Sunday, November 24, 2013

Stereotypes and related concepts

Attitudes towards confessional and sexual minorities in the discourse of the media in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland from a historical perspective

Key reading: Billig 1987, 1991; van Dijk 1984, 1993, 1998; Hinton 2000

Categorization is believed to be the basic function of human thinking (Mervis & Rosch 1981). In order to make sense of the world, we label things, people, actions, etc.; we identify them as belonging to particular, more general categories. We then use these categories to make inferences and assumptions about their members. “Stereotyping involves judging people as category members rather than individuals” (Hinton 2000: 5). [Sexual and religious minorities are examples of such categories.]
“Categorization not only protects us from cognitive overload, in that we are simplifying the enormous amount of information available to us, but it also provides an organization of information about the social world” (Hamilton 1979, quoted in Hinton 2000: 21).
The most salient social categories regarding people include race, gender, class and age; other examples – family status, professional affiliation, religious affiliation, etc.

Patternicity is another basic function of human brain – “the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise” (Shermer 2011: 60).
“Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. (…) In other words, we tend to find meaningful patterns whether they are there or not (…) [they] are not so much errors in cognition as they are natural processes of a learning brain” (Shermer 2011: 61-62).
false positive
false negative
Examples of errors in patternicity include false positives (believing something is real when it is not), false negatives (believing something is not real when it is), illusory correlations, among others.
illusory correlation
Illusory correlation is “the perception of a causal relationship between two sets of variables where none exists, or the overestimation of a connection between two variables. The illusory correlation effect is strongest when people form false associations between (X) membership in a statistically small group and (Y) rare and usually negative traits or behaviors. Trivially, for example, people tend to recall the days when they (X) washed their car and (Y) it rained; nontrivially, white Americans typically overestimate the rate that (X) African Americans (Y) are arrested” (Shermer 2011: 83).

