By Meghan Chua
Chagai Weiss builds on existing theories in political science and psychology to study how people think about members of an ethnic group that is different than them.
Weiss, a PhD candidate in political science at UW–Madison, said that when public institutions such as schools, hospitals, and universities are diverse and more representative of a society’s population, they can be effective in shaping the way a majority group thinks about the outgroup in that society.
“If we really build on social scientific research and understand the underlying mechanisms that psychologists and political scientists have developed – and essentially try to design our institutions in ways that facilitate those mechanisms and processes – then we might be able to shape intergroup relations and reduce prejudice in a scalable, effective, and cost-effective fashion,” Weiss said.
Often, research aimed at improving intergroup relations is focused on the individual level, and in turn, may be hard to scale up to a larger population, Weiss said. It is important to him for his work to be scalable and effective in shaping people’s attitudes in real-world settings.
Part of his inspiration to develop new research on prejudice reduction comes from his own experience growing up in Jerusalem in a Jewish family. When he was young, Weiss said he formed opinions of what his group’s identity was about, and what the identity of Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem was about, without much interaction with Palestinians.
That changed when he attended college at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he met and talked with Palestinian students and learned more about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I went through a process where I began to really reevaluate some of the things that I used to think were quite fundamental to my identity,” Weiss said. “That really got me interested in, how does that happen at scale? How do we facilitate these types of processes, or at least give people the possibility to engage in this type of critical thinking, en mass?”
In his scholarly work, Weiss enjoys combining theoretical frameworks with experiments that can be tested in the field. He often works with practitioners to identify tools and frameworks that they can use toward improving intergroup relations in society.
For example, Weiss partnered with a network of Israeli medical clinics to test whether contact with an Arab doctor reduces prejudice among Jewish patients. In a 2021 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Weiss found that the patients who were assigned an Arab doctor showed reduced exclusionary preferences toward Arabs and increased optimism about peace.
One of Weiss’ current projects is a collaboration with two social psychologists in Israel, aimed at the challenge that kids often develop prejudice at a young age. Weiss has helped develop a series of classroom lessons that, inspired by theories of social identity, is designed to increase students’ appreciation of diversity and inclusion at a young age. The team is currently testing the impact of the educational program through a large-scale field experiment in eight Israeli schools.
“The work that I do is definitely academic and focused on developing knowledge. In my research I aim to make sure that I learn from practitioners [and] practitioners will learn from my work,” Weiss said. “We have this iterative process of generating knowledge that I would like to believe matters for us in the academy and also matters for folks on the ground that experience these dynamics on a daily basis.”
Alongside his work on prejudice reduction, Weiss also studies political behavior in areas of conflict and works on experimental methodology to build better political and social scientific tools.
Weiss said that at UW–Madison, he has felt supported to do his research, especially by his dissertation committee members Rikhil Bhavnani, Yoshiko Herrera, Nadav Shelef, and Jonathan Renshon. He has felt support from other faculty in the Department of Political Science who have reviewed his work, brainstormed about ideas, or given constructive feedback on his papers and presentations.
“I’ve been very lucky to have, from day one, a group of extremely helpful faculty mentors not only supporting [me] in reading my research and providing feedback, etc., but also in serving as role models in terms of the type of research that they do [and] the type of engagement within the department and outside of the department that they do,” Weiss said.
In addition, he has found multiple opportunities for financial support and research travel funding. This includes a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship, a summer fieldwork award from the Institute for Regional and International Studies, an award through the Graduate School’s Student Research Grants Competition, and multiple awards from the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies.
This year, Weiss is also a Middle East Initiative Predoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. The initiative is dedicated to promoting evidence-based policymaking and good governance in the Middle East, as well as training the region’s next generation of leaders, practitioners, and scholars.
Looking forward, Weiss wants to continue working as an academic at a research university to keep developing interventions for prejudice reduction and work on more methodological questions relating to experiments in the social sciences.
“Hopefully at some stage teaching and mentoring graduate students are things that I would be very excited about,” Weiss added.
Read more about Weiss and his work at chagaimweiss.com.