The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

On Stereotyping

The other day I became engaged in an argument at a friend’s party because some of the guests had decided to engage in some gender stereotyping that rubbed me the wrong way. Believe it or not, I was actually surprised when one of them pulled out the old “but we have to make judgments about people and how are we supposed to do that without stereotypes?” argument. I spend too much time hanging around the ultra-radical corners of the internet, apparently, because I thought this argument had fallen into disuse, but I assure you, it is still alive and going strong.

The main point that I probably failed to make at said party is that a stereotype is a concept about a particular group of people that has a broader – let’s say, macro-social significance. I’m not going to get into the Heap of Sand paradox, and thus we will leave aside for now the question of how many people, or what sorts of people, must believe something in order for it to be a stereotype. I’ll just give the perhaps unsatisfactory answer that in order for something to be a stereotype it has to be a socially recognizable idea held by a particular social group and applied indiscriminately to another social group. A more jargon-y way of saying what I mean is that stereotypes are a part of a kind of institutional knowledge possessed by a community of practice.

What stereotypes are *not* are judgments or preferences. In the exhibit “The Artist is Present”, patrons must step through a doorway containing a naked man and a naked woman.  Most patrons – male and female – turn towards the woman in order to pass into the exhibit.  Clearly, there is some kind of social phenomenon occurring here – people are making their decision using social information, that is, information about the people they are interacting with.  However, does this information rise to the level of stereotype?  I argue that it does not.  There is no stereotype of women being better to turn toward while passing through some people in close quarters.  Perhaps people find it less uncomfortable to face a naked woman than a naked man, but is this because of a stereotype about men and women, or does the judgment occur below the level of stereotype?

Really, we all know what stereotypes are.  We know negative stereotypes: men are violent, women are bad at math, asians are bad drivers, blacks are lazy, jews are greedy.  We know positive stereotypes: women are nurturing, men are logical, asians are good at math, blacks are good at sports, jews are wealthy.  For some, these stereotypes may seem unfamiliar, or outdated, or just plain wrong, but no one can deny their cultural significance, at least in America (stereotypes of course vary across cultures).

So when I am faced with a question such as “how do you decide who to sit near on a train,” I cannot help but feel that the argument is, on some level, disingenuous.  Of course, everyone makes decisions – conscious or not – about who to group near in public spaces.  Of course, some of these decisions are based on the kinds of unflattering grouping methods that we are all socially conditioned with – and it would be interesting to do a study on grouping on subways, for instance, to see if white people preferentially group with white people, etc.  Of course everyone evaluates threats, and some people do so on race and gender lines.  But, to take an example that was brought up at this party, if a woman evaluates men as potential threats because they are more likely to rape her than other women are, is this based on stereotype?  The answer is, of course not.

The reason, quite simply, is that “rapist” is not a stereotype about men – except, perhaps, in certain ultra-radical corners of the internet.  For most people in society, if asked to come up with five, ten, or even a hundred words to describe the stereotypical male, “rapist” would not be one of them.  Stereotypes, as a macro-cultural phenomenon, tend to be aligned more with the dominant power structures in society.  Thus stereotypes about men that men think of as hilarious – such as obsession with power tools, inability to ask for directions, etc – are allowed to continue whereas facts or statistics about men that men consider troubling are never really allowed to become stereotypes.  Thus, while the stereotypical criminal is male, the stereotypical male is not a criminal (at least not the stereotypical white male).

So when a woman sees a man and uses her judgment to say “this man has the potential to assault me in one of several traumatizing ways” this is not engaging in stereotyping.  When a woman sees a man and says “this man probably likes trucks and leaving the toilet seat up,” that is engaging in stereotyping.  The first is a survival skill; the second is a way of maintaining and strengthening the oppressive gender divisions within our society.

Now back to the issue of grouping.  I would argue that grouping is based on a paradigm of “us” and “them,” or “Self” and “Other,” that exists prior to, and in fact underlies and enables, the kind of social knowledge that makes up a stereotype.  If a stereotype consists of the identification of a socially recognizable group and the application of social knowledge to that group, then every stereotype presupposes the identification of a socially recognizable group – and I argue that for grouping to take place – in other words, for someone to decide to sit next to one person on the subway rather than another – mere social recognition of “sameness” or “difference” is sufficient without the application of any additional social facts.

In other words, not all socially salient knowledge is stereotype.


May 30, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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