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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.

The process of categorising other people is called stereotyping. In modern usage, this tends to have negative connotations, alluding to racism or discrimination. And certainly, stereotyping is the mental mechanism that allows racism and discrimination. However, in the context of cognitive science, stereotyping refers simply to categorising people, not to the inferences we draw from our stereotypes.

However, racism and discrimination serve to demonstrate the profound power embedded in how we categorise ourselves and each other. Bowker and Star (1999) explore this in great detail, looking at examples including race categorisations under Apartheid and the classification of tuberculosis patients. Other examples include whether someone is categorised as ‘homosexual’, or ‘disabled’, or an ‘academic’, or a ‘professional’. Even seemingly simple categories such as ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ and ‘male’ or ‘female’ can have profound consequences for how we treat people.

In the context of communication and knowledge, this has particular relevance when we consider our ability to evaluate information. Human beings have the ability to both mistakenly believe something, and to deceive others. We also have the ability to evaluate information and make decisions about whether we accept or reject it as true. The way we categorise a particular speaker (or text) has a significant impact on how we evaluate what they say. Categorising someone as a ‘scientist’, ‘mentally ill’, or a ‘con man’ implies certain assumptions about the reliability of what they say.

This goes beyond simply understanding what somebody else wishes to communicate. This brings in questions of expertise and motivation. Categorising someone as a ‘scientist’ implies that they have authority to speak about their particular area of research. Categorising somebody as a ‘con man’ implies that he may try to deceive me because he is motivated by a desire to get my money. My understanding of a person’s expertise and motivation has a significant impact on how I evaluate what they say.

My self-perception also has a significant impact on how I evaluate an idea. Imagine for a moment that I am a nuclear physicist in discussion with a ten-year-old child. If that child tells me that atoms are made of (very) small fish that like to kiss each other, this may well conflict with my understanding of atomic structure. I am likely to evaluate the claim based on:

  1. Whether the claim fits with my understanding of atomic structure;
  2. My estimation of the child’s expertise and motivation; and,
  3. My estimation of my own expertise.

Since I consider myself (a nuclear physicist) an expert in atomic structure, it is most likely that I would reject the small fish claim. If the situation were reversed, and a nuclear physicist told me, a ten-year-old child, that atoms were made of small fish, then my decision to accept or reject the idea would likely be very different.

So we now have two layers to the communication problem:

  1. Because our experiences are subjective and tied to our bodies, I can never completely understand what another person wishes to communicate. The categories they invoke in my mind may be similar to the categories in their own, however, their category structures will have been formed by experiences entirely different to mine. Furthermore, the structure of the categories in both our minds changes as we experience the world. This introduces even further sources of variation in our understanding.
  2. In addition to understanding what someone is trying to communicate, there is also the problem of evaluating the truth of their understanding. It is entirely possible that a person talking to me has a mistaken understanding. It is also possible that they are trying to deceive me. So, I am required to make a decision as to whether I accept or reject the authority of the person communicating with me. There are no guarantees as to whether my decision will reflect reality.

I do think communication is possible, in spite these problems. In the next couple of posts I’ll talk about how we can communicate, in spite of of the problem of understanding. The second problem, that of evaluation, I will leave for people like Dan to discuss, since there I must admit I don’t really know what I’m talking about.


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.

Tags: authority, categorisation, communication, identity, social identity, social psychology
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