Department of Social Sciences
08 December 1999
Tutor: Prof. Michael Billig
Is stereotyping an inevitable part of human nature?
Harry French Court
2. Approaches in Stereotyping
2.1 Cognitive Approach
2.2 Discursive Theory
The term `stereotype′ has been part of social science since the 1920s, when the journalist Walter Lippmann, referring to the use of preconceptions (Sabini, 1995: 123), created it. The essay title questions the thesis of the cognitive approach, that stereotypes are an inevitable part of human nature. In general, stereotypes can be defined as `[...] a group of beliefs about persons who are members of a particular group...′ normally being negative (Smith and Bond, 1998: 184).
For a better understanding of the different views about stereotyping, first the cognitive approach has to be described. Then the alternative view of discursive theorists will be compared. This paves the way for arguing that stereotypes are avoidable, because they are not just an unconscious action of the brain.
2. Approaches in Stereotyping
2.1 Cognitive Approach
Cognitive Theorists define `a stereotype as a cognitive structure containing the perceiver′s knowledge and beliefs about a social group and its members′ (Hamilton et al., 1992: 135). Hence stereotypes are part of our belief system co-ordinated by categorisation processes (Hamilton et al., 1994). The belief system uses stereotypes as cognitive schema with pre-established expectations (Smith and Bond, 1998: 186). This is necessary because there is always too much information in our daily life, and only simplification helps us to process it, especially in situations of cognitive pressure (Sabini, 1995: 136). As a result individuals sharing common properties are placed in the same group (Hamilton and Trolier, 1986).
Hence the key point of Cognitive Theory is that people′s perceptions of others are shaped by a mechanism in the brain with `certain systematic cognitive biases′. Based on these biases stereotypes and prejudices are produced which are not influenced by socialisation, individual psychological problems or group conflicts (Taylor et al., 1994: 224).
Henri Tajfel carried out a classic study verifying the effects of stereotypic thought. He asked people to estimate the length of lines, and found that `once [...] a categorization has been imposed, our subjective judgements of the objects are changed′ (Brewer and Crano, 1994: 465). Unconsciously, things belonging to the same category are seen as more homogeneous, and things of different categories as contrasting with the previous and heterogeneous. This process can be applied to the perception of social groups and is one reason for the maintenance of stereotypes. People use stereotypes `without conscious awareness′, if they are adopted by the whole society (Brewer and Crano, 1994: 465ff).
Cognitive Theory says that stereotypes can be changed for an individual person, but only to create a subtype category in which this person can be classed. This is not seen as really changing or avoiding stereotypes, because people say about subtype outgroup members that they `are not typical and "the exception proves the rule"′ (Taylor et al., 1994: 225). The only way to change or reduce stereotypes really would be to turn off the cognitive mechanism responsible. This could be reached by changing labels of categories, reducing stimulant exceptional features or else increasing different features. If stereotypes develop, because an outgroup is not part of the daily life of the ingroup, contact could reduce stereotypes. At the moment there is little evidence for these theses and more studies are necessary to prove them (Hamilton et al., 1994: 315).
Another aspect of Cognitive Theory is people remembering stereotype-conform information better than information not matching their stereotypic expectancies (Sabini, 1995: 128). This leads to a stronger maintenance of stereotypes (Snyder et al., 1995: 487) and `through these processes stereotypes can create their own supporting evidence, making them resistant to change′ (Hamilton et al., 1994: 306).
The studies of Devine go a step away from the radical cognitive view. She found out that the use of stereotypes is controllable, because differences exist between knowing and believing stereotypes. People learn to know which stereotypes are associated with a certain group. These stereotypes can carry on to have unconscious effects, but people can actively control their use of stereotypes (Sabini, 1995: 139). With this theory, responsibility for thinking and behaviour is back again in the control of the individual. Devine thinks that people recognise the internal conflict and prejudice is avoided because of feelings of guilt (Brewer and Crano, 1994: 477). Persons in the studies of Devine `[...] were neither prejudice nor not prejudiced; they were deeply ambivalent, driven toward both sympathy and hostility. One pole was expressed, conscious, and affirmed; the other was no less real but was denied awareness′ (Sabini 1995, p. 120).
Devine′s view is more moderate but includes cognitive aspects. However, the Discursive Theory explained in the following chapter stands in severe contrast to these aspects.
2.2. Discursive Theory
Discursive Theorists reject the Cognitive Theory with the idea of human beings solely controlled by unconscious brain activities. Billig criticises the cognitive approach as `one-sided′ because it implies `that as humans all we can do in our thoughts is to categorize information′ (Billig, 1992: 56). Humans would not assume any responsibility for their stereotype based prejudiced thought, if this approach is the only truth.
An obvious difficulty with the narrow-minded cognitive view is that if there is a natural need to categorise there must also be the contrary `natural tendency′ (Billig, 1992) to particularise categorised information and to make exceptions. Billig also uses a rhetorical perspective to study `the argumentative aspects of discourse′, in which everyday phrases are analysed in which people justify themselves against critics and even against critics of their own self (Billig, 1991: 129). Prejudice is mentioned in speech and people know that it is wrong to be prejudiced. This proves `that prejudice is not merely a technical concept to be found in the writings of psychologists, but a concept used in everyday discourse, [...]′ (Billig et al., 1988: 101).
