together students from two or more social identity groups that sometimes have had contentious relationships with each other, or at the very least students who have lacked opportunities to talk about important social issues in nonsuperficial ways. Further, the focal social identities—in this project, racial and gender identities—represent historical and structural inequalities. The aims of intergroup dialogue are to increase intergroup understanding, positive intergroup relationships, and intergroup action and collaboration.

Three important aspects of intergroup dialogue are especially noteworthy from an educational perspective. First, dialogue requires learning to listen, to ask questions of others, and to commit to understanding the perspectives of others, even if not agreeing. Dialogue is not debate, in which people try to convince each other so that one side “wins.” It is not a term that simply substitutes for “talk,” as for example when students say that they “dialogue” (talk) with their friends, roommates, and families about political and social issues. Dialogue is a style of interactive communication that facilitates shared understanding rather than debate.

Second, in the multi-university project, intergroup dialogues were guided by a four-stage curriculum: (1) getting acquainted and setting the foundation for dialogue; (2) exploring personal and social identity experiences within and across groups, and examining how power and privilege relate to social identity; (3) dialoguing about controversial issues; and (4) action planning and alliance building. The dialogue courses met weekly for two to three hours over the period of an academic term. Each session included conceptual and narrative readings as well as structured interactions that actively involved students in learning.

Third, intergroup dialogues extend the conditions for positive intergroup contact first articulated by Gordon Allport (1954): equal status, positive interdependence, acquaintance potential, and authority sanction. Each of the social identity groups participating in the dialogues is represented in equal numbers. Two facilitators, each a member of one of the identity groups, work as a team.

The multi-university research study

Initiated in 2006 and completed in 2009, the multi-university intergroup dialogue research study involved fifty-two parallel field experiments in which students applying to enroll in intergroup dialogue courses on race and gender were randomly assigned either to a dialogue course (the experimental group) or to a wait-list control group. Twenty-six of these experiments focused on race, and twenty-six focused on gender. Twelve to sixteen students comprised each dialogue group and each control group. Over the fifty-two experiments, 1,463 students—equally representing white men, white women, men of color, and women of color—participated by responding to a survey instrument administered at the beginning of the term, another at the end of the term, and yet another a year after the dialogue had ended.

In addition to the quantitative assessments that the surveys provided, an intensive qualitative study was carried out in ten race and ten gender dialogue courses in which early, middle, and late sessions were videotaped. Further, all students in these twenty dialogues were interviewed at the end of the class. Finally, qualitative assessments were also provided through content analysis of the final papers of students in all fifty-two dialogue courses. These papers represented responses to an assignment that was part of a standard curriculum for the courses across the nine participating universities.

The study addressed two major questions: Does participation in race and gender intergroup dialogue have educational effects not attributable to a predisposition to participate in diversity programs? What processes transpire within and between students in intergroup dialogue that account for demonstrated effects?

Effects of intergroup dialogue: The quantitative study

The educational effects that were predicted to result from intergroup dialogue represent its three goals: intergroup understanding, intergroup relationships, and intergroup collaboration and action. Intergroup understanding was measured by responses to questions asking students what accounts for racial and gender inequalities and for poverty in the United States. Intergroup relationships were measured by scales for intergroup empathy and motivation to bridge differences. Intergroup action and collaboration were measured by responses to a standard survey question posed by the University of California–Los Angeles’ Cooperative Institutional Research Program that asks about postcollege commitments to participate in civic and political activities, as well as by other questions focused specifically on the students’ efficacy and actual involvement in educating themselves, educating others, and collaborating with others to address issues of race and gender. The project also assessed the impact of dialogue on psychological processes that have been emphasized in social-psychological studies of intergroup relations, namely, cognitive openness (indicated by consideration of multiple perspectives, liking of complex thinking, active thinking about society, and cognitive involvement in their social identities), and positivity in intergroup interaction (indicated by positive emotions and positive experiences across difference).