“Many beliefs are abstractions or generalizations from several experiences over time” (Bem 1970: 7), and “when an individual treats such generalizations as if they were universally true, we usually call them stereotypes” (p. 8).
Research on stereotyping is based upon the claim that “human cognition is not able to apprehend the full complexity of the world” (Hinton 2000: 54).  Stereotypes here are cognitive shortcuts that ease the effort of processing all the incoming information. Stereotyping involves automatic processing that “does not use up our processing capacity, operates quickly, is inflexible and is unconscious (…) but automatic processing relies on highly practised techniques or overlearnt expectations” (Hinton 2000: 59). “The essence of stereotypical thinking is that it is fast and gives us a basis for immediate action in uncertain circumstances. But its legacy is that we are happier and more comfortable when thinking in ways that promise immediate survival than in ways that appear to threaten it. This may no longer make much sense, but unfortunately our brain doesn’t know that (…) presented with the need for a quick decision it will prefer stereotype to logic” (Fox 1992: 140).
Stereotypes are beliefs – thus, Shermer’s claim that “beliefs come first, evidence second” applies also to them. Stereotypes may be thought of in terms of false positives, false negatives, illusory correlations – once established, they are very difficult to correct or change, because people have the tendency to think and perceive in ways that reinforce those patterns.
attributional biases (Hinton 2000: 87-88, 98-99)
Attributional biases in stereotypical thinking:
- fundamental attribution error – attributing causes to people rather than situations;
- actor-observer effect – attributing causes to situations rather than ourselves;
- self-serving bias – we attribute our successes to internal factors and failures to external factors (independent from us);
- false consensus effect – assuming that all people would act as we would;
- self-fulfilling prophesy – a person acts in a way that brings about the stereotypical outcome they believe to be the case
- stereotype preservation bias – people are biased in the ways they seek out information and recall information to confirm and reinforce the stereotypes they have and resist stereotype change.
Biases according to Shermer (2011):
- the confirmation bias: the tendency to seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence (p. 259);
- the bias blind spot: the tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases in other people but to be blind to their influence upon our own beliefs (p. 276; list of other biases: pp. 260-276). 
how stereotypes work (Hinton 2000: 7-8)
1. A group of people are identified by a specific characteristic – the particular chosen group is separated from an undifferentiated set of people on the basis of this characteristic. [categorization]
2. A set of additional characteristics is attributed to this group as a whole. [patternicity? (illusory) correlation?]
3. If a person is identified as belonging to the group, all stereotypical characteristics will be attributed to her/him.
features of stereotypes
Features of stereotypes:
- stereotypes are generalizations – they ignore individual differences (Brown 1965: 176);
- stereotypes vary in terms of accuracy (accurate/inaccurate) and of valence (positive/negative), but are not inherently false or negative (Jussim, McCauley & Lee 1995: 16-17); “some inaccurate stereotypes attribute positive characteristics to a group; some accurate stereotypes attribute negative ones” (McCauley, Jussim & Lee 1995: 302);
- stereotypes are ethnocentric: “we accept our cultural norms as being ‘true’ rather than a specific view within our culture” (Hinton 2000: 13);
- stereotypes assume that the stereotypical attribute of a group is inherent – “the characteristic is in their nature” (Hinton 2000: 13), it is something they cannot control or change;
- stereotypes are held regardless of changes of circumstances (Hinton 2000: 12); “even repeated disconfirmations of a stereotype can often fail to alter it because the individual treats them as exceptions” (Bem 1970: 9).
stereotyping as a social process
Most statements listed above apply to individual thinking and cognition, but it is important to emphasize that stereotypes are also social phenomena. Categorizing people generally means assigning them to groups on the basis of a characteristic. People attributed the same characteristic that we share enter our in-group defined in terms of this characteristic; people that lack it enter the out-group. For example, if the characteristic is nationality, the in-group is our imagined community of nation, and the out-group comprises foreigners.
“Stereotyping differs from more general social typing [categorization] in its rigidity; it "reduces, essentializes, naturalizes and fixes 'difference'. . . facilitates the 'binding' or bonding together of all of Us who are 'normal' into one 'imagined community'; and it sends into symbolic exile all of Them (Hall 1997: 258)” (Talbot 2003: 471).
Aspects of inter-group stereotyping include:
- overestimating differences between groups (‘they are not like us’),
- underestimating internal out-group differentiation (‘they are all the same’),
- perceiving one’s in-group in more positive terms,
- perceiving out-groups in more negative terms,
- in-group favouritism,
- out-group discrimination.
Stereotypes provide positive feedback about one’s in-group and help create both individual and social self-esteem. Stereotypes function to justify existing attitudes in intergroup contexts (Stangor 1995: 280-281). In an intergroup confrontation, such pre-existing attitudes affect the receptiveness to arguments (Billig 1987: 66).
"Within-group amity and between-group enmity are almost universal. The rule of thumb is to trust in-group members until they prove to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove to be trustful" (Shermer 2011: 247).
It is important to note that “erroneous stereotypes are a social problem primarily if they lead to biases and discrimination (…) inaccuracy becomes a problem when perceivers treat or evaluate one group differently than another as a result of that inaccuracy” (Jussim & Eccles 1995: 246). This statement illustrates exactly the influence of stereotypes on attitudes (biased, discriminatory attitudes) and action (unequal treatment).
From my perspective, one of the most important aspects of intergroup dynamics is that one individual may belong to a theoretically indefinite number of groups, that boundaries of and between groups may not always be clearly defined, and that groups are characterized by various relations to each other that may even seem contradictory (from an individual’s point of view). For example, a female gay Pole belongs to the groups of women, homosexuals, and Polish citizens. However, she may be excluded from the last group by religious, nationalistic, homophobic etc. Polish citizens. Her sexual orientation means she cannot qualify as a “good Polish citizen”. Note how difficult it is to define who should be included in the category of, say, “American”. Does it include recent immigrants who speak perfect English, have jobs and residency permits, but no citizenship? Does it include children born in the United States who do not speak the language or identify with the culture? Who may be considered “British” – do families of African-American, Asian, Eastern-European background, living in the UK for one, two, three generations, qualify? Does someone born of British parents in Singapore or South Africa qualify?

Thinking in terms of “us” and “them” leads to polarization, as it ignores such “fuzzy” boundaries of categories and groups. “Polarization generally promotes collective violence because it makes the us-them boundary more salient, hollows out the uncommitted middle, intensifies conflict across the boundary, raises the stakes of winning or losing, and enhances opportunities for leaders to initiate action against their enemies” (Tilly 2003: 22–23).
Polarization is also problematic as it encourages thinking in terms of "black and white" opposition: "we" are good, right, normal, "they" are bad, wrong, abnormal - there is nothing in-between, no middle position, and no other "truth" than "our truth". This results in the rejection of any arguments coming from "them" without prior consideration, as prejudice against them is extended to their arguments and discourse (Šūlmane & Kruks 2009: 13).

