Between reality and myth

A corpus-based analysis of the stereotypic image of some Romanian ethnic minorities

Thesis (M.A.), 2007

66 Pages, Grade: 10,00



1 Introduction

2 The Coordinates of Stereotype Thinking
2.1 Lippmann's view

3 The Relation Between the Self and the Group

4 Stereotype formation
4.1 The social origin of stereotypes
4.2 Ethnocentrism
4.3 Phenomena involved in the mechanism of stereotype formation
4.3.1 Illusory correlation Explaining illusory correlations Availability Heuristic Schema-driven processing
4.3.2 Categorization
4.3.3 Outgroup homogeneity

5 Stereotyping and Language
5.1 The functions of language in intergroup contexts
5.2 The Language of Stereotyping
5.2.1 The foreigner
5.2.2 The stereotype of Rroma
5.2.3 The stereotype of the Jews
5.2.4 The Stereotype of the Turks
5.2.5 The stereotype of the Greeks
5.2.6 The stereotype of the Hungarians
5.2.7 Conclusion

6 Conclusions

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to highlight the relation which can be established between language and stereotyping as a socio-cognitive process. With this purpose in mind, I will try to do is to analyse the linguistic material – consisting of a corpus made up of vocabulary for nicknames, forms of address, collocations, and expressions, on the one hand, and the proverbs on the other so as to justify the way in which the stereotypical image of some of the groups (the Rroma, the Jews, the Turks, the Greeks, and the Hungarians), which represent or have represented ethnic minorities in Romania throughout the centuries, is delineated.

It is not within the scope of this paper to provide a holistic image of the discussed phenomenon, because each community develops its own set of verbal clichés which encode different specific mental stereotypes, according to their own history of mentalities, and to their ingroup – outgroup relations. The main purpose of my corpus-based analysis to focus on the peculiar traits of the Romanian language to encapsulate otherness, and emphasize outgroup ethnicity. Still, comparisons with other languages will be drawn.

Chapter 2 the focus will be on some of the pioneering work related to stereotyping, with a special subsection dedicated to Lippmann, the founding father of the concept of stereotyping. A review of his main tenets will be provided, as most of them can still be found today in most of the research conducted on stereotypes.

In Chapter 3 the possible types of relation between the self and the group will be discussed mostly in the light of Simon Bernd’s 1997 theory on the self. I consider that it is essential to provide such insights because, in order to understand the formation of stereotypes, it is necessary to take both individual and group interests into account.

In Chapter 4 I will discuss some aspects related to stereotype formation. The literature dedicated to this topic is extremely rich, and I have chosen to focus on the approaches which have proved particularly enlightening for the understanding of the mechanism which lies behind the formation of stereotypes in general, and ethnic stereotypes in the case of the present study. Therefore, concepts such as ethnocentrism, illusory correlation, outgroup homogeneity, or categorization are discussed in distinct subsections.

Chapter 5 will consist of a review of the main aspects relating language and stereotyping, followed by a corpus-based analysis of the linguistic material indicative of stereotypical perceptions of several ethnic groups such as: the Rroma, the Jews, the Turks, the Greeks, and the Hungarians.

Finally, some conclusions will be drawn and the major findings will be highlighted.

2 The Coordinates of Stereotype Thinking

Social life ceaselessly generates impressions. We are struck by the attractiveness of a woman passing by. We are irritated by the sloth of the old person in front of us at the post office. We are puzzled by the unexpected behaviour of our partner. Or we are looking forward to meeting a politician at a reception. Many of these impressions are affected by the way we perceive other people, be it as individuals or as groups. Even before we meet these people, we have an idea of what they will look like, how they will behave and how we will react towards them. We have expectations about how attractive an average woman is, so we can notice the difference with the woman passing by. We have preconceptions about the speed by which older people move and we might get irritated by the older person in front of us, even if he or she does not move any slower than the younger person in the other line. We expect our partner to be kind and understanding and we are upset if he or she reacts otherwise. And we might have assumptions about how pleasant the interaction with the politician will be, based on our preconceived idea that politicians should be extroverted.

