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Flavors of Meaning

Using Principled Civic Engagement Practices to Understand Food Environments

Tannya Forcone, Glennon Sweeney Fall 2018

DOI: 10.25335/M5/PPJ.1.2-6

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Abstract

Principled and engaged scholarship must develop not only prepositional knowledge, but also personal and procedural knowledge that can transform policy solutions to the most pressing challenges facing our food systems. We begin by discussing the meaning of food and engagement in the context of understanding complex lived experiences of food environments. We then discuss the significance of engagement in informing transformative policy solutions. Finally, we discuss the value of employing principled civic engagement practices to collaborate with communities to co-create transformative change.

1. Introduction

Understanding the food environment has become a preoccupation of countless scholars, government agencies, practitioners, and activists in an effort to improve food quality and accessibility and to strengthen the food safety net. We can go to the USDA Food Desert Locator and find food deserts throughout the country. We can visit local food bank websites and learn about where we can access emergency hunger relief in our locality. We can visit Feeding America’s and USDA’s websites and learn about food insecurity at the county level. However, it is incredibly difficult to find local-level information about food environments. There are a few exceptions of local initiatives, such as Maryland Food System Map produced and maintained by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future or Food-Mapping for Empowerment, Access, and Sustainable Transformation (FEAST), a community-university collaborative centered at The Ohio State University. This dearth of local knowledge creates a space for research based on principled civic engagement to better inform and remediate food scarcity issues.

The reality of food insecurity in America is that, like poverty, opportunity, and wealth, experiences of food insecurity often cluster in specific places, places so specific that county-level food insecurity data tells us very little about conditions in certain neighborhoods. For example, Franklin County, Ohio experienced a 17.4% food insecurity rate in 2015.(1) This tells us very little about the food insecurity rates in specific Columbus neighborhoods such as struggling Linden or well-off Upper Arlington. Likewise, knowing the rate of food insecurity in a community is insufficient to inform policy solutions for this problem because food insecurity is multidimensional. It intersects with identity, place, and lived experience in ways that policymakers, academics, practitioners, and activists have yet to fully understand.

Mapping areas of scarcity can tell us where the food environment is resource-limited, but it does not inform us about the meaning and effect on those who live and interact in these environments. Food insecurity is experienced differently by people living in urban versus suburban versus rural contexts; it varies for people of differing racial, ethnic, religious, and other identities, and it can even vary throughout the month or year. Food insecurity entangles individuals and neighborhoods and the positions they hold within the larger community and society as a whole. It is influenced by poverty, educational access and achievement, and broader structural economic shifts, many of which are outside of an individual’s ability to control, even as it builds their bodies and perception of self.

Principled and engaged scholarship must develop not only prepositional knowledge, but also personal and procedural knowledge that can transform policy solutions to the most pressing challenges facing our food systems. We begin by discussing the meaning of food and engagement in the context of understanding complex lived experiences of food environments.(2) We then discuss the significance of engagement in informing transformative policy solutions.(3) Finally, we discuss the value of employing principled civic engagement practices to collaborate with communities to co-create transformative change.(4)

2. Meaning

Having a leftover turkey sandwich for lunch says volumes about diet, family, economic status, and power. But how can that be? It is a few bits of meat and a slathering of mayo or maybe cranberry sauce on some type of bread. Knowing that it is leftover turkey, we can assume the time of year and cultural orientation. Food is more than nutrients to build or maintain the biological mechanism of a human body. The food we eat, the way we prepare it, and the social rules around its consumption define us and our place in society. In An Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972), Pierre Bourdieu uses food and its accessories to explain habitus, the place we inhabit within the greater community.

Consider the sandwich. Turkey is not a high class food, but neither is it “poor.” A turkey sandwich says American middle class. It says that the consumer has enough money for food, but not for something snazzy like foie gras. A sandwich is consumed without utensils; it can be eaten in transit or away from the table. A sandwich like this one often has mayonnaise, an item that requires refrigeration. Wheat bread would indicate a dietary tolerance for gluten, and turkey is a non-vegetarian/vegan choice. These indications of middle class status also indicate that the consumer may not have the kind of significant power that comes with wealth. Furthermore, one may conclude that leftover turkey implies a large feast, and by consulting a calendar, one may also determine whether this leftover turkey resulted from a holiday celebration. This is a lot to determine just from a lunch, and any one or more of these assumptions could be wrong. Maybe the sandwich muncher just likes turkey.