Further evidence for active dealing with stereotypes can be found, although it is not possible to impute that in all cultures and time phases the awareness of prejudice was a social norm. In existence stereotypes function as a social pressure forming `part of the individual′s cognitive belief′ (Billig, 1991: 127). In European and North American cultures a general awareness of and guilt about prejudice can be found, and is even referred to by fascists. In argumentative sentences people deny their prejudice while at the same time expressing their dislike of outgroup members. Obviously there are in such cases two ideological views facing each other in the conscious mind of the speaker (Billig, 1991: 125ff). In addition, stereotypes are often hooded, because `it is unusual in racist talk to find examples of direct stereotypic statements of the classic "Italians are over-emotional" form′ (Wetherell, 1996: 220). Instead, the speaker refers to an external `empirical nature of the world′ giving evidence for his/her view, `rather than the preferences of the self′ (Billig, 1991: 131), i.e. he/she denies the psychological moment and gives rational outside evidence as reasonable argument (Billig, 1988: 109). Denying prejudice is not only a question of the right performance for the scientist or opponents, because it takes place even if the listener or audience is part of the own group or even if it is not a public display (Wetherell, 1996: 222; Billig, 1991: 127).
These studies show that active control of stereotypes is possible, because people are aware of the problem. If denying prejudice is a conscious part of racist speech, non-racist people are also able to avoid stereotypes. This leads to the result that stereotyping is not an inevitable part of human nature; it is shaped by language and created in the socialisation of a child. Categorising is important but the categories in which we simplify are social divisions and are not innate. `Children are not naturally oriented to `race′ but have to be taught that skin colour is an important social division while height, for instance, does not have the same salience′ (Wetherell, 1996: 224). Narratives for example influence stereotypes, because children echo parental voices (Wetherell, 1996: 224). Another important phase in creating stereotypes is education. At worst, Billig even goes as far as to determine that `education may enhance the ability to produce justifications, rather than eliminate racism tout court′ (Billig, 1991: 134).
Discursive Theory states that if people are aware of using prejudiced language there exists no unconscious appearance of stereotyping. Therefore it would be possible for people to avoid stereotyping, if the willingness to do so exists (Billig, 1988: 101f).
These two theories about stereotyping are in complete opposition. On the one hand there is the human being, controlled by unconscious actions of the brain. On the other hand they are responsible for their behaviour because they are able to control it themselves.
It is possible that in reality stereotyping lies somewhere between these views. Studies have proved that people often think in categories. This implies that they will always measure other humans in some way to simplify thinking. However in our minds there are possibilities to avoid discriminative thinking, and people are able to hand down this to further generations. Finally it could be stated that getting rid of prejudice, the negative side to stereotyping, depends on the willingness of people to avoid it.
Billig, M., Condor, S., Edwards, D., Gane, M., Middleton, D. and Radley, A. (1988) Ideological Dilemmas: A Social Psychology of Everyday Thinking. London: Sage.
Billig, M. (1991) Ideology and Opinions: Studies in Rhetorical Psychology. London: Sage.
Billig, M. (1992) `Categorization and Particularization′. In W. B. Gudykunst and Y. Y. Kim (eds.), Readings on Communicating with Strangers. New York and London: McGraw-Hill, pp 56-66.
Brewer, M. B. and Crano, W. D. (1994) Social Psychology. Minneapolis / St. Paul: West Publishing Company.
Hamilton, D. L. and Trolier, T. K. (1986) `Stereotypes and Stereotyping: An Overview of the Cognitive Approach′. In J. F. Dovidio and S. L. Gaertner (eds.), Prejudice, Discrimination and Racism. Orlando and London: Academic Press, pp 127-163.
Hamilton, D. L. ed. (1981) Cognitive Processes in Stereotyping and Intergroup Behaviour. Hillsdale: Laurence Erlbaum.
Hamilton, D. L., Sherman, S. J. and Ruvolo, C. M. (1992) `Stereotype-Based Expectancies: Effects on Information Processing and Social Behaviour′. In W. B. Gudykunst and Y. Y. Kim (eds.), Readings on Communicating with Strangers. New York and London: McGraw-Hill, pp 135-158.
Hamilton, D. L., Stroessner, S. J. and Driscoll, D. D. (1994) `Social Cognition and the Study of Stereotyping′. In P. G Devine, D. L. Hamilton and Th. M. Ostrom (eds.), Social Cognition: Impact on Social Psychology. San Diego and London: Academic Press, pp 291-321.
Sabini, J. (1995) Social Psychology. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.
Smith P. B. and Bond, M. H. (1998) Social Psychology Across Cultures. London: Prentice Hall Europe.
Snyder, M., Decker Tanke, E. and Berscheid, E. (1995) `Social Perception and Interpersonal Behaviour: On the Self-Fulfilling Nature of Social Stereotypes′. In E. Aronson (ed.), Readings about the Social Animal. New York: W. H. Freeman, pp 486-500.
Taylor, S. E., Peplau, L. A. and Sears, D. O. (1994) Social Psychology. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Wetherell, M. (1996) `Group Conflict and the Social Psychology of Racism′ In M. Wetherell (ed.), Identities, Groups and Social Issues. London: Sage, pp 175-234.