Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stereotyping in Anthropology

I had an excellent discussion today in my Anthropology class when a student commented that she hated that we have to stereotype people to answer questions. It was also noted that I stereotype people all the time. The look of horror on my face (that I imagined) may have been apparent. Here's what went through my mind:

Ever since my first day of Anthropology 101 in 1985 I have understood that one of the main themes in Anthropology is to discourage the use of stereotypes to explain human behavior. I realized that I had failed, at least in this one way, to achieve this aim.

Yet I couldn't disagree with her. I routinely talk about this culture or that culture, knowing full well that variation within a culture is often greater that the variation between cultures. I say things such as "the Turkana, whom I studied in the late 1990s, practice polygamy." While that's a true statement, we could probably spend four or five lessons discussion the variety of viewpoints, feelings, and actual behaviors of individuals who I classified as Turkana. That's just an example, but frustrated me that I misrepresented myself and my discipline so badly by, perhaps, not spending enough time explaining my examples.

It's too easy in Anthropology to impart exactly the opposite message that we are trying to give. We want our students to have an appreciation for diversity in the world, and to come to an understanding of the many valid lifeways across the planet. Sometimes though, students come to understand that the world is full of wierdos with strange beliefs, that maybe we could do without. I've got to be more cognizant about using simple examples to make points.

That having been said, I think I also need to develop a lecture about stereotypes as an ideological object; that is, something that we create in our minds. As the message of my course is that human beings are rational, and usually there is an explanation for beliefs and behavior, it's worth discussing the value of our cognitive ability to create and act on stereotypes. Imagine how powerful it was for our ancestors to be able to make quick, life-affecting decisions, often accurately, based on shared experiences. Think of how efficient it makes communication, that when I say I am "an Anthropologist" you might already have  an idea of what that means, even if somewhat innacurate. The trick, then, is to understand the role that stereotyping plays in human life, without giving in to it for explaining the behaviors we observe.