We cannot live unless we use categories to generalize about things. We simply do not have the time or ability to analyze everything as new and unique. We have to generalize in order to make sense of the world. Indeed, generalizations can be useful.

Carl Linnaeus is regarded the father of taxonomy. Our ability to classify things is very important to understanding them. Photo.

Let us say you know that British people do not always take their shoes off before going into their houses. That is a reasonable generalization, although a lot of British people actually do take their shoes off before going into their houses. Your knowledge of foreign customs may prompt you to offer useful advice to a British person who must go into a Japanese house for the first time.

Let us say you know that Americans and Europeans do not usually take off their shoes before going into their houses. Imagine a foreign friend of yours is about to enter a Japanese-style house. It may be helpful to remind your friend to take off his/her shoes. However, some non-Japanese who have lived in Japan for a long time my find such a reminder annoying. Photo.

A problem arises if you assume that all members of a group have a particular trait. If you decide that British people always need to be reminded to take their shoes off, it could become very annoying for your friend (who may not remain your friend for very long!). The biggest problem, however, is that you would be failing to understand and respond to the situation. Why would people prefer not to understand — even when it is not difficult to understand? One reason is that is often more comfortable.

18th century stereotypes. The Europeans are portrayed as very sophisticated and well-dressed while the Asians, Americans, and Africans are portrayed as savages. Photo.

Stereotypes are often very comforting. They very often portray us as superior to others in some way. There is a great deal of evidence of stereotyping in the history of the study of culture.

The Greek historian Herodotus who died 425 BC. He invented the word barbarian — which originally just meant “people who are different.” Photo.

 The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wanted to study culture in order to understand why the Greeks and Persians were always fighting. He traveled to more than fifty societies and studied their cultures. The name Herodotus gave to non-Greeks was barbarian. This word simply meant “people who are different” and was relatively free of value judgments. However, the word barbarian rapidly came to suggest deficiency as well as difference. The word later came to mean “uncivilized” or “uncultured” and even “non-Christian.” By the time the word barbarian entered the English language, it was defined as “savage, rude, savagely cruel, inhuman.”

What do you think of this?

The Huns as uncivilized hordes. Photo.

Clearly, it is comfortable to think of others as uncivilized and inferior, particularly if we find those people threatening. Can you think of any recent examples of stereotyping?

Stereotypes Quiz.

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About Herodotus:

Cole, M. (2003) Cultural psychology: a once and future discipline. Belknap: Harvard. (pp. 8-9)


Featured image: Utamaro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons