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Stereotypes & perceptions

By Poopak Taati
August 2, 2000
The Iranian

Many of us have heard stereotypical comments. We have heard, for example, Americans stereotyping Iranian women as "uneducated homemakers," and Iranian men as being "sexually and emotionally aggressive" toward women. These stereotypes are sometimes confused with prejudice and discrimination and attempts at defamation of character. Interestingly, however, Iranians are not free from their own stereotypes of Americans either. Iranians stereotype Americans as "politically naïve," "unsophisticated," and "parochial," to mention just a few.

Stereotypes are generalizations based on limited knowledge and/or hearsay, and are very common in understanding peoples, situations, events, relationships, and things. Perceptions, upon which our judgements and ideas and thoughts and actions are based, are almost always drawn from stereotypes. Stereotypes provide necessary tools in learning about "reality" -- logical analysis of extensive information and first-hand experience. In the absence of knowledge about reality, people often rely on stereotypes to make sense of the world around them. Stereotyping is an important mechanism forming our perceptions.

Many Western missionaries and early anthropologists, for example, stereotyped non-Christian and non-Western cultures as "naive," "child-like," and "innocent " when they first encountered them. These early observations have been regarded as "sentimentalist" at best and "ethnocentric" at worst. But, neither sentimentalism nor ethnocentrism can explain such "optimistic" views. As these early anthropologists and Western missionaries became more familiar with "natives," they turned pessimistic and "cynical, this time describing them as "subversive," "immoral," and "problematic."

Stereotyping almost always involves "positive" or "negative" thought processes instead of any real analysis of experiences and information, including an analysis of one's own analysis.

To be sure, Western missionaries and early anthropologists were not the only naïve observers of cultures. Many of us tend to do the same when we know very little about others. For example, Tehranis often stereotype people of the south and north of Iran, for more than just humor. New Yorkers stereotype Southerners and mid-Westerners. Men and women, although living in close proximity, have almost perpetually stereotyped each other's cultures, values, norms, behavioral patterns, and material goods.

As human beings, many of our perceptions, at least in their early stages, are formed by stereotypes. For example, in choosing a restaurant to have dinner, if we have never eaten there, we must rely on some stereotypes in assessing and judging it. So, we might say we would enjoy the food and the atmosphere in that restaurant, basing our assessment on what we have heard about the physical setting, location, price, and other factors. In this example, stereotypes are necessary tools to help us to make a decision. Without them, we probably could never choose which restaurant to go to.

After eating in that restaurant, we might have a better idea of the place and have a bit more realistic assessment than before. But, we still are stereotyping if we assume that we will always enjoy the food there. If we eat in that same restaurant over and over again, we are more likely to have a better judgement based on our real and true experiences tested over time. But, even then, our analysis of reality will depend on our unique backgrounds, tastes, experiences, willingness to try new things, etc.

Many of us can remember instances where after once eating in a restaurant, we have wondered why anyone would ever like to eat there? Also, many of us can remember instances where it took us more than once or twice to figure out that the quality was not up to our standards. Of course the opposite is also true: we might eat somewhere despite the bad recommendations only to find out how great the place was and how we might have missed an opportunity if we had never tried it.

The above simple example about the role of stereotypes in our early perceptions can indicate why we need extensive interactions before we could have any claim over "reality" of a place, let alone peoples and situations. This example also indicates that before having a true understanding of people and situations and things, we are bound to rely on stereotypes.

A real knowledge of people and situations and things usually comes about through intense interactions, over a long period of time, in good and bad times. In studying human beings and their societies, sociologists and anthropologists spend years in the "field" immersing themselves in lives of those whom they study, their "organizations," and social situations, in order to understand them and grasp their realities.

To clearly see how our perceptions operate, we can think of a dating process. When we go on a date, we make preliminary assessments about an individual and their trustworthiness, their character, their emotional and intellectual abilities to relate to us, etc. We are likely to eliminate some from the process early on due to negative stereotypes we might have about their hair color or their dress style or their job, etc.