stereotyping and language
Once again it is necessary to emphasize the role of discourse in the construction of social realities. Stereotypes may not only be explicitly expressed in language, but also emerge in implicit ways from the way we talk about other people. “Many forms of group perception, judgment and interaction, such as conformity, polarization, solidarity, stereotyping and racism, (…) take place through discourse (…). Indeed, when talking as group members people tend to emphasize the positive things of their own group, and the negative things of outgroups, processes of group stereotyping, prejudice formation and polarization that may be observed at many levels of text and talk” (van Dijk 2009: 71). Lakoff writes: “when bias is made explicit (…), it can be identified and criticized. But when it’s implicit, hiding behind a frame that renders it invisible, it is impervious to critique or change” (2000: 52). We return to van Dijk for an illustration: in Dutch media discourse, “we” typically “refers to an ingroup that may be vaguely characterized as “Dutch” or “European,” but usually not as “white.” In other words, “being white” is the normative baseline that is being taken for granted for the organization of text and talk, and need not be explicitly oriented to – in focus are those who somehow can be constructed as having a different color or culture, or both (2009: 111).
Billig recognizes that the manipulation of reference of the pronoun “we” belongs to the most common ideological effects of discourse (1991: 101).
stereotypes and ideology
We might recall that ideologies operate at the level of social groups. At the same time, categorization and stereotyping are intergroup processes. Ideology is relevant to the study of stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes because “subjects” of ideology, those who use ideological “reflexes” without reflection, become stereotypes that reproduce stereotypes – Billig cannot be more explicit when he writes that “uncoordinated acceptance is the opposite of thinking” (Billig 1991: 8), “the automatic application of categories is the negation of thinking” (Billig 1987: 140).
Against this background, it may be important to note that social categorization involves not only distinguishing out-groups from in-groups, but also labelling them, their norms and values: “in rhetorical situations each party will attempt to apply the label which suits their purposes best” (Billig 1987: 142); consider Geertz’s statement “”we” have political opinions; “they” have ideology” (1973: 194). Another strategy is using the same label with different meaning (Billig 1987: 147) – for example, the term freedom means something different for Republicans and for Democrats.

Prejudice “is an aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore assumed to have objectionable qualities ascribed to the group” (Allport 1954: 8).
Prejudice is “a shared form of social representation in group members, acquired during processes of socialization” (van Dijk 1984: 13); “even without any information about a group, people may already start building an attitude about them” (p. 24). It is a kind of pre-judgement that steers perception and thinking; prejudiced individuals will treat information confirming their prejudices as typical, and information disconfirming it as exceptional. Prejudiced people expect the negative (recall the self-fulfilling-prophesy effect of stereotyping).
Prejudice – “an unjustified negative emotional reaction to a target group (…) assumed to result from displacement of hostility and frustration toward convenient scapegoats” (Ottati & Lee 1995: 46). “Some prejudice may be a reflection of the individual’s own insecurities” (Bem 1970: 21).

My point is:
Categorization and stereotyping are inherent to human thinking. Problems start when they threaten social cohesion, lead to discrimination and injustice. The point is not so much to stop categorizing, but to do it in a self-reflexive and critical way; to be aware of the existence of pre-judgements that affect our perception of new phenomena, that introduce bias into our thinking about them.
We should be especially careful about beliefs that become the foundation for other beliefs. Beliefs build upon one another, and so those "at the bottom", at the basis of our belief system become neutralized, invisible. As time passes it gets increasingly difficult to even recognize them as beliefs as not as "obvious, natural facts"; besides, such beliefs are very difficult to change, because it would require admitting that the entire belief system is based on wrong foundations. It is then probably easier for an individual to stick by wrong beliefs than to rearrange the entire belief system.

Reflecting on the social nature of categorization and stereotyping, another point is to recognize and resist beliefs that public discourse imposes on us as facts. Language use is never neutral; what to talk about and how to talk about it are ideological choices. Butler (1997), for example, makes us aware of “the divine power of naming”; Wareing reminds us that “language creates power, as well as being a site where power is performed” (2004: 11). Or, to go even further: “it is more effective and efficient for a system to control our behaviour by controlling our perception of reality than it is to control us with force” (Wareing 2004: 11);  “to secure power, it makes sense to persuade everyone else that what you want is also what they want” (Wareing 2004: 38).
We must then approach all new information with caution; we must ask: "how do you know that?" "where does it come from?" "where is the proof?" We must remember that all facts are merely factual beliefs, no matter how feasible and attractive they seem.
On a more positive note, "discourse emerges in a particular socio-historical context where participants appropriate, challenge, and negotiate meanings” (Bakhtin 1981: 428). Power elites may appropriate meanings for us, but we still have the options to negotiate and challenge them.

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