Immediate effects are demonstrated when the change between the beginning and the end of the term were significantly greater for the dialogue students than for the control-group students. The value of random assignment is that it nearly always means that the experimental and control groups are equivalent to one another at the beginning of the term. If the two groups differ at the end of the term and the experimental groups show greater increases than the control group, then there is a high degree of certainty that this difference is due to participation in the intergroup dialogue course.

There were significant effects of dialogue on twenty of twenty-four multiple-item measures of the key outcomes and processes. Three other sets of findings add to the overall picture of robust impact. First, the results demonstrate that the experimental effects involving the dialogue and control groups applied to both race and gender dialogues on all but four of the twenty measures that showed an overall effect of dialogue. Second, these effects also applied generally across all four demographic groups (white men, white women, men of color, and women of color) on all but four of the measures. Third, the effects of dialogue were also revealed in a longitudinal follow-up survey that was conducted with both the experimental and control group students a year after the end of the course.

The response rate (82 percent) for the longitudinal survey is impressive and, moreover, did not vary by the race/ethnicity of the students or based on whether or not they had been in a race or a gender experiment. The immediate effects in the experimental study found at the end of the term persisted over the following year. Significant effects of dialogue were present after a year on twenty-one of the twenty-four measures of outcomes and processes. This evidence of long-term effects is especially noteworthy because studies of the impact of intergroup contact, the area of research most comparable to our study, rarely investigate longitudinal effects. In what is the most comprehensive review of intergroup contact studies, fewer than ten of the over five hundred studies that Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) reviewed in a meta-analysis of intergroup contact involved follow-up assessments of immediate impact.

Processes that account for these effects: The quantitative study

The theoretical process framework guiding both intergroup dialogue and the research project reported in this article starts with the pedagogy of dialogue: its emphasis on substantive learning through readings, assignments, and papers; its use of active learning through in-class structured exercises and interactions to promote learning across differences; and its use of facilitators who guide learning by asking questions, engaging all students in the dialogue, challenging assumptions, and reinforcing collectively developed guidelines to ensure dialogue rather than debate and argumentation. These pedagogical features are expected to foster four communication processes: (1) engaging self by sharing one’s own perspectives, experiences, and reactions to readings; (2) appreciating difference by listening to others, asking questions, and probing their perspectives; (3) reflecting critically by considering how one’s own identity and the identities of others help shape views of various groups, including one’s own, as well as perspectives on political and social issues; and (4) alliance building by dealing with conflict, discovering common ground within differences, and practicing being allies for each other.

These communication processes are expected to promote both positivity in interacting across difference and cognitive openness—two psychological processes that students experience in intergroup interactions. Together, the communication processes and the psychological processes are expected to lead to increased intergroup understanding, positive intergroup relationships, and intergroup action and collaboration by the end of the dialogue.

The process framework was supported by structural equation modeling of intergroup empathy, understanding of structural causes of inequalities, and action. As expected, pedagogy was highly related to the communication processes, which, in turn, were related to increased positivity and cognitive openness. The psychological processes then related to increases in the intergroup outcomes. Both increased cognitive openness and positivity related to increased intergroup empathy and increased frequency and efficacy action. Cognitive openness was especially influential in accounting for the impact of dialogue on increased understanding of structural causes of intergroup inequalities. (For more specific analysis demonstrating these relationships that support the overall process framework, see Gurin et al., forthcoming).

A closer look at processes within dialogues: The qualitative study

The qualitative study further supported the theoretical process framework in that analyses of the student interviews showed that students described the importance of engagement in intergroup dialogues by speaking (engaging self), listening engagement (appreciating difference), and active insight engagement (related to both critical reflection and cognitive openness). The interviews and final papers also provided an especially nuanced depiction of intergroup empathy, and of how students subjectively accounted for greater commitment to civic engagement and action through participation in the dialogue course.

The videotapes provided a behavioral examination of how facilitators guided the dialogues and, in very large measure, support the guiding principles of facilitation. Facilitators are expected to support, redirect, and guide, not to teach in a didactic manner. And indeed, they did support, redirect, and guide. (For an examination of facilitator and student behaviors in the videotapes, see Meier 2010). Half of the facilitator behaviors involved repeating or rephrasing what a participant said, making a responsive comment, or redirecting the flow of conversation either by changing or rephrasing topics or by going over dialogue guidelines again. These behaviors were related to greater student engagement, as indicated by listening to what was being said by others and by smiling, nodding, and leaning forward toward the speaker.