Those whom we choose to visit, because of some positive stereotypes we attribute to them, we are giving a chance to "prove" themselves. This means that, especially during those early interactions, we search for "reality" of the person to see if they match our stereotypes. By actively looking for information "given" and "given off," we use these moments of "information" gathering to find proof or disproof of our held stereotypes.

However, most of us, after a certain level of familiarity, stop testing our stereotypes. That is not because we feel we know the other person well enough, but because in social relationships, we need to rely on others, we need their cooperation, and we need working with others. So, after an initial satisfaction, we grant them our trust, at least a working trust. In other words, the utilitarian in us, rather than the analyst, decides, rather than perceives, that we should trust or let go.

In all of our new encounters, be it a job interview with an employee, first few days in a classroom with a new professor, the first few times in the office of a doctor, or a dating situation, we are testing our "stereotypes" against the "reality" as we see them. So, we are ears and eyes on these first interactions because we need to have some grasp over the reality of the situation.

But, far from a "reality check", these early information we gather are more likely to be influenced by our prior experiences and backgrounds than anything else. Projection -- unconscious attribution of characteristics and desires to others -- is very common in early interactions. We have a tendency to see in people and situations and things, what we see in ourselves or in our previous experiences. So, we make mistakes in choosing friends, partners, doctors, professors, etc.

Whether perceptions are based on an analysis of reality (later stages of learning about peoples and things and situations) or on stereotypes (early stages of learning process,) they almost always compete with different and contrary perceptions. No two persons perceive things in the same way as no two person's experiences, abilities, desires, values, etc., are the same. That is why works of art, pieces of music and writings, movies, organizational politics, or even interactions between two individuals are often interpreted differently by different people and even by the same person at different times and situations of their lives.

Macro-level perceptions (e.g., perceptions of nations, organizations) are subject to the same processes as micro level perceptions (e.g., perceptions of individuals, interactions.) We start perceiving things using stereotypes, we test our perceptions against the reality, and we come to some kind of conclusion about a situation, a person, or a thing. Even when we don't come up with a conclusion, that is a decision we make.

There are always people who strongly believe that they never judge. These individuals view judgements with distaste. But, they make judgements like the rest of people everyday. They choose their dress style, decide on the type of food they eat, initiate friendships and end relationships, decide on whom to smile to and whom to avoid from, select which books to read, etc. In all of these actions and interactions, they are making judgements and doing so on the basis of their perceptions.

Some people believe that negative stereotypes, for example stereotypes held by two genders against each other or stereotypes held by a region against another or by a nation against the other are malicious in intent. Proponents of this idea argue that such stereotypes tend to control those with less power by making them doubt themselves, their own judgements, and their own wholeness.

Stereotypes of course can and do sometimes serve purposes beyond innocent attempts at learning about the world. In personal as well as national and organizational interactions, there might be cases where intentional, planned, coordinated, and concerted attempts are made to create negative stereotypes against a person, a thing, or a group. Many times, perpetrators do not believe in such stereotypes, but they use them to advance their hidden agenda.

In such cases, the trouble is not with stereotypes: it is with the intent of the perpetrator and worse, with the unquestioning "group thinking" that often follows. We could say, there a "decision," not a perception, is formed to "destroy," "eliminate," "abuse," and "discriminate" for political, economic, social, and/or psychological purposes. This "utilitarian" decision is then justified in terms of perceptions. It must be said that although people of relative power tend to use stereotypes more, such abuses are not in monopoly of the rich and powerful.

Knowing how perceptions are formed and how stereotypes are necessary but, preliminary tools for coming to an understanding of human beings, things, and situations, we can then appreciate the limitations of our early observations and others' and thus help with the process of bringing perceptions closer to reality. Stereotypes as invalid as they are in the long term, they will always exist and will always guide many of our perceptions.

We need to recognize stereotypical forms of thought processes in ourselves, and in others, and be aware of their temporal nature. As stereotypes are often innocent attempts for acting upon the world and for understanding things and peoples and situations, they cannot be misunderstood with prejudice and discrimination. Perceptions evolve: they are not fixed entities.


Poopak Taati, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology in Washington DC.

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