Power and prejudice: Some definitions for discussion and analysis

Jan Armstrong, University of New Mexico (3/24/03)

The following definitions may be useful to those wishing to explore how human development is linked to the social, institutional, historical and cultural context. They provide a set of analytical tools for examining some of the most troubling and important challenges facing teachers, social service providers and concerned citizens today: poverty, inequality, discrimination, racism, the power of media, globalization, the changing roles of schools, universities and corporations in the production and validation of knowledge.

Power is the capacity to mobilize resources in order to get things done.

A minority group is any group that does not have equal access to power.

A stereotype is a standardized mental picture held in common by group members involving an oversimplified opinion or uncritical judgment. Examples: "All lawyers are greedy." "Athletes are weak students."

Prejudice occurs when an individual's stereotypes become rigid and inflexible. The key issue is not that prejudiced people hold negative stereotypes about others. It seems to me people can also hold "positive prejudices" - beliefs in the superiority of members of one group over others. The issue has to do with psychological and cognitive rigidity. The prejudiced individual maintains his/her stereotype about another person or group even when confronted with evidence to the contrary.

Racism (sexism, ageism, etc.) takes place when an elite (privileged and powerful) group develops a social system in which race (or gender, age, ethnicity, economic class background, or language...) is a criterion for role assignment, socialization, or role rewards. The social system rewards those who meet these criteria (a problem for those who do not).

Essentializing means attributing natural, essential characteristics to members of specific culturally defined (gender, age, ethnic, "racial", socioeconomic, linguistic...) groups. When we essentialize others, we assume that individual differences can be explained by inherent, biological, "natural" characteristics shared by members of a group. Essentializing results in thinking, speaking and acting in ways that promote stereotypical and inaccurate interpretations of individual differences. For example, feminists note that people essentialize women when they assume that girls and women are naturally emotional (versus rational), nurturant, docile, weak, vain, dependent (and so on).

Essentialist thinking is often anchored in dualistic (two-category, either this - or that) modes of thought. Classic and contemporary social theorists identify and challenge essentialist and dualistic ways of thinking about the social world (human/non-human; human/animal; human/machine; civilized/barbaric; masculine/feminine; intelligent/not intelligent; rich/poor; white/non-white; anglo/non-anglo; individual/group; psychological/cultural; leader/follower).

What is the link to human development? Do contemporary scholars of human development as well as "the media" (film, television, radio, magazines, video-games...) essentialize children, adolescents, the elderly, the poor, minority group members? To what extent are our assumptions about human development, about good and bad outcomes for children and society a reflection of the social, historical, cultural contexts in which we live? I think these are interesting and important questions, questions I encourage students to pursue in various ways in every course I teach.

Created 3/30/03 by jka. Last update: 8/24/03 / jka

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