Facilitators are also expected to ask clarifying questions, probe for elaboration, and inquire about why participants think and feel as they do. A fifth of facilitator behaviors were coded as involving inquiry, which was also related to student engagement. Further, facilitators are expected to pay attention to group dynamics by listening attentively and engaging in a supportive manner, sometimes by offering personal examples of a group process that is evident in the dialogue. Another fifth of facilitator behaviors were coded as supportive, attentive, and listening. These behaviors were related not only to greater student engagement but also to greater student openness (as indicated by sharing a personal story or perspective), critically questioning or examining their own biases and assumptions, and showing interest in the perspectives of others. These supportive and attentive behaviors were also related to less student anxiety. In contrast, greater student anxiety occurred when facilitators took an advocacy position or supported one side of a disagreement. Advocacy, which facilitators should express very rarely, comprised only about a tenth of all facilitator behaviors.

Connecting intergroup dialogue to psychosocial well-being

What do the effects and processes that take place within this particular educational practice suggest about the impact of intergroup dialogue on psychosocial well-being? The results address two critical aspects of psychosocial well-being. First, intergroup dialogue provides what students need in order to relate and collaborate across differences, something they have to do in community projects that usually involve interactions across race, social class, religion, and geography. This is what we argued in the University of Michigan affirmative cases—namely, that an intentional educational use of diversity beyond the mere presence of diverse peers on the campus will promote intercultural competencies and democratic commitments (Gurin et al. 2002).

Second, we emphasize here the effects of participation in intergroup dialogue on thinking more complexly about people and the world, building meaningful relationships across differences—through developing trust, being open to others, being excited, and being engaged—and becoming active in shaping contexts toward more equality and justice. All these qualities denote a healthy, adaptive orientation to self and others as students deal with complexity and diversity within their institutions and deal with being future leaders in an increasingly diverse and complex world. Thus, as evident in the effects of intergroup dialogue on both psychological processes and intergroup outcomes, participation in intergroup dialogue is an educational experience that builds social as well as personal responsibility for a more just society.

Intergroup dialogue is inherently a joint psychological and social engagement process that illuminates the connection between the personal and the political, the intellectual and the affective, and the focus on personal relationships as well as on power and privilege. The sustained intergroup dialogue process provides college students a space for civil engagement with a clear purpose of fostering greater civic engagement. Through civil engagement guided by facilitators, students develop a passion for thinking, relating, and acting not only for personal fulfillment but also for a larger social project of effective collaborations across differences to enhance community life. Intergroup dialogue students continually extend their learning beyond individual enrichment to the world beyond themselves. In everyday conversations with family and friends, involvement in campus and community organizations to promote greater justice, participation in constructive civil protests and action, or actual policy formulation that promotes justice, students need a social space and a learning process that help them appreciate the rewards and challenges of civil and civic engagement. Inter­group dialogue provides such a social space and such a learning process that allow students to connect what they learn psychologically and socially in the dialogue class to engagement both on campus and beyond the educational context.


Allport, G. W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Oxford England: Addison-Wesley.

Gurin, P., E. L. Dey, S. Hurtado, and G. Gurin. 2002. “Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes.” Harvard Educational Review 72 330–66.

Gurin, P., B. A. Nagda, and X. Zúñiga. Forthcoming. Engaging Race and Gender: Intergroup Dialogues in Higher Education. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Meier. E. 2010. “Student and Facilitator Interactions in Intergroup Dialogue.” PhD diss., University of Michigan.

Pettigrew, T. F., and L. R. Tropp. 2006. “A Meta-Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90 (5): 751–83.

Patricia Gurin is Nancy Cantor Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. Biren (Ratnesh) A. Nagda is associate professor of social work and director of the Intergroup Dialogue, Education, and Action Center at the University of Washington. Nicholas Sorensen is researcher at the American Institutes for Research.

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