But food makes us, our individual bodies and our identities. The nutritive value of food is necessary for cellular growth; the kilocalorie is a measurement of energy that the human body uses to function. A diet well balanced with energy producing carbohydrates, developmentally vital proteins, certain fats, and cognition enhancing micronutrients is necessary for the mechanistic function of a human body.(5) The “right” foods are not just those that promote biological efficacy but also those that define us socially. It is socially acceptable to have a turkey sandwich for lunch but completely awful to consider a puppy sandwich. From a social standpoint, it is better to skip eating and go hungry than to consume a companion animal. But what if the turkey was not from the sandwich muncher’s own fridge? What if the turkey was a gift from a neighbor? What if the turkey came to the house as part of a charity basket indicating poverty? What if the muncher snagged a carcass from a neighbor’s trash can or scavenged it from a restaurant’s dumpster? How does one of these facts change the value of the turkey? It might still provide necessary proteins, but now it implies lower social capital. The person consuming the sandwich is no longer assumed to be an innocent muncher, but is perceived to have a lower value, is, instead, a “bum.”

Assistance programs too often focus on the merely biological provisioning of the body. In programs like SNAP, the USDA Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, beneficiaries receive a card with which to purchase a certain dollar amount of food. In some cases, such as WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, benefits come along with regulations about the type of food that can be purchased.(6) Other programs may have social strings such as signing up for that holiday basket with a church or sitting through a service at a shelter. For the sake of biological need, the social value is ignored. In research endeavors, for example, this oversight can appear in mapping that indicates the presence of stores or food pantries in a neighborhood and concludes that the community has food access.(7) A map like this, however, does not usually take into consideration the social barriers that render these locations, and the food available within them, inaccessible or unacceptable to some community members. For instance, the presence of a convenience mart does show on a map, but gang violence that may keep food customers away does not.(8) A list of food resources in an urban neighborhood may include a homeless shelter, but for a young college student living on the local campus, this is not a viable option.(9)

Civic engagement brings these issues to light, illuminating the dissonance between accessible and acceptable.(10) Too often, civic engagement is understood to be community inclusion in a project or research, like the hackneyed image of having a native guide to a developing culture. True civic engagement is not inclusion, but trust; it is not working in a community, but as a part of the community.(11) It is long-term committed involvement that co-creates the local knowledge by interacting with the community's members as co-researchers rather than as research subjects. By using involved ethnographic methods, we can both discover food access barriers and learn how they affect those who function in that environment. A grandmother can shop for items at the troubled convenience store because “the riff-raff know me,” but she does not let her grandson go to that store.(12) Civic engagement explains why that resource, that particular store, is of limited value even as it provides suggestions for change. The college student does not utilize the homeless shelter for food or meals because it is perceived to be unsafe and that “real bums” go there. For this student to use the shelter he has to see himself as a bum and a loser, undermining his ability to see himself as academically successful.(13) In a case like this one, engaging with the community can help the university understand the supports that its food insecure student population requires.

3. The Value of Engagement in Informing Transformative Policy Solutions

In American society, policymakers’ decisions often impact how communities experience their food environment; however, despite our forefathers’ plan for representation in US politics, our policymakers are generally not representative of the populations they serve. They often do not look like, live like, or share the same socioeconomic class as the majority of the Americans that they represent. For example, 540 individuals served in the 115th Congress, and 110, or 20.3%, were female(14) even though the US population is just over 50% female.(15) There were only 128 nonwhite representatives, or 23.7%, in this Congress.(16) The US population is 38% nonwhite, and this percentage continues to grow as we approach a tipping point to become a majority minority nation by 2044.(17) In 2017, the average age of members of the House of Representatives was 57.8 years, and the average age of members of the Senate was 61.8 years;(18) whereas, the average age of the US population is a mere 37.9 years.(19) Financially, our legislators, with a base salary of $174,000, which does not include additional earnings, salary or otherwise, are generally more secure than the majority of Americans.(20) In comparison, the average US household income for 2016 was only $57,617.(21) 

This brief overview illustrates the variation between citizens and their political representation. It should be noted that although this variation does exist with state and local officials, it is not as pronounced. Our elected policymakers are not representative of the public which they serve, and, as such, many of them do not share in the lived experiences of the working- and middle-classes. It is unlikely that they have experienced poverty or food insecurity. Furthermore, being predominantly male and white, it is unlikely that they have experienced gender or racial discrimination. How can they craft policy that will address the barriers to opportunity that working- and middle-class, impoverished, or minority citizens experience? How can they address these barriers to opportunity if they know not that they exist?

