Rethinking Social Categorisation

            Tejftel and Turner unpack ‘social identity’ as the phenomenon through which individuals associate themselves with groups that provide them with a sense of belonging, as well as an additional source of pride and self-esteem. Social identity differs from personal identity – the distinction was made by William James in the 19th century. In his work, he explicates the difference between the ‘me’ and the ‘I’. Whereas the former makes for the sociological component of the individual, the latter makes for the personal component of the individual. Social identity, as explained by Tejftel and Turner, is formed in three steps: self-categorisation, social identification with the chosen group(s) and social comparison (of one’s chosen group to the out-groups). In their piece “The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behaviour”, Tejftel and Turner thus make the argument that social identity is spontaneous, malleable and voluntary, and that its formation and consolidation are overall individual processes. Through this article, we suggest that social identity has been redefined and institutionalised in a way that feeds into our system’s problematic obsession with categorisation.


            To what extent has this categorisation permeated our system? And to what extent is it relevant? Take gender as a first example of an institutionalised characteristic of identity. We live in a world of a highly internalised man/woman gender dichotomy, which we have made to align with the supposed male/female sex dichotomy. We raise our children and live our lives based on the said binaries. In fact, we raise our children and live our lives based on the sex we are medically attributed at birth (cf. the “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” line in movie birth scenes). However, we have seen in the past decades increasing challenging of such internalised dichotomous understandings of human nature. On the one hand, gender is increasingly argued to be learnt, performed and even performative. As a matter of fact, many individuals now understand gender as a spectrum. On the other hand, sex (though less often) can also be argued to be more of a spectrum-like than a binary feature. Although it is true that most individuals have either an XX or an XY chromosome combination and are easily assigned a sex at birth based on genitalia, significant variation in genes, hormone levels, genital features, etc. have constituted a strong argument in favour of adopting a spectrum-like understanding of sex as well. If sex and gender are not uni-dimensional, why do we (still) think of them as such? If they are so limited as scientific and/or social categories, why are they still made relevant?

            Before addressing these questions, it seems useful to demonstrate and challenge another kind of institutionalised social identity categorisation criterion: that of race. The parsimony of the latter’s definition is made obvious when individuals filling out information for official files, or even standardised testing documentation, often have to choose one of five categories. Race is thus commonly understood not only as a scientifically valid category, but also an easily defined and socially relevant one. However, it arguably also can be understood as just another social construct. In 1998, the American Anthropological Association published a statement asserting that 94 percent of physical variation lies within so-called racial groups and that the notion of race as understood today was invented in the 18th century to distinguish different populations in times of colonisation. In fact, it seems logical that significant variations in genes, skin colour and other such factors would make ‘race’ either irrelevant or better understood as a spectrum. This argument is supported by the differing racial categorisation of individuals across countries and cultures. Overall, if the notion of race can be fundamentally challenged (and was in fact accused of being scientifically incorrect), why do we insist on giving it the social significance it still has?

            Before evaluating the systematic categorisation we all simultaneously apply and undergo, it seems important to note that the logic which dismisses categorisation by gender, sex or race can also be applied to all other classification types. Indeed, any kind of categorisation can be dismissed based on the idea that it problematically undermines the crucial intersectional aspect of everyone’s experiences.


            If such categorisation is irrelevant, can it be justified as necessary? Rigid categorisation allows for group-specific data collection, targeted policies, etc. In this part, we will thus discuss whether it might be, though irrelevant from a certain perspective, politically necessary and thus desirable. Health data, used in the political realm amongst others, is often classified by the aforementioned characteristics of sex and gender. In fact, studies have proven that gender is a better health predictor than sex. This suggests, if we consider the former as learnt and performed (and more detached from biology than sex), that disparities in health are more socially than biologically determined. In this way, categorisation of individuals within these binaries, and their consequentially-shaped behaviour, causes disparities in health. It thus seems as though the political use of these arbitrary categorisations is, ironically, the source of the problem that politics often seek to resolve. The mere possibility of this statement being accurate seems problematic, as it suggests that categorisation is the cause of a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy. The same logic applies to race. For example, data shows that black women in the United States have higher numbers of premature births than white women. However, it has also been proven that first-generation black immigrants in the United States have the same rates of premature births as white women. After just a generation of living in this country, black women’s numbers of premature births significantly rise. How can that be? The problem of premature births amongst this population is caused by a phenomenon of allostatic load. The latter simply entails an accumulation of chronic stress, which significantly impacts individuals’ health. In this way, it was shown that it is the stress (and thus social burden) of being a black woman in the United States that causes women to go into labour prematurely. This is of course problematic from a moral point of view, as being born prematurely can have life-long repercussions. All in all, it seems as though the political and social categorisation of individuals based on our perceptions of race and gender is the source of significant problems, thus making it neither usefulness nor desirable.

            We hereby engage in a last attempt to justify our current reflex of institutionalised social categorisation; perhaps the latter is useful and necessary if we wish to compensate for past group-specific discriminations. Indeed, if harm has been done to a specific group, it only seems logical to keep the existing categorisation in order to target compensation. This is a logic currently employed in Canada for example, where indigenous citizens are compensated for traumatising past experiences, such as the forced attendance of residential schools – a form of cultural genocide. However, this compensation initiative was opposed by the indigenous individuals themselves and has proved to be not only arbitrary and unfair, but also ineffective. Still today, decades after the last residential schools were closed, indigenous communities face harmful repercussions of such discriminatory systems in terms of education, access to water, poor living conditions, drug abuse, suicide, unemployment and poverty. All in all, we ask: wouldn’t the best compensation not be the long-fought for equality? Ending the vicious cycles of self-fulfilling prophecies caused by our social categorisations seems like a good first step in approaching this goal.


            To conclude, it seems as though the current system of categorisation is problematic. If in the past individuals’ identification with social groups was understood as spontaneous, voluntary, and positive, it seems to have been institutionalised in a controversial way. Indeed, as a consequence of our obsession with categorisation, individuals are restrained in the ways they can define themselves in the public sphere and consequentially, often the private sphere as well. We force individuals into categories: are you a boy or a girl? Are you a black, white, Asian, American indigenous or pacific islander individual? By limiting individuals to pre-defined arbitrary options, and attributing social meaning to the latter, we are also upholding the framework that underlies the inequities we still witness today. This article overall sought to answer the simple question: why do we do this? Though no logical explanation was found, one possible answer still remains. Perhaps the system of social identity and social categorisation is not meant to reassure individuals (by allowing for a sense of belonging, pride and self-esteem) anymore. Perhaps we engage in such systematic categorisation because simple classification reassures the political system. Indeed, does it not seem idealistic to have a limited number of pre-defined and easily-distinguishable groups to attend to? We conclude with the suggestion that it is time to switch idealist ambitions. We must radically change the system. Of course, adding a third “other” category in passports (as is widely debated today) is a step in the right (i.e. less identity-restraining) direction. However, we must aim further, by attempting to understand the world in terms of spectra. This would allow us to make social identity more spontaneous, malleable and voluntary (as it might have been in the past) and perhaps start reducing social inequalities in the process.


*Western-centric assumptions, research and argument*

This article was written by Julia Coste


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