In social interactions it is important to know whom and what we are dealing with. Will this person be kind and thoughtful to me or should I protect myself against their outlash? Will this group of people understand what I say, or should I adjust my message? Although in most situations, physical survival is not at risk, yet psychological survival may be and information about others could be useful. Nevertheless, in a world that teeming with information, we cannot remember everything about everyone. To avoid information overload, we have developed all sorts of skills to organize information into simplified and systematically ordered patterns, such as social categories. These categories make it easier to know whom we are dealing with, since we only have to know to discover to what group a person belongs to, a clue enabling us to choose how to behave towards him or her. His or her group membership may offer an overwhelming amount of information that we can successfully use then when interacting with this person. The simplified and systematically ordered information about a group that is stored in memory can be referred to as a stereotype.

Traditional views define stereotypes is frozen, solidified concepts, pre-established constructs. The term comes from the Greek words stereos and túpos. Literally translated “stereos” means rigid, solid or firm, and “túpos” means trace, impression or model. Indeed, in most definitions of stereotypes given in the literature such properties prevail. For instance, Allport defines stereotypes as “a fixed idea that accompanies the category” (1954: 191). Similarly, in their dictionary of psychological terms English and English refer to stereotypes as “a relatively rigid and oversimplified or biased perception or conception of an aspect of reality, especially of persons or social groups”(1958: 253). Lippmann also notes that stereotypes are relatively fixed, as in his view, they are related to personal values: “No wonder, then, that any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe” (1922, p. 95).

A distinction needs to be operated between a stereotype and other terms that refer to something that is pre-established and assimilated in the collective mentality, being disseminated with a certain consistency. In all studies carried out in sociology, linguistics, social psychology specialists ran into the matter of thinking in stereotypes. Psychologists consider that stereotyping is a natural process that is a part of the evolution of human cognition.

To achieve a full understanding of stereotypes and stereotyping it is essential to know why we distinguish between groups, and consequently which aspects entitle us to distinguish between groups. It is therefore necessary to consider not only the cognitive aspects, but also the socio-cultural and motivation-related features of stereotypes.

2.1 Lippmann's view

Back in 1922, Lippmann who introduced the concept in his Public Opinion, conceived of stereotypes as a complex phenomenon. According to Lippmann, stereotypes are complex structures, they fulfil several key functions and are acquired through life from different sources and through various means of dissemination. To some extent, we shape our beliefs about group members and ethnic groups on the basis of what we see but to a remarkably greater extent, we acquire and reinforce such beliefs on the basis of what we are taught to see. Stereotypes fulfil the function of simplifying a complex reality and this simplification is made on grounds of values shared in the culture in which we are socialized. Lippmann argues that:

“…it is not merely a way of substituting order for the great blooming, buzzing confusion of reality. It is not merely a short cut. It is all these things and more. It is the guarantee of our self-respect; it is the projection upon the world of our own sense of our own value, our own positions and our own rights. The stereotypes are, therefore, highly charged with feelings that are attached to them. They are the fortress of our tradition, and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy” (Lippmann 1922: 64).

The concept of stereotype as introduced by Lippmann in 1922 is still being used today within social psychology. The most valuable aspect of his theorizing about stereotyping is that he stressed the importance of the simultaneous working of three factors: motivation, cognition and society. The main assumption is that what people do does not derive from direct and unquestionable knowledge, but from mental pictures that are either made by themselves or are taught to them. His widely used expression “pictures in our head” strikingly resembles the notion of “schema” as used nowadays. He calls these pictures people acquire of themselves, others, their needs, purposes, and relationships, “public opinions”. People cannot do without those pictures, so he claims, because:

“the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it” (Lippmann 1922: 11).

This argument obviously resembles the line of reasoning used in the social cognition, which emphasises the notion of the “limited cognitive capacity” meant to lead to all sorts of simplifications and short cuts. Preconceived representations of the world are thought to govern the whole process of perception. This makes us, as Lippmann says, see the things that are slightly familiar as very familiar, and that what is somewhat strange as very much so. Or, put in contemporary terms, assimilation and contrast effects occur.

This does not mean that our perceptions are wholly erroneous: they must be sufficiently accurate to subsist. By and large, the way we see things will be a combination of what is there and what we expect to find. Differences may occur in the “pictures in our head” because of conflicting positions and interests:

“The captains of industry saw in great trusts monuments of (their) success; their defeated competitors saw the monuments of (their) failure. So the captains expounded the economies and virtues of big business, ask to be let alone, said they were the agents of prosperity, and the developers of trade. The vanquished insisted upon the wastes and brutalities of the trusts, and called loudly upon the Department of Justice to free business from conspiracies. In the same situation one side saw progress, economy, and a splendid development; the other, reaction, extravagance, and a restraint of trade. Volumes of statistics, anecdotes about real truth and inside truth, the deeper and the larger truth were published to prove both sides of the argument” (Lippmann 1922: 66).