We would hope that our policymakers would view obtaining an education about the lived experiences of their constituents as a responsibility inherent in their elected position. If this is the orientation of a policymaker, then direct engagement with their electorate is one way they could attain this education. Civic engagement is a critical tool for providing a humanist lens to privileged Americans with which they can view problems and challenges that are distant from their own everyday experience.(22) Policymakers can learn from directly engaging with their constituents and by working with researchers to better understand how policy can be used as a tool to transform how people experience their food environment. By merging storytelling with data, researchers and community organizations can provide the education and resources that policymakers require to develop legislative solutions capable of overcoming the barriers to healthy food access that specific communities may encounter.

Meaningful civic engagement results in people sharing experiences that they might not otherwise discuss in everyday conversation. It is therefore crucial that the engagement environment invites people to share these experiences; critically, a civic engagement environment must be perceived to be equitable and inclusive.(23) For example, a privileged, white, male legislator attempting to engage with constituents in a low-income majority minority urban neighborhood should consider the lasting impacts of policies like redlining, urban renewal, and highway construction on the community before attempting to build trust. Acknowledging the community's troubled history with development policy and the makers of those policies may, in fact, help the policymaker build trust and more effectively engage in listening to individual and community experiences.

4. Using Principled Civic Engagement Practices to Co-Create Transformative Change

While strictly structured civic engagement models can fail to create inviting and inclusive atmospheres where community members and researchers feel comfortable sharing their experiences and stories,(24) civic engagement should be grounded in structured theoretical underpinnings or principles.(25) We argue for theoretically-based or principled civic engagement approaches because when we practice an approach informed by theory, relevant to the work at hand, we can justify each action that we take, understand why we are doing what we are doing, and thus better explain our actions and approaches to those we seek to engage.(26) The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, drawing on over a decade of experience in engaged and transformational research, has developed six principles of equitable and inclusive civic engagement.(27) These principles are not designed to structure the content of an engagement; rather, they are designed to provoke questions that encourage us to consider our meanings and intent when structuring our own engagement environments. The answers to these questions actually help us create an equitable and inclusive engagement environment. The principles, publicly available as a guide on the Kirwan Institute’s website, include embracing the gifts of diversity and realizing the role of race, power, and injustice. Radical hospitality—invitation and listening, trust-building and commitment, honoring dissent and embracing protest, and adaptability to community change—also plays an important role.(28) These principles help us question our own approaches, but they also encourage us to consider the broader context within which our engagements take place. It is this context, the role that race, power, and injustice have played in influencing a particular community’s trajectory or considering the diverse gifts that community members already bring to the table to help address an issue provides a critical education to policymakers seeking to address issues within our food system. Consideration of this broader context and thoughtful construction of our engagement environment also helps to mitigate our personal biases,(29) contributing to creating a more equitable and inclusive engagement environment.

5. Conclusion

Whether it is a turkey sandwich or falafel, food has meaning that influences how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others. It influences our attitude and our appearance. Access to nourishing food is critical to a healthy lifestyle, and understanding how people experience food and their food environment can only contribute to a better understanding of the existing barriers to food opportunities. In fact, understanding how people experience accessing food may just be the missing link to constructing policies that can eliminate barriers to healthfulness for many low- and moderate-income Americans. Without theoretically grounded and principled civic engagement approaches, we often fail to build the trust necessary to effectively and meaningfully engage and understand how our food environments are experienced. The turkey sandwich, so full of meaning, is not available to everyone, and employing principled civic engagements can illuminate the reasons and realities surrounding that inaccessibility. With a little effort and care, these conversations can put turkey sandwiches in more hands.

Bibliography

Alaimo, Katherine, Christine M. Olson, and Edward A. Frongillo. “Food Insufficiency and American School-Aged Children’s Cognitive, Academic, and Psychosocial Development.” Pediatrics 108, no. 1 (2001): 44-53.

Bourdieu, Pierre. An Outline of a Theory of Practice. 1972. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge UK: Cambridge UP, 1977.

Brannon, Tiffany N., and Gregory M. Walton. “Enacting Cultural Interests: How Intergroup Contact Reduces Prejudice by Sparking Interest in an Out-Group’s Culture.” Psychological Science, August 7, 2013. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/08/07/0956797613481607.

Chilton, Mariana, et al. “Witnesses to Hunger: Participation Through Photovoice to Ensure the Right to Food.” Health and Human Rights in Practice 11, no. 1 (2009): 73-85.

Colby, Sandra L., and Jennifer M. Ortman. Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060: Current Population Reports, P25-1143. US Census Bureau: Washington, DC, 2014.

Fawcett, Stephen B., et al. “Using Empowerment Theory in Collaborative Partnerships for Community Health and Development.” American Journal of Community Psychology 23, no. 5 (1995): 677-97.

