To better understand the world and things, we are learning by comparing and categorizing. The categorization is therefore a basic automatic process well known to researchers. In human context, categorization tends to legitimize the categories giving them more than an existence, an essence.
We categorize people and objects based on the idea that they have the same nature. It is the process of categorization that presides over the stereotypes. However, categorization is a major process of the construction of social identity. What defines the stereotype, is its consensual dimension.
Studies on stereotypes show that they appear almost automatically. The formation of a stereotype would correspond to an essentialist logic. This is to explain what people do (their activity, behavior) by what they are (essentially, by nature).
Such essentialist logic is often related to a racist logic.
Prejudice, in turn, is a negative attitude towards one or more persons on account of their belonging to a particular group. It has often been described as a strong emotional charge and hostility. If the stereotype is rather descriptive and collective, prejudice would be more individual and normative.
Stereotypes are sensitive to the evolution of the relationship (particularly confrontation or domination) between groups. It has been noticed that in all societies, there are groups of people who are subject to a stereotype of inferiority. Stereotypes appear as a definition of the group, the essence of the group. This appears often as a reality and not a belief.
Especially that the reality may seem to confirm the validity of the stereotype. For example, there are few women in science. This finding can be interpreted in different ways: biological or cultural.
However, some scholars such as Leyens made the following hypothesis:
The stereotype, the reputation of which groups are subject, would have a direct effect on the performance of the Group and especially when the stereotype is enabled.
They called this recent current research ‘stereotype threat’.
The threat of the stereotype is contextual, situational. It does not necessarily correspond to the interiorization of the stereotype in terms of devalued self-image. The person must be aware of the reality of the stereotype, however it does not adhere necessarily to it.
The threat would arise from a failure script in a given situation. The subjects of the stigmatized group would fear to confirm the stereotype. This would increase their anxiety to the evaluative pressure of the situation. Thus, this could cause interfering thoughts that obstruct the subject in these activities. This could also result in excessive prudence (go more slowly, be more careful…
Experiments show sometimes that merely mention the group (women, unemployed…) will activate the stereotype threat. And the subjects will be asked to conform to the stereotype.
Categorization may therefore give rise to discrimination. For example, saying “poor”, “disabled” is potentially dangerous since it may well be that they confirm expectations.
Social psychologists prefer the terms of “persons in precarious situations”, “person with disabilities”. Saying this is not to play on words, but to denounce formulations who naturalize social problems.
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