It is not only our need for cognitive economy, but also our interests which make us heavily rely on acquired stereotypes, which will not be relinquished easily. Lippmann (1922) argues that what can actually happen if experience contradicts the stereotype is that the individual faced with the respective experience will treat it as an exception that proves the rule, he will discredit the witness, he will also find a flaw somewhere, and forget it in the end.

Stereotypes not only hold images of how the world is but also of how the world should be. The stereotypes are, as Lippmann says:

“loaded with preference, suffused with affection or dislike, attached to fears, lusts, strong wishes, pride, hope. Whatever invokes a stereotype is judged with the appropriate sentiment. Except when we deliberately keep prejudice in suspense, we do not study a man and judge him to be bad. We see a bad man. We see a dewy morn, a blushing maiden, a sainted priest, a humourless Englishman, a dangerous Red, a carefree bohemian, a lazy Hindu, a wily Oriental, a dreaming Slav, a volatile Irishman, a greedy Jew, a 100% American” (1922: 78).

The main respect in which I will follow Lippmann is that the stereotypes we hold about groups of people cannot simply be understood in the terms of the necessary cognitive processes involved. In order to understand the formation of stereotypes, it is necessary to take both individual and group interests into account.

3 The Relation Between the Self and the Group

It is widely accepted that people behave differently in intrapersonal settings than in collective or group settings.

Tajfel and Turner (1979, 1986) founded a school of investigation and empirical research which focuses on the role of self-definition or self-interpretation processes in mediating the transition from individual (interpersonal) perception and behaviour to collective or group (intergroup and intragroup) perception and behaviour and vice versa. A key element of that approach is the distinction between the individual self (or personal identity) and the collective self (or social identity) (see Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher and Wetherell, 1987; Turner, Oakes, Haslam and McGarty, 1994). The individual self and the collective self are conceptualized as two different forms of self-interpretation, each being responsible for particular types of perceptual and behavioural phenomena. Reflecting self-interpretation as a unique individual, the individual self is the psychological basis of individual phenomena, i.e. patterns of perception and behaviour characterized by inter-individual variation. Conversely, the collective self reflects self-interpretation as an interchangeable group member and thus provides the psychological basis for collective or group phenomena, i.e. patterns of perception and behaviour characterized by inter-individual uniformity. It follows that, from a social psychological perspective, the occurrence of individual and group phenomena depends on the relative assessment of the individual self and the collective self in people's self-images. Consequently, the likelihood of individual phenomena (e.g. egotism) increases relative to the likelihood of group phenomena (e.g. intragroup altruism or stereotyping) to the extent that the individual self is more salient in people's current self-images than the collective self (and vice versa).

In 1997, relying on the existing frameworks of social identity theory and self -categorization theory set forth by Tajfel and Turner (1979, 1986), Bernd Simon introduced his own tenets about the self in an article entitled “Self and Group in Modern Society: Ten Theses on the Individual Self and the Collective Self”.

1. The collective self is centred on a single dominant self-aspect, whereas the individual self is centred on a unique configuration of many non-redundant self-aspects.

This claim proposes that a collective self is activated whenever a person interprets her or his own experiences, perceptions and behaviours as well as the (re)actions of other people towards her or him in terms of a particular self-aspect that person shares with others, but not all other people in the relevant social context. He argues that these self aspects can refer, for example, to generalized psychological characteristics or traits (e.g. introverted), physical features (e.g. red hair), roles (e.g. father), attitudes (e.g. against the death penalty) or explicit group or category membership (e.g. member of the communist party).

2. Both the individual self and the collective self are social selves.

This claim maintains that the individual self is not based on special 'asocial' self-aspects, but on “a unique configuration or combination of social self-aspects” (Simon 1997: 321). The claim will be argued even more radically later in views that maintain that there is no inherent difference between self-aspects on which the individual self is based and self-aspects on which the collective self is based. The claim stresses that the relative weighting of the individual self and the collective self in a person's current self-image is a function of the relevant social context (Turner et al., 1987; Simon and Hamilton, 1994). This statement is also substantiated by each form of self-interpretation being responsible for a particular type of social behaviour and perception. Taking all these into consideration, it can be concluded that the individual self is as social “in terms of its content, origin and function” as the collective self (Turner et al. 1987: 46).

