Gina Perry (2014) offers fascinating insights and fresh evaluations in this article. She also features in this radio documentary, 'Inside Robbers Cave', which looks at all the studies but Robbers Cave is at 21:00
22 boys is not a large sample. In a sample this small, any anomalies (boys with unusual characteristics, like violent bullies) skew the results. However, Sherif went to lengths to screen the boys beforehand, removing any from troubled backgrounds or with antisocial behaviours.
Only boys were used, so the results may not generalise the girls or mixed sex groups. Crucially, they were all children, so the results may not generalise to adults.
The boys were supposed to be “all American” types: white, bright and sporty. This wasn’t entirely representative of young Americans back in the ‘50s and it certainly isn’t representative of America today, where whites make up 50% of school intake, with the other 50% being Hispanic, African American and Asian American.
Since it involves observation, there are problems with reliability in this study. The observers were only with the boys for 12 hours a day and could not see or overhear everything that went on.
Despite this, Sherif took pains to make the study more reliable. He used a numbered scoring system for the boys’ friendship patterns, which collected quantitative data. He also used multiple observers on occasions, creating inter-rater reliability. Where possible, he tape recorded the boys’ conversations, so they could be played back and analysed later.
Certain aspects of this study could be replicated, such as the bean-counting test along with the tournament and the prizes. However, other procedures were developed by Sherif “on the fly” as events developed (for example, the boys themselves requested the baseball match and Sherif had to intervene to prevent a fight). These things might happen differently if the study was replicated again.
In the light of the findings by Frances Cherry (1995) about the mutiny in the 1953 study, Sherif's reliability is put in doubt, since he got different results on different occasions.
The study shows how competition and frustration creates hostility towards outgroups. In society, this suggests that discrimination and violence could be reduced if jobs, housing, education and other opportunities were shared more fairly between different groups, such as ethnic groups or social classes. This is the basis for a lot of Left Wing political thinking.
The study also shows that hostility can be reduced if groups are made to interact and work together towards common goals. It is not enough for them to be “mere presences” living alongside each other. This suggests ghettos should be discouraged and immigrants should be made to take up the host culture’s language, education and pastimes. This is the basis for a lot of Right Wing political thinking.
Sherif claimed that, by using several different research methods (observing, tape recording, tests, quantitative as well as qualitative data), he was making his study more valid.
The study has ecological validity, because these were real boys at a real summer camp, doing real activities. Even the specially created tasks (fixing the broken water pipe, pulling the truck) seemed real to the boys. There were some unrealistic features, such as the camp counselors not intervening until the boys were actually ready to fight each other.
Although this is a field experiment, it lacked a Control Group. Sherif does not have a “normal” summer camp to compare his camp to. It may be perfectly normal for food fights and raids to happen in summer camps where the counselors aren’t imposing much discipline. It may be normal for such boys to end up as friends after 3 weeks, regardless of whether they are given special tasks to carry out. In other words, Sherif may have exaggerated how much of the boys’ behaviour was due to intergroup factors.
If Michael Billig (1976) is correct, Sherif misunderstood the findings of his own study, because he hadn't realised the experimenters made up a third group in the camp, the group with the most power. This casts doubt on the validity of Sherif's conclusions.
Gina Perry (2014) also argues that the observers had a much bigger influence on the boys than Sherif intended. She points out that the Rattlers took their name from an incident where a senior counselor pulled out a gun and shot two snakes, which very much impressed the boys.
The boys did not give valid consent to be in this study and do not seem to have been debriefed afterwards – they never realised they were being experimented on. This certain fails to respect their autonomy (because they had no choice) and dignity (because they were tricked and put through some upsetting conflicts).
They were deceived about the broken water pipe being an accident and the food truck breaking down. They were also subjected to risk (because there was vandalism, theft and nearly a serious fight) which the experimenters did little to mitigate. However, the researchers dropped their professional detachment when a serious fight nearly broke out and intervened to prevent it; this is an example of scientific integrity.
However, the boys’ parents were aware that this camp was some sort of psychology project and they did give presumptive consent on their sons’ behalf. However, they were asked not to visit the camp and check up on their sons, so they couldn’t be informed about everything that was going on.
The boys could withdraw from the study and in fact two of them did go home in the first week.
It’s debatable whether the boys were harmed by this study. There were raids and food fights. One boy had his comics stolen. A fight with weapons very nearly broke out. However, these might be typical events in American summer camps, especially in the rough-and-ready culture of the 1950s (knives were used as prizes, which would never happen today). The boys seemed to enjoy themselves, which suggests the harm they were exposed to was no greater than what they would be exposed to in their normal lives. However, Gina Perry (2014) argues that the boys had unhappy experiences because the camp counselors did not intervene to protect or guide them and that some of them still look back on their time at Robbers Cave will bad feelings.
Sherif could also be defended by pointing to the common good served by this sort of research. By understanding intergroup conflict, we are better able to prevent it or defuse it. This is social responsibility in research.
EXEMPLAR ESSAY How to write a 8-mark answer
Evaluate the Classic Study from social psychology. (8 marks)
A 8-mark “evaluate” question awards 4 marks for AO1 (Describe) and 4 marks for AO3 (Evaluate). You must include a conclusion to be awarded top band (7-8 marks).
Sherif’s study has high ecological validity. The 22 boys were at a real summer camp (Robbers Cave in Oklahoma) and had no idea anything unusual was going on. Activities like pulling the truck seemed real to them.
Sherif’s study is also valid because he used different methods, like observing and tape-recording the boys. He collected quantitative and qualitative data about their behaviour. For example, he scored their outgroup friendships at the end of the friction and integration phases and found the Rattlers went from 6.4% to 36.4%.
However, some parts of the study were unrealistic, like the bean-counting test, asking questions about their friendship choices and camp counselors not imposing discipline. Gina Perry (2014) describes the counselors doing unusual things, like photographing the boys raiding cabins rather than putting a stop to it. The boys would have sensed how odd this was and this may have made them react strangely to the situation.
Because the boys didn’t realise they were in an experiment, this means they couldn’t give informed consent. Sherif also deceived them (eg telling them the truck was broken when it wasn’t really). However, it might be that nothing went on at Robbers Cave that wouldn't happen at any summer camp for boys in the 1950s. It's natural enough for boys to form gangs, fall out then make up over 3 weeks.
In conclusion, Sherif tried to observe the boys without influencing them in any way. Its debatable whether he succeeded. On the one hand, his observers did nothing to prevent bullying and violence, which created an unusual atmosphere and put the boys at risk. On the other hand, the adults couldn't help influencing the boys. Gina Perry claims the Rattlers took their name from watching one adult shoot snakes with a gun.
Notice that for a 8-mark answer you don’t have to include everything Sherif did. I haven’t mentioned the “friction” condition or the prizes in the tournament. I haven’t mentioned the way Sherif screened the boys beforehand. I haven’t described his conclusions. But I have tried to make the two halves – Description and Evaluation – evenly balanced.