Generalization, Stereotypes and Common Sense: Explained

What is Generalization? Max Weber stated that “Verstehen” (German word for “understanding”) was instrumental in understanding Interpretive Sociology. Sociologists don’t observe a phenomenon but they tend to question it and find out the reason behind its occurrence. In order to understand society at the macro level, one needs to understand the self and interpret human behavior. For understanding the social world, we tend to generalize information about the objects surrounding us. Generalizations refer to the tendency of studying specific characteristics of a particular group, and the derived conclusions are applied to study the collective behavior of the group.

Generalization in Sociology

 

Generalization and Common Sense:

Knowledge derived from the everyday living of the social situation is called common sense. However, commonsensical knowledge when researched upon and studied empirically is known as sociological knowledge. For example, our commonsensical knowledge would lead us to believe that depression is the cause of suicide. However, on research, sociologists observed that depression wasn’t the only cause for suicide. Causes like unemployment or insufficient pay contributed to the cause as well. Also, the patterns of suicide differed from one society to the other.

Generalization is important in sociology as it helps us to distinguish between discipline and common sense. The process of extending a given instance to a larger or universal collection is known as generalization. Generalizations include studying specific patterns of behavior of a particular group and drawing the inference to understand their collective behavior. It’s a hypothesis which is subjected to change. Men are more likely to attempt suicide is an example of generalization.

Explaining generalization and stereotypes:

The process of drawing a conclusion depends on our experience. Our experiences give us an understanding of social reality. The more we experience, the more our vision becomes clear. We tend to generalize about people in order to interact with them. Thus, on seeing an individual in a police’s uniform would inform us about their profession and we tend to infer their attitude based on their appearance. The mark of vermilion on a woman’s forehead, would indicate to us that she is married. We learn more about the existing reality by interacting with people, focusing on the subjective meaning and learning how they make sense of their everyday lives.

However, generalizations often perpetuate stereotypes. Stereotypes are generalized beliefs about a particular group of people. Although they might help us in making quick decisions, they might be harmful while becoming a cause for prejudiced attitudes. We stereotype people on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class location. We may “assume” the gender of a transexual person, but our assumption becomes a cause for their gender dysphoria. Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ highlights common racial prejudices against the blacks. The classic of modern American literature sheds light on the unequal treatment meted out to the people of the Negro community by the civilized whites of 1935-38 America.

In the recent past, famous shows have perpetuated the stereotypical understanding of Asians looking alike, Blacks being affluent in the art of rap, etc. In the current society, media plays a pivotal role in furthering stereotypes. Indian tv shows have portrayed the concept of a “good mother” as someone who is extremely nurturing and has a sacrificial nature, whereas a non-nurturing, career-driven woman is often shown as a vamp. We don’t question heterosexuality, but homosexuality draws heavy criticism for being an “unnatural” bond.

Differentiating generalization from stereotypes:

Awareness and understanding the patterns of culture to which one belongs forms the basis of analyzing for different cultures. While generalizing we categorize individuals of the same group having similar characteristics. However, we keep in mind that out observations are subjected to change. Generalizations are flexible and it allows for the incorporation of new cultural information. It allows for individual differences and isn’t applied to every person within a group. To generalize means to put forth a hypothesis and not a hard and fast rule. For example, members of the black community enjoy rap music is an example of generalization.

Generalization becomes stereotypes when every member of the group are categorized according to same characteristics. They are inflexible, negative, and are resistant to new information. Stereotypes lead to prejudice and discrimination. For example, in America stereotypes regarding the black community (for example, blacks are often associated with criminal activities and behavior, they are viewed as loud and lazy) perpetuate racial discrimination.

Stereotypes are based on erroneous judgements of these communities and they do not identify with the particular characteristics of the groups.  Our lack of information on different cultures, makes us stereotype people. If we see one person who happens to fit the stereotype as we go through life, it reinforces our beliefs, but we tend to dismiss others in the same group who do not meet the stereotype, as well as people in different groups who do meet the stereotype. This leads to the creation of “us” and “them” groups. When researchers utilize evidence from only one sex to support their conclusions about “humanity” or “society,” they are guilty of overgeneralization. In the Indian context, if the father stays back at home to care for the child, his behavior would be seen in a negative light because the stereotypical understanding is that men are supposed to be the breadwinners and women are supposed to care for the family.

 Conclusion:

In conclusion, it can be noted that stereotypes can easily lead to bias and discrimination in some cases. While generalizing aids us in our daily lives, stereotyping places us in a perilous position where people of society are limited in their full potential and face impediments to contribute their abilities and assets to the societal mix.

References:

Macionis, John, “Sociological Investigation”, Sociology, 17th edition, Pearson, pp:42-43

Deriving examples from American sitcoms to explain sociological perspectives, Mukta's understanding of social reality stems through films, art, and literature. A student of Miranda House, her curiosity to know more about the world led her to opt for Sociology. Viewing the world from a feminist lens, she takes small steps towards achieving a better future for women