3. The individual self and the collective self are not based on different types of self-aspects.

What is argued here is the fact that there is no reason why the individual self and the collective self should be based on inherently different types of self-aspects. For instance, most of us would incline to believe that wearing spectacles is more likely to be associated with one's individual self. But just imagine that all people who wear spectacles were suddenly singled out for the same special treatment (perhaps because they were considered literate and therefore threatening), then 'wearing spectacles' should soon acquire great potential for collective self-interpretation (see also Tajfel, 1976, for another illustration of the same point). The main tenet of this thesis is that each self-aspect can be experienced as socially shared and thus may serve as a basis for a collective self “under the appropriate social conditions” (Simon 1997: 322).

4. Self-aspects referred to by nouns are especially likely to serve as a basis for the collective self.

The author claims that when we think about the aspects of the self (and other people), the use of nouns is likely to imply the essence and hence essential similarities with other people sharing the critical self-aspect as well as essential or qualitative differences between self and other people not sharing the respective self-aspect (Rothbart and Taylor, 1992). It seems that the nouns are the ones which cut the (social) world “at its joints”, as Roger Brown suggestively puts it in his second edition of Social Psychology (1986: 468). Words such as 'worker', 'woman', 'psychologist' define social types with relatively clear boundaries. Simon also argues that linguistic expressions such as verbs are less likely to serve as a basis for the collective self. Self-aspects referred to by adjectives are almost in the same situation because they are seen more as a matter of degree or quantity than as a matter of quality (they can vary along a continuum from 'not very strong' to 'extremely strong', for example). It is rather the case that self aspects referred to by other linguistic expressions than nouns should be more representative for the individual self.

5. Modernization favours the individual self over the collective self.

This claim pursues the following line of reasoning: in contemporary societies, people no longer belong to a single dominant collective or social group which for a lifetime affects all or most aspects of their lives, but they belong simultaneously to an increasing number of different, often mutually independent, and sometimes also conflicting social groups (professional groups, political parties, neighbourhoods, sports teams etc.). Just as a group incorporates many individuals, so does “an individual incorporates many groups” (Allport 1962: 25). In other words, the important point here is that the more complex the system of social coordinates is, more well-defined the individuality of each person becomes in contemporary society. This idea is also supported by Elias's socio-historical analysis of changes in people's self-images. He underlines that, since the Middle Ages, the balance between the collective self ('we-identity') and the individual self ('I-identity') has undergone a remarkable change towards an increasing domination of the individual self (Elias 1988: 209-315). According to Elias, this process of individual domination, with its nexus in the famous Cartesian dictum 'Cogito, ergo sum', is still developing along the same direction.

6. Though not obsolete, the collective self is highly variable and fragile in modern society.

The claim that contemporary society favours the individual self over the collective self does not imply that the collective self has simply been rendered obsolete in contemporary society. As contemporary society gives access to additional self-aspects, the number of potential or latent collective selves increases accordingly. The collective self is therefore, highly context-dependent and variable, and self-interpretations in terms of a particular collective self are transitory and fragile.

7. There is no simple antagonistic relationship between the individual self and the collective self, but rather a dynamic, dialectic interaction between the two.

At this point, the theory proposed is that the relationship between the individual self and the collective self is not simply an antagonistic one, but a dialectic one, in the sense that there is a continuous, dynamic dialogue between the two in the course of which they make each other possible. That is to say that, although in contemporary society the individual self tends to obstruct the collective self, it simultaneously incorporates and synthesizes the ensemble of possible collective selves thereby preserving their potential for realization under appropriate conditions.

8. The individual self and the collective self may be cognitively represented by 'placeholders'.

The 'placeholder' has the function to reserve a cognitive place for context-dependent representations or instantiations of the individual self. People may also hold cognitive placeholders for collective selves which would be associated with essentialistic beliefs implying that the self shares some essence with other ingroup members (Rothbart and Taylor 1992). Therefore, the placeholder for a particular collective self would reserve a cognitive place for context-dependent representations of that collective self.

9. The individual self and the collective self are phenomen(ologic)ally equally valid variants of the self.

This tenet argues that whether the self is interpreted as either a unique individual or as an interchangeable group member is dependent on the position of the self in the relevant social context (Turner et al., 1994). This should be the case because similarities with and differences from other people acquire significance and thus become relevant as a function of the social positioning of the self. In conclusion, both the individual self and the collective self can have psychological or phenomenological validity to the extent that they adequately reflect the social positioning and related experiences of the self.

