Generalizations and Stereotypes


When does a generalization become a stereotype? What are the differences between generalizations and stereotypes? Do they have different origins? Different functions? Different effects?



All statements of fact or truth require generalization. A generalization is a statement based on a finite set of observations and experiences and yet which claims to hold true for the larger set, even for those cases that have not been seen or experienced. All generalizations, then, can be said to be theoretical. They offer a theory about how things are in general. Thus the statement "All trees have leaves" is a useful generalization, though no one person has ever been able to validate it by inspecting every tree on earth or every tree that has ever existed, and no one knows what trees will be like in the future. And of course most trees do not have leaves at various times of the year, and some trees are evergreens with needles instead of leaves. The generalization originates in a rational effort to categorize, not in an irrational effort to oppress. The function of the generalization is to allow people to work better with trees, not to harm trees. The effect of the generalization, however, is to increase people's ability to manipulate nature to human ends, and so like all acts of knowledge this one affects the power balance between knower and thing known.



A stereotype is a particular kind of generalization, a subset of generalization. Stereotypes:


  1. originate within and are caused by a history of socio-political struggle between unequal groups within a region, nation, or society
  2. present generalizations which function to create or sustain inequalities of value, power, and/or wealth among socially constructed groups (by race, age, sex, class, religion etc.)
  3. are intended to harm or have a negative effect as regards the object of the stereotype, or can reasonably be predicted to do so
  4. circulate repeatedly and systematically in a culture so that they are accepted as "common sense" truths by many people in the culture, even those who are the object of the stereotype
  5. disguise or distort the truth through caricature and misrepresentation based on only partial aspects of a person or situation
  6. appeal to the prejudices of the audience, exploiting these by attaching them to emotions of pleasure or hatred that are reinforced often by casting stereotypes within frameworks of entertainment


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