“FEAST: Food-Mapping for Empowerment, Access, and Sustainable Transformation.” Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity. February 3, 2015. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/assisting-in-investigating-food-insecurity-in-ohio-forc/.

Feeding America. “Map the Meal Gap 2017: Overall Food Insecurity in Ohio by County in 2015.” Feeding America. Accessed January 11, 2019. http://map.feedingamerica.org/county/2015/overall/ohio.

Forcone, Tannya. “Scraps and Leftovers: The Challenges and Strategies of Food Insecure University Students.” Master’s thesis, Ohio State University, 2018.

Gómez-Pinilla, Fernando. “Brain Foods: The Effects of Nutrients on Brain Function.” National Review of Neuroscience 9, no. 7 (2008): 568-78.

Guzman, Gloria G. Household Income: 2016 American Community Survey Briefs, ACSBR/16-02. US Census Bureau: Washington DC, 2017. https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2017/acs/acsbr16-02.pdf.

Holley, Kip, et al. “The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement.” The Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity, 2016.

Israel, Barbara A., et al. “Critical Issues in Developing and Following Community Based Participatory Research Principles.” In Community-Based Rarticipatory Research for Health, edited by Meredith Minkler and Nina Wallerstein, 81–97. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “Maryland Food System Map.” Accessed January 11, 2017. http://mdfoodsystemmap.org/.

Kirwan Institute. “Community Development Collaborative Columbus Neighborhood Map.” Accessed November 25, 2018. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/researchandstrategicinitiatives/community-development-collaborative/.

Longley, Robert. “Salaries and Benefits of US Congress Members: The Truth.” ThoughtCo, September 7, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/salaries-and-benefits-of-congress-members-3322282.

Manning, Jennifer E. “Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile.” Congressional Research Service, R44762. Washington, DC, 2017

McCullum, Christine, et al. “Agenda Setting within a Community-Based Food Security Planning Process: The Influence of Power.” Journal of Nutrition Education & Behavior 35, no. 4 (2003): 189-99.

McEwen, Brian S. “Physiology and Neurobiology of Stress and Adaptation: Central Role of the Brain.” Physiology Review 87, no. 3 (2007): 873-903.

Miewald, Christiana, and Eugene McCann. “Foodscapes and the Geographies of Poverty: Sustenance, Strategy, and Politics in an Urban Neighborhood.” Antipode 46, no 2 (2014): 537-56.

Pettigrew, Thomas F., and Linda R. Tropp. “A Meta Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90, no. 5 (2006): 751-83.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children, Participant Benefits, Supplemental Foods. 7 eC.F.R. 246.10-11. (2018). https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=a6828ac000f6e75ae4679d5beecb637c&mc=true&node=pt7.4.246&rgn=div5#_top.

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US Census Bureau. “Wealth, Asset Ownership, & Debt of Households Detailed Tables: 2013.” Accessed December 31, 2017. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2013/demo/wealth/wealth-asset-ownership.html.

