T, Liu – Week Two – Systems of Difference

The tendency to socially categorize people into subgroups is a natural one. This is considered the basis of social perception, as people categorize to “systematize and simplify the social world. In this process of grouping social phenomena, individuals not only create order in the social environment, but also establish a system of orientation for self-reference. This is because during the process of categorizing, people can activate the stored schematic information about the given category, and cognitive prototypes, the common attributes thought to be possessed by all members within such category, will aid people in their navigating various contexts.

Given that the social world is a dynamic and complex collection of people and events, human minds cannot help but find it overwhelmingly exhausting to locate useful information, not to mention processing and analyzing the information. To deny people’s idiosyncratic properties and to attach simplified labels to people (such as race, age and gender), people apply sets of distinctive attributes to differentiate one social category from another. In fact, by resorting to this resorting to socially meaningful labels, people can readily make sense of the social environment.

As the perceptual cues people use to classify social categories are limited, those situationally  convenient and salient ones tend to form the foreground, and this  explains the popularity of a race-based categorisation, along with the prevalence of racial discriminations. As the lecture explains, race, as well as gender, is more of a culturally constructed division into groups of people rather than a fixed biological given. The so-called traits commonly believed to be shared by people within the same race category are always more perceptually remarkable than statistically significant enough to constitute as some fundamental difference. As Smith has pointed out, most “indicators” of race, such as intellectuality, are more stereotype-informed and bias-fueled than scientifically verified. Take the African Americans as an example. White Americans often consider African Americans hostile and cliquish, and they also find the latter athletic and musical at the same time. Such labelling of blackness is most likely to be the result of social construct than close, personal contact with black people possessing the particular personality traits or musical/athletic talents.

The prevalence of social categorization and the ease it provides us with during social interactions are not the excuse of promoting social categorization. In fact, its readiness has prevented most from recognizing its tendency to overgeneralize and its likelihood of falsity. Such ignorance has led to incidents of conflicts between groups, as historians and anthropologists have so painfully noted. For example, differences between cultures can grow so large that violent wars broke in the hope that one might win over the other. Conflicts between Islam and Middle Eastern, and Christianity and Western, to name a couple, are to some extent aggressive attempts to conserve and protect one’s culture at the expense of the other.

Political divisions can also rise in the face of differences, especially when the minorities are concerned. More often than usual, we find in history that the ethnic minorities are stigmatized for their deviation from “the standard”, “the norm”, and sometimes even persecuted for such differences. Racism, ethnic cleansings, and genocides, for instance, all rise from this tragedy.

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