May 14, 2012

Understanding Generalizations and Stereotypes

imageBy Sally Raskoff

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.

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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.

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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?


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I agree that we often develop stereotypes in attempts to understand, but I also think that assumptions are not necessarily bad. I understand that they can lead to discrimination, and unconsciously, I stereotype more then i think i do, but people typically base assumptions off of observations. If something appears very apparent, we can not turn off our minds from day to day idiosyncrasies or rather what is naturally attention worthy.

I agree that society today stereotypes a lot more than in years past. Yes, assumptions may not be bad but if you think wrongly of someone and it turns out he or she is completely opposite then you'll probably feel bad.

i know this is old but my mom preaches this to me all the time. "never judge a book by its cover" i like that saying because really you shouldnt. You dont know how someone really is unless you get to know them and talk to them.

I think a better understanding of people would help reduce stereotypes. People just have to learn to get to know someone before they judge them. A jury listens to a whole case before passing judgement, so people should do the same thing.

I think stereotypes originate from assumptions about groups to make sense of them. Some stereotypes are negative and they are spread by people who are not aware of the real aspects of these groups. To reduce stereotypes, there would need to be more awareness of these particular groups. Our country is a melting pot, but there are still areas that don't have every culture represented and this breeds stereotypes. Maybe if there were more education via the web or TV that people would be likely to see it would help with stereotypes.

Our society like to jump to conclusions way to often. We get to wrapped up in our own worlds and don't want to accept anything that doesn't fit. Stereotypes depend on how we view the world and can be critical to some and acceptable to others. Assumptions are when we jump to conclusions without giving a persona chance to show you who they really are.

Generalizing others based on race is wrong. Having one's own assumptions based on impressions is not wrong at at all because if someone took the time to observe the other person than it is based on more than just an assumption. Ideally a person should always have the benefit of the doubt on things in life because not everything in life is what it seems.
Interesting discussion and honestly it is so relevant to our society.

I agree, and if only every person could go by "never judge a book by its cover" rule. This saying has been told over and over again, yet people still continue to stereotype. A person should never assume, because you do not know that true person until you truly get to know them, not just by their outside appearance.

I think Sociology and the other soft sciences like "Women's Studies" need to be phased out of academia (and I am a woman, so spare me the whinging). Honestly, I have seen the most blatant abuses of research in the field of sociology, and their work is often terribly biased. The good news is that universities are looking for ways to budget, and junk sciences like these should be the first to go.

Stereotypes have truth to them. Nobody arbitrarily says, "The Irish are drinkers." I don't need a study to tell me which neighborhood will rob me at night.

I think more thought has to be put into understanding the difference between generalizations and stereotyping. Generalizations have to do with observing groups, whereas stereotyping is making application from a generalization toward every member of the group. So "men like sports" is a generalization, not a stereotype. "All men like sports" or "because you are a man, you must like sports", or worse, "because you are a woman you must not like sports" - all these are stereotypes, and all contain the same flawed logic.

I absolutely agree, Dan Byrne. I was always aware of stereotypes, but being from a small heterogeneous town, I didn't believe them because I didn't know some groups of people and the people on television didn't fit the stereotypes. However, after moving to the city, I was repeatedly disappointed to find that far too many people do fit the stereotypes — and some revel in them. However, that lesson doesn't mean I stereotype individuals; it means I generalized. Individually, every person is judged by his/her own merits, not their manner of speech, or skin color, etc. Like Ron Guilmet says above, generalizations are good because they protect us from undo risk. But generalizations the do not necessarily equate with stereotyping or discrimination against individuals. In fact, it is unfair to stereotype those who generalize as bigots. Only those who stereotype and/or discriminate are bigots. Those who generalize are just people, the products of those ancestors who survived because of intelligent generalization.

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