Social Categorization

Structure and functions of social categories

The importance of social categories in everyday life is made woefully evident in daily world news. Consider the case of Sabbar Kashur, a Palestinian living in Jerusalem who by habit adopted a Jewish nickname, Dudu. People just assumed Dudu was Jewish; his life was easier that way. However, after his (consensual) Jewish lover discovered that he was an Arab rather than a Jew, Mr Kashur was accused, arrested, tried, and convicted of raped (Levy, 2010). In an instant, a loving act became a crime, based entirely on a change of social categories. Such is the power of social categories to shape our perceptions of others.

Over the last few decades, social psychologists have been extensively exploring the dynamics of social categorization, the process by which individuals are sorted into various social categories (e.g., women, men, Asian, student, musician, etc.).

Psychological functions of social categorization

Categorization is fundamental to human cognition because it serves a basic epistemic function: organizing and structuring our knowledge about the world. By identifying classes of stimuli and share important properties, categorization allows perceivers to bring order and coherence to the vast array of people, objects, and events that are encountered in daily life (e.g., Smith & Medin, 1981).

Once a categorical structure is superimposed upon them, the immense diversity of individual entities that we encounter in daily life becomes manageable. General, portable concepts become possible; for example, categorical representations allow us to speak of “horses,” rather than having to separately name each equine individual and treat each one as a wholly unprecedented and hence unpredictable entity.

One perceptual rules for establishing category membership are acquired, generic knowledge derived from prior interactions with category members can provide a rich source of inferences about the properties of newly encountered individuals. With the help of categories, the mind transforms the world from chaotic complexity into predictable order.

Social categories are no different from other types of concepts in their capacity to serve these basic knowledge functions. Whether on the basis of demographic features, social roles, kinship networks, shared tasks, or other social cues, identifying an individual as belonging to a particular social category enables inferences about a range of relevant and important issues. We can infer, for example, what the person’s goals and intentions might be, what skills and knowledge she might possess, and what general personality traits are likely to characterize her.

These sorts of inferences can be exceptionally useful in determining whether and how to interact with other people, just as categorizing physical objects can direct our interactions with them (e.g., we know that “sitting on” is an appropriate interaction with a “chair”). However, categorizing people differs from categorizing objects in one critical respect. When we place an individual into a social category, we are likely to consider our own status with respect to that category (i.e, as a member of non-member).

In this way, social categorization allows us to connect with those who share our group memberships (i.e., in-groups); however, it also has the potential to establish psychologically significant dividing lines between the perceiver and the target (i.e., out-groups), as was evident in the case of Sabbar Kashur described above.

Thus, in addition to epistemic functions, social categories also serve an important identity function, shaping the perceiver’s sense of belonging and connection to—or alienation from—others. Tajfel (1969, 1982) established a rich theoretical tradition exploring the implications of the epistemic and identity functions served by social categories.

As the foregoing discussion makes clear, relying on categories when perceiving the social world is in principle functional and adaptive—even essential—although it sometimes can lead to unsavory consequences. Far from being the “rotten generalizations that smelled up the mental household” (Schneider, 2004, p.562) that were assumed in early research, stereotypes about the general characteristics of social groups are often useful tools for constructing meaningful representations of others. However, to sever the epistemic functions that are ascribed to them in a truly adaptive way, these generalizations would need to possess a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Are social stereotypes accurate? This turns out to be a rather complicated question to answer definitively. The best answer seems to be: yes and no. On the one hand, it certainly seems likely that, if groups differ systematically from one another in detectable ways, such differences would be noted by perceivers and reflected in their beliefs.

Cognitive representations of social categories

Cognitive representations of social groups play a key role in

  1. determining which individuals belong in a given category, and then
  2. generating inferences about these identified category members.

The classical view of categories held that category membership is established by a set of features that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient to define the category (e.., Katz, 1972). This perspective was largely abandoned in light of a variety of conceptual critiques and incompatible empirical findings and replaced with two rival alternatives.

The first of these, the probabilistic view (e.., Rosch, 1978), argued that categories are defined by a set of prototypic features, and perceptions of category membership are governed by the degree of similarity (or “family resemblance”) between a particular instance and the category prototype.

The second alternative, the exemplar view (e.g., Medin & Schaffer, 1978), rejected the notion of a stable, unitary category prototype and instead argued that a category is represented by the features that characterize its salient individual exemplars. From the exemplar perspective, there is little or no abstraction involved in presenting the category; it is instead defined by the characteristics of specific instances.

Most of the research testing the relative merits of these competing perspectives involved the study of non-social categories. What is known about the representation of social groups? Sherman (1996) made a case that both views are correct, but they apply at different points in the development of group representation.

When initially encountering members of a novel group, an exemplar-based representation governs category judgments, but once enough experience with group members has occurred, a probabilistic, prototype-based representation appears to emerge.

Regardless of which representational format one presupposes, people clearly do hold consequential beliefs about the features and characteristics that are associated with social groups.

Stereotype content

The process of categorization initiates the activation of a variety of stereotypes associated with the category in question. Though the content of these stereotypes can be extremely varied (e.g., elderly people are slow; women are bad at math; homeless people are dangerous), over a decade of work on the stereotype content model (SCM; Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002) has shown that the content of stereotypes can be understood in terms of two fundamental dimensions: warmth and competence.

The dimensions of warmth (which encompasses traits like tolerant, warm, good-natured, and sincere) is concerned with a group’s goals in relation to the self or in-group. As perceivers, we want to know whether an individual or out-group is a friend or foe—whether the “other” intends to cooperate or compete (Fiske et al., 2002).

In addition to knowledge about a target’s intention to compete or cooperate, perceivers are also concerned with the target’s ability to pursue that intent. This capability to pursue one’s relatively positive or negative intentions is described by the second dimension: competence.

Competence (which encompasses traits like competent, confident, independent, and intelligent) describes the degree to which a target individual or group will be effective at bringing about desired outcomes.

In essence, the SCM asserts that perceivers differentiate individuals and groups according to their predicted impact on the self or in-group using judgments of their perceived intent (warmth) and their ability (competence) to pursue that intent (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2008).

Acquiring stereotypes

The ability to categorize is a skill displayed very early in development. In the case of gender, for instance, babies are basically experts at distinguishing between males and females’ and categorizing individuals accordingly, by 12 months of age. Almost as quickly as these categories are learned, they also become attached to stereotypes. Between the ages of 3 and 6 years, and often much earlier, children acquire knowledge of and begin to apply stereotypes in a number of domains, including race, gender, and age.

Much of what is known about the development of the ability to categorize and the formation of stereotyping and prejudice has been synthesized what children will only categorize based on dimensions that have been made psychologically salient.