April 2nd, 2007

Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 5

Categorisation and Social Relations

There is yet another layer of complexity to communication and knowledge. I said earlier that categorisation is the fundamental building block of knowing anything. This includes ourselves and other people. We categorise other people (unconsciously and automatically) into groups, and this determines how we expect them to act, and how we act towards them. Further, we also categorise ourselves as being part of various groups. This is a central theme of social psychology.

How we categorise other people, and how we categorise ourselves, changes the way we understand the world. McGarty (1999) uses the example of a football match to illustrate this:

Imagine you are going to watch a football match at a stadium between a team you support and a traditional rival. In order to understand the game you would, at the very least, need to categorize the players as belonging to different teams. To avoid being arrested you would need to categorize yourself as a spectator and not as a player. These categorizations are relatively obvious and may require little if any conscious thought on your part. More interestingly, however, you may come to categorize yourself as a supporter of one of the teams.

If you are like most supporters, as incidents occur on the field you will come to classify decisions by the referee or umpire as fair or unfair (and hence to be met with silence or derision) and segments of play as worthy of comment, applause or silence. You may well notice that many of your classifications seem to shared by other people who support the same team as you.

However, you could also hardly fail to notice that the classifications that you share with other supporters of your team seem to be keenly contested by the opposition supporters. They seem to classify fair decisions as worthy of derision and often greet examples of the most scintillating play with stony silence. However, rather than being puzzled by this disagreement we actually expect this perverse behaviour from the opposition

We create social identities based on how we categorise ourselves, and how we categorise others. This allows us to predict how people will behave, as with the opposition supporters in the football example. This in turn allows us to describe peoples’ behaviour as ‘strange’ or ‘unusual’ if they do not behave in the way we expect. It also allows us to know what behaviour to expect of ourselves. For example, if I identify myself as a male, this has significant implications for which toilet I use in public buildings.

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Bowker, G. C. and Star, S. L. (1999), Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, Inside Technology, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

McGarty, C. (1999), Categorization in Social Psychology, SAGE Publications, London.