Understanding Generalizations and Stereotypes
Max Weber wrote about the importance of verstehen, or understanding, for those investigating social reality. This means that we must understand what life is like for the individual or self before we can truly understand life at more macro levels of society such as groups, organizations, communities, and/or nation-states.
While we tend to teach this concept in relation to research methods, it can also be connected to many different aspects of social research.
How does the idea of a deep understanding of life in society connect to generalizations and stereotypes?
We make generalizations about objects in order to make sense of the world. When we see something, we want to know what it is and how to react to and interact with it. Thus seeing a flat horizontal surface held up by one or more legs, we would generalize that to be a table upon which we could put our stuff, eat a meal, or play a game.
How do we know how to come to these conclusions? By experiences we have had with these objects. These experiences gives us an understanding of what they are and how they are used. The more we have actually seen and used these objects, the more deeply we understand what they are and how they can be used.
We generalize about more than just objects; we generalize about people so that we know how to interact with them. If we see someone in a mail carrier’s clothing, we assume they work for the post office. If we see someone who looks over 80 years old, we assume they are not in the workforce anymore.
When do generalizations move into stereotypes? Stereotypes are overgeneralizations; they often involve assuming a person has certain characteristics based on unfounded assumptions..
We stereotype people based on how they look in terms of sexual orientation, gender, race, and ethnicity. We look at people and may assume they have a certain sexual orientation or that their gender is either man or woman. We may assume they are white, African American, Native American, Asian American, or Latino.
We may be right or we may be wrong.
We also stereotype people based on what we assume about particular categories of identity and what other characteristics are associated with those categories. Some people assume that people who look “homosexual” are sexual predators; that women are nurturing and men are violent; that white people are arrogant; African Americans are loud; Native Americans are drunks; Asian Americans are smart; and that Latinos are lazy.
These are not generalizations, they are stereotypes. They are assumptions based on unfounded ideas about these groups, not identifying particular characteristics of a group of people. They signify a gap or lack in understanding. We typically stereotype those whom we do not understand or about whom we have no knowledge.
As we move through life, if we see one individual who seems to fit the stereotype, it reinforces those ideas, while we tend to ignore others in that same group who do not fit that stereotype, as well as others in different groups that do fit that stereotype. We assume, usually because we don’t know many people like them, that they are all strangers and that they are the “them” to our “us”.
In this society, we don’t really notice people who look “heterosexual” and if we did, we wouldn’t assume that they were a sexual predator. We wouldn’t think anything about seeing women who are behaving in a nurturing way, but if we saw a woman behaving in a non-nurturing way or a man acting in a nurturing way, we might draw particular assumptions about them. If we noticed a white people who appeared to be lazy, we wouldn’t assume this one person represented a characteristic for all white people. We are more likely to define them as tired after having done some huge task or job; we would assume they had a good reason for resting.
These stereotypes can easily lead to prejudice and result in some forms of discrimination. While generalizing helps us navigate our lives, stereotyping puts us in a dangerous place in which societal members are limited from their true potential and face barriers to contributing their talents and assets to the societal mix.
Would a better understanding of people reduce stereotyping and, subsequently, prejudice and discrimination? If so, how would we do that? If not, what would be the benefit of a deep understanding of the lives of individuals in a society?