A Confusion of Categories

The Avoidance of Understanding in Human Affairs

Categories are the comfort blanket of human thought. Rather than segmenting information, as we imagine they do, they often create commonality where none should really exist. They allow us to believe what we’ve wanted to believe all along, and give us ‘proof’ that we are, of course, correct. Consider the following sequence, variations of which I’ve discussed before: Hispanic, Black, Asian. It’s a curious list, and is most often aligned with ethnic profiling or discussions of racism. This week I encountered it in an academic paper. For some people it simply describes three types of other people – a ‘natural’ categorisation of ethnic or racial groups.

But that matter-of-fact acceptance should be an indication that something is amiss. Reading Robert Shiller’s superb explanation of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the United States, I was recently struck by the fact that he easily tossed out the comment that home ownership rates had recently increased for “Hispanics and blacks”. These categories, where, or course, meant merely to indicate two minority groups in the United States, and carried no untoward racial overtones. Add ‘Asians’ to the list and you would merely have three easily recognised categories. Who, I wonder, stops to think that these lazy categories simply don’t belong together?

Let’s look at the categorisation from a slightly different angle. What do the three designations describe? Well, people, but how are those people shaped into distinct groups? They all seem to be in mutually reinforcing categories. But they’re not. The ‘Hispanic’ grouping is based on language use, the ‘Black’ grouping on skin colour and the ‘Asian’ grouping on geography. Not all Hispanics have the same skin colour or culture, and neither do they all speak Spanish in the same way. From an historical perspective, some of the early Filipino settlers in Hawaii would have been Spanish speakers, but we would hardly consider them Hispanic today.

Asians, too, are anything but homogenous – they differ in skin colour, culture, language and much else besides. Asia covers an enormous distance and encapsulates a multitude of peoples.  ‘Black’ is also a curious category, which may or may not refer to African Americans, or Africans living in America or darker skinned people from somewhere else altogether. Taken as a whole, the three categories simply fail to develop a coherent system of ethnic description.

The usage might not be exactly the same in your country, but it will probably be similar. Add to it ‘White’ or ‘Western’ where appropriate and you have another category that singularly fails to describe anything of value. So why do we feel compelled to use these distinctions that distinguish very little? The simple answer is not very satisfying but resonates with the sort of brutish practicality at which humans excel. We use the categories precisely because they’re ambiguous, because they tell us very little on closer inspection.

Delaying the creation of definitive categories serves us well when describing people. The merest hint that someone belongs to a certain group is usually enough, we really don’t want to know much more. If we dig too deeply we’ll soon discover that both race and ethnicity are various concepts, only made practical through a tacit understanding that purity really is possible. But it isn’t.

This sort of slippery thinking is not terribly uncommon in other realms of life. Consider, for instance, the way in which we insist on categorising politics as of the Left, the Centre and the Right, when elements of each creed, if we can call them that, infuse the others. We prefer to consider someone as having sold out if we detect in them a conviction not suitable to the category. Or we claim that all politics is heading towards the centre. In other words, we blame other people for our own difficulty in understanding the situation, rather than the mental gymnastics we apply when creating unrepresentative categories.

The list of inadequate categorisations could really go on and on. For instance, I’m struck most days by how our concepts of gender do little to distinguish anything but presumptions of genitalia absent or present. I’m also not a little delighted that my youngest son is often mistaken for a daughter and my daughter for a son. In human affairs, categories rely so very much on appearances, and people do tend to settle for approximations when they’re unsure. Life must fit the categories, rather than the other way around.

So where does this leave us, in our mental approximation? How do we create information or extract knowledge out of indecision, once removed? In social or even cultural terms people aren’t very adept at falsification, or criticising their own presumptions to more narrowly define what they know and what they don’t. Ignorance is a complex art, covered over by unnecessary complexity. Categories often imply a middle position, a sort of structured unknowingness. We have to learn, sure, but not quite yet.

It’s a puzzling world.

(All three photos in this post are from pfv’s suberb photostream on Flickr.)

4 Responses to A Confusion of Categories

  1. Greg Sadler says:

    I’m of the opinion that labeling and classifying is a natural thing for humans to do. And, broadly, it’s useful. If you classify someone as a lawyer or an accountant or a gambler or an alcholic it is certainly conceptually useful. For instance, if I’m close friends with some people from class-X, and I met a new person who, from the evidence available, appeared to also fit in class-X, then I can start to make predictions. They could well turn out to be wrong, but it’s a useful activity anyway.

    I think, however, that there is a tendency to apply the same procedure that is useful in memetic categories to genetic or other non-memetic categories. I.e. if I know lawyers, and I meet a new lawyer, and I make predictions, they tend to be accurate. But if I know ‘asians’ and I meet an Asian, and make predictions, are they so obviously accurate? What if I know people with blue eyes and meet a blue eyes person, will those predictions be accurate?

    In short, I think humans modus operandi is to discriminate and classify. I think that usually that’s a good habit, but sometimes it can be misleading.

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Hi Greg, yes that’s a good point. My argument focuses on the failings of categorisation rather than the benefits or the accuracies. The discernment of difference in others, to use my first example, is certainly natural – it’s part of our brain chemistry according to Adrianna Jenkins, C. Neil Macrae and Jason Mitchell – but it does induce laziness. That’s how stereotypes come about, often to the extent that they block other ways of thinking, especially about people.

    It’s the presumptions we extrapolate from otherwise sound or useful categories that make them troublesome, rather than the categories themselves. People don’t often question what should be questionable categories. And so they remain, dampening the capacity to think in unusual, but not necessarily illogical or uncategorisable, ways.

    (I had a fantastic Dilbert strip to add to this but I can’t post it in the comments. If you’re interested you can look at it in situ, more or less.)

  3. Greg Sadler says:

    That comic is amusing 🙂

    I think we’re in agreement here. Our difference is a matter of emphasis. I think the general rule should be ‘Judging, classifying and categorising are good – but be sure to re-judge, re-classify and re-categorise when new information arises.’

  4. Mike Poole says:

    Hi Greg, yes, I’ll have to use it in a post one day. I like your idea – consider, then reconsider is the essence of it, and timing reconsideration for when it’s most needed.

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