Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Some Thoughts about Categories and Sterotypes

Americans are....

Japan is....

France was....

Brazil will be...

All of these statements are followed (in English) by an adjective, a word that conveys a subjective quality.

Isn't it interesting that we fight (if they are nasty) and nod our heads (if they are nice) over those adjectives, but we don't pay much attention to the nouns in those sentences?  We take for granted that there is such a thing as nation-states and nationalities.  That somewhere out there in the world there is a place called "Brazil" and personages called "Brazilians"  who are reported to be singular by virtue of some combination of qualities that no other nation or people on this planet possesses.  Strangely enough, we do this even if we've never set foot on that soil, much less met an actual native.  A tad bit irrational, n'est-ce pas?

Or not.  It's useful to think of these things as categories - buckets into which we conceptually gather things that seem to go together and we label that bucket "Brazil", "France", "Japanese" and so on.  Actually the buckets are filled in two ways, not just one.  The related concepts of "France" and the "French" and the positive or negative stereotypes tied to them are nourished by the imaginations of the French themselves and by the imaginations of the non-French all over the world.  Not exactly a fair fight either - there are roughly 7 billion people in the world and only 66 million of them are French.

I am fascinated by these categories and how we mentally manipulate them for our own ends.  But my ideas are nothing compared to the work of cognitive scientists, people who think about how the human race thinks.  In Women, Fire and Dangerous Things the cognitive linguist George Lakoff has an outstanding overview of the different theories that attempt to answer these questions:
"What is reason?  How do we make sense of our experience?  What is a conceptual system and how is it organized?  Do all people use the same conceptual system?  If so, what is that system?  If not, what is there that is common to the way all human beings think?"
Categories, Lakoff says, figure prominently in all discussions about how we reason.  Human beings are hard-wired to put things into mental buckets and then manipulate, compare, contrast and label them.  It's innate and every person on this planet does it.  How, for example, could we think about or discuss "international migration" with others  if we didn't have categories like "citizen", "migrant" or "Japanese"?

Lakoff present two schools of thought about categories.  The traditional view says that these categories are mental constructs that are "independent of people, and defined by the characteristics of their members and not in terms of any characteristics of the human."  The mind and the body are separate.  Emotion is irrelevant to reasoning.  Reason itself is transcendental and there exists a "God's eye view of the world- a single correct way of understanding what is true and what is not true".  All human beings share that single understanding. .

More recent theories, and one in particular called prototype theory, argues differently and contends that "human categorization is essentially a matter of both human experience and imagination-of perception, motor activity, and culture on one hand, and of metaphor, metonymy and mental imagery on the other."  Which implies that there is no one right way to truth and understanding will vary according to a number of different variables.

Lakoff believes (and this is the main point of his book) that we organize and reason according to idealized cognitive models (ICMs) and our categories are what comes out of this method of  mental organization. An example he gives is that of the "week".  "Our model of the week is idealized.  Seven-day weeks do not exist objectively in nature.  They are created by human beings.  In fact, not all cultures have the same kind of weeks."  The idea of le weekend would not exist in a culture or country where the work week wasn't 5 continuous days followed by 2 days off.  Another example is the category called "bachelor".  This category can only be defined "with respect to an ICM in which there is a human society (typically monogamous) with marriage, and a typical marriageable age."

Taking a stab at it for myself, "citizen' as a category can only exist if there is an ICM based on membership in a nation-state which divides into sub-categories:  French, Japanese, American, Brazilian.  The idea of  "France", "US", "Japan" and "Brazil" are predicated upon an ICM of the "nation-state."

At the core of the new theories about categories are prototypes which means the Best Examples of the categories we accept as real and want to use.  An apple, for example, would be a fine prototype for the category "fruit".    Are there prototypes for other things like nations or nationalities?  I think so.

From the outside looking in, is it possible for us to think about ourselves or the Americans, Japanese or French in the world and not have in mind some sort of typical idealized representative of each one?  Is that where we derive our judgements and our adjectives?  We take the best example we know (actors, politicians, heroes or villains) magnify his/her useful qualities and then extrapolate them to an entire nation?  Maybe.  I know that I can't think of Britain without thinking of Winston Churchill or France without a mental image of Gerard Depardieu.

No nation, country, culture can define itself without reference to something outside itself.  For the category of "American" to exist, something out there (or within) must be defined as Out of Category (i.e. not American). If there were no other countries in the world "France" would have no meaning at all.

Acknowledging these things leads to a strange thought experiment:  imagining a world where we couldn't tack on an adjective at the end of Americans are/Japan is/ France was/Brazil will be because we will have changed our minds about this way of organizing our world, and we just don't need those categories anymore.


Maria said...

I grew up with a calendar where the week goes from Sunday to Saturday. It still rules in my head, so for me, the week begins on Sunday. To all the Spaniards who surround me, including my family, it begins on Monday. What is a fruit and what is a vegetable? Is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit? A potato? These are seemingly irrelevant musings, but to our sense of compartmentalizing as humans, necessary. It's as if we think that if we can't control the littlest things, how can we control the bigger things? And being human is mostly about being in control to be able to function as a species and to protect the species from the chaos of a state of lack of control.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Oh yes, when we cross cultures and our categories are revealed to be arbitrary makes us crazy. And you're right it's not necessarily the big stuff the sends us over the edge. I have this never-ending battle with my mother-in-law over the category "family". We've been talking about this one for 25 years. Her mental model is based on biology - if it's not related to you by blood then it's not family. End of discussion. Adoptees, step-parents and so on are not family. My mental model is based on social kinship where even the ex-wife of a step-parent is family. I'm deeply threatened by her model and she by mine.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Haha, I have the exact same disagreement with my mother-in-law. She means well, but cannot bring herself to refer to my sister as my sister, but always as my adopted sister, or "that girl your parents adopted." I've tried to explain that socially and legally there is supposed to be no such distinction in the US (with, for example, my sister's official birth certificate showing the same parents as mine does, and the original one having been legally voided and not accessible even to her), and she accepts that that is the way it is done in the US. Just not what she is used to.

Not sure how much of a cultural thing it is as a generational one, though. I've heard stories here of adoptions being papered over legally in Japan, with no one supposed to talk about it or recognize the difference again. I've also heard family history stories from previous generations in the US where the difference between adopted and biological relations was considered significant. So I couldn't claim, based on admittedly small sample sizes, that there is a consistent approach to such issues in either the US or Japan.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Fascinating Nezumi-san. Could be cultural or generational but also economic/legal in the sense that biology is the basis for kinship which is the basis for "forced heirship".

Under French law the biological (and legally adopted) children of a Frenchman or woman are his or her principal heirs. That means ALL children including those born out of wedlock. There is a persistent rumor that former French president Jacques Chirac has a natural child here in Japan. If true, that child could ask for a portion of his estate when he dies. This means that second spouses and step-children are not in a good place when it comes to inheritance since the biological children of the first marriage are protected - their step-mother or father or step-siblings not so much (if at all).

I described this to a Japanese woman I know here in Osaka and she was horrified. "That's not fair," she said. She found it unbelievable that a French cannot, for example, simply will everything he has in France or elsewhere to his or her surviving spouse and that the family of the first marriage, even children who are estranged from the parent, will always be heirs and entitled to a fixed portion of the final estate. When I first moved to France I had a reaction similar to hers but I suppose like so many things I now just take it for granted.