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Footnotes

  1.  Feeding America, “Map the Meal Gap 2017: Overall Food Insecurity in Ohio by County in 2015,” Feeding America, accessed January 11, 2019, http://map.feedingamerica.org/county/2015/overall/ohio.
  2.  See Christiana Miewald and Eugene McCann, “Foodscapes and the Geographies of Poverty: Sustenance, Strategy, and Politics in an Urban Neighborhood,” Antipode 46, no. 2 (2014): 537-56.
  3.  See Barbara A. Israel et al., “Critical Issues in Developing and Following Community Based Participatory Research Principles,” in Community-Based Research for Health, edited by Meredith Minkler and Nina Wallerstein (San Frnacisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 81-97.
  4.  See Stephen B. Fawcett et al., “Using Empowerment Theory in Collaborative Partnerships for Community Health and Development,” American Journal of Community Psychology 23, no. 5 (1995): 677-97.
  5.  See Katherine Alaimo et al., “Food Insufficiency and American School-Aged Children’s Cognitive, Academic, and Psychosocial Development,” Pediatrics 108, no. 1 (2001): 44-53; Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, “Brain Foods: The Effects of Nutrients on Brain Function,” National Review of Neuroscience 9, no. 7 (2008): 568-78; Brian S. McEwen, “Physiology and Neurobiology of Stress and Adaptation: Central Role of the Brain,” Physiology Review 87, no. 3 (2007): 873-903.
  6.  Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children, Participant Benefits, Supplemental Foods, 7 eC.F.R. 246.10-11, (2018), https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=a6828ac000f6e75ae4679d5beecb637c&mc=true&node=pt7.4.246&rgn=div5#_top.
  7.  Kareem Usher, “Valuing All Knowledges Through an Expanded Definition of Access,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 5, no. 4 (2015): 109-14.
  8.  “FEAST: Food-Mapping for Empowerment, Access, and Sustainable Transformation,” Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity, February 3, 2015, http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/assisting-in-investigating-food-insecurity-in-ohio-forc.
  9.  Tannya Forcone, “Scraps and Leftovers: The Challenge and Strategies of Food Insecure University Students,” Master’s thesis, Ohio State University, 2018.
  10.  See Stephen B. Fawcett et al., “Using Empowerment Theory in Collaborative Partnerships for Community Health and Development,” American Journal of Community Psychology 23, no. 5 (1995): 677-97; Kareem Usher, “Valuing All Knowledges Through an Expanded Definition of Access,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 5, no. 4 (2015): 109-14.
  11.  See Stephen B. Fawcett et al., “Using Empowerment Theory in Collaborative Partnerships for Community Health and Development,” American Journal of Community Psychology 23, no. 5 (1995): 677-97; Kip Holley, “The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement,” The Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity, 2006; Barbara A. Israel et al., “Critical Issues in Developing and Following Community Based Participatory Research Principles,” in Community-Based Research for Health, edited by Meredith Minkler and Nina Wallerstein (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 81-97.
  12.  “FEAST: Food-Mapping for Empowerment, Access, and Sustainable Transformation,” Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity, February 3, 2015, http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/assisting-in-investigating-food-insecurity-in-ohio-forc.
  13.  Forcone, Tannya. “Scraps and Leftovers: The Challenges and Strategies of Food Insecure University Students.” Master’s thesis, Ohio State University, 2018.
  14.  Jennifer E. Manning, “Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile,” Congressional Research Service, R44762, Washington, DC, 2017.
  15.  US Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: United States,” updated July 1, 2017, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045217. US Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: United States,” updated July 1, 2017, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045217.
  16.  Jennifer E. Manning, “Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile,” Congressional Research Service, R44762, Washington, DC, 2017.
  17.  Sandra L. Colby and Jennifer M. Ortman, Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060: Current Population Reports, P25-1143, US Census Bureau: Washington, DC, 2014.
  18.  Jennifer E. Manning, “Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile,” Congressional Research Service, R44762, Washington, DC, 2017.
  19.  US Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: United States,” updated July 1, 2017, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045217.
  20.  Robert Longley, “Salaries and Benefits of US Congress Members: The Truth,” ThoughtCo, September 7, 2017, https://www.thoughtco.com/salaries-and-benefits-of-congress-members-3322282.
  21.  Gloria G. Guzman, Household Income: 2016 American Community Survey Briefs, ACSBR/16-02, US Census Bureau: Washington DC, 2017, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2017/acs/acsbr16-02.pdf.
  22.  See Mariana Chilton, et al. “Witnesses to Hunger: Participation Through Photovoice to Ensure the Right to Food,” Health and Human Rights in Practice 11, no. 1 (2009): 73-85; Kip Holley, et al. “The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement,” The Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity, 2016.
  23.  Kip Holley, et al. “The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement,” The Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity, 2016; Barbara A. Israel et al., “Critical Issues in Developing and Following Community Based Participatory Research Principles,” in Community-Based Research for Health, edited by Meredith Minkler and Nina Wallerstein (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 81-97.
  24.  Kip Holley, et al. “The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement,” The Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity, 2016.
  25.  Stephen B. Fawcett, et al., “Using Empowerment Theory in Collaborative Partnerships for Community Health and Development,” American Journal of Community Psychology 23, no. 5 (1995): 677-97; Barbara A. Israel et al., “Critical Issues in Developing and Following Community Based Participatory Research Principles,” in Community-Based Research for Health, edited by Meredith Minkler and Nina Wallerstein (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 81-97.
  26.  McCullum, Christine, et al. “Agenda Setting within a Community-Based Food Security Planning Process: The Influence of Power.” Journal of Nutrition Education & Behavior 35, no. 4 (2003): 189-99.
  27.  Kip Holley, et al. “The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement,” The Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity, 2016.
  28.  Kip Holley, et al. “The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement,” The Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity, 2016.
  29.  See Tiffany N. Brannon, and Gregory M. Walton, “Enacting Cultural Interests: How Intergroup Contact Reduces Prejudice by Sparking Interest in an Out-Group’s Culture,” Psychological Science, August 7, 2013, http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/08/07/0956797613481607; Pettigrew, Thomas F., and Linda R. Tropp, “A Meta Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90, no. 5 (2006): 751-83.

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