10. There may exist quasi-intergroup situations such as that (out)group phenomena can occur even when people weigh the individual self more heavily than the collective self.

The individual self is classified as the psychological basis for individual phenomena and the collective self as the psychological basis for collective or group phenomena. Yet, the individual self can be responsible not only for individual phenomena, but also for certain group phenomena. That is, self-interpretation as a unique individual can result both in individualized perception and treatment of people who do not differ conspicuously from oneself, but also in the perception and treatment as an outgroup of those who do share a relevant difference vis-à-vis the self. Therefore, quasi-intergroup situations can arise in which phenomena like outgroup stereotyping, outgroup derogation or outgroup discrimination may be observed even when the individual self is not overridden by the collective self.

This chapter has focused on the difference or the discontinuity between the perception and behaviour of people acting as individuals on the one hand and the perception and behaviour of people acting as group members on the other. Following the social identity and self-categorization approach, all these theses put together argue that the shift from the individual to collective self-interpretations (from the individual self to the collective self) is the crucial psychological process which makes group life possible. That is why I have considered that the analysis of the relation between the individual self and the collective self is essential for the understanding of the phenomena which occur in group life (such as stereotyping, in our case), and for the underlying processes that generate them.

4 Stereotype formation

4.1 The social origin of stereotypes

As already specified, stereotypes are social phenomena that are part of the ideology and ideological practices within any society. But then, how do they arise? One line of reasoning maintains that humans, whenever they lived, formed clans, consisting of several families, which shared some basic interests, the most important of which was to survive. In order to survive it is necessary to have water, food and intercourse, so any group of people should safeguard access to these. In times of shortage, however, the access to food and water was contested by other clans with the same basic interests. Given the human capacity to reflect, to communicate by language, this not only leads to fighting for what one needs and protecting what one has, but also to the development of accompanying tales in which intergroup comparisons are drawn. Stereotypes are formed, reflecting the conflicting interests and power differences between groups. Of course, today's society is far more complex, but the generated stereotypes that are formed basically reflect comparable conflicts of interests.

If stereotypes serve as a guideline within a specific social environment, they must contain perhaps not so much a ' kernel of truth' but cannot either be disseminated as blatantly false. Otherwise formulated, the perceived differences being made must be grounded in the experienced reality of everyday life. We can ascribe lesser intelligence to one group of people just as long as are in a position which prevents them from showing that they are not less intelligent. Thus, as long as stereotypes are not systematically falsified, that is, as long as possible inconsistencies can be resolved, stereotypes can be expected to resist. Although the evaluative meaning of the ascribed characteristics will be frequently negative if an outgroup is concerned, this does not mean that the characteristics do not reflect intergroup differences on a descriptive level. If city-dwellers think that peasants stink, they rightly make a difference: the peasants smell of milk and all the other products they consume and produce, which may or may not be evaluated negatively. English may consider Romanian to be rude or direct, because the Romanian talk where the English consider it more appropriate to be silent. Somehow examples such as these are more easily agreed to be referring to 'true' differences, than if stereotypes about ethnic minorities are discussed. It is politically wise to be careful about what you say, especially given the power differences between Caucasians and Afro-Americans, and the still nonnegligible impact of racism. This does not mean, however, that one cannot look for the differences in the way language pinpoints differences in perception regarding various groups and how such differences generate and reinforce stereotypes.

Ashmore and DelBoca (1981) argue that it is impossible to validate a stereotype, since no criteria can be found to assess the actual distribution of traits within ethnic groups. This may be true for traits but not for other characteristics. The general level of education of, for instance, Gypsy people in Romania is far lower than that of Romanians; the crime rate among the Gypsy youth is also higher than that among the Hungarian or Romanian youth etc. So if one ascribes these characteristics to one group rather than the other, one is partially entitled to do so. Unfairness and prejudice arise in ascribing a characteristic that is more typical for one group than the other to any individual member one is confronted with and in the way differences that are due to social positions and roles are explained (for example, in the belief that stereotypical characteristics are inborn).


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Between reality and myth
A corpus-based analysis of the stereotypic image of some Romanian ethnic minorities
University of Bucharest
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Innovative, refreshing, well documented, fun read.
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Teaching Assistant Gabriela Brozba (Author), 2007, Between reality and myth, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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